Posted on: November 21, 2011

  • In: Uncategorized

The history of witchcraft seems to be going through a bit of a revisionist phase at the moment, and not before time I feel.  In recent decades it’s become the fashion to believe that all women persecuted for witchcraft through the ages were innocents, condemned for simply being different.  No doubt that was true for an awful lot of them, who had the sheer misfortune to live at the wrong time in history, or to simply be the odd one out in a small-minded community, the victms of neighbourly jealousy perhaps.  But as recent studies of the Pendle witches, the Salem outbreak, and even Matthew Hopkins’ reign of terror in East Anglia have shown, it was far from as simple as that.  With some so-called witches, the truth wasn’t quite so clear-cut.

Originally I was going to write about the Pendle witches, or the Matthew Hopkins persecutions, but I felt these were already being well-covered at the moment.  Then I chanced to stumble upon the story of Lady Alice Kyteler, the first person to be condemned for witchcraft in Ireland.  Alice is interesting, because whatever the truth about her extraordinary life, it is hard to think of her as an innocent, sympathetic victim.

Alice was born at Kyteler’s House, Kilkenny in 1280, the only child of a Norman family.  By all accounts she had a haughty, overbearing manner which instantly set people against her.  She must have had some alluring attributes though because she went through a whole raft of husbands.  Her first was one William Outlawe, a banker, who died when Alice was barely over the age of 20.  In rapid succession there followed Adam le Blund, with whom she was briefly accused of murdering her first husband (this story can get very confusing!), and Richard de Valle, both of whom didn’t enjoy long in Alice’s marital embrace.  They were widowers, with children from their previous marriages, who disinherited their offspring in favour of Alice.  She was also accused of money-lending.  None of these were things that were likely to win her popularity.

By the age of 44 Alice was on her fourth husband, Sir John Le Poer, who was suddenly struck down with a wasting disease, which caused his hair to fall out, as well as his finger and toe-nails.  The rumour mill went into overdrive.  People were irresistably reminded of the previous three Mr Alice’s, who had also all come to untimely ends.   At first Sir John flatly refused to believe the dark rumours that were being whispered in his ear.  Alice seems to have exerted a fatal charm over her menfolk, who refused to believe anything bad about her.  A maid-servant kept up the whispering campaign though, until even Sir John began to have his doubts.

He demanded the key to her room.  When she refused to give it to him, he wrestled her and snatched it from the belt around her waist.  Inside his wife’s chamber he found a number of padlocked boxes.  Inside was all the evidence Sir John needed to confirm his suspicions that his wife was a dab-hand at the old practice of poisoning.  Equally damning were some papers and sacramental wafers inscribed to Satan.  Sir John sent the whole cache under guard to the Bishop of Ossory.

Unfortunately for Alice, the Bishop was an Englishman called Richard De Ledrede, who was obsessed with hunting down witches and sorcerers.  He had a big incentive in finding Alice guilty, in that if she was he could immediately confiscate all her wealth.  Alice was arrested, along with several accomplices, who included her personal maid, Petronilla de Meath, and her own son, William Outlawe.

Alice’s story became a major cause celebre in the area.  It was rich with dark, salacious details, such as Alice indulging in Black Masses in nearby churches, and sacrificing animals to Satan on country roads.  She was also said to have boiled the flesh of upbaptised babies in the skull of an executed robber.  It must have all been thrilling stuff.  The most shocking revelation of the lot though was that Alice had cavorted with a strange, almost supernatural man called Robert (sometimes listed as Robin) Artisson.  Some even believed that Artisson could manifest himself as a giant black cat.  Alice’s maid, Petronilla, revealed that her mistress often indulged in carnal relations with this odd person.  Tales of a mysterious dark man are not uncommon in these kind of cases.  The Yorkshire prophetess Old Mother Shipton was thought to have been born as the result of an illicit clinch between her mother and a dark man of the woods.  In old Medieval folklore the dark man was usually meant to refer to the Devil.  Artisson was widely thought to have been an Incubus, a male demon which has sexual intercourse with a mortal woman, and according to Wikipedia, Lady Alice’s case is “the first recorded claim of a witch lying with her incubus”.

The Bishop hunted high and low for this elusive man, but failed to snare him.  It is thought that Artisson must have been a wealthy, intelligent man to have slipped the net so successfully.  Even without bringing her lover to book though, it was pretty clear that Alice had murdered her 3 previous husbands, and had been set on nailing the fourth.  She was a greedy woman, obsessed with getting more money.  Like all true psychopaths, she seems to have had no empathy whatsoever for her victims, or even for people generally.  It is said that the only person she truly bonded with was her son, William, whom she initiated into her dark practices.  Rumours abounded that she went out into the streets at sunset with a broom, making sweeping motions, and chanting “To the house of William my son / hie all the wealth of Kilkenny town”.

The evidence for Alice’s guilt was overwhelming, and the Bishop must have thought he had it in the bag.  It wasn’t to be as straightforward as that though.  He didn’t actually have the power to bring her to trial.  Anything to do with witchcraft and sorcery came under the province of the Lord Chancellor of Ireland … who happened to be Roger Outlawe, a relative from her first marriage.  In desperation the Bishop tried to have tried under an ecclesiastical court.  Alice haughtily retorted that no church court had the power to try her.  The Bishop excommunicated her, which I can’t imagine upset her too unduly.

Things now got truly farcical.  Alice’s supporters, including her rich relatives, were enraged at what the Bishop had done and took him captive in Kilkenny Castle!  Meanwhile Alice turned the tables, and said she was suing him for defamation of character!  The Bishop fretted in captivity for 18 days.  When he was released he immediately set about trying to bring her to court again.  Alice though had fled the coop.  She had packed up all her valuables and fled to England.  She left everybody else to face the music, including her own son.  William though begged for mercy and forgiveness.  He was granted this on condition he carried out various penances, and paid for the re-roofing of St Mary’s Cathedral!

Petronilla wasn’t to be so fortunate.  She revealed (under torture it must be said) that Alice had taught her all she knew in the black arts, and that there as no more powerful witch in the whole world than Lady Alice Kyteler.  Petronilla was flogged and burnt at the stake on 3 November 1324.  Alice herself disappears completely from history at this point.  No more is heard of her, and it is presumed that she was free to live out the rest of her days in peace, as long as she stayed away from Ireland.  It is intriguing to speculate where she wound up.  How such a notorious, striking woman could disappear so effectively is baffling.  Did she keep up with her dark ways once she was in England?  Who knows.



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