Dame Alice Kyteler, a woman of means who lived in early-fourteenth-century Kilkenny, Ireland, was the first woman officially accused of witchcraft in Ireland. She’d been married four times, which was a bit unusual in a day and age when women often died in childbirth, and it was men who could be expected to marry multiple times. She was accused of witchcraft by her step-children, when her fourth and last husband, Sir John le Poer died, leaving Dame Alice and her son from her first marriage, property in his will, as had all her husbands before him. But did she really practice witchcraft? The common assumption seems to be ‘She was probably just a heartless gold-digger who married and murdered her husbands for their money.’ The explanation I gleaned from the yes-and-no stones about her actions was certainly more complicated than that facile dismissal.
DAME ALICE KYTELER’S LIFE HISTORY
According to Wikipedia, Dame Alice Kyteler was born at Kyteler’s Hall(now, Kyteler’s Inn) in Kilkenny, Ireland in the year 1263, although another source states she was born in 1280. I’ve seen two different accounts about her parentage. One says she was the only child of Flemish merchants who settled in Ireland in the mid-thirteenth century, another, the only child of a pair of Anglo-Norman moneylenders. The point is, she was a woman who had been born into some degree of wealth. At some point in her youth, it appears Kyteler’s Hall was turned into an inn, and Alice, being the innkeeper’s daughter, became a known figure in town. While still a teenager she married William Outlawe, a merchant and moneylender in Kilkenny, Ireland who’d been a business associate of her father’s and was twenty years older than her. The marriage produced one child, a son, William Outlawe Jr. Her first husband, William Outlawe Sr. died about five years later. Of course, he left all his money and property to his son and his widow.
Sometime thereafter, no word on how long after William Outlawe’s death, she married a second time to Adam le Blund of Callan, Ireland, another moneylender. Alice and le Blund were briefly accused in 1302 of conspiring to murder her first husband, William Outlawe, but it appears nothing came of it. It’s not reported how long after this accusation Adam le Blund died, but it must’ve been sometime in the next several years. Le Blund and left his entire fortune to William Outlawe Jr. (who, by 1305, was Mayor of Kilkenny, according to Wikipedia), leaving le Blund’s children by an earlier marriage out of the picture.
By 1309, possibly earlier, Alice Kyteler was married to her third husband, Richard de Valle, a wealthy landowner in County Tipperary. After his death circa 1316, he left half his estate to William Outlawe Jr., and half to his son by an earlier marriage, Richard de Valle Jr. I’ve heard two different reports about the legal wrangling over Richard de Valle’s estate. One said Richard de Valle Jr. had to take Alice Kyteler to court because she wasn’t handing over his share of his father’s estate, another account said it was Alice Kyteler who had to take Richard de Valle Jr. to court because he wouldn’t hand over her widow’s dower, the portion of a husband’s estate set aside in the event a man predeceases his wife. Whatever the case was, it appears her third marriage left another stepchild with a reason to resent her.
Shortly after Richard de Valle Sr.’s death, Alice married her fourth husband, Sir John le Poer (which is where her title of ‘Dame’ came from). This marriage appears to have been uneventful until the year 1324, when John le Poer fell ill, and he expressed his suspicion to somebody that he was being poisoned. When he died not long afterward, leaving his estate to his wife and step-son William Outlawe Jr., the step-children rebelled. They filed an accusation of witchcraft against Dame Alice Kyteler with Richard Ledrede, Bishop of Ossory. The accusation contained seven charges, one of which was that she murdered all her husbands. (See Wikipedia for the other bizarre charges). By this point in her life Dame Alice was known to be very rich, having been born into money, and each husband leaving her richer than the husband before. And she was also apparently involved in the moneylending business, so it’s fair to speculate envy, resentment and vindictiveness may have motivated the charges.
Now Richard Ledrede, the Bishop of Ossory, was a Real Piece of Work. A religious fanatic and control freak, hell-bent on purity and godliness in his diocese, he also had a bee under his miter about witchcraft in particular. He zealously pursued the charge of witchcraft against Dame Alice. Witchcraft at this time wasn’t considered a big problem like it would be in the succeeding three centuries, but Ledrede was apparently a man ahead of his time. Dame Alice had a couple of politically-powerful brothers-in-law, who appear to have been genuinely fond of Alice. They threw every possible roadblock in Ledrede’s way that they could, but Ledrede overcame each one of them in his obsession to try Dame Alice for witchcraft.
Dame Alice Kyteler fled Ireland in 1324 with Basilia, the daughter of her personal maid Petronella de Meath, when all her powerful connections could no longer protect her from Ledrede’s wrath. At that point, Dame Alice vanishes from the story, although Richard Ledrede continued being a PITA to William Outlawe Jr. The Kyteler family property in Ireland was seized by the authorities after she fled. Ledrede arrested Petronella and had her tortured until she confessed to witchcraft, and to having witnessed her mistress committing witchcraft. Petronella was burnt at the stake on November 3, 1324. These are the basic facts of Alice Kyteler’s story.