Natural Connections: Niamh Boyce’s Her Kind
In 1324, Dame Alice Kytler, imprisoned by Richard Ledrede, Bishop of Ossory, became the first woman in Ireland to be tried for heretical sorcery. Author Niamh Boyce had been familiar with the story since her childhood – the witch locked up long ago in nearby Kilkenny Castle. Yet this was far from the extent of the true history, as Boyce soon learned.
“Alice Kytler is the name associated with the tale locally,” says Boyce, “but few ever mention her maid, Petronelle. It was Petronelle, and how little-known she was, that first intrigued me. I began working on a sequence of poems about her. I began to research further, and I was hooked. At that stage, I realized my poetry sequence was turning into a novel.”
This novel is as much the tale of Petronelle as it is Alice Kytler. Petronelle is a Gael, and when her village is decimated, she flees with her teenaged daughter, Basilia, to the safety provided by Alice, a Flemish childhood friend who is now a burgess in Hightown. Alice is an interesting characterization on many levels, one of which is the power she wields. Boyce explains, “Kytler was a revelation: a wealthy, powerful, influential moneylender who ruled the roost in 14th-century Kilkenny. We would never have known she existed had Ledrede not accused her of such notorious crimes. When it comes to women in history, modern prejudices often lead to skewed interpretations. There are contemporary accounts of Dame Kytler being red-haired, young, and seductive – deducing that her wealth and multiple husbands were due to ‘feminine’ wiles. She was at least sixty at the time of the trial, so grey hair was more likely than red. And marriage was a business transaction amongst merchant families, so hot or not, her husbands were more likely to have been attracted by her power than anything else. She was in possession of enormous wealth by the standards of the time; King Edward was one of her debtors. A strong individual, a moneylender, an intelligent woman managing a profitable business – here was a woman whose power was of her own making.”
Yet how Alice exercises that power is anything but admirable. Medieval Ireland was a melting pot: there was culture clash, oppression, immense wealth disparity. “It fascinated me,” says Boyce, “that there were so many languages in the town, so many types of people. It was a cultural hive. Everything in the book had a starting point in some fact, a name or a detail. Especially telling were the Customs Rolls of the time. While fine items such as saffron, figs and linen were arriving on ships to supply the towns, famines were plaguing the rest of the countryside.” Gaels are forbidden in English-controlled Hightown, and Alice takes full advantage of it: the price she extracts from Petronelle for protection is high. Alice forcibly removes Petronelle’s identity: she must answer to a new name, wear different clothes, and is forbidden even to speak her own language. It is from this theme of identity that the novel takes its title. Boyce says, “It was a place where she, and her kind of person – the native Irish – were seen as a threat. How strange that must be, to be cast as the outsider, the foreigner, in your own native country.” Rather than anger, Petronelle’s initial reaction is telling: “I felt a stab of loneliness for my own people.” Boyce notes, “It’s incredibly lonely to have to pretend that you are other than who you are. Petronelle assumed the subjugation would be for a short time, that she would soon leave, that she and her daughter could remain unchanged — but she underestimated her environment, she had underestimated Alice. She didn’t realize what she was about to sacrifice.”
Alice’s haughty refusal to pay taxes to the church draws the ire of the local bishop, Richard Ledrede. With three of Alice’s husbands already buried and the current fourth seriously ill, the bishop is sure sorcery must be at work, and he can use it to his advantage for extortion. Boyce employs some of the dialogue from the historical Ledrede’s own account, which has been preserved in the Bodleian Library. But unlike Petronelle and Basilia, who speak in the first-person, Ledrede is only observed omnisciently. “It was a very conscious decision to tell the story from the voices of the women involved. His version has been heard. It’s not his turn to tell the story,” says Boyce.
Boyce warns against giving individuals like Ledrede a pass based on “the times.” She says, “The thing that repels most was his malice. People often make excuses for ‘historical’ cases such as this, but we must remember, every one of Ledrede’s contemporaries, including his superiors, opposed his actions. His actions were not the norm, or common at the time. It was unheard of that someone be accused of witchcraft in Ireland. It was the first time that anyone was burnt at the stake for heretical sorcery in the British Isles. It was incredibly cruel, deliberate, and unusual.”
Ledrede isn’t the only character capable of deliberate cruelty. Alice exerts her power over Petronelle in terrible ways, one of which is to groom Basilia to favor and trust her mistress over the mother who loves her more than life itself. The biggest challenge with this story was, Boyce notes, “deciding what to leave in and what to leave out. There was so much in the real case, so many characters and related events – all intriguing. Yet, I knew at a certain stage that I couldn’t include everything and still keep the story of Petronelle central.” And it is Petronelle’s experience and perspective which truly ground this story. “For me, the mother-daughter dynamic is central,” says Boyce. “This world, and religious institutions, then and now, often damage the natural connections between women. The world is hard on mothers. Daughters are hard on mothers. Mothers are hard on themselves. Basillia touches on this when remembering a time with Petronelle – ‘when I was child enough to love her, just for being my mother.’” Sorcery, religion, politics, greed, privilege, power – all pale in comparison to what one finds at the heart of this story: that natural connection, the love of a mother for her child.
About the Contributor: Bethany Latham is HNR‘s Managing Editor.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 88 (May 2019)