Long before the publication of Malleus Maleficarum, attention was brought to bear on the small medieval town of Kilkenny in the Kingdom of Ossory. One of the earliest ever recorded witch trials took place in the early 14th century against a local businesswoman and serial bride by the name of Alice Kyteler – and what a sensational trial it was.
So who was the local entrepreneur and femme fatale who caused uproar in the Irish legal system and brought the Ecclesiastical authorities of Ireland to their knees?
THE BLACK WIDOW
Alice Kyteler’s family were Flemish brokers and they had settled in Kilkenny sometime towards the end of the 13th century with just one child, a daughter. Alice learned the ropes of the family business and grew up to be very shrewd, so it came as no surprise that her first husband was an affluent local businessman and financier by the name of William Outlaw.
Believed to have married in 1280 when Alice would have been only sixteen or so, they went on to have a son, also called William. The banker’s wife groomed her son for great things and by an early age he had gained positions of authority within the local community. By 1302 William’s father was dead and Alice was already onto her second marriage. Husband number two was another moneylender by the name of Adam le Blund, from the market town of Callan on the Kilkenny/Tipperary county borders.
Both parties were already wealthy before the union, however marriage brought them a new level of power and prosperity. The couple’s wealth and status had left feelings of acrimony running high in the parish and rumours had already began to circulate that Alice’s first husband had not died from natural causes. The locals were convinced that Alice and Adam had in fact, committed murder.
The fire of fear and distrust aimed at Alice Kyteler was beginning to take hold, however it would appear that Alice and the events surrounding her insisted on adding fuel to the growing flames. In 1307, Adam le Blund relinquished all legal entitlement to his own wealth and gave what was effectively full Power of Attorney to his stepson William, together with the complete nullification of William’s debts agreements. This incident was deemed all the more suspicious as Adam had offspring of his own from a prior marriage and was in seemingly good mental and physical health. Two years later he was dead.
1309 saw Alice wed for the third time. Richard de Valle was an affluent landowner from the neighbouring county of Tipperary and once again the marital union was short lived. A seemingly fit and well Richard died mysteriously, leaving all his wealth to Alice. The son of the unfortunate deceased, also called Richard, kept hold of the assets and was the subject of legal proceedings, as the widow demanded her rightful wealth.
By the time Alice Kyteler married yet another wealthy landlord, Sir John le Poer, the local rumour mill was in overdrive and the whispering of foul play continued. In frighteningly similar circumstances to her first three husbands, John’s health began to decline, in spite of his relatively young age. John’s finger nails and toe nails were discolouring and falling out, he was rapidly going bald, and the little hair he had left was devoid of pigmentation. As his ailments increased and his already poor health took a decided turn for the worse, two game changing events took place. First of all, with no regard for his own blood kin, John made a will bequeathing all his money and assets to Alice and her son William. The second, fearing for his life, John turned to the church for help. By 1324 he was dead and the whispers had turned to shouts of witchcraft.
Despite marrying prosperous landowners, Alice insisted that she remain in her birthplace on St. Kieran’s Street in Kilkenny.
As a rich wife and ultimately an incredibly wealthy serial widow, Alice did not need to work, however her focus was on building and maintaining a thriving business. She continued with her practice of moneylending, made easier by having the perfect location to conduct her affairs.
Kyteler’s Inn wasn’t just any old hostelry. It was a meeting place for local businessmen who all vied for the attention of the bewitching Alice, showering her with gifts and money. It should therefore come as no surprise that this was the very place Alice set eyes on her ill-fated husbands to be.
Whilst the attention of so many of the wealthy local male population was scintillating for Alice, she was a canny businesswoman first and foremost. She hired the most luscious and alluring of young women to work in her premises, enticing men from their wives and responsibilities and spending their money in Kyteler’s Inn, making her establishment the most successful in Kilkenny.
It was also here in the inn that Alice was said to work her sorcery and that her patrons were bewitched by Alice and her alleged coven.
SORCERY, THE CHURCH AND THE LAW
Contrary to popular belief, the Church often turned a blind eye to sorcery, accepting that some forms of Malficium were minor offences and that the medical benefits offered by those who practiced such arts outweighed the ‘crime’. As such, any issues relating to witchcraft were dealt with by the local authorities and not the Church, except in the case of direct heretical doctrine.
Unfortunately for Alice, this all changed when Pope John XXII came to the Papal Throne in 1316. He was genuinely terrified of witchcraft and was convinced his life was in jeopardy, leading to the granting of sweeping powers to his Inquisitors.
Pope John XXII published a definitive list of practices that would constitute heresy and subsequent prosecution by the Church, particularly in relation to demon worship and pacts with the devil.
Unfortunately for Alice, this canon law reached Ireland and in particular, Richard Ledrede, the Bishop of Ossory.
ACCUSATIONS, ARRESTS AND ABSCONDING
Whether out of bitterness of being cheated from their respective inheritance or genuine concern that Alice Kyteler was indeed a witch, the children of her last three deceased husbands joined together and called upon the assistance of Richard Ledrede.
Richard was a devout Christian and fanatical with seeking out and punishing heretics. He was unhappy that respect for the Church and canon law were fading and that the law of the land took precedent. He had the necessary background to implement Church doctrine and proceed with charges of heresy against Alice and her son William Outlaw, however he was up against resistance from local law enforcement and Alice’s very powerful contacts.
Having heard the allegations from Alice’s stepchildren, Ledrede went ahead and charged Alice, her maid Petronella and her son William with heresy. The charges included denying the Faith, desecration of the church with black magic rituals, sorcery, demonic animal sacrifice, murder, controlling members of the local community with potions and spells and fornicating with a demon known by many names including Robin Artisson, in exchange for power and prosperity.
Richard’s first attempt at arrest was thwarted by the Chancellor of Ireland, Roger Outlaw, a relative of Alice’s first husband. He advised Ledrede that there could be no warrant issued for the arrests without the accused having first been excommunicated for at least 40 days and a public hearing. Meanwhile the well timed intervention of another relation by marriage, Sir Arnold de Poer, senior steward of Kilkenny allowed Alice to flee to Dublin and saw the imprisonment of Richard Ledrede.
While Richard was in prison, the whole of the diocese of Ossory saw an embargo on funerals, baptisms and marriage. As the majority of the population believed in Hell and eternal damnation, the public outcry was too much and the Bishop of Ossory was released.
Incarceration left Ledrede incensed and he heightened his efforts to prosecute Alice, her son and maid by involving the Justice of Ireland, who insisted upon a full witch trial.
William Outlaw pleaded guilty to the charges of heresy, illegal money lending, adultery and perverting the course of justice. His punishment was to attend three masses a day, donate to the poor and agree to reroof the cathedral with lead.
In the meantime, Alice had absconded and the trial continued in her absence. The alleged depths of her depravity and heresy began to be revealed to the court. The witch Kyteler was said to have used a human skull to brew her potions, with ingredients including parts of corpses, the innards of fowl, worms and insects and the clothing of deceased infants. The concoctions were said to rouse her innocent victims to do her bidding, with acts of love, hatred or murder.
Alice and her coven were said to have conducted black masses in the churches, sacrificed and dissected livestock to bargain with demons at crossroads and Alice herself was accused of continued carnal relations with a powerful demon in order to maintain her position of influence over the local community.
The final accusations were of the murder of each of her four husbands. Evidence regarding her last husband, John le Poer was put forward. He had no nails, they were ripped from their beds and left bleeding, all bodily hair had fallen out and he was completed withered away to a skeleton at the time of his death.
While Alice had disappeared, some say to England with the help of her well positioned male acquaintances, her maid was not so fortunate.
Petronella de Meath was tortured repeatedly in Kilkenny Jail until she confessed to being a witch and a member of the coven of Alice Kyteler. On 3rd November 1324, Petronella was the first woman in Ireland to be burned at the stake as a witch.
THE LEGACY OF ALICE KYTELER
So what of Alice? Well Alice Kyteler was never heard of again – whether she used witchcraft to cloak her whereabouts or was helped abroad by calling on infatuated men of position we will never know.
What we do know, is that the accusations and the trial were very real indeed. They remain documented as they have been for centuries and the trial changed the balance of law and power back in favour of the Church.
The most exciting revelation of this account is that the locations remain. The Jail still stands, bars on windows. As you stand on the street, peering into the eerie darkness of the cold, cramped cells, a shiver runs up your spine at the realization there could be something ethereal staring back at you, perhaps the tormented blackened soul of Petronella de Meath.
Kyteler’s Inn is still the most famous hostelry in Kilkenny and the spirit of Alice is said to remain, watching over her establishment and the revelers within for eternity.
So was Alice Kyteler indeed a witch, or just the most successful and richest business woman in medieval Ireland? Perhaps if you come across her in Kyteler’s Inn, you can ask her yourself!
I shall leave you with Alice, immortalised in the words of W. B Yeats:
"A sudden blast of dusty wind and after Thunder of feet, tumult of images, Their purpose in the labyrinth of the wind; And should some crazy hand dare touch a daughter All turn with amorous cries, or angry cries, According to the wind, for all are blind. But now wind drops, dust settles; thereupon There lurches past, his great eyes without thought Under the shadow of stupid straw-pale locks, That insolent fiend Robert Artisson To whom the love-lorn Lady Kyteler brought Bronzed peacock feathers, red combs of her cocks."