When it comes to trials for witchcraft, the excesses of the 16th and 17th centuries spring most readily to mind. Ireland in 1324, however, saw a most infamous and intriguing case: that involving Alice Kyteler of Kilkenny.
Not only was it the first recorded case of combined charges of witchcraft and heresy, but it was also the first instance of a woman being burned for heresy in Ireland.
Who was Alice Kyteler?
Wealthy, independent, four-times married Dame Alice, was a controversial figure in 14th century Kilkenny.
With property and money to her name, unlike most women of the time she had the illusion of freedom at least: admired and envied in equal measure, Alice and her money-lender son, William Outlawe, were often the brunt of local gossip.
According to her step children, Alice had bewitched their fathers into marriage. Then, when she had ensured they would leave all their wealth to her, she murdered each husband using magic, leaving their children – the rightful beneficiaries – empty handed.
This was not just sour grapes; Alice’s fourth and final husband, despite initially being her staunch supporter, also came to believe she meant him ill.
One day he seized the keys to her storage chests, discovering gruesome ingredients within that confirmed her wicked sorcery. Alice was, the people of Kilkenny whispered, a witch.
A powerful enemy
Despite these rumblings however, some might say Alice’s biggest crime was to get on the wrong side of Richard Ledrede, the Archbishop of Ossory.
Zealous, ruthlessly determined and dedicated to rooting out heresy, Franciscan Ledrede had trained at the papal court in Avignon. Posted in Ireland since 1317, his self-proclaimed mission was to banish heretical practices and belief from those shores.
Needless to say his horror knew no bounds when, in 1324, he was informed of a nest of heretical vipers within his territory. Ledrede appealed to the Lord Chancellor of Ireland, but found himself up against none other than Lord Arnold le Poer, the seneshcal of Kilkenny.
A supporter of Alice and deeply displeased, Lord Arnold informed Ledrede he must desist in his pursuit. When the archbishop did not a feud ensued between the pair, resulting in an increasingly desperate dance that lasted for months.
When Arnold declared that a public enquiry and excommunication were the pre-requisites for Alice’s arrest warrant, Ledrede summoned Alice to appear before him. When she did not, he excommunicated her in her absence, much to the fury of the seneschal.
Matters culminated in the arrest and imprisonment of Ledrede himself, but even that did not thwart the wily prelate, who retaliated by placing his diocese under interdict, imperilling the souls of his flock by removing from them the sacraments.
Upon Ledrede’s eventual release, a precarious truce was struck between the two men. But it was not to last and animosities soon broke out once more.
With neither side willing to back down, Lord Arnold finally ordered his own enquiry into the accusations against Alice, a move that backfired disastrously. Rather than clearing her name, compelling evidence emerged that Alice and her associates were the worst of heretics.
Denying Christ, they worshipped and carried out sacrifices to demons, along with subverting the rituals of the church for their own ends.
Alice – the leader and most powerful of the group – obtained her powers from a demon, who went by the name of Robin, Son of Art. He appeared in several forms – a cat, a dog, and a man with black skin. Alice, the scandalised people of Kilkenny whispered, took this demon into her bed, where they carried out acts too terrible to name.
Taking place before the introduction of any formal witchcraft legislation in Ireland, the Kyteler case was unique for its time: the accusation that Alice had sexual relations with her demon lover was the first – but by no means the last – to be known in Europe.
Hearing these and other damning details, Lord Arnold had no choice but to act. While arrests were made, with a timely tip off Alice fled Ireland, taking with her the daughter of Petronilla de Meath, her maid servant.
The first of many
Petronilla herself was not so lucky. Whipped until she confessed, she condemned Alice once and for all in her absence. Despite being offered penance, Petronilla refused to repent. Her punishment was carried out on 3 November 1324 when she was burnt at the stake – the first woman to be burnt for heresy in Ireland.
A combination of factors combined to culminate in such a terrible outcome. Long-held dislike and jealousy of Alice and her son was at the centre, resentments and disputes of many years simmering away and waiting to ignite.
Then there was Ledrede himself, his experiences and knowledge of continental heresy influencing his response to the rumours circulating throughout Kilkenny and beyond.
Finally, the politically charged conflict between Church and State, as embodied in the dispute between Ledrede and Lord Arnold le Poer highlights most clearly that although precarious social, political and religious elements underpinned the entire case, ultimately, it was a battle of personalities, with Petronilla de Meath paying the price.
Willow Winsham brings readers regular tales of witches and witchcraft at her blog, The Witch, the Weird and the Wonderful. ‘Accused, British Witches Throughout History’ is her latest book, published on 4 July 2016 by Pen & Sword
Featured image credit: The Kyteler Slab (by kind permission of St Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny).