Were there heretics in medieval Ireland?

Ireland has been portrayed as country free of heresy – one fourteenth-century official called it the ‘Island of Saints.’ However, a new article shows that while Ireland did not have large-scale outbreaks of heresy such as the Cathars, there were several documented episodes of heresy.


In her article, “Heresy in Ireland in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries”, Bernadette Williams uncovers some cases where people were accused and convicted of heresy, including insulting the Virgin Mary and denying the Jesus was the son of God. One of the earliest examples comes in 1256, when the bishop of Raphoe reported to the Pope Alexander IV that heresy was occurring in his diocese. The Pontiff wrote back to the bishop, revealing details of what was going on:

have reported that some laymen of your diocese have been spurred on by the devil to such a pitch of insanity that they not only worship idols but marry their own kinfolk and relations. Moreover, if they are rebuked for such excesses by you … they have the temerity to argue, like sons of perdition, against the catholic faith and against that authority which has been divinely bestowed upon the apostolic see. In short, their wickedness goes as far as to devise plots for the assassination of those who censure their conduct.

Pope Benedict XII had similar misgivings about the people in the diocese of Ossory. In 1335, he wrote to King Edward III to complain that these people:

asserted that Jesus Christ was a mere man and a sinner, and was justly crucified for His own sins … others thought otherwise of the sacrament of the Body of Christ than the catholic church teaches, saying that the same venerable sacrament is by no means to be worshipped; and also asserting that they are not bound to obey or believe the decrees, decretals and apostolic mandates.

Williams also deals with several cases where individuals were accused of heresy, including the case of Philip Braydock, an Augustinian canon in Dublin. In 1310 he was accused of falling into heresy a second time by Thomas de Chedworth, the dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in that same city. Williams notes that two men had an ongoing dispute for more than ten years over ecclesiastical offices, which likely prompted Chedworth to make the accusation. Braydock did confess to the heresy (although we never learn of what he actually had done) and was made to go to “the places where he had promulgated his error, to revoke it and teach the catholic faith in the presence of Cheddiswowre and other learned men.” After he finished that he was sentenced to one year imprisonment in a priory in Dublin, with only one meal a day.

Princes, prelates and poets in medieval IrelandThe article appears in Princes, prelates and poets in medieval Ireland: Essays in honour of Katharine Simms. Edited by Seán Duffy, this book contains over thirty articles that examine Ireland in the Middle Ages. Click here to visit Four Courts Press for more details about this book.

Bernadette Williams, who earned a PhD from Trinity College, has authored several articles on medieval Ireland, including its ecclesiastical history. In 2010 she also gave a lecture in Dublin on the topic The Heretic’s Tale: Adam Duff O’Toole. You can watch the lecture below.

See also her article The Sorcery Trial of Alice Kyteler

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

medievalverse magazine