DAME ALICE KYTELER was the culprit in the first successful witch trial in Ireland, if you can consider having an unfortunate woman burned at the stake successful. Alice however didn’t burn. She escaped the flames, leaving her maid servant Petronella de Meath to become the first Irish victim of the witch hunts.
A wildcat of Kilkenny is someone who is a fighter, willing to fight to the bitter end. Sometimes that results in death, as in the two unfortunate cats. Sometimes one of the cats get lucky and escape with their life.
In fourteenth century Kilkenny, two cats engaged in a fight for survival. Both survived.
There once were two cats of Kilkenny
Each thought there was one cat too many
So they fought and they fit
And they scratched and they bit
Till (excepting their nails
And the tips of their tails)
Instead of two cats there weren’t any!
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A visit to Kilkenny in search of witches of the past
IT’S BEEN A LONG TIME since I’ve been to Kilkenny. I’d been in the west of Ireland before finally heading southeast and found myself there, in a B&B just outside the old city walls. It was in the days of guidebooks, and they all agreed on one thing. Kilkenny was lovely and not to be missed.
They were right. It was more gentle there than the west, a bit more refined. Prettier, though more populated. In the west, the wildness lay on the surface. In the east, closer to the capital of Dublin, the wildness often lay buried under a genteel facade.
It’s been many years since I walked the streets of Kilkenny. But that’s the advantage of what I do. What I look for, what I write about stretches far back in time. A few years, a decade or so doesn’t make substantial changes to the places I visit.
Change is often transient. The bed and breakfast I crashed in, the name long escaped from me likely has changed owners, changed names but the hospitality, rooted in the laws of kindness to travelers that celtic Ireland is known for is unlikely to have changed much.
A town built upon the church, then protected from it by Norman walls
Kilkenny got its start in the sixth century, built upon the church. St. Canice’s Cathedral is believed to stand on the spot where the first church was thrown up, before spreading outwards and across the river Nore. By the eighth century it was a major monastic settlement, and the round tower still visible at the cathedral attests to its importance.
Following the Norman conquest walls went up around the town, shutting out the church and from that point onward, it became a political center till Cromwell came and shut things down in 1649. The Normans lived within the walls, the area being known as Hightown, with the city outside the walls remaining wholly Irish and becoming known as Irishtown.
Inside the walls you had wealth and privilege, the wheels of commerce and government. Outside the walls the church held a stronger power over the people. Control morality and you control the population.
It was this in this clash of ecclesiastic versus the secular that the story we were looking for came to unfold.
Dame Alice Kyteler, a woman of wealth and ambition
William Butler Yeats mentions Kyteler in his poem Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen:
“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.”
Our first order of business was to visit the home of the first woman accused of being a witch in Ireland. In 1324, Dame Alice de Kyteler and a servant, Petronella de Meath were accused of witchcraft.
Dame Alice Kyteler was born to a wealthy Flemish family relatively new to the area, an only child. Reviewing a list of her husbands, of which she had four, it’s plain to see she grew up in a life of excess and privilege.
She was married to her first husband for about five years, a merchant and moneylender with the dangerous sounding name of William Outlaw. Their son who carried on his father’s name became mayor of Kilkenny, and his mother’s business associate for most of her life.
Her second husband, Adam le Blund of Callan, also a moneylender, lived with Dame Alice Kyteler under the shadow of an accusation of murder against her first husband, but it was never proven. What is certain is that the two were incredibly wealthy. Dame Alice was in business with her son, lending money and squirreling away the profits. At one point the younger William Outlaw claimed possession and guardianship of over 3,000 pounds for the two, in a time in which the average person earned less than two cents a day.
The first accusations on Dame Alice Kyteler
It was a testament to the wealthy merchants and the commerce which was already flowing through the streets of Kilkenny at the time.
When they were accused of murdering William’s father, she didn’t provoke much in the way of sympathy, as her wealth was already enviable and moneylenders by nature don’t attract much affection. Accusations of witchcraft were hurled against her then, but in the end, they managed to avoid prosecution.
Though Adam had escaped the noose, he wasn’t long for this world. A heavy drinker, it was believed this was what led to his early demise. But before his death, Adam le Blund signed over all his wealth to William Outlaw and his mother.
Her third husband, a wealthy landowner also went paws up, and she was forced to sue his son to recover her widow’s dower. Though already wealthy, it seems she was willing to fight for everything she believed she had coming to her.
Thirty six years after marrying her first husband, she became the wife of Sir John le Poer.. He took sick in 1324, and things looked dire for him.
His children looked at the evidence when they realized Kyteler had managed to take away most of their inheritance, and got together with the children of her previous husbands and compared notes. They came up with the idea that Dame Kyteler has murdered the first three and was poisoning the fourth, not just by practical means, but by employing witchcraft.
Up to this time, witchcraft was considered a relatively minor offense. But there were currents stirring which would change all that, swiftly and without mercy, and Dame Alice Kyteler would soon find herself being pulled under in the slipstream of history.
Dame Alice Kyteler’s Inn was founded on holy ground
At the time of her first marriage, Alice lived in a large house, which she decided to expand and turn into an inn. Catering to the wealthy of Kilkenny, she employed a number of lovely young ladies to help with running the inn and keeping the gentlemen entertained.
The house was likely the home in which she was born and inherited, known at the time as Kyteler’s Hall. The historical record has placed it adjacent to St Kyran’s or St. Kieran’s Well, one of the most revered in the area. The land on which it sprung up, along with Kyteler’s Hall was at the boundary of Hightown, also known as The Earl’s Villa, and Irishtown. So in essence, it was physically where the two strains of Irish life in Kilkenny met and clashed, the church and the state.
The well itself has a legendary pedigree, as St. Kieran once turned the water from the well into wine, and it was known to be the watering hole of angels and other heavenly beings. It was the site of many baptisms by the saint and later his followers, and the waters were believed to heal.
Dame Alice Kyteler’s inn was indeed prosperous, and in looking back at the time through modern eyes, it’s easy to believe the she was targeted for little more than being a successful female in the world of business. We carry the notion that the past was entirely chauvinistic. But at the same time, there is a long tradition of women running inns and taverns in Ireland and indeed, quite often now even, bed and breakfasts in some areas of the country are listed under the wife’s name, rather than the husband.
And Dame Alice Kyteler certainly had the support of the the wealthy merchant and political classes of Kilkenny.
Kyteler’s Inn today still serves up tasty food and a good pint
You could be forgiven for seeing Kyteler’s Inn today as a tourist trap. You’re faced with a statue of Dame Alice as a witch almost as soon as you enter, and their marketing does lean heavily on the witchcraft theme. But at the same time, you are in a 13th century building with great food, plenty of drink and a variety of music, traditional Irish as well as modern. It may be tailor made for tourism, but it does its job well.
Kyteler’s Inn went through a variety of hands over the centuries, sometimes it was profitable, other times not. It eventually fell nearly into ruin until it was partially restored to its former glory in the twentieth century. Since 1986, it’s been in the hands of Nicky Flynn, the great great granddaughter of Charles Dickens, who ripped away the plaster to expose the stone, and set about making it a lively place once more.
With four drinking/dining areas over three floors and music most every night, it’s a success story befitting one of the oldest businesses in all of Ireland. The top floor has been opened up and now serves as a baronial style banqueting hall, and even the basement has booths and is known as the dungeon.
Of course, Dame Alice Kyteler’s home has its own ghost. It would be a natural tendency to identify the ghost as Alice, but who could say after close to a thousand years of continual occupation? A lady has been spotted flickering through the building over the years, but mostly it’s just a presence that those who work there feel. Till of course, some visitors captured a spectral presence with their smart phone. It’s not just the police it seems who have to watch out for the camera wielding population of the 21st century. I’ve seen a lot of alleged spirit photographs, but these aren’t bad I have to admit.
The food was good, the atmosphere as well, if a bit commercial. And it was here I was introduced to Smithwick’s, Ireland’s oldest beer. Since my visit I’ve watched as it grew in popularity here in the states, a regular reminder of my time in Kilkenny. It’s been brewed in Kilkenny since 1710 and staring into its amber goodness over the years, with notes of caramel and roasted coffee ensured the town still haunted me long after I left.
Taking the hospitality of Kilkenny pubs and finding myself walking back through time
Ironically enough, I learned some years later from some amateur family historians, that my own line once flowed through the area around Kilkenny, and if their work is to be trusted, I have Kilkenny in my ancestral memory. I can buy that, for it did feel like home.
Even more so as the night wore on. I was in the country at least nominally in search of traditional Irish music. But it was October, well out of high season when the Irish go back to listening to the same music as everyone else. I found a cozy pub with live music, which alternated between traditional Irish standards and a bit of British folk tossed in as well. I was debating calling it a night when they whipped out Witch’s Promise by early Jethro Tull. I’d never heard a band play that live, and I was impressed and considered an omen, based on why I was in town to begin with. I stuck around for a few more pints, and likely a few more shots.
A night or two after, once more having spent a full evening the pub, I stopped in a bustling fish and chips shop in the center of town. As last call had been given and the glasses drained, the line of inebriated and congenial people stretched out the door and down the street. As I got closer to the counter, a woman well in her cups announced after being given her order, she only had a pound, so would they give her a discount? A collective moan went up from the crowd, an exasperated sigh from the landlord, who waved her away and bid her take the fish and chips and keep her pound.
My only clear memory after that is of walking the bridge across the river Nore to the B&B and watching the stars reflecting in the darkness of the river below. It was on the precursor of this bridge, John’s Bridge back in 1763 that a crowd gathered during the great flood to watch, as downstream Green’s Bridge was about to be swept away. While watching transfixed, John’s Bridge was swept away as well, plunging the crowd into the murky, swollen river and their deaths. Since then, ghostly shapes have been seen on the bridge, staring off towards Green’s Bridge.
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Looking for the Kilkenny of Dame Alice Kyteler’s Day
It’s said that the Butter Slip, a narrow walkway reached by passing through an arched gate below two houses is one of the most picturesque of Kilkenny’s narrow lanes, connecting the main thoroughfares. But in fact it only dates to the early seventeenth century. For my mind that doesn’t really qualify as medieval. After all, just a few decades later we were hanging witches in Massachusetts.
Those early years of the American colonies were a strange, transitional period. In Europe they had moved out of the medieval era, but when the Pilgrims reached these shores, perhaps due to lack of resources or perhaps due to the puritan mindset of some of those who came across, much of our early architecture has a distinctly medieval feel. The early structures in Plymouth colony had a medieval look to them certainly, though the main building material was wood, rather than stone.
Walking the streets of Kilkenny you can be forgiven for thinking the whole of Ireland, Britain and Europe was built of stone. After all, nearly all the structures still standing are stone construction. But looks can be deceptive. It’s true, then as now, stone is a more permanent, more impressive building material. But unless it’s a local building material, it takes money, so the poor had to make do with wood. Whether through fire or simply aging, these structures seldom survived.
Hence the fairy tale appearance of those medieval towns which survive somewhat intact. What we often see is the work of the upper classes. Fortunately for those with a mystical or haunted bent, that style of architecture fits what our minds long to see. Kilkenny benefits from this today, as did the merchants who built the city benefitted in their day.
Finding traces of Dame Alice in St. Canice’s Cathedral
St. Canice’s Cathedral is a good example of that. Built on a cruciform footprint, it’s likely the third church to have sprung up on this spot. The first was believed to be wooden and built around the sixth century. This was followed by a church built in the Romanesque style during the medieval period. It could be assumed the ninth century round tower adjacent to the cathedral was built for that church. It’s one of only three round towers in Ireland which you can style climb to the top of, and the view is an amazing panorama of the rooftops of Kilkenny and the landscape beyond.
You have to ask for the key, because there isn’t much room at the top for many people, and if someone is coming down, you can’t be going up. It’s not an easy task reaching the top, and on a windy day, it feels as though you might be blown clean off.
The current limestone church, built in an English gothic fashion was completed in the thirteenth century. Even with later additions and restoration, it still keeps its medieval feel.
The graveslab of Dame Alice Kyteler’s father is in the churchyard, after having been found under the sidewalk in front of Kyteler’s Inn in the nineteenth century. Inside is another monument to the other Kilkenny cat who had a direct impact on Alice’s story.
Within the cathedral you find many effigies from the medieval period. One of the most imposing belongs to Richard de Ledrede, Bishop of Ossory,
Witchcraft in the days of Dame Alice Kyteler
Ledrede, the newly appointed bishop in Alice’s day was a stickler for church law, and unholy strict when it came to issues of morality. It was his dogged pursuit of church justice that led to a change in fortune for Dame Alice Kyteler.
To the medieval mind, witchcraft was real. The cunning men and women of the time were the poor man’s doctor. Or quite often, the culprit when things went wrong. There was also the old religion, paganism had for the most part died away, but you could still distinctly hear its echo.
While witchcraft in all forms was proclaimed illegal by the church, it had yet to be seen as the perversion of Christianity it came to represent. The devil had yet to be introduced as the source of a witch’s power. This began to change in the thirteenth century, when in 1258 Pope Alexander IV opened up the prosecution of witchcraft under the charge of heresy, making way for the Inquisition.
White magic, while not condoned by the church, hadn’t typically been prosecuted. Because the official church position regarding witchcraft was that it didn’t exist. It was superstition and remnants of folk beliefs, and little more. That was about to change.
Witchcraft took on a more demonic tone. The spells that witches were believed to cast called up demons and bound them to the witch and her to them, and demons were under the power of Satan. This made the prosecution of witchcraft firmly an ecclesiastical matter.
Bishop Richard de Ledrede, the foil of Dame Alice Kyteler
Richard de Ledrede was placed in his position by Pope John XXII. This was a controversial time in the Papacy, with the pope residing at Avignon, in France, rather than the Vatican in Rome. There were rival popes, anti popes and a real schism between the church and state, with each vying for power. The church had grown increasingly wealthy and a lot of priests, bishops and cardinals had no qualms about flaunting their wealth, which sometimes was greater than the kings who ruled the countries they lived in.
Pope John XXII came to power just after the suppression of the Knight’s Templar under the charge of heresy, though in reality it’s believed it was little more than an attempt by the king of France to take possession of their wealth, and relieve himself of the burden of debt owed to them.
When Dame Alice Kyteler’s married her last husband, the Inquisition had only been active for about 75 years. It didn’t fully heat up for another century or two, but as Alice was to find out, the church’s position on witchcraft and heresy had taken a hard turn.
Ledrede was a maniac for church law and a strict adherence to it. There was right and there was wrong, and little grey area between the two. He landed in Ireland in 1317 and almost immediately ran into conflict, which he was able to weather because of a good relationship with the pope. Pope John was convinced he was under attack from witches and feared them in all their supposed forms. He had proclaimed witchcraft to be heresy and Ledrede accepted this without question and set about eradicating the practice using the methods he’d learned from watching the Inquisition in France.
As Alice’s fourth husband lay dying, his children, along with the remaining children from her unfortunate husband’s previous marriages banded together, and perhaps in an attempt to recover their fathers’ fortunes which they believed Alice had wrongly stole from them, leveled a charge of witchcraft against her.
When he received a formal complaint of witchcraft from the heirs of Dame Alice Kyteler’s late husbands, he leapt at the chance to make the case. He not only targeted Alice, but her first born, William Outlaw, and anyone else in her personal orbit with whom he thought he could drag in. That included the women she had hired to work in the inn, which he believed comprised her coven. Chief among those was Petronella de Meath, who was her most faithful servant.
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The legal case against Dame Alice Kyteler, what a real political witch hunt looks like
Witch trials were popping up throughout Europe, and church law demanded harsh justice. In Ireland witchcraft was still treated like a misdemeanor, but when the charge came to Bishop de Ledrede, he decided to bring the full weight of church law to bear.
What he discovered was to the legal minds of Norman Kilkenny, the church had little authority in these matters, particularly when dealing with prominent and wealthy members of the community.
He took his case asking for her arrest to the king’s chancellor in Dublin, who unfortunately for him was closely related to her first husband. The chancellor rejected the request and heaped further indignities on the Bishop for interfering with Irish affairs, which he felt the church had no business doing. The court finally made the ruling that the state couldn’t arrest her until the church had tried and excommunicated her, which the Bishop promptly did.
He charged her son, William Outlaw with heresy and called for his arrest as well. Instead he found himself locked up until the date William was supposed to have appeared in court to have passed.
Upon release, his passions further inflamed, Ledrede set upon making his case with venom.
Alice flees to Dublin and takes a stand
Dame Alice Kyteler, sensing danger fled to Dublin, where the Bishop and his cronies were pleading the case. In a show of defiance she filed a defamation of character charge against the Bishop.
The records of the proceedings would make Trump and his lawyers tremble, if they could see what a real witch hunt looked like.
Bishop Ledrede’s belief, nay, his demand was that in matters of morality, the secular government should give way for the church to do its business and dish out its own form of justice. Alice’s former brother in law made the case the church had no business interfering in Irish affairs, unless the request bore the King’s stamp itself.
Unfortunately for Dame Alice Kyteler, the Bishop won, and was told he could prosecute the case however he saw fit.
Some say at this point Alice fled to Britain. Others claim she was arrested and brought to the dungeon of Kilkenny Castle, where she joined her servants who were arrested, as well as her son. Imprisoned in chains, everyone waited to find out if the Bishop would give up, or finally find a way forward with the charges.
The charges against Dame Alice Kyteler
Along with her named accomplices she was charged with denying Christ, as well as the church, and of stealing the keys to the church, where they had their meetings.
They also were accused of cutting up live animals and leaving them as sacrifices at the crossroads for a demon called The Son of Art.
Furthermore, they possessed the skull of a criminal, in which they placed the intestines and other organs of cocks, worms, nails from the dead, ass hair and the clothes of unbaptized boys. From this unholy mixture they concocted potions which would cause people to love unbridled, or to hate with passion, leading to sin and to inflict damage to their souls, thus attacking Christians and Christianity.
Her wealth was explained as the result of intercourse with a demon that appeared to her as a cat, a black dog or even worse for the time and place, a black man.
And finally it was alleged she had used witchcraft and sorcery to kill some of her husbands and infatuate all, so that they turned over their wealth to her. And at that very moment, she was engaged in act of poisoning her current husband, who was near death.
This wasn’t the first time that she had been accused of witchcraft. On the suspicious death of her first husband, it was rumored that before he died, he had found in their basement the tools of the witch’s trade, the eyes of ravens, worms, nightshade and the dead man’s skull, from a thief who has suffered beheading as a punishment, which found its way into the later charges.
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Kilkenny Castle, standing for eight centuries now, where the fate of Dame Alice Kyteler and her circle was decided
There has been a castle on the grounds where the current Kilkenny Castle stands for over 800 years. First stood a wooden palisade and tower to guard trade routes which converged there along the River Nore. In 1213 the first stone castle was built, with three of those towers still in existence. Since that time it has grown into the sprawling complex we see today.
The castle has a reputation of being haunted. An automatic visitor counter in the oldest part of the castle frequently counts up to a hundred visitors a night passing through its halls, when it is in fact closed to the public and nearly empty.
This was the dungeon, and the location for the trials of Alice and her accomplices.
There is also the obligatory lady in white, thought by locals to be the ghost of Lady Margaret Butler. She was the grandmother of Anne Boleyn, one of the unfortunate wives of Henry VIII.
Dame Alice Kyteler obviously denied the charges, and her power and wealth kept the case from proceeding without a confession. It should be remembered that torture was the usual method for extracting confessions from the accused who kept their mouth shut. When dealing with the poor, there wasn’t many people watching, and the investigators were free to do their nasty business. But when dealing with local aristocracy, not even the church had the power to usurp the law.
The confession of Petronella de Meath
So they latched onto Dame Alice’s servant, Petronella de Meath, who buckled quickly under torture and confessed to witchcraft, affirmed all the accusations and even went further, and implicated Alice Kyteler and her son William Outlaw as well.
Citing Petronella’s confession, Bishop Ledrede writes that:
“At the instance of the said Alice she had wholly denied the faith of Christ and of the Church, and that she had at Alice’s instigation sacrificed in three places to devils, in each of which places she had sacrificed three cocks at crossroads without the city to a certain demon who called himself Robert Artson (filiam Artis) one of the inferior order from Hell, by shedding their blood and tearing them limb from limb.”
“From the intestines of which, with spiders and black worms like scorpions with a certain plant called millefoil and other plants and disgusting worms along with the brain and the swaddling bands a child dead without baptism, she, in the skull of a certain thief who had been beheaded, and on the instruction of the said Alice, made many confections, oiritments, and powders for afflicting the bodies of the faithful, and for producing love and hatred and for making the faces of certain. women on the use of certain incantations appear-to certain persons to be homed like goats.”
“She also confessed that many times she at the instance of the said Alice and sometimes in her presence had consulted devils and received responses; and that she had agreed with her (Alice) that she (Alice) should be the mediator between her and the said devil Robert, her (Alice’s) friend.”
“She also confessed publicly that with her own eyes she was a witness when the said demon in the form of three Ethopians carrying three iron rods in their hands appeared to her said mistress (Alice) in broad daylight and (while she was looking on) knew her (Alice) carnally, and after such a shameful act he with his own hand wiped clean the place where the crime was committed with linen from her bed.”
“Amongst other things she said that she with her said mistress often made a sentence of excommunication against her own husband with wax candles lighted and repeated expectoration, as their rules required. And though she was indeed herself an adept in this accursed art of theirs, she said she was nothing in comparison with her mistress, from whom she had learned all these things and many more; and indeed in all the realm of the King of England there was none more skilled or equal to her in this art.”
With Petronella’s confession in hand, it was a simple thing to prove Kyteler’s guilt, for her son had also confessed on bended knee, when he heard the punishment that awaited his mother’s servant.
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Was Alice a witch or just adept at poisoning?
Peril in the nursery
It seems a tainted pastry
One bite, what a dreadful fright
She was such a delicate little dish
A pleasant parlor gathering
Quicksilver concealed in a ruby ring
Two lumps or three?
I have always adored bergamot tea
Nice and slow
Misfortune will flow
The Fine Art of Poisoning, Jill Tracy
As he lie on what he thought would be his deathbed, Sir John le Poer no doubt pondered his wife and her ill luck with husbands. Not without merit, he became obsessed with the idea that he was being poisoned. He was described in 1324 as having his nails and body hair all missing, which is consistent with arsenic poisoning.
And it’s curious that after she disappeared he lived on several more years.
Certainly the fate of her previous husbands could have fallen under the same suspicion, though evidence to prove it is obviously lacking. If his children’s account was true, her first husband, (or her last in some stories), had found her witch’s tools.
There are many kinds of witches. In the days of Dame Alice Kyteler, witchcraft was most often known as a healing art, herbal preparations and potions which didn’t quite fit into the idea of medicine at the time, but often were more affordable to the masses. And often the only option.
Conversely, a woman, or man skilled in the arts of preparing these potions also had the skills necessary to do the opposite, to sicken, maim or kill. It was a time of fear, where death could come suddenly and without warning in a multitude of ways. Witchcraft became an excuse for ill fortune, sickness and death which lacked an obvious cause. It later became a handy method of extracting justice for the times when the healing arts didn’t work.
It’s generally conceded that the majority of people executed in the witch trials were innocent, if not all of them. But could it be possible that some of those scooped up in the crusade were in fact, practitioners of the black arts? In particular, might it be possible that Dame Alice Kyteler was in fact, a witch?
There is circumstantial evidence that at least one husband died by poisoning. Does that make her a witch? If you use a classical definition of one skilled with potions and poisons, then I suppose so. There was a sweep of her house in which suspicious items were claimed to have been found, and later burned in Kilkenny’s town center. These included a “sack full of her pyxes, powders, unguents, nails, hair, herbs, worms and innumerable other abominations with which she had perpetrated her sorceries and other unchristian acts.”
Then there’s my own definition of a witch … a person who picks upon a natural flow to achieve their will, using hidden or occult means. Magic rituals, gathering of herbs and making a potion are valuable tools for directing your will. Most anything that allows you to focus on a desired outcome can be successful. That you’re the only one who knows that this is going on, makes it occult by definition. It is hidden. It’s done in darkness, hence the term, the dark arts.
Dame Alice Kyteler was an incredible financial success during her known lifetime. She almost beat the charges as well, but caught in the middle of change, her case became just one of the battlegrounds for the powers of church and state and the result ended in uncountable deaths over the centuries.
Whether Alice met the classical definition of witch, or even modern versions will always be a subject for debate with no clear cut winner. What isn’t up for debate though, is with her case, witchcraft in Ireland went from being a petty crime to one that could find you tied to a stake atop a pyre, with no hope for redemption.
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After the trial
Writing in 1917 in the book The First Execution For Witchcraft in Ireland, William Renwick Riddell states that “William, after a week’s imprisonment, sent to the Bishop asking him to visit him in prison. He did so, and William, stripping himself almost naked, threw himself in the dust before the prelate, asking forgiveness. After a severe lecture, in which he compared the unfortunate prisoner to Lucifer and with the utmost plainness detailed many of his faults, the Bishop forgave him for his offenses against his person, but as to the rest, his excommunication could not be removed until he had made satisfaction to the Church. “
William’s groveling had the desired effect and he received a fairly light sentence. He had to attend mass three times a day for a year, feed the poor and add a new lead roof to St. Canice’s Cathedral. The roof mysteriously collapsed four years later. Some say it was because he added extra weight to the already heavy lead as revenge for his mother’s misfortune. He certainly was seen as less than penitent and was again incarcerated, only to be freed when further minor punishments were doled out to him.
Kyteler’s servant, Petronella de Meath didn’t fare so well, as the servant class lacked connections and there always has to be someone made an example of, even today.
“On this same day was burned Petronilla of Midia, the heretic, one of the accomplices of the said Dame Alice, who after she had been flogged by the Bishop through six parishes for her sorceries, then being in custody, confessed publicly before all the clergy and the people.”
There’s a legend in Kilkenny that as she was tied to the stake in front of where the Tholsel now stands, she cursed the town and vowed her revenge. She was assigned to the flames on November 3, 1324, the first person in Ireland or Britain to be burned at the stake for the crime of heresy.
The women who served under Dame Alice Kyteler managed to avoid being burned alive, but received various punishments from flogging to incarceration and were scattered to various places throughout the island, so they couldn’t work once more in tandem.
Even the sick husband whose suspicions fueled all this wasn’t safe from Bishop Ledrede’s sense of righteous justice. The poor Arnold le Poer recovered but was accused of heresy, excommunicated and died in prison seven years later.
Dame Alice Kyteler, the woman at the center of this controversy wasn’t long for the dungeons of Kilkenny Castle. During the dark of an evening, her guards were beaten senseless and according to popular belief, Dame Alice Kyteler accompanied by her servant’s daughter, Basilia, escaped to Britain, and disappears from history.
Her spirit, along with Petronella is said to still be seen walking the darkened streets of Kilkenny. Alice’s ghost is also been spotted in St. Canice’s Cathedral, climbing the stairs below the western window.
It is the thrill of witches that attract people to tales such as those of Dame Alice Kyteler. What those who deep enough usually find isn’t witchcraft, but history. The knowledge of that history is what convinces us that despite all the advances in science and society, some things never change. We are in fact, still not that far from a medieval mindset.
Some information for this article comes from the work of Bernadette Williams, Trinity College, Dublin.