Alice, Alice, who’s afraid of Alice?
Ireland’s ‘first witch’ was a wealthy middle aged woman living in town called Kilkenny in fourteenth century Ireland. Her name was Alice Kyteler, she worked as a merchant and moneylender and had acquired four husbands. It was her step children from her fourth marriage (to Sir John le Poer) who raised the accusations of sorcery and maleficium against her around the year 1324, in which her other stepchildren joined. By that stage Alice was rich on the income from her accumulated dowers alone, a fact of which her accusing stepchildren were well aware and included in their list of accusations, saying that she had acquired her wealth through bewitchment and murder. These step-children complained bitterly that Alice had used sorcery to kill their fathers, and had persuaded and infatuated the others with witchcraft so that they had left all their wealth to her and her only son William Outlawe, and left them, the rightful heirs, nothing.When they took these complaints to the local Bishop Ledrede of Ossory he reacted swiftly by holding a formal inquiry early in 1324.
Bishop Ledrede, an Englishman, was educated at Avignon whose thinkers were at the vanguard of new theological developments in the areas of heresy and demonology and he brought all this new ideas to bear on Alice’s trial. Ledrede’s patron, Pope John XXII (1316-1334), had a fear of sorcery and claimed that his life was in danger from witchcraft, which he listed as a heresy in his bull Super illius specula. As a papal appointee, Ledrede attempted to put into practice in Ossory those inquisitorial techniques learnt at Avignon. Among the witnesses called were the dispossessed heirs from Alice’s previous marriages who “urged the bishop with public clamour, demanding remedy and aid.”1 Ledrede, however, once convinced of the alleged heresies took the matter further, unable to leave the charges at maleficium and multiple homicide. Dame Alice and William Outlawe, her son, were charged with being sorcerers, heretics and of leading followers into organised heresy and witchcraft.2 The group accused along with William and Alice were all Anglo-Irish, among them Alice’s servant Petronilla of Meath. Ledrede accused them of communicating with the demons, of having the name of the Evil One stamped on the Sacred Host and of offering sacrifices to Satan.
In all seven major charges were brought against Alice Kyteler and her associates: that they were denying Christ and the church; that they cut up living animals and scattered the pieces at cross roads as offerings to a demon called the son of Art in return for his help; that they stole the keys of the church and held meetings there at night; that in the skull of a robber they placed the intestines and internal organs of cocks, worms, nails cut from dead bodies, hairs from the buttocks and clothes from boys who had died before being baptised; that, from this brew, they made potions to incite people to love, hate, kill and afflict Christians; that Alice herself had a certain demon as incubus by whom she permitted herself to be known carnally and that he appeared to her either as a cat, a shaggy black dog or as a black man, Aethiopis, from whom she received her wealth; and that Alice had used sorcery to murder some of her husbands and to infatuate others, with the result that they gave all their possessions to her and her son, William Outlawe, thus impoverishing her stepchildren. Furthermore it was claimed that Alice’s fourth husband, Sir John Ie Poer, was being poisoned. The final accusation may have some truth to it as a description of him in 1324; emaciated, with nails fallen out and body hair all gone is consistent with arsenic poisoning.3 In Dowling’s Annals Dame Alice is said to have practiced spells in public by gathering the filth of the streets and piling it before the door of her son, while mumbling:
To the house of William my son
Hie all the wealth of Kilkenny town.4
What the group was eventually accused therefore went far beyond the original accusations of Alice’s children. Ledrede took the original accusations and embroidered them with many more. The details of Alice’s activities included grave-robbing, concocting powders, pills and ointments from herbs and a variety of other ingredients including unbaptized children’s swaddling clothes and of making candles from human fat.
Eventually all the accused were found guilty. Alice, meanwhile, had managed to escape from Kilkenny and made it to Dublin where she was given some help by the Bishop there (who was not a fan of Bishop Ledrede) . Alice was related to many of the most powerful Anglo-Irish families in Ireland and those connections served her well. Back in Kilkenny though her co-accused were suffering. The fortunate members of the group escaped with public flogging, or excommunication, but, her servant, Petronilla of Meath was burned alive, based on her detailed confession obtained by torture. When Ledrede eventually requested Alice’s return to Kilkenny from the diocese of Dublin it appeared that she was allowed to flee from there and escape Ledrede’s persecution.5 She was never heard of again. Her son William Outlawe did not flee with her and in 1325 Ledredee saw a useful way to further the faith and save himself some money. William was required to purge his alleged sin of heresy by undertaking to roof the chancel and adjacent Lady Chapel of the Cathedral at Kilkenny with lead at his own expense. It was so heavy that the roof collapsed.2
This witchcraft trial in Ireland is extremely important with regard to the genesis of the witch belief in medieval and Early Modern Europe. The accusations against Alice and her co-accused are seen as the first link between previous representations of heretics in the Middle Ages as secret, nocturnal, sexually promiscuous devil-worshippers to also being practitioners of low magic. Alice and her co-accused were accused of using witchcraft but also of belonging to a set of heretics that met at night, renouncing the Christian faith and of making sacrifices to demons. Importantly, Alice was also accused of copulating with a demon. That is why this trial is so important as charges of magic became intertwined with charges of heresy and devil worship and it reflects for the first time the belief that witches were organised in a devil-worshipping heretical sect. Without this belief in the sabbat the witch hunts would have been a much smaller affair in the rest of Europe.
Intriguingly this trial is one of a handful of witch trials that took place in Ireland. The witch hunting craze never caught on and many reasons have been proferred for this. A clue, perhaps, as to why the Gaelic Irish and Anglo-Irish inhabitants (remember the island was split into spheres of power between English and Irish) didn’t show much enthusiasm for joining in the witch hunt might be seen in a speech given by a relative and friend of Alice Kyteler, Arnold le Paor who was the Seneschal (sort of a governor) of Kilkenny
He said of Bishop Ledrede – ‘if some vagabond from England has obtained his bull in the pope’s court, we do not have to obey it unless enjoined on us by the king’s seal.’ He also claimed: ‘As you well know, heretics have never been found in Ireland, which has always been called the ‘Island of Saints’. Now this foreigner comes from England and says we are all heretics and excommunicates … Defamation of this country affects everyone of us, so we must all unite against this man’.
Alice’s trial brings up all sorts of interesting questions about cultural affiliations and loyalties; about Crown vs Church power and about how these factors drove and influenced the very obvious lack of enthusiasm for witch trials which is such a feature of medieval Ireland.
So, yes, she might have slept with a devil but because a foreigner said so, in the clannish, suspicious and independent world of medieval Ireland then…nobody was going to punish her for it and that was that!
1 Norman Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons, (London: Sussex University Press., 1975),ibid., pg 198.
2 ibid., pg 198.
3Bernadette Williams, The Sorcery Trial of Alice Kyteler, History Ireland, vol. 4, issue 2 (1994)
4 S. Malone, Church History of Ireland, Vol. 2, pg 3.
5 S. Malone, op. cit., pg 7.