Female warriors in the Middle Ages

Female warriors, duelists and military commanders of the Middle Ages (5th – 14th century)

Piracy during the 5th – 9th centuries was predominately a male activity, but there is a minority of historical female pirates especially during the Norman or Viking period.

5th Century CE – Princess Sela was the sister of Koller, king of Norway. She was a skilled warrior and pirate. She fought against King Horwendil, and was later killed by him c.420 CE

529 CE – Princess Halima was the daughter of King al-Harit and princess of the Ghassan kingdom. In an act of revenge she led a battle against the Lakhmids who had sacrificed her brother to their goddess.

530 CE – Tomyris was the leader of an Iranian nomadic tribe called the Massagetae; her exploits were recorded by historians like Herodotus and thus passed into legend. Her stories however have been recorded both in history books and in paintings. The Persian Emperor of the time, Cyrus (the Great) attempted unsuccessfully to subjugate the Massagetae. He decided to entrap the Massagetae, by leaving a camp full of wine, the Massagetae now drunk allowed the Persians to attack with little resistance and captured them. One of the captured was Tomyris’s son, when he realised his mistake he committed suicide. Tomyris was so furious at this deception she demanded a fight on equal grounds with Cyrus. Her wish was granted and she led a successful army that slaughtered the Persians, Tomyris chopping of the head of Cyrus, which she apparently then kept and used as a wine glass.

535 – 552 CE – In the Gothic war Procopius writes of an English Princess, referred to as ‘the Island Girl’. She is said to have led an invasion of part of Jutland, where she captured the young king, Radigis, who had jilted her after their betrothal.

590 CE – The Christian Synod of Druim Cett ordered that British women should no longer go into battle alongside their men. This ban probably had little effect, and traditions such as sword dancing which was taught by women remained.

6th Century CE An elite Saxon female burial is discovered in Lincolnshire, England. The burial goods contain a knife and a shield; showing possible signs of a female warrior.

598 – 623 CE – Princess Zhao Pingyang of China, was the daughter of Emperor Gaozu of Tang (founding emperor of the Tang Dynasty). Zhao helps her father overthrow the Sui Dynasty, during his campaigns Zhao formed a women’s army, commanded by her she helped to capture the Sui capital of Chang’an.

624 CE – Hind al-Hunnud was known as the ‘Battle Queen’, and a member of the Quarish tribe of the kingdom of Kindah. She helped in the battle against Muhammad. In Arabic culture women played an important role in battle, some of the earliest roots of Arabic culture lay in the cult of the ‘battle queen’ and of tribal warfare. The battle queen mounted upon a camel led the armies into battle. In a more no combat role the battle queen sometimes only served as a symbolic function, that of goddess or commander in chief or field general. When fighting had commenced the battle queen always occupied the centre battle, with her accompanying retinue. Hind al-Hunnud fought the prophet Mohammad in the Battle of Badr in 724, and accounts describe her as ‘brandishing a broadsword with great gusto’.

625 – 705 CE – Wu Chao, known as ‘The Empress Wu’, is considered to have been one of the most powerful women in history. Crucially important is the fact that she was able to rise to such an important position at a time when women where confined to the realms of the family. Wu is said to have been the de facto power behind her Emperor husband, upon his death she then ruled alone. She is said to have been a forceful, innovative and ruthless leader, with the dismissal, exile or execution of any of her opponents. Her navy led a decisive victory at sea which ended China’s long running war with Korea, and her army won many battles over any her rivals, Wu herself surviving several assassination attempts. Her reign insured decades of peace and prosperity and it is said that no other woman except for Elizabeth I and Catherine the Great, retained so much power, over such a vast Empire.

625 CE – Nusaybah bint Ka’ab, was not only an early convert to Islam, but was the first female to take up arms in its defence. She took part in the Battle of Hunain, the Battle of Yamama, the Battle of Uhud, and the Treaty of Hudaibiyah. A devotee of Muhammad, he is quoted as saying that wherever he turned in the battlefield, Nusaybah was there defending and protecting him. At the Battle of Uhud she shielded Muhammad from enemy arrows, and received several wounds whilst fighting.

c.632 – 705 CE – Apranik was the daughter of a Persian general, and herself a Persian Sassanid High Ranking Commander. When the Arabs attacked Persia, Apranik commanded a major battalion against the invaders. When the Sassanid Empire began to crumble Apranik was eventually killed, but remained a rebellious fighter until her death. Her white horse remains a symbol of freedom.

639 CE – Negan was a female guerrilla commander for the Sassanid Empire; she was one of the major resistance fighters against the Arab invasion. Neither born into nobility or military trained fighting only out of belief, Negan led a band of resistance fighters and died in battle a year after the invasion.

7th century CE – Dahia Al-kahina was a military leader of the Berbers and came to be known as leader of the African resistance. The Arabs had seized Cyrenaica, Egypt and Tripoli, and as the invasion spread Kusaila, leader of the Berbers was defeated and killed. Dahia then created a united front against the Arab invaders and counter-attacking them at every turn, she even drove them at one point to be holed up in Cyrenaica (Libya) for about 4 to 5 years. The Arabs regrouped and Dahia was eventually defeated in a battle somewhere in present day Algeria. It is still not clear as to whether Dahia died in battle, committed suicide, or was executed.

7th century CE – Khawlah Bint al-Kindiyyah was a woman warrior, who with the help from her female captains led an Arab army and stopped a Greek invasion of their homeland. The two armies met at Yermonks, the Arabs looking poorly organised against the disciplined Greeks. However in true battle queen style Khawlah and the other women captains – Oserrah, Alfra’Bint Ghifar al-Humayriah and Wafeira rallied the men and led them into the centre of the battle field. When a Greek soldier knocked Khawlah to the ground, Wafeira sliced his head off with a sword, and holding it high she inspired the soldiers to victory. Khawlah and her captains were later captured in a battle close to Damascus. Angered by the confiscation of their weapons and the treatment they received, the women led a charge against their Greek captors by using tent poles as weapons and successfully escaped.

722 CE – Queen Aethelburgh was the wife of King Ine of Wessex. In 722, she is said to have destroyed Taunton, (which her husband Ine had built earlier in his reign), in an attempt to find the rebel Ealdbert

c.730s CE (active in) – Parsbit (also as Prisbit) was a Khazar noblewoman called ‘the mother of the Khagan’. What is known about her life is that she was said to have wielded enormous power, commanding armies, such as the expeditionary force that was led against Armenia by Tar’mach in 730.

c.750 CE – Azad Deylami / Azad-e Daylami was from the Caspian Sea shores in the north of Iran. She was a partisan leader and became one of the most famous freedom fighters of the region. She fought bravely with her band of freedom fighters for many years against the Arab invaders

c.783 CE – Fastrada, an East Frankish noblewoman who, along with other Saxon women entered into battle against Charlemagne’s forces bare breasted. Fastrada then went onto become Charlemagne’s third wife.

c.815 – 838 CE – Banu, wife of Babak Khoramdin was a legendary Persian freedom fighter, who initiated the Khorram-Dinan movement, in an attempt to overthrow the Abbasid Caliph. She was an extremely skilled archer, fighting both for freedom and the preservation of Persian culture and language. Banu and Babak were eventually betrayed to the Caliph by one of their own officers.

869 – 918 CE – Ethelfleda, also known as our ‘Lady of the Mercians’, was the daughter of Alfred the great. Ethelfleda was considered to be a chief military strategist and the most brilliant tactician of her time. She led armies, built castles, united Mercia – re-establishing Tamworth as it capital. She also fought back an invasion from the Vikings, forcing them to surrender their stronghold at York and even conquered Wales, and made them to pay tribute to her.

890 – 969 CE – Olga of Kiev (Princess Olga), ruled Kievan Rus as regent after her husband’s death in c.945. Olga went to great depths to avenge her husband’s death at the hands of the Drevlians. She successfully slaughtered many of them, interring some in a ship burial whilst still alive. She raised an army which attacked Drevlian strongholds and ended the revolt, but more importantly she changed the system of tribute gathering; this act is seen as possibly the first legal reform in Eastern Europe.

c. 950 CE – Thyra of Denmark was the consort of King Gorm the Old of Denmark. Thyra was referred to as a woman of great prudence and she is thought to have led an army against the Germans. Thyra and Gorm were the parents of Harald Bluetooth.

c. 980 – 1000 CE – Queen Regnant Gudit of Bani al-Hamusa of Demot, (Ethiopia). She was a Northern Ethiopian ruler and possibly a Jewess. She became a military leader who attacked the ruling Aksumite Dynasty and is credited with its downfall. It still isn’t clear where Bani al-Humusa was situated: it is said to be south of the Nile and south-west of Shava.

In the 10th and 11th centuries stories are told of Shieldmaidens, or Scandinavian female warriors. Few historical records mention the roles of Viking Age women and warfare. But a Byzantine historian by the name of Johannes Skylitzes, records a battle that took place in 971 in which the Scandinavian ruler of Kiev attacked the Byzantines in Bulgaria. The Norsemen suffered a crushing defeat, and the Byzantines were shocked to find amongst the fallen Norse were armed women.

1015 – 1042 CE – Akkadevi, was a governor Princess of a Province of Karnataka, A resistance campaigner who fought battles and superintended sieges. Akkadevi became a heroine of west-central Indian resistance to southern Indian aggression.

1040 – 1090 CE – Sikelgaita was a Lombard princess and the daughter of Guaimar IV, Prince of Salerno. She married the Duke of Apulia and accompanied him on his Byzantine conquests. At the Battle of Dyrrhachium, Sikelgaita is said to have fought in full armour, rallying her husbands despondent troops, and was compared to another ‘Pallas’ or second ‘Athena’.

1046 – 1115 CE – Matilda of Tuscany was an Italian noblewoman and one of the few medieval women to be remembered for her military accomplishments. She was the principle Italian supporter of Pope Gregory VII during the Investiture Controversy.

c.1059 – 1096 CE – Emma de Gauder, Countess of Norfolk, best remembered for defending Norwich Castle when it was under siege. Emma then negotiated safe passage for herself and her troops in return for the castle. She died around 1096 on the road to Palestine during the First Crusade with her husband.

1079 – 1126 CE – Urraca of León and Castile, was Queen regnant of León, Castile and Galicia and she also claimed the imperial title of Empress of All the Spains – ‘suo jure’. She quarrelled with husband Alfonso I of Aragon, the quarrel then turned into open armed warfare between the Leonese-Castillians and Aragonese. By 1112 a truce was brokered and the nightmare marriage was annulled.

1097 – 1136 CE – Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd, was the princess consort of Deheubarth in Wales and a member of the princely Aberffraw family of Gwynedd. Her patriotic revolt and death in a battle against the Normans at Kidwelly Castle contributed to ‘The Great Revolt of 1136’.

c.1120s CE – Liang Hongyu was a female Chinese general and wife of General Han Shizhong of the song army. She fought with her husband against the invasion by the Huns, commanding in battles. Liang is said to have had an exceptional military mind. During the battle with the Huns in 1129 her tactful use of drums and flags as communication signals enabled victory for the mere 8,000 Chinese, against the 100,000-strong Hun army.

1122 – 1204 CE – Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitane and Countess of Poitou was one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in Western Europe. She was queen consort of France 1137 – 1152, and queen consort of England 1154 – 1189. She married Louis VI and accompanied him and his army on the second crusade, the marriage however fell apart, and was annulled. She then married Henry Fitz-Empress, duke of Normandy (and eventually Henry II of England). They had three daughters and five sons. The two sons who survived Henry became kings of England after him: Richard I (the Lionhearted) and John (known as Lackland). In 1173 the sons rebelled against Henry with the full support of Eleanor, (stories pertain this to revenge for Henry’s adultery). The revolt was quickly suppressed and Eleanor was imprisoned from 1173 until 1189 (when Henry died). Upon Richard taking the throne, one of his first acts was to release Eleanor from prison. She now acted as queen regnant whilst Richard joined the Third Crusade of 1189. She outlived all of her children, except for King John and Eleanor, Queen of Castile.

1149 CE – The Order of the Hatchet, also called the ‘orden de la Hacha’ in Catalonia. It is a military order of knighthood for women, founded in 1149 by Raymond Berger, count of Barcelona. The honour given to the women was for the defence of the town of Tortosa against a Moor attack. The ‘Dames’ received many privileges with the honour, these included exemptions form all taxes, and they took preference over the men at public assemblies.

c.1157 – 1247 CE – Tomoe Gozen was a rare Japanese samurai warrior, know for her bravery and strength. She fought alongside men in the Genpei War of 1180 – 1185.

c.1160-1213 CE – Tamar, Queen Regnant of Georgia. Though she was a woman, she is always mentioned in Georgian history as King Tamar. Tamar was the first woman to rule Georgia in her own right. Under her rule Georgia achieved military superioty in the Middle East. A brilliant military tactician with a loyal army behind her, she led the men into battle and endured the hardships of an ordinary soldier. She was able to neutralise repeated invasions on her own nation, whilst conquering parts of Turkey, Persia, Russia and Armenia.

The 13th Century sees trial by combat / judicial duels between men and women becoming more common place, particularly in Germany and Switzerland. It was used in Germanic Law to settle accusations, often with the absence of confession or witnesses, and was often used in rape cases. For the duels to be judged as fair, the man was placed into a pit up to his naval, whilst the women freely moved around it. Weapons of choice included singlesticks, leather belts, and fist-sized rocks that were wrapped in cloth. There was rules for the duelists, if either of the participants hands or weapons touched the ground, they were considered the loser and paid the penalty. For women, it was the loss of the right hand, and for men it was beheading. There were many different types of trial by combat / judicial duels, and they remained in use throughout the Middles Ages, slowly disappearing in the 16th century.

1236 – 1272 CE – Eleanor of Provence was Queen consort of England and the wife of Henry III of England. Eleanor was completely devoted to Henry and when Simon de Montfort tried to rebel against him, Eleanor raised troops in France for Henry’s cause. But Eleanor was not particularly liked in England, mostly likely as a result of her bringing so many of her relatives known as ‘Savoyards’ to England and then putting them into influential government positions. She was especially hated by Londoners, this hatred  was returned. When her barge was sailing down the Thames it was attacked by the citizens of London. In retaliation Eleanor demanded from the city all back payments on a monetary tribute (queen-gold). Eleanor received one tenth of all fines collected. She went even further in her revenge campaign by levying other fines on citizens on the thinnest of pretexts. This fuelled further anger against her, and the citizens then pelted her with stones, mud and vegetables forcing her take refuge at the bishop of London’s home. When Henry died she remained in England as Dowager Queen and eventually retired to a convent.

1260 – 1306 CE – Khutulun (also as Aiyurug or Khotol Tsagaan), was the daughter of Kaidu, the most powerful ruler in Central Asia, his realms stretched from Western Mongolia to Oxus and the Central Siberian Plateau to India. Khutulun showed early promise as a child and became the favourite daughter of Kaidu, accompanying him on military campaigns. She became known as a superb warrior, with great strength and stealth. It was claimed that she could ride into enemy territory and snatch a captive as easily as a hawk snatches a chicken, both Marco Polo and Rashid al-Din wrote about her exploits. Kaidu relied on Khutulun both as a warrior and as a political advisor and had wished her to be named as the next Khan, but due to male relatives this was impossible.

1233 CE – In Italy, the ‘Order of the glorious saint Mary’, is founded by Loderigo d’Andalo, a nobleman from Bologna. In 1261 it was approved by Pope Alexander IV, this was the first religious order of knighthood to grant the rank of militissa to women. The order was later suppressed by Sixtus V in 1558.

1259 – 1289 CE – Rani Rudrama Devi was one of the most prominent rulers of the Kakatiya dynasty on the Deccan Plateau. She is acknowledged as one of the few female rulers in south India during her time. She was an intelligent and dynamic ruler, suppressing uprisings from neighbouring territories, and defended the kingdom from the Cholas and the Yadavas, which earned her great respect. Rudrama achieved many accomplishments in her time; one was to complete the fort of Warangal in the Kakatiya capital of Warangal that was started by her father. Parts of the fort still stand today, and Rudrama remains one of India’s most important women.

1295 – 1374 CE – Joanna of Flanders (also as Jehanne de Montfort and Jeanne la Flamme), was consort Duchess of Brittany and the wife of John IV, Duke of Brittany. There was conflict between the Houses of Blois and de Montfort for the control of the Duchy of Brittany. This came to be known as the Breton War of Succession from 1341 until 1364, and was an integral part of the Hundred Years War. When John died in 1345, Joanna organised resistance and used diplomatic terms to protect her son, John V, Duke of Brittany. She took up arms, and dressed in armour defended the town, urging women to ‘cut their skirts and take their safety in their own hands’. Leading a band of knights outside the town walls, she attacked an enemy’s rear camp, setting fire to it and destroying it in the process, earning her the title ‘Jeanne la Flamme’. Fate was to drive Jeanne a cruel blow, for she did capture Charles of Blois in battle, but she soon succumbed to madness and died in confinement.

1312 – 1369 CE – Agnes Randolph, Countess of Dunbar and March, (often referred to as Black Agnes of Dunbar, due to her olive skin complexion). She was the wife of Patrick, 9th Earl of Dunbar and March, and became renowned for her defence of Dunbar Castle against an English attack by William Montagu, 1st Earl of Salisbury in 1338. Agnes was left with only a few servant and guards, but refused to surrender the fort, one account declaring that “Of Scotland’s King I haud my house, I pay him meat and fee, and I will keep my gude auld house, while my house will keep me.“. Montagu thought to be one of the best commanders of his day, had to finally abandon the siege after five months of stalemate, his troops withdrew leaving Agnes in sole possession of her castle. It was not uncommon for women in the Middle Ages to command garrisons whilst their husbands were away on military affairs, but it is her act of determinism and defiance that Lady Agnes is best remembered.

c.1345 – 1409 CE – Han E, (also as Han Guanbao) or the Hua Mulan’ of Sichuan Province. Han E was orphaned and went to live with her uncle Han Li, she proved an excellent scholar in both literature and sword fighting. There was widespread dissatisfaction with the Yuan Dynasty and many rebel uprisings occurred. Some of these factions joined the ranks of the Red Scarf Army, attacking government troops, forcing them to retreat, which they did but along the way attacking the civilian population. Fearing their niece would be abducted and assaulted, they dressed her up as a boy. However even this didn’t prevent their loss and the ‘lad’ Han E was snatched by government troops along the way to serve as stable boy. As the Red Scarf Army approached and surrounded the government troops Han E killed the Yuan commander and then joined the Red Scarf Army under the name of Han Guanbao. ‘He’ was adopted as foster son to one of the sub-commandants. Han served for over 12 years taking part in military campaigns and was noted for her intelligence, bravery and diligence in her duties. She forbade herself to fraternise with other soldiers in banter, or drink in victory celebrations and to that end nobody ever guessed she was a woman.

1347 – 1404 CE – Eleanor of Arborea was one of the last and most powerful Sardinian judges and the island’s best loved heroine. The house of Arborea had great power that extended over one third of Sardinia. During a rebel uprising in 1376, Eleanor’s brother Hugh III was killed and Eleanor led an army and defeated the rebels. She now held the title of regent to her infant son Fredrick. Over the next four years Arborea was at war with the Crown of Aragon, much of its possessions were lost to Eleanor, and Arborea gained most of the island during the war. With military support Eleanor was able to negotiate a favourable treaty which allowed her other son Marianus V to rule, after the death of Fredrick.

1350 -1400 CE – Urduja was a legendary warrior princess and heroine in Pangasinan, Philippines. She commanded a army made up of men and women, and she is said to have fought and engaged in duels with other warriors. Many avoided her for the fear of being disgraced by her abilities. Some historians claim her to be a mythical figure, however she in found in Philippine school textbooks – under great Filipinos, and the capitol building in Lingayen is named Urduja Palace.

1363 – 1430 CE – Christine de Pizan was a Venetian born artist who strongly opposed stereotyping and misogyny in the male-dominated realm of the arts. She became a highly respected Poet publishing a book called ‘Livre des Faits d’Armes – Stories of Feats of Arms. The book was a vernacular study of international law and military strategy and was particularly important in proving that women in the middle ages could be as equally knowledgeable as men in their society.

1378 – ? CE – Agnes Hotot Dudley, took up arms in place of her ailing father and beat her opponent in a mounted duel. It is believed that Agnes’ father had quarrelled with another man, and this was to be settled with a duel in the form of a lance fight. However shortly before the duel her father was taken seriously ill, so Agnes disguised her sex, put on a helmet, mounted the horse and proceeded to the tourney grounds. After what is said to a ‘stubborn encounter’ Agnes dismounted her opponent. As he lay on the ground she removed her helmet, let down her hair and disclosed her bosom to prove she was a woman and shame her foe. The coat of arms of the House of Dudley shows a woman wearing a military helmet with loosened hair, and her breasts exposed, commemorating a female champion.

Copyright: Joanna Winfield, 2011


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