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Alice Kyteler, convicted of dark magic

Kilkenny, Ireland, A.D. 1324 —

In one of the first such European prosecutions, Alice Kyteler was accused of witchcraft and compelled to face a court that found her guilty, sentencing her to death.

Nobody knows what happened to her, but she escaped before the burning.

Kyteler (born ca. 1280) was a wealthy and powerful woman. Her father, a merchant of Anglo-Norman descent, built the Kyteler house in 1300. It's a big house, in any age. Alice was was rich and well-connected — and she had powerful enemies.

The facts of her case are a little hard to find — rather, there are many different versions of the "facts." One might expect this from a story that was based upon small-town gossip and treachery to begin with, 700 years ago.

Alice's first husband, William Outlawe, did something that would become a pattern — he died while married to her. Three other husbands were to do so, as well. People developed suspicions.

Not everybody liked her, either. Apparently she had learned about the money-lending business from her first husband, and she practiced it skillfully herself. A lot of people were in debt to her. There's no indication that she was any more decent than the average wealthy aquisitive businessperson, either.

Then, she arranged herself as the sole beneficiary of the estate of the final husband, John Le Poer. He had three children — she disinherited them.

When Le Poer began suffering a mysterious wasting disease, he and the children began to think that Alice was doing something.

Whether or however she was involved in the deaths of her husbands is cause for speculation these days. But people talked. Speculating, at that time....

A suspicion was enough to set the rumors aflight..... With former husbands dead; with William le Poer ill and the doctors unable to name the disease; and with his offspring bereft of their financial heritage.... they and he accused Alice of witchcraft.

The story goes that le Poer and his children went to Alice's seaside home (yes, she was wealthy) and found "terrible items" implicating her in the practice of dark arts. The details in various accounts expand to a catalogue of gruesome and sacrilegious pieces of evidence: body parts of an unbaptized infant; evil powders; communion wafers imprinted with satanic images; the fingernails and toenails of corpses boiled in the skull of a robber; candles made of human fat. Alice must have been busy, if the reports were all true.

The le Poer family put the terrible items into crates and brought the crates to the Bishop of Ossory, Richard Ledrede.

Witchcraft had just begun to become an obsession amongst some in the Catholic Church, which was the dominating institution in Ireland as in most of Western Europe. Alice was in a lot of trouble.

Alice's powerful enemies insisted that she was a witch — but she had powerful friends as well. The Lord Chancellor of Ireland was her brother-in-law. Her son William, dear to her, was a friend of the treasurer. She had enough power that when Bishop Ledrede came to investigate her, she had him imprisoned in the castle.

The Dean of St. Patrick's cathedral in Dublin was outraged by Alice's imprisonment of the Bishop — and it was outrageous. There followed a power struggle.

Bishop Ledrede spent 17 days in jail. He came out with a renewed zeal for the prosecution of Ms. Kyteler.

The result was a conviction — of Alice, her son William, and ten others.

Alice's maid Petronilla died by burning, after a severe beating. (She had confessed under torture, and had implicated Alice as well.) William was sentenced to hear mass three times daily for a year, to feed a certain number of the poor, and to reroof Saint Canice's cathedrala job that he did poorly. The other nine took their place amongst bit-players in history.

Alice disappeared the night before the fire. Her fate is obscure. Some accounts tell that she went to England, and lived to be an old woman.

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