Kyteler, Dame Alice

Kyteler, Dame Alice

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

The first and perhaps most famous witch trial in Ireland was that of a woman of substance, Dame Alice Kyteler, in 1324. It is of especial interest since it seems likely that Dame Alice was, in fact, a follower of the Old Religion, although she was charged with heresy rather than witchcraft per se. From the extant records of the trial, it seems that there was a coven in operation in Kilkenny, Ireland.

Dame Alice was married to her fourth husband, Sir John le Poer, the previous three having died and left her all their wealth. By her first husband, William Outlawe, she had a son, also named William, and she doted upon him. Her second husband was Adam le Blund; the third, Richard de Valle. The start of Dame Alice's troubles came when she was accused of causing the chronic illness from which her current husband, Sir John, was suffering. It was Dame Alice's stepchildren, by two of her marriages, along with a disgruntled maid servant, who suggested she might be trying to get rid of Sir John. He listened to their charges to the extent of demanding his wife's keys from her. She would not release them, but he forced them from her and proceeded to unlock the various chests in her private room. In these he found a variety of powders and ointments, which he immediately assumed to be connected with sorcery.

In Raphael Holinshed's Chronicle of Ireland (1587), he says that they found "a wafer of sacramental bread having the devil's name stamped thereon instead of Jesus Christ, and a pipe of ointment wherewith she greased a staff, upon which she ambled and galloped through thick and thin, when and in what manner she listed." However, these items are not listed in contemporary records, so it seems possible that Holinshed was embroidering the story.

Sir John sent what he found in the chests to the bishop of Ossory. The bishop, Richard de Ledrede, was actually an Englishman who had been trained in France. He was not a popular man with the local people. The seneschal of Kilkenny described him as a "vile, rustic, interloping monk." The bishop became convinced that Dame Alice was not a poisoner of husbands but a sorceress involved in witchcraft, and in 1324 he charged her with heretical sorcery. He also charged ten accomplices with her. He indicted Dame Alice on seven counts: that she and her followers denied the faith of Christ; sacrificed animals at a crossroads—always considered a meeting place for witches; used sorcery to communicate with demons; held nightly meetings at which they "blasphemously imitated the power of the Church"; caused disease and death and aroused love and hate, using potions, powders, candles, and ointments; and that Lady Alice caused her previous husbands to bequeath all their money to her son William, and she bewitched her husband Sir John to the point where he was near death; and that she had an incubus demon lover named Robin Artison, who sometimes appeared to her as a black man and sometimes as a hairy black dog or a cat.

Witnesses reported that they had seen Dame Alice, at night, sweeping the streets of the town. She was brushing all the dirt toward the house of her son William, chanting: "To the house of William, my son, hie all the wealth of Kilkenny town." Christina Hole points out that there is an old superstition that the first sweeping of a house must always be made inward, so that the good luck of the house is not swept outside. Here Dame Alice was apparently trying to sweep everyone's luck and good fortune to her son.

The bishop wrote to the chancellor, asking for the arrest of Dame Alice and her followers. The chancellor was Roger Outlawe, who just happened to be related to Dame Alice's first husband. The seneschal of Kilkenny, Sir Arnold Le Poer, also happened to be related to Dame Alice's fourth husband. Both refused to act on the bishop's request. Young William Outlawe took his mother into his household for protection. The bishop then proceeded to excommunicate Dame Alice. In return, she used her influence to have the bishop arrested. He was jailed for seventeen days.

When released, the bishop placed the whole diocese under an interdict and cited William Outlawe. William was given a penance of hearing three masses a day for a year, providing food for a number of poor people, and putting a new lead roof on the chancel and chapel of the church. William did none of those things and was later imprisoned for nine weeks. The bishop, meanwhile, repeatedly presented himself at the court of the Seneschal but was always refused entry.

Eventually, with William in prison, Dame Alice made her escape to England, taking along her main follower Sarah de Meath, daughter of her maidservant Petronilla. Of the other coven members who were left behind (Robert of Bristol; William Payn de Boly; Eva de Drownestown; Alice Faber; John, Ellen, and Syssok Galrussyn; Annota Lange; and Petronilla de Meath), all were arrested and convicted. As an example, the bishop had Petronilla tortured until she confessed various atrocities performed by herself, Dame Alice, and the others. She was flogged, excommunicated, and burned at the stake on November 3, 1324. She was the first such victim in Ireland. (See also Irish Witchcraft.)

There is no official record of what happened to the others, although it is said some were burned, some flogged and branded, some banished. While Dame Alice spent the rest of her life in England, the unhappy Bishop de Ledrede was himself later accused of heresy by the archbishop of Dublin. His revenues were seized by King Edward III in 1329, and he was exiled for nearly twenty years. He died in 1360.

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