Dame Alice Kyteler – Kilkenny’s Medievel Witch

Dame Alice Kyteler was born at Kyteler’s House, Kilkenny in 1280 to wealthy Norman parents. Forty-four years later, in 1324, she fled to England to escape being burned as a witch and in July of that year, her property, including Kytelers Inn was confiscated.

In the intervening years Dame Alice had married four times, had been Mistress of Kytelers Inn and had become a central figure in a battle between the Church and the Temporal Power in Ireland.

Her first husband was one of her father’s former associates, William Outlawe, who was also a highly successful banker from Coal Market St 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 also called William. 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 the attention of Dame Alice.

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 in particular, pleased her more than all the others. She was named Petronella de Meath. Petronella would eventually pay the ultimate price for her expertise in the art of witchcraft and necromancy.

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

It was the fourth husband of Dame Alice, however, who unwittingly began a chain of events that would lead to Alice being convicted on charges on witchcraft before an ecclesiastical court. Some years after his marriage to Alice, landowner Sir John de Poer showed signs of illness. His hair and nails fell out and he became weak and sickly. Shortly before he succumbed to death, he changed his Will to the benefit of Alice and her son William, an act which resulted in anger and resentment among his other family members. Armed with rumours (which may have been false and inspired by local jealousy), they brought charges of witchcraft and sorcery against Alice before the English-born Franciscan Bishop of Ossory, Richard de Lederer. They claimed that Alice had ‘bewitched’ her husband and forced him to change his Will. His Lordship convened a Court of Inquisition which included five Knights and several Noblemen which heard evidence that Alice headed a coven of witches and had sex with a demon called Artissen, who is sometimes depicted as Aethiops, the mythical founder of Ethiopia.

What followed next was a legal and political battle in which Bishop Lederer tried, but failed, to get the Temporal Authority to arrest and condemn Alice, her son William Outlawe and several of her friends and servants. The Bishop was himself arrested and imprisoned in Kilkenny jail, but on his release he continued his campaign, demanding that Alice appear before him. She wisely refused and promptly left for England, returning a year later to Dublin where she urged the Archbishop to condemn the Bishop of Ossory for unlawfully excommunicating her. A showdown between the Commissioner and Bishop Lederer took place in Dublin and ended with the Bishop returning to Kilkenny from where he demanded that Alice be arrested. She heard about the request and promptly returned to England.

The Kilkenny Witchcraft Trials did however take place. William Outlawe was convicted and ordered by Bishop Lederer to attend three Masses every day and to give alms to the poor. This light sentence was in sharp contrast to the torture meted out to less wealthy friends of Alice, including her maid Petronella de Meath who was flogged and burned at the stake.

By the political power of the Chancellor of all Ireland, Dame Alice’s former brother-in-law Roger Outlawe, her escape was organised, to begin a new life in far off London, never again to set foot in her native Kilkenny.

Image: ‘Alice’, wall painting by Mick Minogue on St Kieran’s St, Kilkenny, RicardMN Photography

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