There is not much information about Petronilla de Meath if not the fact that she was the first woman to be burnt at the stake as a witch in Kilkenny, Ireland, in 1324. It is unknown who her parents were and which was her surname as “de Meath” referred to the county in Ireland from were she was presumably coming from. She was born around 1300 and was the servant of a well off woman yet non-noble, whose name was Alice Kyteler; she was the daughter of a landowner and she had married at the age of 17 William Outlaw, man rich as much as her father.
The woman who had only one son, William Jr, became a widow in 1302 and shortly after got remarried with Adam Blunt. The gossip said that the new couple got rid of Outlaw, but perhaps the rumours were due to the bitterness that the population felt towards the activities of the two
They were in fact usurers
After Blunt’s death, dynamic Alice Kyteler got married 2 other times. Her fourth husband, a baronet with many children of his own already in adulthood, was often ill after the marriage, so that his children started suspecting the new wife of poisoning. At his death, in 1324, they openly accused the woman to the local bishop, Richard de Ledrede, since the act of poisoning was considered an arcane practice to be linked with witchcraft.
It was still not the years of the Witch Hunt, which started in a more systematic way around a century after. At the time the sentence expected for heresy (as witchcraft was seen) was the excommunication an the purifying fires were still not a common practice. The bishop accused Alice, her son William and some of their servants, one of whom was Petronilla. But the influential position of the woman and her son made it possible to turn upside down the situation and have the bishop arrested. Alice escaped to England while William Jr got by on some penitence.
The story though did not end there since the stubborn bishop, once back to his diocese, wanted to go through with the story, even with the absence of the main guilty party. Jonathan Swift, about the discrepancy of treatment between rich and poor people affirmed that:
“Laws are like cobwebs, which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break through”.
The quote fits perfectly the case of Petronilla de Meath, who endured the wrath of the bishop Ledrede on behalf of her ex mistress.
The girl who was about 24 at the time, was taken to trial as a witch and accessory of Madame Alice and eventually tortured with no mercy, whipped publicly along the way which went through six different parishes. The poor girl confessed anything that the deranged mind of the bishop had conceived and wanted to hear from her.
Her and the other witches were in contact with some demons, especially with one named “Robin son of Art”, with whom her mistress had a sexual relationship.
Petronilla confirmed that Alice had used some magic to induce her husbands to elect her and her son Willian Jr as heirs, for then killing them all.
After the long suffering inflicted to the young girl, the bishop decided that a model punishment was necessary so he condemned her to burn at the stake, launching a trend for the upcoming dark times. Petronilla was burnt alive on Sunday the 3rd of November 1324. She was the first person in Ireland to be executed for the crime of heresy and the very first woman of a very long series sent to die both in Europe and the US in the following centuries.
The trial to Petronilla de Meath was educational, inspiring the inquisitors of the following centuries. However the figure of poor Petronilla is almost entirely unknown: there are very few people who knows that Kilkenny was the place where the first trial for witchcraft occurred, known as the “trial of Dame Alice Kyteler”.
Poo Petronilla is just a marginal note, when she is even mentioned at all
Alice Kyteler’s house, nowadays pub
Picture source: Kyteler’s Inn
Source: Brooklyn Museum