The Norman Conquest began in 1066 and was led by William the Duke of Normandy (later known as William the Conquerer). William was once promised to be the next King of England; however, he was to be denied when King Edward of England selected a successor who was not William.
When King Edward died, English nobleman Harold Godwinson was crowned the King of England in January 1066. King Harold’s claim was challenged by not only William but Harald III of Norway and Harold’s brother Tostig. Feeling slighted, William decided to invade England to overtake the throne. This invasion changed the politics, economics, and society of England forever.
While the Norman Invasion is generally associated with the conquering of England, the Norman Invasion in Ireland was brutal. The Anglo-Normans took large amounts of land from the Irish as land belonging to England while killing and suppressing the people of Ireland. It is in Ireland that one of the most gruesome battles took place in Ireland, and it is where Alice the Vicious came to be.
Alice the Vicious
Not much is known about Alice the Vicious’s life, but we know that she was a Welsh-Norman (Norse-Gaelic, or Irish) servant from Abergavenny, south Wales. It is believed that she was in her 20’s in 1170, when she earned the nickname “Alice the Vicious.”
She earned this name as a result of her bloody revenge. It all started with her lover and her betrothed being killed in a battle that took place at Dún Domhnaill (now known as Baginbun Head in Wexford).
The Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland had begun in Bannow Bay in May 1169. The Anglo-Normans who invaded were led by Robert FitzStephen and Maurice de Pendergast, and was considered the most organized military force in the West at the time.
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A year later, in 1170, a second troop of Anglo-Normans led by Raymond le Gros landed at Baginbun, located to the south of the Fethard-on-Sea along the Hook Head peninsula in Wexford. The exact number of Anglo-Normans is uncertain, but two accounts of what happened that day stated that 100 invaders or ten knights and 70 archers arrived and began quickly assembling a fort.
The Anglo-Normans began “plundering the countryside” (one account says that the invaders began stealing cattle, while the other doesn’t mention cattle at all), which angered the Irish. In revenge, they decided to destroy the Anglo-Norman fort.
The Irish force was around 3,000 – 4,000 men and women, which was far more than enough to defeat the 100 or 80 Anglo-Norse invaders multiple times over. In one account of the event known as The Song of Dermot and the Earl from the early 13th century, Raymond le Gros gathered his troops and quickly devised a plan as he began to see the approaching Irish.
Raymond was said to have ordered the fort’s gates to be opened, which released all of the cattle they had captured to stampede out into the Irish army. The chaos of the stampede caused the Irish to break ranks which allowed an opening for Raymond to attack. This account of the battle describes that the disorder was too much for the Irish, and they eventually retreated. The Anglo-Normans won the battle.
The second account of this event comes from Expugnatio Hibernica by Gerald of Wales. According to Gerald, the Anglo-Normans knew they were outnumbered and retreated into their fort, but somehow some of the defending Irish managed to get into the fort with the Anglo-Normans.
Raymond saw that his men were in a perilous position, and rather than surrendering, he urged his men to attack. Gerald wrote, “So since the fortunes of war are always uncertain, those who 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.”
But what does any of this have to do with Alice?
The Brutality of Alice the Vicious
At the time, it was typical for Norman Marcher Lords to take their lovers or spouses and children with them in a campaign. This is why Alice and her betrothed were amongst the thousands of Irish people who attacked the Anglo-Norman fort.
What exactly happened to Alice’s lover is unknown, but he was killed in the battle, leaving Alice heartbroken. While the Irish lost the battle, they were able to capture 70 of the Anglo-Normans as prisoners. There was a discussion about what they were going to do with these prisoners, and they came to two options. The first option was to kill all of them, and the second option was to use the prisoners as hostages and ransom them back to the Anglo-Normans.
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Furious that her betrothed had been killed, Alice stepped forward and said they should kill the prisoners, and she “didn’t mind killing them herself.” According to The Song of Dermot and the Earl, “They gave an axe of tempered steel to a servant girl who beheaded them all and threw their 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.”
Gerald of Wales’ Expugnatio Hibernica describes the killings of the Anglo-Normans slightly differently. The Irish decided the prisoners would have their limbs broken, lose their heads, and cast their bodies off a cliff that overlooked the sea. In this account of the battle, there is no mention of an Alice of Abergavenny.
Although only one of the two accounts of this event mentions an Alice of Abergavenny, it does not give her the name Alice the Vicious. So where does the name come from? In articles written about Alice the Vicious, she earned her title of the Vicious because of the violence and ferocity with which she slaughtered 70 men and then kicked their headless corpses off a cliff into the sea.
This feels like a later title: it is important to recognize that this event occurred in 1170, and only one mention of Alice the Vicious comes from an account written in the 13th century. It is impossible to definitively say that Alice the Vicious ever even existed or that she did the things of which she was accused.
The lack of any information about what happened to Alice the Vicious is said to be because she was just a servant, her life was not deemed “notable enough” to have been recorded officially and after the battle, she went back to a life of servitude and disappeared into anonymity in history. While the story of Alice the Vicious is a terrific narrative about love and revenge, it is likely that she never existed, and the lack of primary sources supports that conclusion.
Top Image: Alice the Vicious killed the Norman prisoners as revenge for the death of her betrothed. Source: Fxquadro / Adobe Stock.