The Kyteler Case and its Surroundings of Sorcery and Heresy—Michael Scot—The Fourth Earl of Desmond—James I and the Irish Prophetess— A Sorcery Accusation of 1447—Witchcraft Trials in the Sixteenth Century—Statutes dealing with the Subject—Eye-biters—The Enchanted Earl of Desmond
In one respect the case of Dame Alice Kyteler stands alone in the history of magical dealings in Ireland prior to the seventeenth century. We have of the entire proceedings an invaluable and contemporary account, or at latest one compiled within a very few years after the death of Petronilla of Meath ; while the excitement produced by the affair is shown by the more or less lengthy allusions to it in early writings, such as The Book of Howth (Carew MSS.), the Annals by Friar Clyn, the Chartularies of S. Mary's Abbey (vol. ii.), etc. It is also rendered more valuable by the fact that those who are best qualified to give their opinion on the matter have assured the writer that to the best of their belief no entries with respect to trials for sorcery or witchcraft can be found in the various old Rolls preserved in the Dublin Record Office.
But when the story is considered with reference to the following facts it takes on a different signification. On the 29th of September 1317 (Wright says 1320), Bishop de Ledrede held his first Synod, at which several canons were passed, one of which seems in some degree introductory to the events detailed in the preceding chapter. In it he speaks of " a certain new and pestilential sect in our parts, differing from all the faithful in the world, filled with a devilish spirit, more inhuman than heathens or Jews, who pursue the priests and bishops of the Most High God equally in life and death, by spoiling and rending the patrimony of Christ in the diocese of Ossory, and who utter grievous threats against the bishops and their ministers exercising ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and (by various means) attempt to hinder the correction of sins and the salvation of souls, in contempt of God and the Church."1 From this it would seem that heresy and unorthodoxy had already made its appearance in the diocese. In 1324 the Kyteler case occurred, one of the participants being burnt at the stake, while other incriminated persons were subsequently followed up, some of whom shared the fate of Petronilla. In 1327 Adam Dubh, of the Leinster tribe of O'Toole, was burnt alive on College Green for denying the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Holy Trinity, as well as for rejecting the authority of the Holy See.2 In 1335 Pope Benedict XII wrote a letter to King Edward III, in which occurs the following passage : " It has come to our knowledge that while our venerable brother, Richard, Bishop of Ossory, was visiting his diocese, there appeared in the midst of his catholic people men who were heretics together with their abettors, some of whom asserted that Jesus Christ was a mere man and a sinner, and was justly crucified for His own sins ; others after having done homage and offered sacrifice to demons, thought otherwise of the sacrament of the Body of Christ than the Catholic Church teaches, saying that the same venerable sacrament is by no means to be worshipped ; and also asserting that they are not bound to obey or believe the decrees, decretals, and apostolic mandates ; in the meantime, consulting demons according to the rites of those sects among the Gentiles and Pagans, they despise the sacraments of the Catholic Church, and draw the faithful of Christ after them by their superstitions." As no Inquisitors of heresy have been appointed in Ireland, he begs the King to give prompt assistance to the Bishop and other Prelates in their efforts to punish the aforesaid heretics.1 If the above refer to the Kyteler case it came rather late in the day ; but it is quite possible, in view of the closing words of the anonymous narrator, that it has reference rather to the following up of the dame's associates, a process that must have involved a good deal of time and trouble, and in which no doubt many unhappy creatures were implicated. Again, in 1353, two men were tried at Bunratty in co. Clare by Roger Cradok, Bishop of Waterford, for holding heretical opinions (or for offering contumely to the Blessed Virgin), and were sentenced to be burnt.1 The above are almost the only (if not the only) instances known of the punishment of death by fire being inflicted in Ireland for heresy.
1 Carrigan, History of the Diocese of Ossory, i. p. 48.
2 Stokes, Ireland and the Anglo-Norman Church, p. 374.
1 Theiner, Vet. Mon., p. 269.
From a consideration of the facts here enumerated it would seem as if a considerable portion of Ireland had been invaded by a wave of heresy in the first half of the fourteenth century, and that this manifested itself under a twofold form—first, in a denial of the cardinal doctrines of the Church and a consequent revolt against her jurisdiction ; and secondly, in the use of magical arts, incantations, charms, familiar spirits, et hoc genus omne. In this movement the Kyteler case was only an episode, though obviously the most prominent one ; while its importance was considerably enhanced, if not exaggerated out of all due proportion, by the aggressive attitude adopted by Bishop de Ledrede against the lady and her companions, as well as by his struggles with Outlawe and Le Poer, and their powerful backers, the Chancellor and Treasurer of Ireland. The anonymous writer, who was plainly a cleric, and a partisan of the Bishop's, seems to have compiled his narration not so much on account of the incident of sorcery as to show the courage and perseverance of De Ledrede, and as well to make manifest the fact that the Church should dictate to the State, not the State to the Church. It appears quite possible, too, that other separate cases of sorcery occurred in Ireland at this period, though they had no historian to immortalise them, and no doubt in any event would have faded into insignificance in comparison with the doings of Dame Kyteler and her " infernal crew".
1 Westropp, Wars of Turlough (Proc. R.i.A.), p. 161; Seymour, Pre-Ref Archbishops of Cashel, 47.