The Secret of Kells

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The Augustinian order has been mentioned here more than once. Like the Franciscans, Augustinian friars were responsible for building some of Ireland’s best-preserved mediaeval monastic settlements, and also like the Franciscans their presence was particularly encouraged by Anglo-Norman settlers. The first Augustinians are believed to have arrived in Dublin some time before 1280 (the non-mendicant congregation known as Canons Regular of St Augustine had earlier been introduced into the country by St Malachy) and were settled in several other places by 1300. During this period and almost until the end of the 14th century, Augustinian houses could be found almost exclusively in areas where the Normans had established a presence. The invaders wanted religious speaking their tongue to run schools and already-extant houses tended to teach in Gaelic. This explains why the Augustinians were slower than other religious orders (such as the Cistercians or, again, the Franciscans) to spread throughout the country and also why the Irish houses continued for so long to be governed by the English province. Eventually in the 1390s the Irish Augustinians rebelled against this control and were granted greater privileges of self-government. Further expansion followed, including the establishment of a further eight friaries in Connaught.

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Spread over more than three acres, the Augustinian Kells Priory, County Kilkenny is today one of the largest surviving mediaeval religious settlements in Ireland. It was founded on the banks of the King’s River in 1193 by Geoffrey FitzRobert; he had already established a church here a decade earlier. An Anglo-Norman knight, FitzRobert was married first to Basilia, sister of Richard de Clare (otherwise known as Strongbow) and then to Eve de Bermingham, widow of Gerald FitzMaurice, first Lord of Offaly (making her the forebear of the Dukes of Leinster). FitzRobert became known as Baron of Kells around 1204 when he was also appointed Seneschal (administrative officer) of Leinster. In his confirmatory charter to Kells Abbey he declared that he had founded the friary ‘for the salvation of my own soul and the souls of my predecessor and successors; for the honor of God and the Blessed Virgin; for the spiritual welfare of my Lord, William Marshall’ – who had advised the foundation and consented to it – and ‘at the desire and with consent of my wife Eva.’ In line with other Augustinian houses of the period, the first friars came from England, from Bodmin Priory in Cornwall.

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One of the most notable events associated with Kells Priory was a Lenten visitation made to the establishment by Richard de Ledrede, Bishop of Offaly in 1324. An English-born Franciscan, de Ledrede had been appointed to his diocese seven years earlier by the Avignon Pope John XXII. The bishop appears to have been caught up in a family feud that chimed with his own wish to prosecute heretics. In the nearby city of Kilkenny, a wealthy merchant woman, the four-times married Alice Kyteler, had been accused by her third husband’s children of practicing witchcraft (cited as a heresy in a papal bull issued by John XXII the following year). Among the activities in which it was said she engaged were regular carnal relations with a demon. Alice’s son from her first marriage, William Outlawe was also named as being engaged in not dissimilar practices to those of his mother. The two were ordered to appear before de Ledrede and answer the charges brought against them. However, Alice went to Dublin where she sought support from the Chancellor of Ireland, one Roger Outlaw, presumably a relative of her late husband. Meanwhile her son William found help from the Lord of Kells, Arnold le Poer (tellingly, Alice Kyteler’s fourth husband was also a member of the le Poer family). Ignoring the consequences, Arnold le Poer arrested Bishop de Ledrede and imprisoned him in Kilkenny Castle for seventeen days, until the date for William Outlaw’s appointed appearance before the ecclesiastical court passed. What had begun as a trial for witchcraft now became a battle between the secular and religious authority: Arnold le Poer for example, described de Ledrede as ‘some vagabond from England.’ Ultimately, however, the so-called vagabond proved victorious. Alice Kyteler fled the country, her son confessed to heresy and was obliged to do penance, and a family servant, one Petronilla de Midia was flogged and burnt at the stake, the first person in Ireland to suffer this fate.

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Kells Priory is sometimes known as Seven Castles due to the tower houses found around its outer walls which give it a fortress-like appearance. The towers were probably constructed in the 15th century but would have been of more assistance earlier, since on three occasions the place suffered from assault. The priory was first attacked and burnt by William de Bermingham in 1252, then by a Scottish force under Edward Bruce in 1326, and the following year by another member of the de Bermingham family.
Now the site appears divided into two sections, a lower to the north and closer to the river, this being the priory proper. It was rightly dominated by a church opening off the central cloister although today the most powerful presence is that of the 15th century Prior’s Tower to the immediate east: this has been extensively reconstructed and re-roofed, and rises higher than any of the other surrounding structures. To the south and on higher ground a large enclosure with five towers was developed in the 15th century, presumably in response to increasing lawlessness in the area. Known as Burgess Court, this section was once thought to have contained a mediaeval lay settlement but that does not appear to have been the case. More likely it was used to protect lifestock, and indeed the occupants of the adjacent priory.
Visitors to Kells today often comment on how they find themselves alone, despite the proximity of Kilkenny city and the scale of the ruins. Intermittently efforts are made to encourage greater interest in the site, but a large part of its appeal would be lost were the place to be overly-frequented. Best to come and discover for yourself the secret of Kells.

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6 comments on “The Secret of Kells

  1. rowingguy says:

    Wonderful blog on Kells; I visited a few months ago and there was so little information on the board in the car park. Having read your research, it makes it all the more interesting…and a reason for another visit.

    Can I recommend a visit to Athassel Friary near Golden in Tipperary as well. Like Kells, it was founded by the Normans and run by the Augustinians. Local historian Carmel O’Donnell gave us a great tour there recently.

  2. Thom Hickey says:

    Thanks for such a characteristically informative and fascinating post. I must go there! Regards Thom.

  3. wildninja says:

    I’m especially fond of that last shot.

  4. michael says:

    Many thanks for your post. I visited last Summer and yes the place was deserted. Lovely countryside all around to wander through. Michael

  5. Brad Mikler says:

    Shortly thereafter, the Vikings invade Kells, and Cellach watches in horror as his wall falls. Brendan and Aidan manage to escape by using smoke from the gall berry ink, confusing the raiders when they burst into the scriptorium.

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