Nearly nothing is known about Petronilla de Meath, except that she was the first woman to be burned at the stake as a witch, in Kilkenny, Ireland, in 1324. It is not known who her parents were, nor what surname she had, because “De Meath” simply means “of Meath”: she was therefore probably born in Meath, around 1300, and was a servant in the house of a very rich but not noble woman, named Alice Kyteler, the only daughter of landowners, who at 17 he married William Outlaw, an equally rich man.
The woman, who had only one child with her husband (William Jr.), was widowed in 1302, and after a while she remarried with Adam Blunt. The country’s gossips immediately insinuated that the new couple had got rid of Outlaw, but perhaps the voices were due to the hatred of the fellow citizens, who did not much like their activity, in fact they were usurers.
After Adam Blunt’s death, the enterprising Alice Kyteler married twice more. The fourth husband, a baronet with a large number of sons already adult, began to get sick frequently after marriage, so much so that his sons began to suspect that his new wife was poisoning him. At his death, in 1324, he explicitly accused the woman among the local bishop, Richard de Ledrede, because poisoning was considered an arcane practice, to be attributed to acts of witchcraft. They were not yet the years of witch hunts, which will begin in a systematic way about a century later. At the time the penalty for heresy (as witchcraft was considered) was excommunication: purifying bonfires were not yet made. The bishop accused Alice, his son William and some of his servants, including Petronilla. But the influential position of the woman and of the son meant that the bishop was arrested. Alice escaped to England, while William got away with a series of penances.
But the story did not end there, because the intransigent bishop, after returning to his diocese, wanted to get to the bottom of the story, even in the absence of the main culprit. Jonathan Swift stated, regarding the unequal treatment of the poor and the rich: “The laws are like cobwebs, which can capture small flies, but let themselves be crossed by wasps and hornets.” The quote fits perfectly with the case of Petronilla de Meath, who he suffered the fury of Bishop Ledrede in place of her lady.
The girl, who was about 24 years old, was tried as a Alice’s witch, and tortured without mercy, publicly flogged along a path that ran through six parishes. The poor servant confessed all that the delirious imagination of the bishop could conceive:
“she and the other witches were in contact with demons, in particular with a certain “Robin, son of art”, with whom his lady had sexual relations”
Petronilla also confirmed that Alice had used magic to induce her husbands to appoint she or her son William heirs, and then murder them. After the long suffering inflicted on the young woman, the bishop decided that exemplary punishment was necessary, and he condemned she to the stake, ahead of its time. Petronilla was burned alive on Sunday November 3, 1324. She was the first person in Ireland to be executed for the crime of “heresy”, the first in a long series of women (and a few men) sent to death both in Europe and in the United States in the following centuries.
The Petronilla de Meath’s Trial inspired the inquisitors of the following centuries, even if the figure of poor Petronilla is almost completely unknown: there are very few to remember that Kilkenny was the place where the first witchcraft trial took place, but remembered as the “process of Dame Alice Kyteler”.
Poor Petronilla represent only a side note of the stories about witches of the following years…
Alice Kyteler’s house today is a pub.