Lady Alice Kyteler Is Found Guilty of Witchcraft Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Kyteler’s trial for witchcraft marks a transition by church and government authorities from prosecutions that pursued heresy to prosecutions and executions for witchcraft.

Summary of Event

During most of the Middle Ages, witches and witchcraft were not significant concerns. Religious leaders usually maintained that witches did not really exist—people who thought they were practicing magic were thought to be simply deceiving themselves or being fooled by the devil. A superstitious belief in the efficacy of charms and the dangers of certain spirits remained among many common people, but such ideas were no threat to established faith. [kw]Lady Alice Kyteler Is Found Guilty of Witchcraft (July 2, 1324) [kw]Kyteler Is Found Guilty of Witchcraft, Lady Alice (July 2, 1324) Kyteler, Lady Alice Witchcraft Ireland;July 2, 1324: Lady Alice Kyteler Is Found Guilty of Witchcraft[2710] Cultural and intellectual history;July 2, 1324: Lady Alice Kyteler Is Found Guilty of Witchcraft[2710] Laws, acts, and legal history;July 2, 1324: Lady Alice Kyteler Is Found Guilty of Witchcraft[2710] Religion;July 2, 1324: Lady Alice Kyteler Is Found Guilty of Witchcraft[2710] Kyteler, Lady Alice Outlaw, William Petronilla of Meath Arnold le Poer Richard de Ledrede

Unlike imaginary witches, however, Church officials had faced a real threat in the rise of heresies. Heresy Heresy;Church and was a denial of faith in Christ and a rejection of the hierarchy of the Church and its professed dogmas and doctrines. Heretical groups began to grow during the twelfth century. Some heretics, like the Waldensians Waldensians , preached a radical extremism in Christian poverty. Others, like the Catharists Catharists (or Albigensians), created an alternative religion to Christianity, believing in a dualistic conflict of good and evil. To eliminate these dangerous heretics, medieval authorities used the orders of Franciscans and Dominicans to preach against them, but they also attacked them with crusades and the Inquisition (mid-1100’s through thirteenth century). By the fourteenth century, the Waldensians had been driven to the harmless margins of society, while the Catharists had been wiped out entirely.

In the course of these persecutions, the dominant Christian church Church;persecution of heretics had blamed many fantastic and impossible crimes on the heretics. Indeed, any resistance to established political or social authorities, as well as mere eccentric divergence from social norms, could be labeled as heresy and prosecuted by the evolving legal machinery. As actual heretics disappeared, however, a new scapegoat appeared: witches. The trial of Alice Kyteler illustrates this transition.

The roots of Kyteler’s trial lie in a conflict over confusing jurisdictions of church and state. The king of England ruled Ireland through officials such as seneschals, but bishops there controlled certain courts and sought to protect and expand their properties and governance. In 1317, when Bishop Richard de Ledrede Ledrede, Richard de took possession of his diocese of Ossory in Ireland, he began to have difficulties with the locals. The Irish resented him because he was a foreigner of English birth who had spent much time in France. Instead of being appointed by the king of England, he had been provided by Pope John XXII. Furthermore, a famine and political unrest continued through the 1320’s in the aftermath of a failed Scottish invasion.

In the ongoing troubles over land, revenues, and authority, Ledrede ran into trouble with the royal seneschal, Arnold le Poer. Poer, Arnold le Without the support of the English king and without much local support among the powerful and wealthy, the prelate may have decided to strike at le Poer through his friend and ally, Lady Alice Kyteler.

Kyteler herself had a rather spotty past. In 1302, she had been briefly accused of murdering her first husband, William Outlaw, Outlaw, William with the complicity of the man who became her second husband. She and her husbands were also involved in moneylending, which aroused resentment. By 1324, her fourth husband, a relative of le Poer, was deathly ill.

Kyteler’s stepchildren and her sick husband chose this moment to bring complaints to Ledrede, possibly because she was arranging for her property to pass to her son, William Outlaw (named after his father, Kyteler’s first husband). Ledrede had probably learned of contemporary fears of heresy and sorcery during his time at the papal court and from members of his religious order, the Franciscans. The bishop brought charges of heresy against Kyteler, her son, three other men, and seven other women.

Ledrede first accused Kyteler of a heresy. Heresy;England Other charges, however, were not typical of heresy but of witchcraft. Kyteler and her associates were indicted for sacrificing animals to a demon, magically excommunicating their husbands, and using the skull of a robber to mix magical ointments made from worms, hairs from buttocks, and clothing from unbaptized baby boys. These charms allegedly caused people to love or hate or even kill. Kyteler also was reputed to have slept with a demon named Robin or Son of Art. That demon reportedly appeared as a black shaggy dog or as three Ethiopians who carried iron rods; he also was said to be responsible for Kyteler’s wealth.

To prevent these witchcraft charges from being heard in court, le Poer imprisoned Ledrede for seventeen days in the spring of 1324. On his release, the bishop continued to go after Kyteler, her son William, and their associates, considering them convicted and excommunicated. Kyteler’s appeals were supported at a parliament in Dublin where Ledrede failed to win support from the skeptical royal government, other church officials, and representatives of nobles and townspeople. Yet on July 2, 1324, the bishop managed to get the royal justiciar to appear in his court and have Kyteler’s son William (who came in full armor) confess to harboring heretics. He was heavily fined and ordered to do penance such as attending mass three times per day for a year, feeding the poor, and paying for a church roof to be covered with lead.

Helping the bishop in his case against Kyteler and William was a servant of the Kytelers, Petronilla of Meath Petronilla of Meath . At some point she had been arrested and tortured to obtain incriminating information against her mistress. Technically, English law prohibited torture to extract confessions, but whipping of servants was allowed. After being whipped six times, Petronilla admitted to having witnessed Kyteler’s involvement in witchcraft, much as listed in the original charges. Also, Petronilla said Kyteler would sweep the dirt on the streets toward her son’s house while chanting a spell to bring all the wealth of the town to his door. Petronilla seriously implicated William Outlaw, saying he wore the devil’s girdle. Petronilla also claimed that Kyteler had taught her to become a witch. She said that she and Kyteler flew through the air on a wooden beam covered with ointment.

The accused witches were punished in various ways. Believing herself to be a witch, the impenitent Petronilla was burned on November 3, 1324, the first person in Ireland to be executed by this method. Before Kyteler could be punished, she fled to England with the daughter of Petronilla. In essence, they suffered banishment, and their further fate is unknown. Imprisoned because of Petronilla’s damning testimony, William gained his release by recanting heresy and sorcery and promising pilgrimages and other aids to the church. Others who were accused and captured were supposedly burnt, whipped, or forced to wear a cross. Still others remained at large.

The conflict between Arnold le Poer and Bishop Ledrede continued until the former’s death in 1329 as he awaited trial for heresy. In turn, the archbishop of Dublin subsequently charged Ledrede with heresy. In the following years Ledrede lost and regained his diocese twice as he quarreled with King Edward III, the archbishop, and local magnates.

Because of source gaps, much of Kyteler’s case remains a mystery. What eventually happened to her, her son, her property, and their alleged accomplices? Were proper legal procedures followed? From what source came the fantastical and obviously false charges?


Kyteler’s witchcraft trial itself did not spark immediate, widespread witch-hunts. Still, suspicions of conspiracies with demons, such as those against Kyteler, would be revived in years to come against other reputed witches. Within a century, as the Middle Ages ended, the hunt for witches in much of Western Europe would take on larger proportions and continue for more than two centuries afterward, surpassing the previous hunt for heretics. Subsequent witch-hunts were spurred on especially by the publication of the Malleus maleficarum (c. 1486; hammer against witchcraft; English translation, 1928), written by the Dominican friars Heinrich (Institoris) Krämer and Jakob Sprenger. By using torture to support incredible accusations of witchcraft, authorities would lead many innocent people, especially poor or otherwise marginalized women, to their deaths.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cohn, Norman. Europe’s Inner Demons: An Inquiry Inspired by the Great Witch-Hunt. New York: Basic Books, 1975. Important study of how ideas of sorcery and witchcraft from ancient times through the Middle Ages melded into the idea of witches by both intellectuals and fearful people in villages of the fifteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davidson, L. S., and J. O. Ward, eds. The Sorcery Trial of Alice Kyteler: A Contemporary Account (1324). Binghamton: Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies, State University of New York at Binghamton, 1993. An account of the trial by Ledrede, comprehensively noted primary sources, supplemental texts, and an excellent introduction. Also includes a chronology, bibliography, and questions for analysis.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Heinemann, Evelyn. Witches: A Psychoanalytic Exploration of the Killing of Women. New York: Free Association Books, 2000. Argues for a psychoanalytic and historical approach to the study of witch-hunts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kieckhefer, Richard. European Witch Trials: Their Foundations in Popular and Learned Culture, 1300-1500. London: Routledge, 1976. Combines an examination of intellectual trends with a systematic look at legal sources. Includes a list of trials and a bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kors, Alan Charles, and Edward Peters, eds. Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: A Documentary History. 1972. Rev. ed. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. An extensive collection of original sources on the role of Christianity and the Papacy in prosecuting for acts of witchcraft and sorcery; the nature of evil and inquisitions, persecutions, and trials; and an introduction addressing the “problem of European witchcraft.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Levack, Brian P. The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe. 2d ed. Harlow, England: Longman, 1995. A standard survey of the witch-hunts. Includes a bibliography, several illustrations, and a map.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Russell, Jeffrey Burton. The Devil, Heresy, and Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Boston: Brill, 1998. Places the witch-hunts in the context of the history of heresy and dissent in the Middle Ages.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thurston, Robert W. Witch, Wicce, Mother Goose: The Rise and Fall of the Witch Hunts in Europe and North America. New York: Longman, 2001. One of the best studies of the witch-hunts. Includes a detailed analysis of the Kyteler case and its place in the history of persecutions of witches in Europe.

Categories: History