The Woman Who Beheaded 70 Men
The Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland had its share of bloody moments, but perhaps none so macabre as the Battle of Baginbun Head and the actions of Alice of Abergavenny.
Much of what we know about the events of the Anglo-Norman invasion comes from two sources - Gerald of Wales’ Expugnatio Hibernica, and an early 13th century Anglo-Norman verse chronicle traditionally called The Song of Dermot and the Earl. Both offer lengthy accounts of the conflict in Ireland, confirming each other in some places, but differing in other episodes.
Both sources explain how in the spring of 1170 a force of English soldiers under the command of Raymond le Gros landed at a place called Baginbun Head on the southeast coast of Ireland, near the town of Waterford. The force was small - one account says it was a hundred men, while the other states it was made up of ten knights and seventy archers - and they quickly started to build a small fort to protect themselves against the Irish. However, they also began to plunder the countryside and seize cattle, prompting the men of Waterford and another town to set out to destroy the invaders’ fort.
The Irish force was between three and four thousand strong, more than a match for the small Anglo-Norman garrison. However, according to The Song of Dermot and the Earl, Raymond rallied his followers and came up with a plan. He ordered the fort’s gates to be open and had the captured cows stampede out into the Irish army. Using the confusion, Raymond attacked:
They rushed upon the Irish
in a very short space of time.
The Irish could not withstand them:
they were obliged to break ranks,
and Raymond and his Englishmen
rushed between the Irish.
Because their ranks were broken,
the Irish were thrown into such disarray
that their last company fled
in this confusion.
Gerald of Wales offers a very different account of how the battle was won by the Anglo-Norman invaders. No cattle were involved, and it started with Raymond le Gros leading his men out of the fort to do battle:
But because such a small force, though an excellent one, could not withstand such large numbers on level ground, they turned back to their camp. In their haste to enter it, they allowed the enemy, who were pursuing them from behind, inside the doors, which had not been completely hung up on their hinges. But when Raymond saw that he and his men were in a difficult position, or rather in the direst straits, he turned bravely to face the enemy, and in the very doorway transfixed with his sword the first to enter. With a loud shout, this one blow and valiant rally he called his own men back to resume the defence and excited a fearful panic among the enemy. So, since the fortunes of war are always uncertain, those who had seemed to be vanquished suddenly became the victors and pursued the enemy, who had turned back in flight and were now scattered all over the plains, with such a massive slaughter that they killed five hundred more there and then.
The battle was soon over, and although most of the Irish had retreated, both accounts revealed that seventy of their number had been captured. According to The Song of Dermot and the Earl, this is what happened next:
Up to seventy Irishmen
were taken prisoner
and the brave knights
had them beheaded.
They gave an axe of tempered steel
to a servant girl
who beheaded them all
and then threw the bodies over the cliff,
for she had lost her lover
that day in the battle.
The girl who served the Irish thus
was called Alice of Abergavenny.
The Expugnatio Hibernica gives a longer account, where the Anglo-Norman troops debated amongst themselves over whether they should execute their prisoners or to ransom them back to the people of Waterford. The former opinion won out, and “the citizens were condemned to die, their limbs broken, and they were consigned to the cliff overlooking the sea.” Alice of Abergavenny does not make an appearance in Gerald of Wales’ version of events.
While it is difficult to know what exactly happened at the Battle of Baginbun Head, the Anglo-Norman victory and their shocking treatment of the Irish prisoners would mark how the invasion of Ireland would become a bitter and violent struggle. You can read about the Norman Invasion of Ireland in the latest issue of Medieval Warfare.
The latest translation of The Song of Dermot and the Earl is by Evelyn Mullally, who calls the text The Deeds of the Normans in Ireland. It was published by Four Courts Press in 2002. Gerald of Wales’ Expugnatio Hibernica: The Conquest of Ireland, was translated by A.B. Scott and F.X. Martin for the Royal Irish Academy in 1978. You can also read an earlier translation of this text on Archive.org.
I am featuring Alice of Abergavenny in a crime novel I will be publishing in May 2023.