history

My Favorite Witch Trial

I watch a lot of weird stuff on Youtube.

Usually that weird stuff is history related, and last weekend was no exception.

Also, if you haven’t figured it out by now, I have a pretty morbid sense of curiosity. I’ve been fascinated by witch trials since middle school, but everyone likes to focus on the Salem witch trials, or on King James I/King James II and how he made it trendy to hunt for and execute witches (long story, whole other post).

So I was super excited when I learned about a case I’d never heard of: Alice Kyteler.

Grab some popcorn and buckle up, because this saga reads like Law and Order: 1324.

How it began

Alice was an Irishwoman in the late 1200s, and her case is one of the first on record of a woman being accused of witchcraft.

She was extraordinary almost from the start. The daughter of Flemish merchants who settled in County Killkenny, Ireland, she was an only child. Contrary to popular belief, women in the Medival period could own and inherit property and businesses, so when her father died she inherited everything.

She married four times. Her first two husbands were both money lenders (The first one, William Outlaw, was a friend of her father’s), so she wasn’t exactly hurting for cash. In addition, just after her fist son (also William) was born, she built an addition onto the house and turned it into an inn.

Shortly after she married her second husband, Adam le Blund, the pair were accused of murdering William Outlaw Sr, but the accusations never went anywhere. In 1307, after about 4 years of marriage, he transferred all his property to Alice’s son, William, cutting off all his children from his previous marriage.

By the time Alice married le Bund, William was already an adult. At one point he was elected mayor of the town, and was quite a personality in his own right. He also became his mother’s business partner.

Husband number three was Richard Valle. After he died around 1316, leaving everything to his son, Alice sued for her widow’s dower and won.

Soon after, she married her 4th and final husband (that we know of). Shortly before he died in 1324 he began to suspect he was being poisoned. Oddly, despite these suspicions one of his last acts was to change his will, leaving all his property to Alice and William. After he died, Alice’s step children by her previous husbands accused her of the murders of all four men. Eventually the charges expanded to include heracy, animal sacrifice to demons at crossroads, breaking into churches to perform black magic, using magic to control Christians, and having a familiar.

Legal troubles

Kilkenny Cathedral, seat of Catholic Bishop 13th century.  (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Kilkenny Cathedral, seat of Catholic Bishop 13th century. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Bishop of Ossory, Richard de Ledrede, was placed in charge of the trial. He was exactly the type of obsessive personality the church liked in their witch hunts, the Cotton Mather of his day. He saw witchcraft as one of the key elements threatening the church and was determined to stamp it out at all costs. He’d led an inquisition in Avignon, France, (yes, that kind of inquisition), which was the seat of the Papacy. In fact, Ledrede’s patron was none other than the pope himself (John XXII, who was notoriously terrified of sorcery and witchcraft and convinced witches were trying to assassinate him with magic).

There was a law at the time that compelled secular authorities to bow to the forces of the church in certain circumstances (basically, imposing the Inquisition though law Ut inquisitionis). The Bishop tried to enforce this law, but unfortunately the man he had to appeal to was the Chancellor of Ireland, Roger Utlagh. As Utlagh is Irish for Outlaw, it’s a pretty good guess that the chancellor was Alice’s brother-in-law, by her first husband, and thus the uncle of the son she was accused of committing all of these acts to benefit.

Utlagh hemmed and hawed, and was able to delay the bishop long enough for Alice to escape. He did this by bringing up all the legal red tape he could find, including dredging up a law that stated the accused had to be excommunicated for 40 days before she could be arrested, and a public trial had to be held. Ledrede ignored this and summoned Alice to his residence. Instead, she fled to Utlagh’s. He sent a representative to speak for her on the appointed day. In response, Ledrede then accused the chancellor of harboring a heretic. Eventually, the full list of charges against Alice and her protectors included:

  • Committing heresy
  • Sacrificing to demons
  • Communing with demons
  • Magically excommunicating/usurping the church
  • Making love and hate potions to corrupt Christians
  • Murdering her past husbands
  • Engaging in a sexual affair with a demon

But here is the best part: Now in her sixties, Alice was a fixture in the community. She and Utlagh sued for defamation of character, and won. The bishop spent 17 days in jail! When the sheriff came to arrest him, the bishop didn’t argue. He did, however, keep the warrant and displayed his own papers stating he had the power of the inquisition. When the seneschal, Sir Arnold Ie Poer, a good friend of William’s, refused to back down, the bishop went with him quietly. He did not post bail, insisting it would be an admission that le Poer had a authority over him, which legally he did not.

This move by Outlaw and Arnold Ie Poer was incredibly risky, and could have brought the Pope himself into the case. However, the arrest was enough to buy Outlaw enough time for his own trial, which was set to occur during the 17 days Ledrede spent in prison.

It also may have backfired slightly. It was customary that when a person was arrested, a crier would go out to announce it, so that anyone with a claim against the person could file it with the authorities. Clergy and parishioners flocked to the prison to see Ledrede, showing their support.

When the bishop was arrested, he placed his diocese into interdict, which means no marriages, baptisms, or burials could take place until it was lifted. During a period when religion and superstition were twined together and ruled the daily life of everyone in Ireland and most of Europe, this was a very savvy move on his part, turning public opinion against Alice and William. If nothing else, Ledrede was a master of PR.

When he was finally released, he marched out in full regalia with a procession behind him. Once gain, he summoned Alice and her son, but before the appointed day he received a message from his superior, the vicar of the archbishop of Dublin, ordering him to appear in Dublin to explain himself: Not only why he’d been arrested, but why he’d effectively frozen all spiritual activity in the area for three weeks, as the interdict had not yet been lifted.

Ledrede wrote a letter, saying he didn’t feel safe going to Dublin, which would mean traveling through Arnold le Poer’s lands, the same man who had brought the complaint against him to the archbishop. His excuse was denied, and the archbishop had the interdict lifted.

The bishop now had another branch to the ever-growing feud. Accompanied by dozens of monks, he showed up at court to challenge le Poer publicly. The seneschal tried to have him ejected and Ledrede once again showed his powers over a crowd, shaming le Poer in the name of the church and demanding the arrests of Alice and William. Because he was holding the Host at the time (a representation of Christ, basically) to have him forcibly removed would be construed as an attack on the church and the pope. The seneschal had no choice but wait for him to leave of his own will.

Things heat up

Eventually the bishop and le Poer were called to Dublin to try to settle the matter. Le Poer appealed to his fellow Irishmen:

As you well know, heretics have  never been found in Ireland, which has always been called the ‘Island of Saints’. Now this foreigner comes from England and says we are all heretics and excommunicates … Defamation of this country affects everyone of us, so we must all unite against this man’.

This was too little, too late, however. The public was already on Ledrede’s side, incensed at the idea of attacks on a bishop and the church. Sensing things were about to go very, very wrong, Alice fled to England, where she vanishes from contemporary records.

But the Bishop was not to be deterred. Denied his quarry, he turned his sights on Petronella de Meath, one of Alice’s household servants. Petronella was tortured, confessing to witchcraft and telling all sorts of stories about her former employer and her “dark deeds.” Though this confession was likely false,* and given with only the intent of stopping the torture, it was considered admissible in court. Petronella was found guilty and burned at the stake, the first person in Ireland to receive such a fate.

Petronella was beaten and burned on November 3, 1324. Her daughter, Basilia, joined Alice in her escape, though Alice’s son, William Outlaw, remained behind. He was charged with being his mother’s accomplice, among other accusations. He “recanted” (aka, confessed to witchcraft and promised never to do it again). He was arrested but his powerful friends force the bishop to commute his sentence, and he was released, sentenced to 3 masses a day for a year and to feed the poor. A pretty light sentence, considering that happened to Petronella and what would have happened to Alice, but he failed to follow through and was arrested again.

William, perhaps finally realizing that he wasn’t going to get out of this mess no matter how many powerful friends he had, appealed to the bishop. Ledrede came to visit him in prison and in front of a crow Outlaw prostrated himself in the mud to beg for forgiveness. His penance was increased to include a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and also increased the amount of lead for the roof of the cathedral he had to pay for. In what might be considered an act of divine retribution for the ugly legal battle, the roof of St. Canice’s collapsed under the weight of all the lead.

Conclusion

It’s worth noting that Alice had several advantages, which all worked to saving her life. First of all, she was rich. She could bribe people, pay for passage and supplies on short notice, and presumably there were people who owed her favors or money that she could go to for assistance.

Second, she was connected. She had friends and family through all four husbands, her son, and her own business. She had a safety net she could fall back on.

And third, because her trial was the first of it’s kind in Ireland, she didn’t have precedent working against her.

Kytelers Inn as it stands today (Marcus Meissner / Flickr)
The modern Kytelers Inn.

By comparison, the victims of the Salem witch trials were, for the most part, poor women with few connections, little to no family, and were often outsiders in some way–the disabled, the widowed, servants, immigrants, people of color, or just plain weren’t well liked. This made them easy targets. Also, by the 1690s, there were 300 years of witch trials prosecutors could look to. In addition, the spectral evidence (i.e. the stuff Anne Putnam and her friends “saw” that no one else could see, such as familiars, demons, and astral projections) were not usually permitted in courts of law, even in the 1600s.

Alice was a wealthy, prosperous woman with power in the community. This means that there were probably also a lot of people who disliked her. Witchcraft charges were an easy way to get rid of an inconvenient woman in this period, and we see it repeatedly, especially in cases where a great deal of money is at stake.

Today, Kyteler house is a pub/inn, with a haunted reputation, though that may be as false as the witchcraft charges. While I highly doubt Alice was breaking into churches or sacrificing chickens to the devil…there are a lot of suspicious deaths in her past, all of which she benefited from. Serial poisoner might be a better title for her than witch.

 

*Today, it’s widely suspected that Petronella’s confession, if not completely false given to the torture, was the result of ergot poisoning, which was common at the time. Sound familiar? Ergot is also the suspected culprit behind the Salem trials. Caused by consuming moldy grain, it has symptoms similar to LSD and causes the victim to see horrible visions and monsters.

 

Further reading:

Wiki
Kyteler’s Inn website
The Sorcery Trial of Alice Kyteler
Ancient Origins: Alice Kyteler
Further details on the trial

 


Like what you see? Check out The Creepiest Dolls in History.