Alice of Abergavenny - Welsh warrior woman in 12th century Ireland?

June 1, 2017

Picture the scene: an army destroyed. Before the partially demolished timber walls of a fort on Ireland’s south coast, the bodies of the defeated are still strewn around the flat, grassy landscape. Outnumbered and surrounded, a small company of seventy tired survivors throw down their arms in surrender. Their heads sag to their chests as they contemplate what will become of them.

‘How long we will be imprisoned?’ one asks as they are led away at the point of a lance, their hands secured by shackles.

The men do not have to wait long to find out. The cliffs soar thirty feet above the swirling sea and it is there that they are forced to their knees. Around them their enemy argue in foreign tongues. They gesticulate in the direction of the prisoners. Their dispute gathers volume. They are arguing over what they are to do with their captives.

A scream sounds towards the back of the column of fettered men. All turn. They see the axe fall a second time. A prisoner lies dead, beheaded. The bearer of the weapon is a woman and she screams in fury as she strikes down again, taking the life of another man.

 

Of the Irish there were taken,

Quite as many as seventy,

But the noble knights,

Had them beheaded.

To a wench they gave,

An axe of tempered steel,

And she beheaded them all,

Then threw their bodies over the cliff,

Because she had that day,

Lost her lover in combat.

Alice of Abergavenny was her name,

Who served the Irish thus.

 

So goes the tale according to the author of the 13th century Song of Dermot and the Earl. A scarlet woman, driven mad by the loss of her lover, murders seventy prisoners with an axe and then cast their bodies into the sea. But can we be sure that this infamous event actually occurred at Baginbun Point in that fateful year of 1170? Did Alice of Abergavenny truly summon the strength to kill seventy Waterford warriors? Or might she shoulder the blame for a crime committed by others? Can we even be sure that she existed at all?

 

 

THE NORMAN INVASION OF IRELAND

 

In my new novel, Lord of the Sea Castle, Alice of Abergavenny plays a leading role as a member of the small company who goes to Ireland in the summer of 1170. My Alice is much changed from her small, if dramatic, appearance in The Song. Without disclosing the full story I suspect my first stop should be a recap of events leading up to the invasion.

In 1166, the King of Leinster, Diarmait Mac Murchada (anglicised as Dermot MacMurrough), was forced from his throne and into exile by a coalition of Irish nations led by High King Ruaidhrí Ua Conchobair (Rory O’Connor). Rather than face death or disfigurement, Diarmait crossed the sea to the court of King Henry II of England where he pleaded for assistance to recover his kingdom. His petition fell on deaf ears. Rather than directing money or warriors as Diarmait no doubt wanted, Henry was only willing to grant a licence for the exile to recruit from among Henry’s barons. Disappointed but undaunted, Diarmait journeyed into Wales and secured the services of two desperate and ambitious warlords: Robert FitzStephen and Richard de Clare.

The campaign in Ireland in 1169 (told in my first book, Swordland) saw Diarmait regain the throne of Leinster as well as securing the Viking town of Wexford for FitzStephen and his brothers. Richard de Clare – better remembered by history as Strongbow – took until 1170 to gather his army. Worried perhaps that FitzStephen would accomplish Diarmait’s goals before he could arrive in Ireland, he decided to send an advance force ahead of his invading army with the aim of preparing a bridgehead on the south coast. In command of this small force of 110 men was Raymond de Carew, the hero of Lord of the Sea Castle. His presence causes an army of between 2,000 and 3,000 warriors to be raised by Viking Waterford and to march south to wipe out the Norman vanguard. Against all the odds Raymond would surface from the fight as victor. The Song of Dermot and the Earl tells us that over 500 of the enemy were killed.

It is at this point that Alice appears in the tale, axe in hand and vengeance in her heart.

 

 

THE SONG OF DERMOT AND THE EARL

 

The poem from which the information on Alice of Abergavenny is based is named Le Chansun de Dermot e li Quens, or The Song of Dermot and the Earl. Its authorship was once attributed to Morice O’Regan. He had been the interpreter to the eponymous Dermot during the eventful years of the Norman invasion and had therefore been witness to all the events that had taken place. However, the most famous translator of The Song, Goddard H. Orpen, surmised in 1899 that the piece had been based around Morice’s recollections rather than written by his hand.

Whoever he was, and we will probably never know, the author’s bias towards the family of Strongbow is obvious. Anyone with a familial link to the baron is painted as chivalrous and strong in war. One instance of this is the description of Diarmait, who became father-in-law to Strongbow a few months after the Battle at Baginbun. While other sources talk of him in the most undesirable terms, The Song opens with:

 

About King Dermot I will tell you,

In Ireland, at this day,

There was no more worthy king:

Very rich and powerful he was;

He loved the generous, he hated the mean.

 

Balance that against Gerald of Wales’s description of Diarmait in Expugnatio Hibernica:

 

One who preferred to be feared rather than to be loved, who was obnoxious to his own people and an object of hatred to strangers. His hand was against every man and every man’s hand against his.

 

Despite its shortcomings, The Song really is a rather wonderful record of the invasion, an Irish equivalent of the Bayeux Tapestry, just as Baginbun could be considered our version of the Battle of Hastings. The Song’s writing has been dated to the first quarter of the 13th century, certainly before 1235. It was therefore written within the lifetime of some of those who had seen the events of the invasion first hand.

During this period it had become rather fashionable to commission works showing the great prestige of one’s family. Thus, I would contend that there are a number of possible candidates as chief mover behind the creation of The Song of Dermot and the Earl. Strongbow’s daughter, Isabel, who inherited her father’s estates (and possibly the service of Morice O’Regan?) would be one contender. She later married Sir William Marshal and certainly would’ve had the wealth to commission such a great work. Its writing would’ve come hot on the heels of her husband’s death in 1219 and perhaps this would’ve given cause for its creation. Her son, William Marshal, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, newly ascended to his vast estates, would’ve still been unsure in his position and a timely reminder of his wide family connections and power would’ve gone some way to shoring up support and preventing unrest.

Isabel died right around the time of The Song’s writing. Her son, the second earl, might therefore be a stronger candidate as the commissioner of the work. As well as having all the same reasons as his mother for commissioning such a project, he did have some history with this sort of propaganda. We know that it was the second earl who paid for the writing of L'Histoire de Guillaume le Marechal, a biography of his great father. At the time the earl faced significant political pressure from the young King Henry III’s regents as well as war with the rebellious Irish baron, Hugh de Lacy. While I suspect The Song is simply an attempt to promote the prestige of his family through the great deeds of his forefathers, I also wonder if the subject matter may also have had an allegorical aspect for the second earl. While his father had been one of the most loyal to King John during the Baronial Revolt of 1215, the second earl had supported the rebels before switching sides. That stain of rebellion only a few years before could’ve been used by the second earl’s enemies to keep him from challenging for high office. It might even have been used as the excuse to have him declared traitor. At its heart The Song of Dermot and the Earl is a story of men once considered rebels being brought into royal favour because of their great deeds. Perhaps the second earl was promoting this aspect of Strongbow’s life in order to give the crown piece of mind? At the same time L’Histoire enforced his family’s extensive, loyal service to the monarch.

There are other candidates who might have had the same desire to promote Strongbow’s memory and, through him, the esteem of their own families. In addition to Isabel Marshal, Strongbow also had two illegitimate daughters. Both married into Norman families with lands in Ireland. Aline married William FitzGerald, Lord of Naas, while her sister, who is usually named Matilda or Maud, was wedded to Robert de Quincy, Constable of Leinster, in 1171. These women, or their extended families, are amongst those who might have had the funds and connections for the creation of The Song.

My preferred candidate as commissioner of the work is connected to Strongbow through Matilda/Maud de Quincy. Philip de Prendergast’s father, Maurice, was one of the original 1169 invaders and won great renown and lands in County Wexford. While the Prendergast family had proven to be amongst the most renowned that came to Ireland, their Flemish mercenary background was not considered as distinguished as many of the others who enjoyed connections with the high nobility. Philip’s marriage to Strongbow’s grandniece (his sister Basilia's daughter), Maud de Quincy, therefore gave his family access to the greatest Norman heritage in the kingdom. Prendergast would, I am sure, have gone to great pains to emphasise this link, including, perhaps, the commissioning of an epic poem. If anything, it is the large role that Philip’s father plays within The Song that convinces me that he is a strong candidate as the poem’s commissioner. While Robert FitzStephen was the undoubted commander of the 1169 invasion, Maurice is almost given an equal standing, and even at times deals directly with King Diarmait rather than through FitzStephen. Hervey de Montmorency, an uncle of Strongbow, barely makes an appearance in The Song, and when he does he is very much considered subordinate to Prendergast.

The lines about Maurice during the action in Ossory remind me greatly of the eponymous hero in The Song of Roland, and I am sure that this is no coincidence. Maurice, of course, emerges victorious from his battle in the mountain pass, whereas Roland was defeated and killed at Roncesvalles. We even have mention of his horse, Blanchard, a white horse fit for a hero, as was Roland’s steed, Veillantif, mentioned in his epic.

I believe the most telling evidence pointing to Philip as commissioner is that he is name-checked twice in The Song, despite playing no part in those events. Even the author goes as far as to admit that he has digressed from his story!

 

Philip, a free-born baron,

De Prendergast he was called,

An illustrious liege baron.

This man was such, know ye all,

That in the morning he was peevish and irritable,

But after eating, generous and good tempered,

Courteous and liberal to all.

As soon as he had put on his cloak,

He was every day swoln with anger;

But once he had dined in the morning,

Then was not a merrier soul under heaven.

This man for a long time,

Held the constableship, according to the people,

Very renowned he was,

And loved by everybody,

Very courageous too he was,

And of very great prowess.

Concerning him I will not here relate,

To my subject I will return.

 

 

EXPUGNATIO HIBERNICA

 

The other great account of the Norman invasion of Ireland is that written by Gerald of Wales. A royal chaplain, he was chosen to accompany Prince John, the son of King Henry II, to Ireland in 1185. While that campaign proved a disaster (other than John’s truly great success in establishing the Butler family on the island), it provided Gerald with the information and setting for his great work, Expugnatio HibernicaThe Conquest of Ireland. This account was probably completed by 1189 (perhaps thirty years before The Song of Dermot and the Earl) and may even have been based around the memories of Gerald’s kinsmen who had conducted the invasion. His elder brothers, Robert and Philip de Barry, had accompanied their maternal uncle, Robert FitzStephen, to Ireland in 1169. Gerald’s first cousin was Raymond de Carew who had led Strongbow’s army at Baginbun the next year and was still living in 1185 when he visited the island.

It is strange then, given that his is such a vivid tale and was based on eye-witness accounts, that Gerald does not make mention of Alice of Abergavenny in his version of the events. In Gerald’s story, Raymond and the aforementioned Hervey de Montmorency argue over what is to be done with the Viking prisoners. Gerald places the crime firmly on Hervey’s shoulders while Raymond tries in vain to do the honourable thing and have the prisoners ransomed back to their families. In one of the grizzliest scenes committed to paper, Gerald states how the Normans broke the legs of their prisoners, casting their bodies over the edge of the cliff and into the sea below where they drowned. It is clear that whereas The Song is a pro-Strongbow account, Gerald is a champion of the Geraldines, a faction linked by shared kinship to the Welsh Princess Nest. This brood not only included Raymond and Robert FitzStephen, but also Gerald, the Barry siblings, Meiler FitzHenry, Miles FitzDavid, and the powerful FitzGerald family. While often allies of Strongbow (and Raymond was even directly in his service), the Geraldines were also rivals and keen to promote their own cause and prestige.

Gerald of Wales had no friendship for Hervey, Strongbow’s uncle. Hervey had proven a determined rival to Raymond, Gerald’s beloved cousin, throughout the era of invasion. In 1175, Hervey had even tried to convince King Henry II that Raymond intended to create his own independent kingdom in Ireland as a rival to England. Raymond had survived that scheming, and Strongbow’s death, a year later, had led Hervey to lose all his power and influence. By 1179 Hervey was, politically-speaking, a spent force and resigned all his estates to become a monk (possibly as a result of his opposition to Raymond). Thus, when Gerald was writing in 1185, Hervey was the perfect patsy for the crime back in 1170. Not even Hervey’s marriage to Raymond’s cousin could prevent him being painted as a villain and murderer of the seventy men.

To me Alice’s absence is a damning piece of evidence on the veracity of the account disclosed in The Song.

The commissioner of The Song shows his esteem for Raymond throughout, but not because he wished to defend any of the Geraldines. His loyalty was to Strongbow and sought the advancement and glorification of that family. Having ‘Uncle’ Hervey painted as a foul murderer of prisoners did nothing to increase the reputation of his faction. Gerald’s version of events simply had to be altered in The Song. As noted above, the author downplays Hervey’s role throughout the story. He makes only a handful of appearances in the narrative. This is strange, in my opinion, given his lofty position within the Norman army and the importance that Gerald places upon him. That is undoubtedly by design.

Implicating the other commander at Baginbun was not an option; Raymond had married Strongbow’s sister and was therefore above reproach. Nor could he run the risk of placing the blame on another high-ranking warrior who had served during the siege; fifty years had passed and nearly all the descendants of those who had fought at Baginbun had intermarried. Any misplaced blame on the part of the author could have caused political uproar. Letting Hervey and Raymond off the hook did leave the author of The Song with a problem – where to place the blame for the murder of seventy men?

 

 

THE ALICE OF ABERGAVENNY CONSPIRACY

 

I’ll come straight out with it. I don’t think Alice of Abergavenny ever existed. I think the evidence points to her invention in The Song of Dermot and the Earl in order to avoid blaming either Raymond or Hervey and, in so doing, maintain the dignity of the House of Strongbow. I might be completely wrong of course! Perhaps there is some reason that Gerald did not mention Alice of Abergavenny in Expugnatio Hibernica. Maybe Gerald simply wanted to place the blame on Hervey, then a rival of Raymond. It could’ve been that losing control of a woman and having her kill your prisoners was considered embarrassing for Raymond, against the codes of chivalry, and so her part was left out. I will admit to having not killed seventy men with an axe, but I have spent a few hours cutting wooden blocks and it takes some effort! Could any person accomplish this feat? I have my doubts.

Nonetheless it is upon Alice of Abergavenny’s shoulders that The Song places the blame. She is one of the few women to emerge from the primary sources relating to the Norman invasion of Ireland. She is also the only one not born to the high nobility and that fact alone makes me wish that she were based on a real person. A wench or camp follower, possibly a serving girl or a concubine, more likely a prostitute, other than that described in those short verses of The Song, nothing is known about her. It is true that few armies would’ve marched without women amongst their ranks, though in this period many of the menial tasks would’ve been performed by pages and esquires. Even the identity of her supposed lover is never disclosed.

While her first name would be considered French in derivation, her surname infers that her home town was Abergavenny. A frontier castle in Wales, founded by a Norman adventurer shortly after the conquest of England, between the 1170s and 1230 it was the possession of the powerful Braose dynasty. Thus, see is identified as a person without any direct connection with Strongbow’s home at Chepstow. In fact The Song places her origin in a town belonging to a rival dynasty. I wonder if this is also deliberate.

There is a long history in Ireland (and elsewhere) of vilifying women, usually by giving them male physical characteristics and making them bloodthirsty, if not downright murderous. Even from my own family this ploy has been used. Rohesia de Verdon, the wife of one Theobald Butler, was said to have killed the man who had designed Castleroche in County Louth in order to protect its secrets while Margaret, Countess of Ormond, was said to have been a witch and to have hung her enemies from the battlements of Grannagh Castle. Think also of the stories about Isabella of France, the wife of King Edward II, and Margaret of Anjou, the consort to King Henry VI. It was this same sexist impulse which I believe saw the fictitious Alice replace Raymond and Hervey as murderer.

Her identification as ‘wench’ probably stems from the same compulsion.

However it came about, the murder of their captives was a war crime, an affront to the chivalry of which Raymond and Hervey were no doubt well versed. As with King Henry V’s murder of prisoners during the Battle of Agincourt, there may have been reasons, brutal though they were, for this act, but the sources, content to have shifted the blame, give no suggestion of this. It is left only to the author of The Song to outline the Normans’ reasoning for permitting Alice to kill the prisoners:

 

In order to disgrace the Irish

The knights did this.

And the Irish of the district

Were discomfited in this way.

To their country they returned

Discomfited and outdone.

 

 

Song by Irish group Mael Mordha called Bloody Alice (of Abergravenny)

 

 

Ruadh: I hope you enjoyed this piece! Alice of Abergavenny plays a large role in my new book, Lord of the Sea Castle, which is published today by Accent Press.

If you'd like to read an English translation of The Song of Dermot and the Earl - and I really think that you should do so - click HERE.

You can also pick up a copy of Lord of the Sea Castle HERE (US) or HERE (UK).

 

 

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