Witchcraft in Medieval Kilkenny

Kilkenny's medieval witch- Dame Alice Kyteler

Dame Alice Kyteler was born at Kyteler's House, Kilkenny, where her father carried on a banking business, in the year 1280. Her family came to Ireland after the Norman conquest of 1169. When her father died in 1298, Alice, who was an only child, inherited his business and properties.

After his death she married one of his former associates, William Outlawe, who was also a highly successful banker from Coal Market Street and like her father, of Norman stock. This man was the brother of Roger Outlawe, Chancellor of all Ireland, whose position and power could one day play a dramatic part in the saga of witchcraft and heresy for which she would be charged, found guilty and sentenced to death.

William Outlawe was twenty years older than Dame Alice when they married in 1299. She bore a son for him a year later whom they called William junior. Shortly after that, Dame Alice decided to build an addition to their house extending it to Kyron Street ( St Kieran Street) and develop it as an Inn.
She was a good looking, highly sophisticated woman, who could manipulate men to lavish gifts of money and jewels upon her. Because of this, Kyteler's Inn soon became the rendezvous for wealthy men, both young and not so young, who craved for the attention of the alluring Dame Alice.

But there was a darker side which was beginning to manifest itself in rumour and hearsay,of Satanic rites, practiced by their fascinating host. And then William Outlawe died suddenly under mysterious circumstances, it was said that upon forcing open a cupboard in the basement, he had discovered a terrible assortment of ‘Malaficia'- jars and bowls of evil smelling entrails of cocks and eyes of ravens, horrible worms and sprays of deadly night-shade, dead men's hair and fragments of unbaptised babies, cooked in a pot made from the skull of a beheaded thief

Months later, Dame Alice married another banker from Callan, named Adam Le Blont. It is believed she had a daughter by Le Blont whom they called Basilia. In 1310 Dame Alice was once again a widow as Le Blont died after a ‘drinking spree'. As her first husband Outlawe had left her a wealth of money and property, so too did Le Bont leave her all he possessed.

Dame Alice was fast becoming one of the wealthiest women in Kilkenny and if gossip were to be believed, the most wicked woman alive. She had gathered a bevy of young maidens around her to help with the running of the Inn which was the busiest in Kilkenny.

But reports were rife that they were also used as participants in Dame Alice's experiments in demonology. One maiden is particular, pleased her more than all the others. She was named Petronella of Meath. Petronella would eventually pay the ultimate price for her expertise in the art of witchcraft and necromancy.

Dame Alice married her third husband in 1311. He was a wealthy landlord who owned extensive properties in and around Clonmel. His name was Richard De Valle. Richard departed the land of the living long before his appointed time. It seems he grew suddenly ill while in the prime of life and died after a sumptuous supper. He had bequeathed all his land and properties to Dame Alice in his last will and testament. She was now one of the wealthiest persons in the Province of Leinster. Only the Princes of the Church could command greater wealth and resources.

All the while, Dame Alice had been indulging herself deeper and deeper in the art of demonology. Her favourite demon was Robin, Son of Artisson, who was also her lover. And she presided over nightly gatherings at the crossroads where living animals were cruelly dismembered and offered to demons.

A verse from WB Yeats Poem
Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen comes to mind.
There lurches past his great eyes without thought
Under the shadow of straw-pale locks;
Thart insolent Fiend Robert Artisson,
To whom the love-lorn Lady Kyteler brought
Bronze peacock feathers,
red combs of her cocks.

The ‘narrative' is a Latin manuscript which was written during the time of the ‘Kyteler Excommunication'. The manuscript was published in 1843 under the title Contemporary Narrative of the Proceeding Against Dame Alice Kyteler, Prosecuted for Sorcery in, 1324 by Richard de Ledrede, Bishop of Ossary.

Forty pages of close packed print is proof positive of the terrible events that necessitated the inquisition (Harley MS 641 British Museum).

Dame Alice married her fourth husband around the year 1320. This man was also of Norman stock as were his predecessors. John Le Poer had been a constant customer over many years at Kyteler's Inn and had fallen into the snare of Dame Alice's spell, wherefore it was claimed she could infatuate men and bring them to such a state of mind that they gave her all the riches they possessed.

John Le Poer was brother of Arnold Le Poer, Seneschal or Major-domo of Kilkenny. By 1323, John found himself suffering from many different sicknesses. Although he was only middle-aged, he became feeble and slow. His hair fell out in patches and what remained turned silvery grey and his finger nails fell out.

Fearing that it was Dame Alice's doing, he went just before he died to the Friars at Saint Francis's Abbey for help. They in turn contacted Richard de Ledrede, Bishop of Ossory, giving him full account of Dame Alice's coven of witches and her alleged responsibility for the deaths of her four husbands. Also there was the charge that she abjured the faith and claimed that Christ was a mere man who was justly put to death for his own sins.

Richard de Ledrede made every attempt to have this coven of witches arrested but was hindered because they were very influential people. Remember Dame Alice's former brother-in-law was Roger Outlawe, Chancellor of all Ireland.

The Bishop did, however hold an inquisition in 1324, at which she was found, by common aggrement of all the judges, secular and religious, to be guilty of witchcraft and magic, of heresy and of having sacrificed to demons. For all of which she and her faction of sorcerers were excommunicated from Mother Church and their hoods confiscated and they were to be handed over to the secular authority.
But it was, in fact, the Bishop who was arrested and put under lock and key in Kilkenny jail. And there he remained for seventeen days on bread and water. This scandalous treatment, says the “Narrative”, was something unheard of in Ireland until then.

It was only after John Darcy the Lord Chief Justice travelled from Dublin to Kilkenny, that the Bishop was released. Darcy proceeded to examine the facts put before the ‘inquisition' and declared the sentence just and proper. And so the tables were turned once again on Dame Alice.

In those medieval times, for one to be found guilty of witchcraft was a most serious offense and one that carried the sentence of death. Dame Alice and her disciples were condemned to be whipped through the streets, tied at the back of a horse and cart after which Alice, as chief priestess and instigator would be burned to the stake.

But by the political power of the Chancellor of all Ireland, her former brother-in-law Roger Outlawe, her escape was organised. Her guards were beaten senseless and Dame Alice was released from the dungeons beneath Kilkenny Castle and freed from the sentence of death that hung over her.

But her hand-maiden, Petronella of Meath wasn't so lucky. To placate the howling mob that had gathered around the huge bonfire in front of the Tholsel, in the centre of Kilkenny, Petronella would be sacrificed in place of Alice. Already badly shaken from the whippings, she confessed her guilt to everything she was charged with. She told them it was at Dame Alice's instigation she had denied that Jesus Christ was the son of God; also that she had called up demons and received responses from them and performed many abominations of the flesh.

But she rightly claimed that Dame Alice's demonic powers by far exceeded her own and she begged for mercy. Petronella of Meath, was burned alive at the stake before a brutalised, chanting mob, as she screamed in vain for her mistress to come to her aid. But Dame Alice had begun a new life in far off London, never again to set foot in her native Kilkenny.

Courtesy of the Kilkenny People
By Sean Kenny
January 2003