Petronilla de Meath, first witch burned at the stake
Movies and novels have shown us powerful, cruel witches in contact with the devil. But how much was paranormal or magical and how much that of witches was only a myth born of the ignorance and cruelty of man?
We have already spoken of the case of the last woman to have been convicted of witchcraft, Victoria Helen Duncan, today we want to remember the dramatic story of Petronilla de Meath.
Petronilla de Meath's story
Petronilla is not a famous historical figure and indeed if it weren't for the way she died we would never have heard from her. We do not know its origins and its surname only indicates that it came from the Irish village of Meath, where she was probably born around 1,300 a.d.
Servant of one of the richest women of the place, Alice Kyteler (single daughter of landowners married to William Outlaw, equally rich, from whom he had a son, William), Petronilla ended up despite herself involved in what today would be classified as a case of suspected murder. At the time, however, things went differently.
Alice Kyteler, married at 17, soon became a widow in 1302, marrying again three more times, the last with a rich baronet of Kilkenny with many children already adults. Shortly after the marriage, the man began to get sick more and more often so that the sons of the man suspected it could be was the new wife who poisoning him.
Poisoning considered witchcraft
When the baronet died in 1,324 the children accused the stepmother of practicing witchcraft (as the poisoning classified as such). The local bishop, Richard de Ledrede, accused Alice, her son William and some of the servants, including the young Petronilla, of practicing witchcraft causing the death of the baronet.
Thanks to her influence, Alice was able to have the bishop arrested, taking advantage of it to escape to England, while her son William was sentenced only to some penances. Once freed, however, the bishop wanted to go to the bottom of the affair and thought well of taking it this time against those who could not defend themselves.
Petronilla confesses under torture
Petronilla de Meath was tried as Alice Kytelera witch-accomplice. After being tortured and whipped publicly along a via Crucis that crossed six parishes in Kilkenny, Petronilla confessed everything the bishop asked her.
In particular, Petronilla confessed that she and her mistress had denied Christ and the church, sacrificed animals to get the help of a demon called "the son of Art", created potions to incite people to love, hate, kill and afflict Christians.
That Alice herself had a certain demon as a nightmare from which she was possessed carnally and that appeared to her in the form of either a bristly black cat or dog or a black Ethiopian man, from whom she had obtained her wealth.
Burned at the stake at Kilkenny
Finally, that Alice had used her sorcery to kill some of her husbands and to infatuate others, with the result of having given all their belongings to her and her son. Witch hunts had not yet begun, nor had recourse to purifying bonfires, but de Ledrede wanted to give an exemplary punishment, so the bishop condemned the burning of Petronilla to the stake.
The unfortunate girl was burned alive in Kilkenny on Sunday 3 November 1324, the first person in Ireland to have been sentenced to death officially for "heresy", at the end of a process that is commonly referred to as "the process of Dame Alice Kyteler". Poor Petronilla, was not even given this last memory.