Dame Alice Kyteler, the Sorceress of Kilkenny
The history of the proceedings against Dame Alice Kyteler and her confederates on account of their dealings in unhallowed arts is to be found in a MS. in the British Museum, and has been edited amongst the publications of the Camden Society by Thomas Wright, who considers it to be a contemporary narrative. Good modern accounts of it are given in the same learned antiquary’s “Narratives of Witchcraft and Sorcery” in Transactions of the Ossory Archæological Society, vol. i., and in the Rev. Dr. Carrigan’s History of the Diocese of Ossory, vol. i.
Dame Alice Kyteler (such apparently being her maiden name), the facile princeps of Irish witches, was a member of a good Anglo-Norman family that had been settled in the city of Kilkenny for many years. The coffin-shaped tombstone of one of her ancestors, Jose de Keteller, who died in 128—, is preserved at S. Mary’s church; the inscription is in Norman-French and the lettering is Lombardic. The lady in question must have been far removed from the popular conception of a witch as an old woman of striking ugliness, or else her powers of attraction were very remarkable, for she had succeeded in leading four husbands to the altar. She had been married, first, to William Outlawe of Kilkenny, banker; secondly, to Adam le Blund of Callan; thirdly, to Richard de Valle—all of whom she was supposed to have got rid of by poison; and fourthly, to Sir John le Poer, whom it was said she deprived of his natural senses by philtres and incantations.
The Bishop of Ossory at this period was Richard de Ledrede, a Franciscan friar, and an Englishman by birth. He soon learnt that things were not as they should be, for when making a visitation of his diocese early in 1324 he found by an Inquisition, in which were five knights and numerous nobles, that there was in the city a band of heretical sorcerers, at the head of whom was Dame Alice. The following charges were laid against them.
1. They had denied the faith of Christ absolutely for a year or a month, according as the object they desired to gain through sorcery was of greater or less importance. During all that period they believed in none of the doctrines of the Church; they did not adore the Body of Christ, nor enter a sacred building to hear mass, nor make use of consecrated bread or holy water.
2. They offered in sacrifice to demons living animals, which they dismembered, and then distributed at cross-roads to a certain evil spirit of low rank, named the Son of Art.
3. They sought by their sorcery advice and responses from demons.
4. In their nightly meetings they blasphemously imitated the power of the Church by fulminating sentence of excommunication, with lighted candles, even against their own husbands, from the sole of their foot to the crown of their head, naming each part expressly, and then concluded by extinguishing the candles and by crying Fi! Fi! Fi! Amen.
5. In order to arouse feelings of love or hatred, or to inflict death or disease on the bodies of the faithful, they made use of powders, unguents, ointments, and candles of fat, which were compounded as follows. They took the entrails of cocks sacrificed to demons, certain horrible worms, various unspecified herbs, dead men’s nails, the hair, brains, and shreds of the cerements of boys who were buried unbaptized, with other abominations, all of which they cooked, with various incantations, over a fire of oak-logs in a vessel made out of the skull of a decapitated thief.
6. The children of Dame Alice’s four husbands accused her before the Bishop of having killed their fathers by sorcery, and of having brought on them such stolidity of their senses that they bequeathed all their wealth to her and her favourite son, William Outlawe, to the impoverishment of the other children. They also stated that her present husband, Sir John le Poer, had been reduced to such a condition by sorcery and the use of powders that he had become terribly emaciated, his nails had dropped off, and there was no hair left on his body. No doubt he would have died had he not been warned by a maid-servant of what was happening, in consequence of which he had forcibly possessed himself of his wife’s keys, and had opened some chests in which he found a sackful of horrible and detestable things which he transmitted to the bishop by the hands of two priests.
7. The said dame had a certain demon, an incubus, named Son of Art, or Robin son of Art, who had carnal knowledge of her, and from whom she admitted that she had received all her wealth. This incubus made its appearance under various forms, sometimes as a cat, or as a hairy black dog, or in the likeness of a negro (Æthiops), accompanied by two others who were larger and taller than he, and of whom one carried an iron rod.
According to another source the sacrifice to the evil spirit is said to have consisted of nine red cocks, and nine peacocks’ eyes. Dame Alice was also accused of having “swept the streets of Kilkenny betweene compleine and twilight, raking all the filth towards the doores of hir sonne William Outlawe, murmuring secretly with hir selfe these words:
“To the house of William my sonne
Hie all the wealth of Kilkennie towne.”
On ascertaining the above the Bishop wrote to the Chancellor of Ireland, Roger Outlawe, who was also Prior of the Preceptory of Kilmainham, for the arrest of these persons. Upon this William Outlawe formed a strong party to oppose the Bishop’s demands, amongst which were the Chancellor, his near relative, and Sir Arnold le Poer, the Seneschal of Kilkenny, who was probably akin to Dame Alice’s fourth husband. The Chancellor in reply wrote to the Bishop stating that a warrant for arrest could not be obtained until a public process of excommunication had been in force for forty days, while Sir Arnold also wrote requesting him to withdraw the case, or else to ignore it. Finding such obstacles placed in his way the Bishop took the matter into his own hands, and cited the Dame, who was then in her son’s house in Kilkenny, to appear before him. As might be expected, she ignored the citation, and fled immediately.
Foiled in this, he cited her son William for heresy. Upon this Sir Arnold came with William to the Priory of Kells, where De Ledrede was holding a visitation, and besought him not to proceed further in the matter. Finding entreaty useless he had recourse to threats, which he speedily put into execution. As the Bishop was going forth on the following day to continue his visitation he was met on the confines of the town of Kells by Stephen le Poer, bailiff of the cantred of Overk, and a posse of armed men, by whom he was arrested under orders from Sir Arnold, and lodged the same day in Kilkenny jail. This naturally caused tremendous excitement in the city. The place became ipso facto subject to an interdict; the Bishop desired the Sacrament, and it was brought to him in solemn procession by the Dean and Chapter. All the clergy, both secular and religious, flocked from every side to the prison to offer their consolation to the captive, and their feelings were roused to the highest pitch by the preaching of a Dominican, who took as his text, Blessed are they which are persecuted, &c. Seeing this, William Outlawe nervously informed Sir Arnold of it, who thereupon decided to keep the Bishop in closer restraint, but subsequently changed his mind, and allowed him to have companions with him day and night, and also granted free admission to all his friends and servants.
After De Ledrede had been detained in prison for seventeen days, and Sir Arnold having thereby attained his end, viz. that the day on which William Outlawe was cited to appear should in the meantime pass by, he sent by the hands of his uncle the Bishop of Leighlin (Miler le Poer), and the sheriff of Kilkenny a mandate to the constable of the prison to liberate the Bishop. The latter refused to sneak out like a released felon, but assumed his pontificals, and, accompanied by all the clergy and a throng of people, made his way solemnly to S. Canice’s Cathedral, where he gave thanks to God. With a pertinacity we cannot but admire he again cited William Outlawe by public proclamation to appear before him, but before the day arrived the Bishop was himself cited to answer in Dublin for having placed an interdict on his diocese. He excused himself from attending on the plea that the road thither passed through the lands of Sir Arnold, and that in consequence his life would be in danger.
De Ledrede had been arrested by Le Poer’s orders in Lent, in the year 1324. On Monday following the octave of Easter the Seneschal held his court in Kilkenny, to which entrance was denied the Bishop; but the latter, fully robed, and carrying the Sacrament in a golden vase, made his way into the court-room, and “ascending the tribunal, and reverently elevating the Body of Christ, sought from the Seneschal, Justiciary, and Bailiffs that a hearing should be granted to him.” The scene between the two was extraordinary; it is too lengthy to insert, and does not bear to be condensed—suffice it to say that the Seneschal alluded to the Bishop as “that vile, rustic, interloping monk (trutannus), with his dirt (hordys) which he is carrying in his hands,” and refused to hear his arguments, or to afford him any assistance.
Though we have lost sight for a while of Dame Alice, yet she seems to have been eagerly watching the trend of events, for now we find her having the Bishop summoned to Dublin to answer for having excommunicated her, uncited, unadmonished, and unconvicted of the crime of sorcery. He attended accordingly, and found the King’s and the Archbishop’s courts against him to a man, but the upshot of the matter was that the Bishop won the day; Sir Arnold was humbled, and sought his pardon for the wrongs he had done him. This was granted, and in the presence of the council and the assembled prelates they mutually gave each other the kiss of peace.
Affairs having come to such a satisfactory conclusion the Bishop had leisure to turn his attention to the business that had unavoidably been laid aside for some little time. He directed letters patent, praying the Chancellor to seize the said Alice Kyteler, and also directed the Vicar-General of the Archbishop of Dublin to cite her to respond on a certain day in Kilkenny before the Bishop. But the bird escaped again out of the hand of the fowler. Dame Alice fled a second time, on this occasion from Dublin, where she had been living, and (it is said) made her way to England, where she spent the remainder of her days unmolested. Several of her confederates were subsequently arrested, some of them being apparently in a very humble condition of life, and were committed to prison. Their names were: Robert of Bristol, a clerk, John Galrussyn, Ellen Galrussyn, Syssok Galrussyn, William Payn de Boly, Petronilla of Meath, her daughter Sarah, Alice the wife of Henry Faber, Annota Lange, and Eva de Brownestown. When the Bishop arrived in Kilkenny from Dublin he went direct to the prison, and interviewed the unfortunates mentioned above. They all immediately confessed to the charges laid against them, and even went to the length of admitting other crimes of which no mention had been made; but, according to them, Dame Alice was the mother and mistress of them all. Upon this the Bishop wrote letters on the 6th of June to the Chancellor, and to the Treasurer, Walter de Islep, requesting them to order the Sheriff to attach the bodies of these people and put[Pg 36] them in safe keeping. But a warrant was refused, owing to the fact that William Outlawe was a relation of the one and a close friend of the other; so at length the Bishop obtained it through the Justiciary, who also consented to deal with the case when he came to Kilkenny.
Before his arrival the Bishop summoned William Outlawe to answer in S. Mary’s Church. The latter appeared before him, accompanied by a band of men armed to the teeth; but in no way overawed by this show of force, De Ledrede formally accused him of heresy, of favouring, receiving, and defending heretics, as well as of usury, perjury, adultery, clericide, and excommunications—in all thirty-four items were brought forward against him, and he was permitted to respond on the arrival of the Justiciary. When the latter reached Kilkenny, accompanied by the Chancellor, the Treasurer, and the King’s Council, the Bishop in their presence recited the charges against Dame Alice, and with the common consent of the lawyers present declared her to be a sorceress, magician, and heretic, and demanded that she should be handed over to the secular arm and have her goods and chattels confiscated as well. Judging from Friar Clyn’s note this took place on the 2nd of July. On the same day the Bishop caused a great fire to be lit in the middle of the town in which he burnt the sackful of magical stock-in-trade, consisting of powders, ointments, human nails, hair, herbs, worms, and other abominations, which the reader will remember he had received from Sir John le Poer at an early stage in the proceedings.
Further trouble arose with William Outlawe, who was backed by the Chancellor and Treasurer, but the Bishop finally succeeded in beating him, and compelled him to submit on his bended knees. By way of penance he was ordered to hear at least three masses every day for the space of a year, to feed a certain number of poor people, and to cover with lead the chancel of S. Canice’s Cathedral from the belfry eastward, as well as the Chapel of the Blessed Virgin. He thankfully agreed to do this, but subsequently refused to fulfil his obligations, and was thereupon cast into prison.
What was the fate of Dame Alice’s accomplices, whose names we have given above, is not specifically recorded, except in one particular instance. One of them, Petronilla of Meath, was made the scapegoat for her mistress. The Bishop had her flogged six times, and under the repeated application of this form of torture she made the required confession of magical practices. She admitted the denial of her faith and the sacrificing to Robert, son of Art, and as well that she had caused certain women of her acquaintance to appear as if they had goats’ horns. She also confessed that at the suggestion of Dame Alice she had frequently consulted demons and received responses from them, and that she had acted as a “medium” (mediatrix) between her and the said Robert. She declared that although she herself was mistress of the Black Art, yet she was as nothing in comparison with the Dame from whom she had learnt all her knowledge, and that there was no one in the world more skilful than she. She also stated that William Outlawe deserved death as much as she, for he was privy to their sorceries, and for a year and a day had worn the devil’s girdle round his body. When rifling Dame Alice’s house there was found “a wafer of sacramental bread, having the devil’s name stamped thereon instead of Jesus Christ, and a pipe of ointment wherewith she greased a staffe, upon which she ambled and galloped through thicke and thin, when and in what manner she listed.” Petronilla was accordingly condemned to be burnt alive, and the execution of this sentence took place with all due solemnity in Kilkenny on 3rd November 1324, which according to Clyn fell on a Sunday. This was the first instance of the punishment of death by fire being inflicted in Ireland for heresy.
Whether or not Petronilla’s fellow-prisoners were punished is not clear, but the words of the anonymous narrator show us that the burning of that unfortunate wretch was rather the beginning than the end of persecution—that in fact numerous other suspected persons were followed up, some of whom shared her terrible fate, while to others milder forms of punishment were meted out, no doubt in proportion to their guilt. He says: “With regard to the other heretics and sorcerers who belonged to the pestilential society of Robin, son of Art, the order of law being preserved, some of them were publicly burnt to death; others, confessing their crimes in the presence of all the people, in an upper garment, are marked back and front with a cross after they had abjured their heresy, as is the custom; others were solemnly whipped through the town and the market-place; others were banished from the city and diocese; others who evaded the jurisdiction of the Church were excommunicated; while others again fled in fear and were never heard of after. And thus, by the authority of Holy Mother Church, and by the special grace of God, that most foul brood was scattered and destroyed.”
Sir Arnold le Poer, who had taken such a prominent part in the affair, was next attacked. The Bishop accused him of heresy, had him excommunicated, and committed prisoner to Dublin Castle. His innocency was believed in by most people, and Roger Outlawe, Prior of Kilmainham, who also figures in our story, and who was appointed Justiciary of Ireland in 1328, showed him some kindness, and treated him with humanity. This so enraged the Bishop that he actually accused the Justiciary of heresy. A select committee of clerics vindicated the orthodoxy of the latter, upon which he prepared a sumptuous banquet for his defenders. Le Poer died in prison the same year, 1331, before the matter was finally settled, and as he was under ban of excommunication his body lay unburied for a long period.
But ultimately the tables were turned with a vengeance. De Ledrede was himself accused of heresy by his Metropolitan, Alexander de Bicknor, upon which he appealed to the Holy See, and set out in person for Avignon. He endured a long exile from his diocese, suffered much hardship, and had his temporalities seized by the Crown as well. In 1339 he recovered the royal favour, but ten years later further accusations were brought to the king against him, in consequence of which the temporalities were a second time taken up, and other severe measures were threatened. However, by 1356 the storm had blown over; he terminated a lengthy and disturbed episcopate in 1360, and was buried in the chancel of S. Canice’s on the north side of the high altar. A recumbent effigy under an ogee-headed canopy is supposed to mark the last resting-place of this turbulent prelate.
In the foregoing pages we have only given the barest outline of the story, except that the portions relative to the practice of sorcery have been fully dealt with as pertinent to the purpose of this book, as well as on account of the importance of the case in the annals of Irish witchcraft. The story of Dame Alice Kyteler and Bishop de Ledrede occupies forty pages of the Camden Society’s publications, while additional illustrative matter can be obtained from external sources; indeed, if all the scattered material were gathered together and carefully sifted it would be sufficient to make a short but interesting biography of that prelate, and would throw considerable light on the relations between Church and State in Ireland in the fourteenth century. With regard to the tale it is difficult to know what view should be taken of it. Possibly Dame Alice and her associates actually tried to practise magical arts, and if so, considering the period at which it occurred, we certainly cannot blame the Bishop for taking the steps he did. On the other hand, to judge from the analogy of Continental witchcraft, it is to be feared that De Ledrede was to some extent swayed by such baser motives as greed of gain and desire for revenge. He also seems to have been tyrannical, overbearing, and dictatorial; according to him the attitude adopted by the Church should never be questioned by the State, but this view was not shared by his opponents. Though our sympathies do not lie altogether with him, yet to give him his due it must be said that he was as ready to be persecuted as to persecute; he did not hesitate to face an opposition which consisted of some of the highest in the land, nor did fear of attack or imprisonment (which he actually suffered) avail to turn him aside from following the course he had mapped out for himself.
It should be noticed that the appointment of De Ledrede to the See of Ossory almost synchronised with the elevation of John XXII to the Papacy. The attitude of that Pope towards magical arts was no uncertain one. He believed himself to be surrounded by enemies who were ever making attempts on his life by modelling images of him in wax, to be subsequently thrust through with pins and melted, no doubt; or by sending him a devil enclosed in a ring, or in various other ways. Consequently in several Bulls he anathematised sorcerers, denounced their ill-deeds, excited the inquisitors against them, and so gave ecclesiastical authorisation to the reality of the belief in magical forces. Indeed, the general expressions used in the Bull Super illius specula might be applied to the actions of Dame Alice and her party. He says of certain persons that “they sacrifice to demons and adore them, making or causing to be made images, rings, &c., with which they draw the evil spirits by their magical art, obtain responses from them, and demand their help in performing their evil designs.”
Heresy and sorcery were now identified, and the punishment for the former was the same as that for the latter, viz. burning at the stake and confiscation of property. The attitude of this Pontiff evidently found a sympathiser in Bishop de Ledrede, who deemed it necessary to follow the example set by the Head of the Church, with what results we have already shown: thus we find in Ireland a ripple of the wave that swept over Europe at this period.
It is very probable, too, that there were many underlying local causes of which we can know little or nothing; the discontent and anger of the disinherited children at the loss of the wealth of which Dame Alice had bereft them by her exercise of “undue influence” over her husbands, family quarrels, private hatreds, and possibly national jealousy helped to bring about one of the strangest series of events in the chequered history of Ireland.