Lady Alice Kyteler (?–ca. 1324) Lady Alice kyteler was a wealthy and respected woman and the first person to be tried for witchcraft in Ireland. She was also among the first accused witches of the middle Ages to be accused of heresy as well. Nearly two more centuries would pass before heresy charges were routine in witchcraft trials.
Lady Alice was one of the few accused who ever successfully defied her accusers. Family jealousies over money apparently were a major factor in the leveling of charges against her. Lady Alice was one of the richest residents of kilkenny. much of her wealth had come to her through a succession of husbands. Three of them had died, and Lady Alice had married for a fourth time.
When her fourth husband, Sir John le Poer, fell ill with a mysterious wasting disease, he and the stepchildren became suspicious of Lady Alice. Le Poer allegedly found hidden in their home a sackful of vile ingredients for black Magic potions and powders. He and the stepchildren accused her of bewitching her first three husbands to death and depriving le Poer of his “natural senses” through the use of her magical concoctions.
The accusations piqued the interest of Richard de Ledrede, the Bishop of Ossory, who may have been interested in confiscating some of Lady Alice’s wealth himself. In 1324 de Ledrede made an inquisition and determined that kilkenny was home to a band of heretical sorcerers, of whom Lady Alice was the head. De Ledrede indicted Lady Alice and her band on the following seven counts:
- 1. They had denied the faith of Christ.
- 2. They sacrificed living animals to various Demons, including a low-ranking one named robin, or son of Art. They dismembered the animals and left them at CrossroAds. One source said a sACrIFICe consisted of nine red CoCks and the eyes of nine peacocks.
- 3. They used sorcery to seek advice from Demons.
- 4. They held nightly meetings in which they blasphemously imitated the power of the church by fulminating sentence of excommunication, with lighted CAndles, even against their own husbands, from the sole of their foot to the crown of their head, naming each part expressly, and then concluded by extinguishing the candles and by crying, “Fi! Fi! Fi! Amen.”
- 5. They caused disease and death, and aroused love and hatred, by using evil powders, unguents, ointments and candles. Ingredients included “certain horrible worms”; dead men’s nails; the entrails of cocks sacrificed to Demons; the hair (see Hair and Nails), brains and shreds of shrouds of boys who were buried unbaptized; various herbs; and “other abominations.” While incantations were recited, the ingredients were cooked in a CAuldron made out of the skull of a decapitated thief.
- 6. Lady Alice used sorcery to cause the children of her four husbands to bequeath all their wealth to her and her favorite son, William Outlawe. Also, she bewitched Sir John le Poer to the point where he was emaciated, and his hair and nails dropped off. A maid warned him that he was the victim of witchcraft. He opened some locked chests and found “a sackful of horrible and destestable things,” which he turned over to priests.
- 7. robin, or Son of Art, was Lady Alice’s Incubus Demon, who appeared as a cat, a hairy black dog or a black man (see familiars). The Demon was the source of her wealth.
It was also charged that Lady Alice took a broom and swept the streets of kilkenny, raking the dirt and filth toward the home of her favorite son, muttering, “To the house of William my sonne/Hie all the wealth of kilkennie towne.”
Bishop de Ledrede sought the arrest of Lady Alice, William and the other unnamed sorcerers. William raised a ruckus, and, because of the family’s status, the Bishop was blocked. He decided to handle the matter himself, and excommunicated Lady Alice and cited her to appear before him. She fled to Dublin. Not to be outdone, de Ledrede charged William with heresy.
Lady Alice brought pressure on her influential contacts and had de Ledrede arrested and jailed. He was released after 17 days. His next move was to censure the
entire diocese, but he was forced to lift the ban by the Lord Justice, who sided with Lady Alice. De Ledrede tried several more times to bring a civil arrest of Lady Alice and others on charges of sorcery. Lady Alice fled again, this time to England. In kilkenny, she was condemned as a sorceress, magician and heretic. On the same day, de Ledrede publicly burned her sackful of “abominations.”
The only punishment de Ledrede was able to bring against William was a penance of hearing three masses a day for a year, feeding a certain number of poor people and covering a church chancel and chapel with lead. William failed to do these things and eventually was imprisoned.
The Bishop succeeded in arresting Lady Alice’s maid, Petronilla, and having her flogged until she confessed to sorcery and orgies that involved Lady Alice. Petronilla was excommunicated, condemned and burned alive on November 3, 1324. Hers was the first death by burning for the crime of heresy in Ireland. records say that others who were implicated by Petronilla as being members of the band of sorcerers were rounded up; some fled. Some were executed by burning, while others were merely excommunicated, whipped and banished from the diocese.
Lady Alice spent the rest of her life in comfort in England. Bishop de Ledrede was himself accused of heresy and was exiled from his diocese, but he regained favor in 1339. The next witchcraft trial of record in Ireland did not occur until the 17th century.
- Lenihan, Eddie. Defiant Irish Women. Dublin: Mercier Press, 1991.
- Seymour, St. John D. Irish Witchcraft and Demonology. Dublin: Hodges, Figgis & Co., 1913.
- Thomas, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971.