Witch Trials and Witchcraft in Ireland: Alice Kyteler

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Alice Kyteler and the Kilkenny Witch Trial

In 1324 Richard de Ledrede , the then bishop of Ossory , declared his diocese a hotbed of devil worshipers.  Few knew the far reaching, dire consequences this declaration would have and the ripples it would send through the centuries. The woman at the center of all of this was Alice Kyteler, a wealthy woman from a Flemish merchant family. Her accumulated wealth over multiple marriages had led to the accusations of witchcraft in question.

Circa 40 years before the landmark case, Alice had married a wealthy merchant/moneylender and had a son. Following her husband’s death she married another wealthy man. He subsequently handed over his fortune to Alice’s son from the first marriage, much to the chagrin of his own children. This would later cause problems and ultimately become the impetus for the future accusations against her. Upon her third marriage, her son somehow benefitted financially again. Her final  and fourth marriage was to a knight, Sir John de Poer. At this point, her accumulated wealth at the expense of her stepchildren as well as de Poer showing signs of arsenic poisoning (hair and fingernails falling out and emaciated) led to the suspicion of Alice and the accusations of witchcraft. The changing attitudes towards sorcery and witchcraft, especially on the part of the church, would have a dramatic effect on this case, as would the machinations of the highly cunning bishop at the epicenter of the whole ordeal.

It was only a few hundred years prior to this case, in the 11th and 12th centuries, that sorcery/witchcraft was beginning to be seen as an inversion of Christianity. The practice of which would have been treated as a misdemeanor before this change in attitude. In 1258 Pope Alexander legislated in favour of inquisitorial prosecution for sorcery due to it’s new connection to heresy. This allowed the church to institute torture as a method to procure confessions from suspected heretics, witches and sorcerers. This in turn gave the church more power than secular court in these regards. Before this, it lay on the accuser to furnish proof of guilt. These ‘crimes’ had usually been dealt with in English law as a petty offense. Inquisitorial prosecution, it seems, was introduced into this case by Bishop Ledrede, who likely picked up the practice from his stay at the court of Avignon, the then Papal seat. Ledrede had originally been sent to Ireland in the years leading up to the accusations of Kyteler by the Pope (who was known to be terrified of sorcery) because of his “zeal for reform and strict adherence to the law of the church”.

In total seven charges were brought against Alice, including:

  • Denying Christ and the Church.
  • Cutting up living animals and scattering them at crossroads* as offerings to a demon called “son of Art”. *Crossroads are understood to be liminal spaces and are often employed in magical rites
  • Stealing church keys and performing rituals inside the church at night.
  • In a skull of a thief, her and her accomplices placed the entrails of animals, the organs of a cockerel, nails cut from bodies, hair from the buttocks and used clothes from baby boys who had died before baptism. Using these ingredients, they were said to have made potions to kill people and to make people hate Christians.
  • It was claimed Alice had a familiar with whom she fornicated. It either appeared as a cat, a shaggy dog or a black man.
  • That she used sorcery to convince her husbands to give their wealth to her and her son, and also used sorcery to kill them.
  • Poisoning her latest husband.

Ledrede had used a law Ut Inguisitionis (1298) to force secular powers to obey the word of a Bishop. Luckily a prior of the Hospitalliers of St John, a relative of Alice’s first husband, stood up for her and put a spanner in the works. Ledrede was told that he would have to hold a public prosecution and that she would have to be formally ex-communicated before they could go ahead with the charges. Ledrede attempted to have the Prior arrested on charges of heresy (and for harbouring heretics) but the prior had some powerful acquaintances, in this case the Seneshal of Killkenny. The seneshal had Ledrede arrested for 17 days to prevent the arrest of the prior. Ledrede used this to his full advantage to start to swing public opinion in his favour. He placed an interdict on the diocese, meaning that no baptism, marriages and burials could take place. Given the strong belief in hell during this period, this was obviously of grave importance to the eternal souls of all parishioners. He also used his influence while incarcerated to give masses in full regalia from his cell. During this time, the seneshal put criers in each outlying town to see if anyone wanted to lodge complaints against Ledrede.

Every move on Ledrede’s part was carefully orchestrated for maximum effect. He left his cell in full high vestments. He turned up at the seneshal’s court, in full regalia holding the consecrated host before him (as any assault on him, would ultimately be an assault on Christ himself). He was not alone. In toe were Franciscans, Dominicans and an entire cathedral chapter. He also carried a decree concerning heretics. After forcing his way into the court, the seneshal asked him to get in the dock for questioning. He claimed that since he was holding the host, it would be like putting Jesus himself on trial, just like when he was tried by Pontius Pilate. Despite the best efforts of all involved, it was inevitable that public opinion would sway in the direction of the church and the bishop due to the constant attacks and insults. Upon seeing that public opinion was turning against her, Alice used her wealth to flee from Dublin and was never heard from again. Her not as wealthy associates and alleged co-conspirators were subsequently rounded up and arrested using a papal decree and under inquisitorial procedure, confessed. Unfortunately, only the poorest of these, Alice’s maidservant, Petronilla de Meath, bore the brunt of the whole thing. She was tortured, whipped and ultimately burnt at the stake (it was legal to torture under church law, but not secular), while all the others were released on payment of sureties. William Outlawe, the friar, was arrested and accused of heresy. He begged forgiveness and was released on the condition that he would pay penance in the form of saying multiple masses each day for a couple of years, and also by re-leading the roof of a church. He was later re-arrested for not carrying this penance out.

A quote from a Franciscan friar at the time, John Clyn, reads: “Moreover, even in olden days, it was neither seen nor heard of that anyone suffered the death penalty for heresy in Ireland”.

So, what had brought about this drastic change in attitude in Ireland that culminated in the barbaric  death of a poor, young maidservant? In short, Ledrede, the man at the center of all of this. It is very likely that Ledrede himself introduced the connection of demonic forces and witchcraft to Ireland. It is no surprise that the landmark case found its way into a number of annal entries at the time. Many people, in a European context, believe that this case was a development “of a phenomenon which, with its distinctive characteristics of diabolism” gave rise to the great witch trials of the 16th and 17th centuries (of course the influence of the Malleus Malificarum cannot be ignored either). Before the Kyteler  case, these ideas had not really permeated beyond the Papal courts of Avignon. It was circa 1300 in France that learned circles started to disseminate the idea that a witch was connected to satanic sects and diabolical powers. To give further context to this, 17 years before this case, the King of France, Philip IV, had the Templar Order put to death on many similar charges and claims of diabolism. The pope of the time also fanned the flames by thinking his life was in danger from sorcery. Ledrede was appointed by the pope himself and had actually been present at court during the Templar trials. This of course is likely to have influenced his belief system and he is also likely to have had direct contact with the learned milieu who espoused the radical ideas of heresy.

Civil court up to the point of the case had seen  witchcraft as a minor crime, punishable only in terms of damage done to the victim. The church was not interested because there was no link with religion. It was even believed that in order to control demons, a sorcerer have strong faith and a devout belief in god in order for it to work (c.f Carey, The Nature of Miracles in Early Irish Saint’s Lives for a similar tradition in how miracles worked).

It would come as no surprise to anyone that five years following the death of Petronilla de Meath, Richard de Ledrede had overplayed his hand and was finally exiled from Ireland. Unfortunately for Petronilla, it was too little too late. So give a little thought this Samhain to all the women over the centuries who were executed under the guise of being “witches”.

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Bibliography:

Neary. A (1983), The Origins and Character of the Kilkenny Witchcraft Case of 1324, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy: Archaeology, Culture, History and Literature, Vol.83C , pp.333-350.

Williams. B (1994), The Sorcery Trial of Alice Kyteler, History of Ireland, Vol.2, No.4, pp.20-24.