By Bernadette Williams
History Ireland, Issue 4 (1994)
In 1324, Richard Ledrede, bishop of Ossory, declared that his diocese was a hotbed of devil worshippers. The central figure in this affair was Alice Kyteler, a wealthy Kilkenny woman who stood accused of witchcraft by her stepchildren. It was the first witchcraft trial to treat the accused as heretics and the first to accuse a woman of having acquired the power of sorcery through sexual intercourse with a demon, features which later became common in the famous witchcraft trials of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was also the occasion for a major confrontation between secular and ecclesiastical authority. In theory the state claimed control over the materiallife of its subjects and the church over the spiritual life. While this principal of separation was acknowledged by both parties the dividing line was often disputed as each jealously and zealously guarded their own rights in their separate law courts.
The Kytelers were a family of Flemish merchants who had settled in Kilkenny, probably in the area known as Flemingstown, sometime during the mid thirteenth century. In 1280 Alice Kyteler married William Outlaw, a wealthy Kilkenny merchant and moneylender, by whom she had a son, also called William, subsequently her chief business partner; wives and mothers of medieval merchants frequently participated in the family business. He was declared an adult in 1303 and was at one point the sovereign or mayor of Kilkenny. By 1302 Alice was already married to her second husband, Adam Ie Blund of Callan, another moneylender. Alice and Adam were evidently prosperous: in 1303 William Outlaw declared he was guarding £3,000 of their money, an indication of the measure of medieval trade in Kilkenny and the highly profitable nature of money lending (a day’s wage for a labourer was one to oneand- a-half pennies). In 1307 Adam Ie Blund quit-claimed to his stepson William Outlaw, i.e. handed over all his goods, chattels, jewels, etc. and cancelled any debts owed to him by William. As Adam Ie Blund had children of his own we can begin to understand why accusations were later brought against Alice by her stepchildren. By 1309 Alice had already married her third husband, Richard de Valle, a wealthy Tipperary landowner and again her son William Outlaw benefited financially from the marriage. Some time before 1316 Richard de Valle died and Alice took legal proceedings against her stepson, also called Richard de Valle, for withholding her widow’s dower. By 1324, when she was accused of witchcraft, Alice had acquired a fourth husband, the knight Sir John Ie Poer.
See also: Were there heretics in medieval Ireland?