Seven years after the trials of the Templars and Philip de Braybrook, three separate fronts saw developments in the history of heresy in Ireland: native Irish attributed to Anglo-Irish colonists propagation of “the heresy that it is no more sin to kill an Irishman than a dog or any other brute beast;” the “meen poeple Dirland,” i.e., the Anglo-Irish, described the pre-Christian Irish as “eretiks” (even though somebody who isn’t a member of a religion—let alone somebody who has never even heard of that religion—cannot be a heretic of that religion), and Richard de Ledrede arrived in Ireland as the new bishop of Ossory and quickly demonstrated that accusations of heresy would be his weapon and shield in the unfamiliar and chaotic politics of the colony. The first two instances are part of the intense ethnic rivalry between the native Irish and the colonists, but this played a marginal role in Ledrede’s prosecutions, which focused on prominent Anglo-Irish citizens.
Born in England, trained in France, polished at Avignon, Ledrede was far more familiar with French heresy and sorcery trials and John XXII’s paranoia than the piety or politics he found in Ossory. He welcomed himself to his new diocese by convening a synod at which he made heated allegations of clerical abuses and rigorously exhorted the faithful to perform their Christian duty of reporting heresy. Accusations and evidence of the former repeatedly surfaced in Ireland as elsewhere, but Ledrede’s stance on heresy was novum et inauditum (“new and unheard of,” a common medieval expression conveying disdain and suspicion), as was the face he eventually put on that heresy, that of the devil-worshipping witch. Before he was finished with the first stage of his crusade against evil, Ireland would kill its first “heretic,” Ledrede himself would be imprisoned, the chancellor of Ireland would be labelled a fautor (supporter) of heresy until he allegedly tearfully begged Ledrede’s pardon, and Alice Kyteler, the primary defendant, would disappear from Ireland, to remain only in legend.
Ledrede, a Franciscan, was an utterly obscure figure until Pope John XXII handpicked him to be bishop of Ossory (a diocese within the archdiocese of Dublin, with its cathedral seat in Kilkenny). He likely witnessed the Templar trial in France, and he describes himself as “nurtured under the wings of the papacy” (which from 1309 until 1377 was in Avignon, not Rome). Along with many contemporaries, his papal patron, John XXII, was convinced that Satan stalked the earth looking for human allies in his ongoing battle against God; from the start of John’s pontificate in 1316 he used his office to have his enemies tried as demon-worshippers who used their demonic allegiance to try to murder him, tortured them into confessing, then had them burned at the stake. This is the same m.o. his protégé would follow, but with a significant difference. John XXII’s targets were male , but claims would be brought to Ledrede about a woman. John’s sense of their guilt was no doubt informed by an actual historical occurrence, clerical necromancy. Necromancers strove to summon demons not to worship them, but to try to get them to do their bidding. Their critics castigated them as ambitious fools who fell prey to demonic seduction; once one entered into any kind of arrangement with a demon, one became Satan’s servant and God’s enemy (according to their critics). We know some clerics were necromancers, in part because we have their books (like Richard Kieckhefer’s Forbidden Rites), yet the claim of maleficia (literally evil-doing, but also meaning harmful magic) had been brought to Ledrede about a much-married woman. He thus changed the dynamics of her demonic relationship, which he claimed centered on sex (as opposed to books and scholarship, as in clerical necromancy), revolutionizing witchcraft prosecution in the process.
Within weeks of his arrival in Ossory in 1317, Ledrede had made it clear that he was looking for religious evil-doers in his diocese, and by 1324 claims had been made against Alice Kyteler by her step-children. They were bitter because she was on at least her fourth husband, who also allegedly was on his deathbed, and every time she was widowed she could claim a third of her dead husband’s property as her dower. So her stepkids claimed she was using maleficia to bewitch their dads so she could marry them, then used maleficia to kill them so she could get their money. Probably they had tried to take their claims to civil court and got nowhere first. No doubt they didn’t have any inkling what Ledrede would do with their allegations—because really, who would? One of Richard Kieckhefer’s many critically important contributions to our understanding of medieval witchcraft persecution is that when average folks brought witch-claims against their associates, they did not postulate the demonic link. They might claim, “She killed my cow,” or “She turned me into a newt,” but they weren’t thinking, “that’s because she’s having sex with Satan.” The priestly class, the clerics, the inquisitors, were the ones to claim that demonic connection—and Ledrede was really the first to do so in formal prosecution of witchcraft. Inquisitors could more easily envision such demonic alliances because of what they knew their colleagues to be doing with necromancy. So so-called “witches” were punished not for what they were doing, but for what clerical necromancers were doing; in the words of Richard Kieckhefer:
In so far as necromancers contributed to the plausibility of claims about witches, they bear indirect responsibility for the rise of the European witch trials in the fifteenth and following centuries. To the extent that these early witch trials focused on female victims, they thus provide a particularly tragic case of women being blamed and punished for the misconduct of men: women who were not invoking demons could more easily be thought to do so at a time when certain men were in fact so doing.
Although to modern eyes Alice’s multiple marriages, especially since they increased her wealth and social standing, may seem suspicious, virtually none of Ledrede’s peers in Ireland bought his claims for months. This is particularly demonstrated by the case of Arnold le Poer, the seneschal of Kilkenny and an associate of Alice’s son William Outlaw as well as his kinsman Roger Outlaw, who was the chancellor of Ireland at this time, was frequently acting justiciar of Ireland, and was also the prior of the Hospitallers of Ireland (an order similar to and closely associated with the Templars). But Arnold was also the kinsman of Alice’s current husband, whom Ledrede claimed she was in the process of poisoning almost to the point of death. The leading scholar of the le Poer family suggests Arnold was in fact the brother of Alice’s current husband, John le Poer. Despite Alice’s alleged ongoing attempts to kill his own brother (or at least kinsman), Arnold was relentless in his defence of Alice and his resistance to Ledrede. His are perhaps the most forceful words recorded in the Narrative, a roughly contemporary account of Ledrede’s prosecution of the Kyteler case which is heavily influenced in Ledrede’s favor and was probably written by him (and so not inclined to be charitable to Arnold). At the pivotal May 1324 parliament, which prompted the support Ledrede had so long sought for his prosecution and at which he scorned Magna Carta as una parvula cartula (a wee bitty charter) in direct response to Arnold’s words, Arnold declared:
If a tramp from England or somewhere has obtained a bull or privilege from the papal curia, we are not bound to obey that bull, unless it has been enjoined on us under the king’s seal. We say this because, as you well know, heretics have never been found in Ireland; rather, it is customarily called the isle of the saints. Now, however, some foreigner comes from England and says we are all heretics and excommunicants, claiming for himself some papal constitutions which we have never heard of before now. And since defamation of this land touches every one of us, you all ought to unite against this man.
Arnold would later pay dearly for his opposition to Ledrede, who nursed his grudges for years after the Kyteler case. In 1328, Ledrede had Arnold arrested for heresy—as Ledrede equated opposition to him with opposition to God and so heresy. After several months imprisonment and a delay of trial due to Ledrede’s refusal to come to Dublin to try the case, and three months after Roger Outlaw had cleared his own name of Ledrede’s allegations that he was a fautor of heresy (presumably Arnold le Poer’s alleged heresy), Arnold le Poer died excommunicate in Dublin Castle’s prison on Tuesday, March 14, 1329. His body was subjected to the stipulations of Ledrede’s fifteenth statute; it was taken to the Dominican church of St. Saviour’s, where it remained for a long time unburied.
At the May parliament of 1324, Ledrede helped William de Rodyerd, like Thomas de Chaddesworth dean of St. Patrick’s who ruled the archdiocese of Dublin for yet another absent archbishop (although this one, Alexander de Bicknor, generally took a much more active role in his archdiocese and would later oppose Ledrede in yet another of Ledrede’s heresy cases, prompting Ledrede’s exile from Ireland from 1329 until 1347), broker a deal regarding Ledrede’s order, the Franciscans, in Ireland. Immediately thereafter, Ledrede at last got the support he had so long sought in his prosecution of the Kyteler case. In addition to William de Rodyerd, his allies included William de Nottingham, a canon of St. Patrick’s who had supported Ledrede since Alice’s countersuit against Ledrede for defamation and improper prosecution (which Alice had won) in Dublin a few months earlier. More significantly, Ledrede gained the intermittent support of the justiciar of Ireland, John Darcy. This support enabled him to arrest some of those he accused, including Petronilla de Midia, whom he tortured into confessing to his demonic claims, the first time torture was used in Ireland in an ecclesiastical trial. On the third of November, 1324, Ledrede had her burned at the stake, the first such execution in all of the British Isles. He also had Alice’s son, William Outlaw, imprisoned until he confessed to aiding heretics, and after paying a £1,000 fine (you can imagine how much money that was 700 years ago!), William was released, thus bringing the Kyteler case to a close. That substantial fine indicates one of Ledrede’s—as well as Alice’s stepchildren’s—primary motivations in initiating the case to begin with. Alice was an exceptionally wealthy woman, and both her bishop and her stepchildren wanted her wealth. Having her convicted and killed for witchcraft would be one way of confiscating it.
As for Alice, she escaped from Ireland, to remain only in legend. One source says she took Petronilla’s daughter with her, which I like to think of as a last act of sisterhood in the story.