Witchy Women: Alice Kyteler

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Alice Kyteler was an Irish woman whose legacy would endure as the first woman convicted of witchcraft in Ireland. She was brought to trial in 1324

Kyteler was a wealthy woman in her 40’s at the time of the trial. She was born in 1280 in Kilkenny, and she seems to have been the only child of an established family of merchants. Her father was a banker, and Alice seems to have been taught her father’s trade and to have continued it as an adult. It’s likely that this would’ve earned the ire of some townspeople, as money-lending was almost always a male occupation.

Alice Kyteler was married for the first time (of what would be 4 marriages) in 1299 or so, to a much older man than herself, named William Outlawe. The two had a son, William Junior, and the family seemed to be prospering quite well. With the profits from her banking business, Alice built an inn–a very successful one. But William Outlawe died rather suddenly, and not long thereafter Alice Kytler married her second husband, Adam le Blund. In 1302, Kyteler and her new husband were arrested and charged with killing Kyteler’s first husband, but there seems to have been a lack of evidence and the two were let go.

But in any case Alice’s second marriage was a short one, as Adam le Blund died during a drinking spree just a few years after their marriage. Alice Kyteler was married for a third time to a local landowner, Richard de Valle. But if William and Adam had not lasted long, neither did Richard; he died after dinner one night just a few years into his marriage to Alice.

All 3 of the men left Alice their entire estates, and this turned out to be a sticking point for the children Adam le Blund and Richard de Valle both brought to their marriages with Alice Kyteler. Both men had been widowers upon their marriage to Alice, and so two sets of children had been disinherited by her. In addition to the inheritance trouble, there were also accusations that Alice had always favored her biological son William Outlawe above her stepchildren and that he had financially benefited from the deaths of their fathers as well.

Alice Kyteler’s fourth marriage to Sir John le Poer would prove to be her undoing, though. When Sir John became ill in 1324, he began to suspect that he was being poisoned. When he died, the children of Sir John and of Alice’s previous husbands banded together and accused Alice Kyteler of using poison and sorcery against their fathers, of favoring her firstborn son, and of conspiring with followers to deny the Christian faith, sacrifice animals, have intercourse with demons, and blaspheme the holy spirit. These claims were brought before Richard de Ledrede, the Bishop of Ossory.

For Richard de Ledrede, the case presented a prime opportunity both to go on a witch hunt, which he’d been wanting to do, and to put to bed his trouble with the locals, who resented his authority because he was an Englishman. But this turned out to be more difficult than he’d expected. Bishop de Ledrede brought charges against Alice Kyteler, but her influence in the community led instead to two months in the Kilkenny jail for the bishop, who refused to drop the charges. He did at least succeed in having Alice Kyteler excommunicated from the church.

In return, Alice Kyteler threatened to sue Bishop de Ledrede for slander and defamation of character and opined that because Witchysorcery was a secular crime, the church courts did not have jurisdiction over her. The result was a months-long stalemate that was broken when one of Alice’s servants, who had also been accused and imprisoned, was whipped and confessed to witchcraft, implicating Alice and her first-born son in her confession.

Petronella, the servant who had confessed, was burned at the stake for her crimes–the first recorded death of its kind in Ireland. William, Alice’s son, was to make reparations for his crimes by feeding the poor and going to mass 3 times a day for a year. Alice was officially convicted of the crimes brought against her, and she was set to be burned at the stake. But she escaped from captivity, taking Petronella’s daughter with her. From there we don’t know what happened to her.

Legend says that Alice Kyteler escaped to England and lived to old age.

And isn’t it pretty to think so?

*This post is a part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge.
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22 Comments

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  1. I take a certain level of pride in knowing that the witch hunts of Europe largely left Ireland alone. They are very few cases tried in Ireland and even less that resulted in “convictions”.

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    1. Yeah, I find that really interesting. From a geographic perspective, Ireland is so close to so many of the other places experiencing that kind of panic, but it seems to have an entirely different way of operating.

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  2. That’s a lot of husbands! Haha. 🙂 Also, all of these stories about being burned at the stake, trampled by horses and eaten by dogs, and having lashes. I can’t imagine what they must’ve been like!

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    1. She did indeed have a lot of husbands! It’s pretty unlikely, all things considered, that she was innocent of at least her last husband’s death, but goodness only knows about the rest of it!

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    1. It seems to have been in some ways, yes. I think maybe Ireland was just occupied with other problems for a lot of the time that the rest of Europe was hunting witches.

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  3. This whole story is fascinating but I also find it interesting they didn’t just outright convict (or accuse) her of murder but instead went to the trouble of inventing stories and accusing her of witchcraft. Much easier to get a conviction than having to prove murder, I guess.

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    1. I think that’s part of it, but also there was a complex legal system in play. Kyteler was turned loose by a secular authority (her former brother-in-law). But the religious courts were a different system, and so the accusations of witchcraft were the ones that stuck.

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        1. The Bishop tried to have her incarcerated for poisoning, but the secular authority was Kyteler’s former brother-in-law, so she was let go. The religious charges are the ones that stuck because they were in a different court system that she wasn’t as connected to.

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  4. Hi, thanks for your visit. What a really fascinating theme you have, I will have to go back and read your other stories. Personally I don’t believe she did any of it. If you read stuff about the Salem witch trials it talks about how rivalries within the town over land ownership were often the driving force for accusations. It seems to me men have never liked women having economic power and will do anything to undermine them when they do.

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    1. Thank you for your kind comment!

      I think that there might be something to the myths and legends here—it does seem that Kyteler poisoned at least her last husband, as an examination of his body showed signs of it, but I think that in general witchcraft was just a means to an end—even in this case, where rather than being tried for murder she was tried for witchcraft. That has at least a little to do with the complex court systems in Europe at the time, but it’s also clear all the way through Salem, centuries later and miles apart, that there’s a sexual and economic element to witchcraft accusations and trials, and some other hallmarks as well.

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  5. It’s interesting to see such an old example of the serial-killer black widow. When women are kept powerless by social conventions, some will always find a way to exercise their power in malevolent ways, eh?
    @RhondaGilmour from
    Late Blooming Rose

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    1. She is really a fascinating character, and the court records of all that happened are interesting reads. She had all sorts of adventures, it seems, and she had friends in all sorts of places.

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  6. I wonder how much difference they even saw at the time between poison and witchcraft. Given that her fourth husband thought he was being poisoned — and how quickly her other three husbands died — coming to the conclusion that she was killing them all doesn’t seem outlandish, but adding sorcery to the poisoning charges, that part certainly seems odd to modern sensibilities.

    It’s also extremely messed up that the one man convicted just got penance, while the two women were to be burned at the stake. Not surprising, of course, but messed up.

    I just hope Alice did a lot of good turns for Petronella’s daughter, after having (unintentionally) gotten Petronella executed!

    In any case, it’d be interesting to find out just what did happen after she disappeared from the historical record.

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    1. I think perhaps both the complicated legal system at the time (there were separate religious and secular courts, and each held different jurisdictions) and the difference in what we now know about poison and the body are probably both at play in this case.

      And I’m also really interested in what happened afterward, but there seems to be no real way to find out. It’s a mystery.

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  7. I find it interesting that it seemed to be much easier to convict someone (women…) of witchcraft rather than murder (all those husbands dying does seem a bit suspicious). I sure hope Alice escaped to England!!

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    1. It does seem strange, but I suppose that it had to do both with the thought paradigm in place (germs and particles and all sorts of things weren’t even concepts yet) and with the complex legal system at play for this particular case—there was a maze of court systems at the time it seems, both secular and religious, and they each held separate jurisdictions.

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  8. What a fascinating story. I can see it as a big-screen movie with lush sets and costumes to back up the lush and sordid tale. Did she use sorcery? My scientific skeptical heart says, no. Did she manage to have her various husbands killed, through poison or other mundane means? That’s quite possible.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. haha! It does sound like it would make for a good movie.

      I think poison is pretty likely, at least in the case of her 4th husband. There are indications in the court records that his body showed evidence consistent with death by poisoning.

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