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    Prior and bishop in contention

From the fourteenth century, without the patronage of a resident lord or the link with Bodmin, the priory became dependant on the support of the episcopacy. For the bishops, monastic possession had become a symbol of power.
In 1466 the priory was granted to the Bishop of Emly, William O'Hetingan (alternatively O'Hedian or O'Hayden), at his own request and primarily to augment his declining income. In imposing his authority on the priory, the bishop removed elected prior Nicholas White from office. The ensuing struggle for control of the priory between bishop and canons, who continued to elect priors according to their founding charter, caused a scandalous neglect of worship.
On the death of Nicholas White, in about 1469 while still contesting his removal, two further contenders for election as prior were selected by the canons. Local man Nicholas Jon was elected but he too was removed. He and his family appear to have received one of the towers in Burgess Court in compensation, and a Nicholas Johne was still in residence in 1540. Another local man, Edmund Stapleton (son of a canon and the man who complained about declining worship!), was also elected for a short while before being bought-off by the bishop.
Not until John Karne's election in 1474 was control returned to the canons - though in contest with yet another bishop at first.

The Bishop and the witch

Occasionally the priory played a small part in wider political events - some quite notorious. In 1324 the then bishop of Ossory, Richard de Ledrede, made a Lenten visitation to the priory. This followed shortly after an inquisition into the activities of a sect of Kilkenny heretics led by an Anglo-Norman lady, Alice Kyteler. Among those charged was a William Outlaw! When ordered to appear before the bishop to answer charges of witchcraft he turned for support to the seneschal of Kilkenny (and lord of Kells), Arnold le Poer. The two men came to the priory during the bishops visitation in what proved a fruitless attempt to have the charges dropped.
Undeterred, le Poer made alternative plans. When Bishop Ledrede left the priory and entered Kells on the following morning he was arrested by an armed band captained by Stephen le Poer (presumably a relative of Arnold). The bishop was taken to Kilkenny Castle and imprisoned there for seventeen days, taking him out of circulation until after the day appointed for William Outlaw's appearance had passed. Imprisonment of the bishop, a novel experience in Ireland at the time, caused a tremendous scandal amongst the population of the city.
Following his release and despite further strong opposition, Bishop Ledrede successfully prosecuted the heretics in June of the same year. Alice Kyteler fled to England and remained there. Another sect member, Alice Smith, also fled but her mother, Petronella de Meath, had the dubious distinction of becoming Ireland's first heretic to be burnt at the stake! William Outlaw at first recanted and escaped punishment, but a subsequent relapse saw him sentenced to a fine combined with a form of community service - the re-roofing of much of St Canice's cathedral roof with lead.
Arnold le Poer did not escape this cycle of retribution. He was excommunicated by Bishop Ledrede for the heresy implicit in his support of the Kilkenny heretics and imprisoned in Dublin Castle. On his death in 1329 (or 1331) he was refused absolution and his remains were unburied for some time.
Bishop Ledrede's pursuit of religious orthodoxy only brought him thirty years of persecution at the hands of those who had opposed his action. He was eventually forced into exile to Avignon to seek the support of Pope Benedict XII. The pope's written interventions with King Edward III finally led to the bishop's return to his diocese.

By the second quarter of the fourteenth century the political map of Kilkenny had changed. Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester and last of his line, was killed at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Following his death Kilkenny was divided between three heiresses who had married into the noble English families of Despencer, de Audeley and Damrnory. These lords remained absent from Ireland, leaving Kilkenny to be governed by seneschals appointed from the local Anglo-Norman gentry.
Geoffrey fitz Robert's line had died out by 1312. The successor lords of Kells, beginning with Arnold le Poer (the seneschal of Kilkenny), stayed away from the lordship. Altogether Kells was successively held by four families during the course of the fourteenth century. Arnold's son Eustace forfeited the lordship when he was hanged, drawn and quartered in 1346 and it passed to Lord Walter de Bermingham. Later it passed on to the Prestons.
The absence of de Clare's successors saw the collapse of feudal authority in Kilkenny, replaced by competition and open feuding between the minor lords. The burning of Kells in 1327 was the direct consequence of a major feud along the Tipperary-Kilkenny border between Arnold le Poer and Walter de Bermingham. In 1344 the seneschal of Kilkenny mounted a retaliatory raid into Tipperary. By 1421 the canons of Kells were complaining that the constant warring had reduced their income from churches and chapels to a level insufficient to support the priory. In 1446 the prior had to protest again about the burning and destruction of scores of towns and churches during a raid by the Earl of Desmond and his Irish allies. The relative power vacuum in Kilkenny was gradually filled by the Butler earls of Ormond. Already significant tenants of the de Clares in Munster and Leinster, the Butlers steadily acquired land throughout Kilkenny during the early years of the fourteenth century. Towards the end of the century they bought the Despencer inheritance, including Kilkenny Castle, and moved their power-base there from an increasingly unruly Tipperary. In 1402 Theobald Butler was appointed sheriff of the county, finally uniting it under the jurisdiction of the Butlers. Early in the fifteenth century the lordship of Kells also passed into the hands of the Butlers.

A creeping militarisation

To defend his lordships of Kilkenny and Tipperary against regional unrest the earl of Ormond created a standing army of Irish kerns (lightly armed foot-soldiers) commanded by Anglo-Norman captains. To maintain this army he reintroduced the pre-Norman practice of 'coign and livery' under which soldiers, horses and grooms could be billeted on his tenants, and fed by them, without compensation. By 1417 Ormond's deputy and lord of Kells, Thomas Butler, was already billeting fifteen 'battles' of kerns (perhaps 1200 men) and their captains on the populations of Kilkenny and Tipperary. Unfortunately the practice of raising'coign and livery' armies spread to the lesser gentry, actually contributing to disorder. As the situation got out of control, James Butler, Fourth earl (the White Earl), was forced to summon two public meetings, in 1428 or 1435 and again between 1447 and 1449, to try and limit 'coign and livery' by licensing it. His aim was to restrict the practice to forces raised by him alone for the defence of his lordship, something acceptable to and sanctioned by the population.21 The need for a second meeting shows that the licensing system was widely disregarded from the beginning.
The absence from Ireland of the White Earl in the years before his death in 1452 and the continued absence of his successors until well into the sixteenth century saw a rapid descent into political instability throughout the region.5 The Ormond lordship was governed during this prolonged absence by deputies appointed from the continually feuding junior branches of the Butler family, often leading to open warfare which threatened the integrity of the lordship. Not surprisingly 'coign and livery' became even more widely adopted at all levels of society, including by the lords of the church.