Readers like you keep news free for everyone.

More than 5,000 readers have already pitched in to keep free access to The Journal.

For the price of one cup of coffee each week you can help keep paywalls away.

Support us today
Not now
Dublin: 16°C Tuesday 16 August 2022

Alice Kyteler: The Kilkenny 'witch' condemned for sorcery

Author Niamh Boyce spoke to us about her new book on the story.

Kilkenny Castle
Kilkenny Castle
Image: Shutterstock/Patryk Kosmider

THE SEARCH FOR witches wasn’t confined to Salem – here in Ireland we had our own witch trial, when Kilkenny’s Dame Alice Kyteler was accused of sorcery. Now a book by Irish author Niamh Boyce takes a fictionalised look at Kyteler’s trial, through the experiences of the woman who died instead of her.

In 1324, Petronella de Meath, Kyteler’s maid, was flogged and burned at the stake. It was Dame Alice Kyteler who was the person who had been condemned for witchcraft (the first person in Ireland to be condemned for this), but Petronella died in her stead.

The story of Alice Kyteler and Petronella has been turned into a novel, written by Boyce, author of the novel The Herbalist. Called Her Kind, it took four years to write, and was a real labour of love for Boyce, as she told

Who was Alice Kyteler?

Kyteler was the daughter of Flemish merchants, and had been married four times. At one stage, she was accused – alongside her second husband – of murdering her first husband. Later, she was accused of sorcery, and of poisoning.

The Bishop of Ossory, Richard de Ledrede, was tasked with sorting the case out, and ordered that she should be arrested. Kyteler, along with a number of accomplices, were arrested and detained. But it was her servant Petronella de Meath who suffered as a result, having confessed to witchcraft. Kyteler is said to have left for England. 

Boyce grew up aware of Kyteler’s story. “It was always in the background,” she says. “All we would have known was Kilkenny Castle had a witch, the witch was called Kyteler.”

But she had doubted how true the story was. “In a way sometimes I thought it was just myth,” she says. “And I had an assumption that I guess in my head too that it was probably an older woman, a herbalist or a midwife or some, you know, an outsider thing and Biddy Early type kind of thing,” she explained.

But when she did her research, Boyce discovered that Kyteler was very different to who she thought she was.

“I discovered a whole other side to it. Kyteler was in fact a very powerful businesswoman, a very, very wealthy property owner and money lender,” says Boyce. She was, then, the kind of woman who we don’t always assume we’ll find in Irish history. Yet if she existed, how many more women were out there like her? That’s just one of the questions that Boyce’s book poses.

Ironically, Boyce believes that if Kyteler hadn’t gone through the trial, she might have died in obscurity. “I often think if [Richard] de Ledrede, who is the bishop who accused her of witchcraft in the Middle Ages, if he hadn’t accused her of witchcraft, we wouldn’t know a woman like her had existed,” she says. 

“If I was to write a book and have a merchant woman enters who ran a money lending business and was linked to most of the powerful families in Leinster and sat in Parliament, people would say I was being a revisionist feminist and making her up and just putting her in and revising history,” says Boyce.

So in Her Kind, Boyce takes the story of Kyteler and shows us how it reflects how women were treated in Ireland through the centuries – she takes apart some of the stereotypes we might have about women in history, but also shows how gender condemned women to certain fates. 

When it came to researching the book, Boyce put herself in the shoes of Kyteler and her ilk. “I knew she was a moneylender. I knew she was powerful. I knew where she lived, so I knew what the views were from her house. I knew I knew some of her routine,” she explains. “I looked also then at the implements of a moneylender by – literally when you’re researching the years like that, you have to look at the paintings, the engravings… I would have looked at effigies on gravestones.” She built up a picture of what a wealthy 14th century woman would be like.

She found Petronella’s voice through reading her ‘confession’. “I was up in my room writing on my laptop and when I read that, a sentence came straight into my head and it was ‘those are not my words’, ‘That is not my name. Those are not my words’. I knew that was her voice,” says Boyce. “I know that sounds really wacky. You know a piece of a bit of writing is being open to that, so I just went with that and that sentence.”

Living history

In the book, we see Alice from Petronella’s point of view. The reason why it was easy for Boyce to research Kyteler’s life is because “Kilkenny are amazing at keeping their history alive”. She was able to get her hands on a book called the Liber Primus Kilkennius: “basically it’s the corporation minutes from the meetings in medieval times”. Boyce says it starts in the 1300s and goes to the 1500s, and helped her put an image of the town together.

It had information on court cases, which detailed the minutiae of life in the town. “So it was what bakers were in for weighing down their bread; that the graveyard is full of hogs snuffing up the dead; that everyone carried a knife and the most common crime is slitting someone else’s belly open,” says Boyce. “And imagine it, there was no police there. They really had a thing called ‘hue and cry’, so if I saw you up to something I would just roar and everyone would come and get you and we would decide on the spot.”

Another primary source which contributed to her work was Le Ledred’s account of the witchcraft trial. 

Boyce wrote on site a lot, going to Kilkenny and imagining what her characters went through. She took tours of the town, taking note of the features that were around in the 14th century. “I just wanted it to have enough in it that I knew what was authentic, and I could work from that,” says Boyce. “Of course – I’m a fiction writer, so I made [some parts] up as well.”

The process was so time consuming that Boyce jokes that towards the end: “I was gonna get a tattoo: Never again.” But as hard as it was, she says she loved it. Despite not having a publisher for the book, she kept plugging on.

An interesting element to Her Kind is that it underlines how diverse Kilkenny was. The book is filled with people who moved to Kilkenny from other parts of Europe. “It’s a European story in a way – it’s not an Irish story,” says Boyce.

“It was a different time. It’s completely different than how I imagined it too and one of the things that struck me about Kilkenny when I was researching it was how multicultural it was,” she says. 

There were Welsh settlers, Flemish settlers, Norman English, and Irish living there. “There was a huge mix of people, a huge mix of languages.” 

Making a difference

A mix of advertising and supporting contributions helps keep paywalls away from valuable information like this article.

Over 5,000 readers like you have already stepped up and support us with a monthly payment or a once-off donation.

For the price of one cup of coffee each week you can make sure we can keep reliable, meaningful news open to everyone regardless of their ability to pay.

But she was careful with having to balance depicting how things were with knowing some of what happened would not be supported today.”Their moral lives were their own to certain extent, so we can’t really impose… I think that’s one of the biggest things that happens, we can’t impose our own notion of what things were in the past on the past,” she says of that time. 

“For instance, [in the book] one of Alice’s husbands is quite brutal with her. And one of the maids says ‘he beats her more than a husband should’, because I couldn’t be all 2019 about this and say he shouldn’t beat her, because it was acceptable, and it was also acceptable to beat your children,” she says. “But I’m trying all the time not to make assumptions about their attitudes towards sex or power. So just trying to read into it. Looking at what’s considered a crime is interesting.”

She says what drew her to the story was “the fact it was interesting. It was about power. And then of course, there’s something to be revealed.”  But it was also about giving certain women a voice they hadn’t had before.

“And then when the book is written, I realised I have done that or and that it was important to show that Alice existed,” says Boyce. “And it’s important to show that a woman like that existed for a start.”

“And I guess my curiosity is towards towards women in history, because I studied history and of course, I would have studied a type of history that omits women from history. And I grew up in 70s and 80s. I studied English, I studied English literature. And I would have studied basically a literature which had no Irish women on it.” With her own work, she’s writing women into the story.

‘Living off writing would be lovely’

For her next book, she’s writing about spiritualists. She’s also struggling with something Irish writers often struggle with – how to fit writing around the need to earn regular money.

“I think Dave Lordan says this: that after the excitement of getting published is the shock of the reality of being published,” says Boyce. “I don’t know anyone who… lives off their writing. Wouldn’t it be lovely? It’s just not something that happens. So you have to either teach, teach writing or work with something else. So that’s why I trained as a yoga teacher.”

“It’s very hard. It changes all the time. It changes from going to go give it up and get proper job. But I think the thing is, I just keep writing and keep juggling it in different ways. And see what happens.”

Her Kind by Niamh Boyce is out now. Boyce will appear at the Kilkenny Arts Festival to discuss her book on 17 August at 11am. For tickets, visit here. To see the whole programme for the Kilkenny Arts Festival, visit the website.

Read next:


This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
write a comment

    Leave a commentcancel