Dame Alice and the Witch Hunters

St Canices Cathedral



Bishop Ledrede may or may not have believed the long list of allegations against Alice. But there was something else he disliked about her. She was an independent spirit who was never afraid to express an opinion or contradict church teaching. She questioned the Church’s doctrines and had a liberal attitude towards sex.

This was at a time when women were considered the property of men. Bishop Ledrede himself had advised Kilkenny husbands to beat their wives “for charity to their souls.”

He detested Alice and her liberated ways and swore he would “crush the life out of her”. But this would be no easy task, even with the impressive charge list drawn up by her stepchildren. Alice had the backing of the local aristocracy and the Chief Officer or Seneschal of Kilkenny happened to be related to her through marriage. The Bishop decided to have Alice tried by an Ecclesiastical Court for heresy and black magic.

But when he and a squad of clerical officers arrived at Kyteler Hall to arrest her, they faced a larger group of Alice’s allies, who had Le Poer’s support, and were forced to withdraw. Then Alice hit back. While visiting the parish of Kells, the bishop was arrested on le Poer’s orders and lodged in the jail of Kilkenny Castle.

The Chief Officer believed His Lordship would cool off in his cell and forget about troubling Alice and her friends. Unfortunately, imprisonment had the opposite effect on Ledrede. When he was freed, he and his clerical entourage invaded Kilkenny’s Council Chamber and called on le Poer, who was present, to have Alice tried for her “crimes.”

Le Poer ignored him and had him thrown out of the building. Relations between Church and Btate in Kilkenny hit rock bottom as the Bishop persisted in his efforts to have Alice tried for witchcraft.

He was again thwarted when she used her influence to have him summoned before a Dublin court to face charges of defamation and injustice. He somehow “beat the rap” and resumed his pursuit of Alice. This time, he appealed to the King and found a sympathetic ear.

Orders went out for the arrest of Alice and her accomplices. She and an unknown number of Kilkenny citizens were indicted on charges of witchcraft and heresy. Alice was the first to be tried, though in her absence. She had the good sense to flee the country before proceedings commenced. Her maid, Petronella, was not so lucky.

At Ledrede’s behest, she was brutally tortured and confessed to all the charges concocted by the Bishop and Alice’s vengeful stepchildren. She was stripped and flogged for six days in succession. On the verge of insanity, she implicated Alice and her colleagues in all the offences mentioned in the indictment.

She and at least two others were sentenced to execution “in the manner reserved for heretics and witches”. William Outlaw, Alice’s son, got off with a hefty fine. He agreed to finance repairs to the roof of St. Canice’s Cathedral.

With the Bishop looking on, Petronella was flogged through the streets of Kilkenny. At the current site of the Tholsel in High Street, she had her hands and feet bound and was tied to a wooden stake. Horrified citizens witnessed the first execution of this kind in Ireland.

Petronella, who was innocent of any offence, was burnt alive. As she screamed for mercy, Bishop Ledrede applauded and told a priest standing beside him: “The foul nest of heretics is smashed through the grace of God.” Her fate still abhors people the world over. Some historians believe it had more to do with the enforcing of male dominance and the crushing of the female than any desire to tackle “sin” or black magic.

But it seems that Alice had the last laugh. Some years after the trial, she gave Ledrede a taste of his own medicine. From her safe haven in England, she managed to bring trumped-up charges of heresy against him. The Crown dispossessed him of all his wealth and it took him almost three decades to clear his name. He died in 1360, the year his lands were restored to him.

The tomb of Bishop Richard Ledrede can be seen in St. Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny. The date of Alice’s death is unknown, but her fame lives on.


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