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This Halloween special of Unreal deals with the first witch trial in Ireland, and has some mild references to sex and violence.
Welcome to Unreal, a podcast about Irish history, stories and tradition.
When you think of witch trials, how do you picture the witch? Usually when I imagine these regrettable periods in our history, I think of the accused as being the outcasts from society. Old women, friendless and poor, unmarried and reclusive. Defenceless against the frantic, religious mob. But witches defy simplification. The stories are always complex, and the figures are rarely wholly evil, or wholly innocent – they are human, after all. The story of the wealthy and well-connected Alice Kyteler, the first woman to be tried for witchcraft in Ireland, presents another side to those who were accused. And who would have believed that Ireland’s first witch trial would lead to the Bishop himself being arrested? I’m Ruth Atkins, and this is Unreal.
The early Christian church up until about the 10th century was actually pretty tolerant of witchcraft and magic. They denounced it when asked, but they didn’t show the kind of open hostility to it that would come in later years. This was because they were still working to spread their religion and to convert pagan people, who probably wouldn’t have taken kindly to being told that they were worshipping the devil. Instead, as I’ve mentioned on a previous episode, Christian reformers worked to assimilate the rituals and the gods that people already had, into a Christian practice. So, in Ireland, gods like Brid became Saints, and sacred wells with guardian spirits became holy spots for Christian meditation. In the early 10th Century the Church issued a ruling called the Canon Episcopi, which began to draw the lines between the true way of God, and the wicked ways of magic. As the divisions grew in the next couple of centuries, the figure of the Devil began to grow in people’s minds, into a monster who could have personal relations with those who were tempted down the wrong path. And, pretty soon, accusations of witchcraft and heresy became a way to gain the upper hand in political disputes or personal grudges, which spread the trend still further. Gradually, even our understandings of religious texts began to change. Exodus 22:18 translated from Hebrew used to be “Deserved to die was a diviner,” but by 1611, when the King James Bible was published, the preferred translation set the stage for years of magical terror to come: “Thou Shalt Not Suffer A Witch To Live.”
In 1317 Pope John 23rd appointed a man called Richard de Ledrede (or, Richard of Leatherhead) as Bishop of the diocese of Ossory, a medieval kingdom which now consists of County Kilkenny and part of County Laois. Pope John XXII had a marked dread of witchcraft and sorcery. He was quite a paranoid man, and he actually believed that his enemies were modelling supernatural wax dolls of him that they used to cause him harm. The pope released several Papal Bulls, or decrees against magic and the dark arts, calling on inquisitors to act against them. With these statements, he gave religious authority to the rumours of witchcraft which were already spreading around Europe. Heresy and sorcery had now become identifiable, and the punishment for both was the same: death.
The Bishop Richard de Ledrede was English by birth, and previously had been a Franciscan Friar. From the moment he took his seat over Kilkenny, it was clear that a change was about to come to the ways people had been living in the diocese. Ossory had long been troubled by whispers of new forms of religion, murmurings of people looking to go in another direction than the Roman way of Christ. Richard regarded these ideas as Heresy, of the highest order. He sought to purify his diocese, to regain the grandeur and reverence the church had once enjoyed in the locality, and to Make Christianity Great Again, as it were. Although he did not live in the area, he spent large sums in beautifying and repairing St. Canice’s Cathedral, pride of place in Ossory’s religious buildings. Within the first five years of his episcopate he had overseen the construction of a new choir in the cathedral.
When this was created, perhaps he felt it important that he now looked at what the people were singing. The Bishop wrote a collection of Latin hymns to the tune of more popular secular songs, much like modern churches sometimes turn pop songs into hymns today. This was an attempt to dissuade his clergy from tainting their piety by singing irreverent words. He collected his hymns in the Red Book of Ossory, fragments of which can still be seen at St Canice’s Cathedral today. Richard de Ledrede was a man with a mission, to bring about a return to the pure and clean ways of life. One thing was certain – he was not going to let anybody get in the way of his attempts.
At the same time living in Ossory was a wealthy woman named Dame Alice Kyteler. She came from a family of Flemish merchants, who had settled in Kilkenny years before. Dame Alice, was wealthy and well-respected, and she had a lot of power and influence in the area. However, people soon began to grow suspicious of her, because her husbands had a surprisingly difficult time staying alive when they were with her, and at their deaths she tended to be left with very large sums of money and wealth. Alice was first married to a wealthy merchant and moneylender named William Outlaw, with whom she had a son also named William. William Senior took ill and died, and Alice married again, to another money-lender. Things did not go smoothly. In 1302, Alice and her second husband were accused of homicide, of murdering Alice’s first husband. While no lasting punishment was dealt to the pair, just five years later this new husband had also died, leaving possessions to his Alice’s son William. By 1309, Alice had another short-lived husband and at his death, she sued his son and heir for a widow’s dower, claiming a third of his possessions. Alice was married by 1324 to her fourth husband Sir John le Poer, a man who had previously defended Alice against the allegations of murder she had faced in 1302. Now, it’s certainly possible that she was simply very unlucky in love and marriage, but to be honest, even today, four wealthy husbands, three of whom wasted away to early and pretty mysterious deaths, would be likely to arouse suspicion. Things did not look great for Alice. Many of the townsfolk began to whisper that she was using poisons. But her fourth husband, Sir John le Poer, still lived – for the time being.
Women did tend to bear the brunt of accusations of witchcraft. They were considered much more vulnerable to diabolical temptation. The Canon Episcopi, talked about wicked women who were perverted by the devil to follow Diana, a roman goddess of the moon who represented nocturnal female power. Women’s bodies were seen as the inverse of the ideal male form, and women’s thoughts and desires were unstable and menacing. The idea of women gaining too much power was therefore to be feared and prevented, at any cost.
The Bishop de Ledrede continued in his quest to rid his diocese of evil forces. He did not live in the area, but in 1324, he held a personal visitation and inspection of Ossory. There, it came to his attention that accusations of heresy were rumbling, and that Alice Kyteler and those closest to her appeared to be at the centre of them. Alice’s inner circle was an interesting mix of people: there was her dear son William, a clerk named Robert Bristol and various others from a wide section of the social classes – Ellyn and Syssok Galrussyn, William Payn de Boly, Alice Faber, Annota Lange, Eva de Brownstown, and Petronilla of Meath and her daughter Sarah. People began to say that this group had abandoned their faith in the church for an altogether less orthodox set of beliefs. Some of this may have been generated by public disapproval in ALice’s marital life – those who felt Dame Alice had had far too many husbands, dying each of them far too young. But Bishop de Ledrede was suspicious, and he held a canonical inquest, with five knights and a large number of other nobles speaking of the rumours they had heard. It was revealed to the Bishop de Ledrede, at this inquest, that the public believed that the town of Kilkenny was filled with many heretical sorceresses, who practiced magic and went against the church, and that they had been there in the town for a very long time. The name Alice Kyteler appeared to be on the lips of all.
Seven claims of witchcraft were made Alice and her accomplices. They were said to deny faith in Christ, refusing to go into a church, hear mass or take communion. It was said that they performed sorceries and sacrificed living animals to demons in order to seek advice from the devil. They were believed to have no fear of the church’s authority, scoffing at the threat of excommunication when they held their nocturnal meetings. Fifthly, and we’re getting into the gross stuff now, the group was accused of using the skull of an executed thief as a cauldron, in which they would boil up hen’s intestines, herbs and horrible worms, nails cut from dead bodies, buttock hairs, and the clothes of children who had died before being baptized. They created powders ointment from the mixture, selling them as charms and philtres in the area.
The sixth accusation came from the families of Alice’s previous husbands. They accused Alice of using sorcery to murder their fathers, and bewitching them into giving over all their possessions to Alice and her son William. By 1324, her latest husband, Sir John le Poer, was looking worse for wear. He was emaciated, with neither hair nor nails, and he joined in the claims of Alice’s wickedness. Sir John le Poer claimed that he had been given a warning by one of Alice’s maidservants, and had grabbed from his wife’s hands the keys to her private chests. Inside, he found a sack full of vile ingredients, which he brought to two priests to give to the Bishop as evidence. Lastly, and perhaps the most shocking accusation, it was said that Alice had a demon incubus. This demon, the people said, called himself Robin, Son of Art. Sometimes the demon appeared as a cat, sometimes as a shaggy black dog, and sometimes as a man in black. They said that Alice slept with the demon, giving herself, and her possessions him, so that he would aid her in dark deeds. The accusation was clear: Witchcraft.
Richard de Ledrede was horrified when he heard these claims. He wrote to the lord king’s chancellor in Ireland and called for the group to be arrested imediately. But Dame Alice was wealthy, powerful, and well-connected. Although some were speaking out against her, she had many other friends speaking in her defence, and the Bishop didn’t seem to realise just how far her influence extended. The chancellor of Ireland that he wrote to was himself a relation of Alice’s son William, called Roger Outlaw. William Outlaw came to hear about the letter the bishop had written. He quickly set about convincing his relation and other noblemen that he and his mother were innocent. The men wrote to bishop de Ledrede, urging him to abandon or adjourn the case, and the chancellor said that he would not issue a warrant for the arrest until a public prosecution had been held.
Abandoned by these noblemen he had expected would come to his aid, the bishop issued his own citation to Alice, at her and her son’s residence. By the time the citation issuers arrived, Alice had fled her home, and was nowhere to be found.
Roger Outlaw instead sent his clerics to publicly defend Alice, and a proctor appeared in her place for a public excommunication. Meanwhile, Richard de Ledrede set his sights on Alice’s son. William was charged with the crime of heresy, and also with harbouring and protecting heretics. But William was just as quick-thinking and well-connected as his mother, he asked for help from the le Poer family, who had previously defended Alice at her murder accusation. Again, members of this family were in very convenient positions to come to William’s aid. One of them, Stephen le Poer, was the sergeant and bailiff of the area, while Lord Arnold le Poer, chief judge of Kilkenny, intervened personally for William, urging the Bishop to reconsider. When Richard refused, they decided to take more drastic action. Stephen le Poer came up to the Bishop in a public street,and placed him under arrest.
I don’t know for sure what the bishop’s expectations had been when he first called for Alice to be charged. A swift trial, excommunication and burning perhaps? Whatever it was, I’m pretty confident that he did not expect that it would be him who would see the inside of a Kilkenny jail cell! But that is what happened! Bishop Richard de Ledrede was conveyed to the prison at Kilkenny, and remained there for quite some time, until William’s date to appear for trial had passed. Arnold le Poer ordered that no one was to gain access to the Bishop in prison save for one brother for companion, one servant to make the bed and one boy to prepare meals in the kitchen. He also sent a town crier to every market village in the country to announce that if anyone wanted to make a complaint against the Bishop de Ledrede, to go directly to Arnold le Poer. But at appears that nobody did. Maybe they genuinely thought of him as benevolent – or maybe they were terrified of what would happen to them if they attempted to bring any harm to a holy man. During this time, the entire diocese was placed under an interdict, whereby all church services, including baptism, marriage and burial were suspended. So it was that a cold war was emerging between church and the followers of Alice Kyteler, and both sides had the power to bring significant damage to the other. A constable remarked to Judge Arnold Le Poer – “this is a strange, unheard of thing in Ireland, this bishop being a prisoner. We don’t know how it will end up.”
Eventually though, the Bishop secured his release, and he continued his crusade against the Kyteler group with renewed zeal. Upon his release, the bishop posted an edict at the town’s gates and in the church doorway, summoning Alice Kyteler and William Outlaw once again to him. He announced that Alice and her companions must be handed over for judgement, and he posted an edict at the town’s gates and in the church doorway, summoning Alice Kyteler and William Outlaw to him once again. Once again, Alice did not appear.
It’s hard to know what exactly had happened to Alice during this time, but she appears to have made a clean escape from religious or judicial punishment. Perhaps she went into hiding somewhere in Ireland, shielded by one of her many powerful friends. Or perhaps she fled overseas, back to England, or to the home of her Flemish ancestors. Whatever happened, she doesn’t seem to have been harmed by the proceedings against her, but her inner circle were not so lucky.
Eventually, after encountering such a surprising level of resistance, the Bishop de Ledrede was able to claw back support and he continued his campaign against Alice’s accomplices with more success.The bishop ordered an enormous fire be built in the centre of Kilkenny, and he burned the sack full of potions and ingredients which presumably had been found in the chest given in to the inquiry. Then he began to focus on the acquaintances of Alice, one by one. He helped to bring the downfall of the Le Poer family, by helping to coordinate a rebellion by the Fitzthomases, which became known as the Munster War. Arnold le Poer who had assisted William, died in prison, while Roger Outlaw was accused of heresy by the bishop for showing le Poer some kindness after his excommunication. Saddest of all was the fate of Petronilla of Meath, a much more vulnerable figure than Alice herself. Petronilla was whipped six times on his orders, and she was made to confess her sins. She confessed to have been under the influence of Alice, to have totally rejected faith in Christ and the church, and then to a whole host of other sordid crimes, implicating Alice in them. She said she had sacrificed to demons three times on Alice’s behalf. She confessed to have seen Dame Alice have sex with her demon, and claimed that afterwards she had wiped clean “the disgusting place” with sheets from her bed. She also implicated William Outlaw, proclaiming that he had been aware of their actions and had himself worn what she called a “devil’s girdle” around his body for a year and a day. Petronilla was offered the sacrament of penance, but she refused. Following this, she became the first person in Ireland to be burnt at the stake for heresy, on November 3rd 1324, before a vast crowd of people in Kilkenny town.
William Outlaw also confessed to harbouring, aiding and abetting heretics, and was taken to prison at Kilkenny castle. After seven days in prison, he called on the bishop to visit him in his cell. The Bishop de Lededre told him that he could not be absolved from his sentence until he had repaid the church for his offences. But, after some further pleading from William’s connections, Bishop de Ledrede commuted his sentence to a lighter penalty. William was to attend three masses every day for a year, make a visit to the Holy Land, establish a new priest in the diocese at his own expense, and pay for workmen to cover the whole of the cathedral’s chancel from the steeple on the eastern side and chapel of the blessed virgin with lead within four years. You’ll remember the Bishop’s earlier passion for beautifying and restoring the church to glory. It’s likely that this labour and expense in service of beautifying and increasing the cathedral was a welcome method for William to earn his release. When the deal had been made, the bishop de lededre went to the prison and absolved William Outlaw from excommunication, and after William renounced all heresy and sorcery in front of a huge crowd, he was released from iron fetters. He would remain in prison until his vowed restorations were completed. And should he ever be so unwise as to oppose the church or the bishop again, he and his heirs would owe the bishop of Ossory one thousand pounds.
It is not known what specifically happened to the other people of Dame Alice’s circle. Some, an account from the time states, were publicly burnt. Some after a public hearing of their sins had their clothes marked, front and back, with a cross. Some were whipped, Some were exiled or excommunicated. Some though, may have escaped, like Alice Kyteler herself, and were not found.
While it may seem at this point that Bishop Richard de Lededre was the victor in this lengthy battle he was not immune to accusations himself. He was soon accused of heresy himself, recovering royal favour only in 1339, and was accused again 10 years later, both times losing all his possessions as a result of the accusations. His life was embattled until 1356 when he cleared himself of scandal. Four years later he was dead.
So, what should we make of Dame Alice Kyteler? Could she have been a totally innocent victim, who happened to have the connections to make an escape when falseley accused? Could she have been a cunning, manipulative woman, whose political power couldn’t be allowed to go unchecked? Or could she and her followers actually have believed in magic and witchcraft? I think it’s important for us to see an accused witch who, though it’s likely she was not actively evil, was was not the shy and helpless damsel that is so commonly portrayed in accounts of witch trials we hear of today. It is a case too that is markedly political, involving much more finesse and careful maneuvrings than the visions of mob justice and flying accusations that came in witch panics of later centuries. It’s important to remember that accusations of witchcraft happened to people, not to monsters, and not always to innocent symbols of feminine oppression. Over the years layers of political motivations have made it difficult to get a grip on how exactly these stories played out. I think the inability to place Dame Alice’s case in the tidy confines we have of what a witch trial was makes it a very important one for challenging our preconceptions of who an accused witch could be, what the reactions of those around her could become, and what her eventual fate was destined to be.
Thanks for listening to this Halloween episode of Unreal. You can find links to the sources, podcast script, and further reading on the Website, Unrealpodcast.com. The music this week was from Kai Engels on the freemusicarchive.org, and a beautiful church bell recording from freesound.org – links to those on the website as well. If you liked this episode please subscribe or leave a review! And you can also follow Unrealpod on twitter or facebook. I’ll be back with another story in two weeks time, and until then – Oíche shamhna shona duit agus go n-éirí an bóthar leat