The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Witchcraze! Persecution of Witches
Ireland is frequently cited as the place where witch-burning began and ended. Some date the Burning Times from the burning of Petronilla of Meath in 1324, and ending with the burning of Bridget Cleary in 1895. However, the last legal European witch execution occurred in Poland in 1793 (see page 813). Bridget Cleary was never formally charged with witchcraft; nor was she tried or executed in legal proceedings. Her husband burned her in their home, on his own volition, in what he claimed was an attempt to exorcise a demon, changeling or witch (see FAIRIES: Fairy Witch).
Despite the notoriety of the Alice Kyteler case, the witchcraze in Ireland was comparatively mild. There were fewer than 10 significant witch trials, the bulk of which were carried out by Protestant (English and Scots) settlers.
The Kilkenny Witch Trials
Beginning in approximately 1320, Richard de Ledrede, Bishop of Ossory, a Franciscan of English descent, aggressively investigated heresies in his diocese under the personal commission of Pope John XXII, in the process discovering, he claimed, the existence of many sorcerers and witches. Chief among them was Lady Alice Kyteler of Kilkenny, also known as Dame Alice Kyteler.
Lady Alice lived in Kilkenny with her fourth husband Sir John le Poer. She was independently wealthy, having inherited the wealth of her previous, deceased husbands. She was descended from a noble Anglo-Norman family who had lived in Kilkenny, a city within the diocese of Ossory, for generations. The ultimate point of the accusations against her was that she had no right to her wealth as it had been obtained by witchcraft and diabolical means.
The adult children of Lady Alice’s previous husbands accused her of killing their fathers to obtain their property. (They were hoping that the property she had inherited would instead pass to them.) They accused Lady Alice of attempting to kill her present husband who at the time was ill with a “wasting disease.”
A maid-servant warned him of the rumors: his children from a previous marriage suspected Lady Alice was poisoning him in order to inherit the estate. Suspicious, Sir John forcibly took Lady Alice’s keys to her private chests and boxes where he allegedly discovered witchcraft tools including magic flying ointment and a sacramental wafer with the devil’s name stamped upon it. Two friars were summoned to carry these to Bishop Ledrede.
Sir John and his children accused Lady Alice and her son from a previous marriage, William Outlawe, of killing her first three husbands with witchcraft and attempting to do the same to John. William Outlawe was a banker and money-lender; documents indicate that many local nobles were heavily in his debt.
Lady Alice’s alleged accomplices, popularly known as the “Kilkenny Witches” included her son, William Outlawe, her maidservant, Petronilla de Meath and Petronilla’s daughter, Sarah, Robert de Bristol, John, Helena and Sysok Galrussyn, William Payn of Body, Alice, the wife of Henry the Smith, Annota Lange, and Eva de Brounstoun.
Alice’s first husband William Outlawe, also a wealthy banker, was the brother of Roger Outlawe, Lord Chancellor of Ireland and chief of the Irish branch of the Order of the Knights of St John. (Husbands two and three were Adam le Blond and Richard de Valle, respectively.)
Bishop Ledrede charged that Lady Alice and company didn’t attend church but had renounced Christianity to sacrifice roosters and peacocks at crossroads to a spirit named variously “Robin” or “Robert Artisson” or “Filius Artis.” This shape-shifting spirit was allegedly Lady Alice’s familiar, sometimes appearing as a cat or a large, shaggy black dog or sometimes as a huge black man accompanied by two tall dark companions carrying iron rods. Robin is described in records as “Aethiopis” or “negro.” Charges suggested that the only reason Lady Alice was rich, fortunate, and privileged was because of this spirit’s patronage.
The Kilkenny Witches were further accused of holding nocturnal meetings in churches, making “infernal candles,” ointments, powders, and unguents from dead men’s nails, botanicals, scorpions, snakes, spiders, and worms. Allegedly these concoctions were brewed in a cauldron made from a decapitated thief’s skull.
Among other allegations against her, Lady Alice was accused of walking the streets of Kilkenny armed with a broom, sweeping toward the house of her son William Outlawe while chanting, “To the house of William my son, Hie all the wealth of Kilkenny town.” Whether or not Lady Alice actually cast this spell, it is authentic, genuine folk-magic.
In essence, Bishop Ledrede was a precursor, a witch-hunt pioneer; as a disciple of Pope John XXII, he was on the cutting edge of witch-hunting. He attempted to bring Alpine-style witchhunting to Ireland; some of the resistance of the local clergy toward him was because of their unfamiliarity with this type of demonolatry.
The Bishop wished to try the case personally but sorcery cases were still considered secular crimes and the Church had no jurisdiction. He was forced to ask the Lord Chancellor of Ireland to issue a writ for the arrest of the accused. The Lord Chancellor, of course, happened to be Roger Outlawe, Alice’s old brother-in-law and William Outlawe’s uncle.
The Bishop then sent a representative to William Outlawe’s house where Lady Alice was now living, demanding that she appear before the Court of the Bishopric. Lady Alice refused, stating quite correctly that the Ecclesiastical Court was not empowered to judge her, or anyone else for that matter, on a case of this kind. Bishop Ledrede responded by excommunicating her and charged William with “harboring and concealing his mother in defiance of the Church.”
Lady Alice fled to Dublin where she called upon influential and powerful contacts.
Arnald de Poer, Government Seneschal of Kilkenny and a distant relative of Alice’s present husband, sided with William and Alice instead of his blood relations. He attempted to have Ledrede reduce the charges against Alice and William but Ledrede refused.
De Poer in turn had the bishop seized and held captive in Kilkenny Castle. Bishop Ledrede was jailed for 17 days until after the date William was supposed to appear in court. (The bishop’s supporters accused William of bribing officers of the law to arrest and detain the bishop.)
Upon his release, the bishop attempted to speak at the secular court but was ejected by the Seneschal. The bishop tried several times to have Lady Alice arrested on charges of sorcery but was unsuccessful.
Finally, Bishop Ledrede publicly named those accused of sorcery and demanded that the secular court give the accused up to the Church. Lady Alice had the bishop indicted in the secular court for slander and defamation of character. In turn, William Outlawe scoured criminal records, discovering an old deed of accusation claiming that the bishop defrauded a widow of her husband’s inheritance. Local ecclesiastical authorities were also unsympathetic to the bishop, describing him as a “truant monk from England” with excessive zeal in carrying out Papal Bulls they had never heard of before, and defaming Ireland by accusing her of harboring heretics.
Lady Alice escaped to England where she lived for the rest of her life. She was denounced in Kilkenny as a magician, sorceress, witch, and heretic. Some suggest Sarah de Meath was brought to England with her.
William Outlawe eventually showed up in court, after much delay, bringing a posse of wellarmed supporters with him. Charges were read out; he was held for nine weeks although sources differ as to whether he was formally arrested. William ultimately begged for reconciliation with the authorities, confessing and renouncing his crimes. In exchange for publicly renouncing his heresies, he received a Church pardon. As penance, he was required to pay for the Cathedral’s new lead roof and fast every Tuesday until a special pilgrimage to Canterbury was completed.
After the case, Bishop Ledrede accused Arnald de Poer of heresy. He was excommunicated and sent to the Dublin Castle dungeons, where he died during the investigation.
In England, the still wealthy and well connected, if excommunicated, Lady Alice continued to exert pressure against Bishop Ledrede, who was also eventually accused of heresy. He was sent to the Vatican for further investigation; while he was gone, his lands were seized.
The fates of accused members of Lady Alice’s Kilkenny coven differed: some were burned at the stake, some “solemnly whipped” through the town and marketplace; some were banished while others fled and disappeared. In the words of Bishop Ledrede, “by the special grace of God, that most foul brood was scattered and destroyed.”
Petronilla de Meath did not escape. She was flogged six times before she publicly confessed to charges of witchcraft and orgies involving Lady Alice. Petronilla claimed to be Lady Alice’s go-between. She claimed that Lady Alice, the most powerful witch in the world, had taught her sorcery and witchcraft. She said she saw Lady Alice’s demon manifest as not one, but three black men, who each had sex with Lady Alice. Petronilla acknowledged that she herself cleaned the bed.
Like William Outlawe, Petronilla confessed; unlike William, she was not pardoned. (Whether this was because she was female and neither wealthy nor noble, or because the court genuinely believed her to be a witch is subject to speculation.) Descriptions of her suggest that she did not repent and expressed pride in her sorcery. Speculation remains as to whether Petronilla was a spiritual witch or Pagan, as she allegedly refused Christian last rites before her execution.
Although Lady Alice is described as the first person tried for witchcraft and heresy in Ireland, and although it is her name that is most commonly cited, it was her maid, Petronilla de Meath, who ultimately paid the price and was the first woman burned as a witch in Ireland. Many mark the beginning of the Burning Times with the death of Petronilla, burned at the stake before a crowd on Saturday, November 3, 1324.
Other trials followed:
1544: An entry in a table from the Red Council Book of Ireland refers to “a witch” sent to the Lord Deputy for examination. However, unfortunately, only the table survived, not the Red Council Book or other records; no further information is currently available.
1578: A witch trial occurred in Kilkenny. Beyond the fact that 36 were executed, few details are preserved
Anti-witchcraft statutes were passed by the Parliament of Ireland in 1586: “Death as a felon” was decreed for anyone convicted of murder via witchcraft, enchantment, charm or sorcery. “Death as a felon” was accomplished by hanging, drawing, and quartering for men or strangulation followed by burning for women.
First-time offenders convicted of practicing witchcraft resulting in destruction or impairment of goods or property were sentenced to imprisonment for one year. In addition, they had to stand in the town square pillory once every quarter year for six hours and confess their sins. Second-time offenders were subject to a mandatory death sentence.
The Island Magee Witch Trial
The Island Magee Witch Trial was the last significant Irish witch trial. In 1710, the home of Mr and Mrs James Haltridge of Island Magee, near Carrickfergus in County Antrim, allegedly began to be plagued by poltergeist-like activity. The Haltridge family perceived it as symptomatic of psychic attack and witchcraft: although the identity was unknown, someone was attacking them. The death during this time of Haltridge’s mother, who lived in the house, was popularly attributed to witchcraft.
On approximately February 27, 1711 18-year-old Mary Dunbar was hired to live in the house as a companion for Mrs Haltridge following the death of her mother-in-law. On her first night in the house, Mary allegedly retired intending to sleep but was shocked to discover that some of her clothing had been removed from her trunk and scattered through the house. While searching for her missing clothes, Mary discovered an apron that had been rolled up tightly and tied with, depending on the version, either five or nine “strange knots.” Mary untied the knots, discovering a flannel cap belonging to the deceased Mrs Haltridge tied up within.
That night, Mary Dunbar was seized with fits: she claimed a knife was run through her thigh and that three women, whom she could vividly describe but not name, afflicted her. At midnight, she was seized with more fits: she had a vision of seven or eight women talking together. During their conversation, which Mary overheard in her vision, they revealed their names. Upon emerging from her fit, Mary identified those names: Janet Carson, Elizabeth Cellor, Janet Liston, Kate M’Calmont, Janet Mean, Latimer and Mrs Ann. Mary was able to provide such vivid descriptions that the women were quickly picked up from various local districts: Janet Mean of Braid Island, Jane Latimer of the Irish quarter of Carrickfergus, Margaret Mitchell of Kilroot, and Catherine M’Calmont, Janet Liston, Elizabeth Sellar, and Janet Carson, all of Island Magee.
The accused were brought to trial on March 31st. Testimony included descriptions of Mary’s fits. Various Presbyterian ministers testified against the accused. (All the accused women were Presbyterian.) No medical evidence was offered nor did the prisoners have an attorney. All denied charges of witchcraft but a jury returned guilty verdicts.
They were sentenced to one year in prison during which time each had to stand in the local pillory on four separate occasions. These pillory sessions attracted mobs who pelted them with eggs and cabbage stalks so aggressively that one of the convicted witches had an eye knocked out.
In August 1807, Alexander Montgomery of Carmoney feared his cow was bewitched. Although she gave plenty of milk, none could be churned into butter. Mr and Mrs Montgomery hired Mary Butters, local herbalist and spellcaster, now known as the “Carmoney Witch.”
Mary Butters instructed Mr Montgomery and a young man named Carnaghan to put their coats on inside out and stay in the barn near the cow’s head until she called them. In the meantime, she prepared a hex-breaking spell in the Montgomery’s kitchen in the presence of Mrs Montgomery, the Montgomerys’ son and an elderly woman named Margaret Lee. Butters’ curse-breaking spell involved boiling nails, needles and pins in a cauldron containing the afflicted cow’s milk and perhaps some other ingredients. Windows and doors were tightly closed; the chimney was sealed up.
Montgomery and Carnaghan waited in that barn for hours. Finally, at dawn, they returned to the house where they discovered everyone passed out on the floor. Mrs Montgomery and her son were already dead. Lee died shortly afterwards. Only Mary Butters survived.
On August 19, an inquest was held and the court determined that death was caused by smoke inhalation and “noxious ingredients.” Mary Butters, however, claimed that a black man carrying a big club appeared during the spell and clubbed everyone present. She was scheduled to stand trial in Carrickfergus in March 1808 but the charges were withdrawn.
In 1821 the Witchcraft Act of 1586 was repealed. Despite this, in 1865 Biddy Early was charged with witchcraft; local Church leaders denounced her as a witch but the charges were dismissed. (See FAIRIES: Fairy Doctor: Early.) Incomplete trial records suggest another witch trial was held at Dungannon 1890.