A post I wrote earlier this week, What We Talk About When We Talk About Historical Fiction got me thinking about history and the women who have, until fairly recently, often been overlooked by historians. While there are many, many historical women whose amazing stories are starting to be told, I can only include five.
So in no particular order, here are five badass women from history:
Eleanor of Aquitaine
“By the wrath of God, Queen of England.”
In an era where women had next to no power or wealth, Eleanor of Aquitaine owned vast lands, married two kings, and was the mother of three kings. She married the French prince Louis in 1137, who became King Louis VII shortly thereafter. Though he was in love with his beautiful and sophisticated wife, Louis was rather a pious young man (and didn’t go to Eleanor’s bed very often) and so their marriage produced only two daughters, not the son and heir Louis was hoping for. Eleanor accompanied Louis to the Holy Land, where he failed miserably at being a Crusader and humiliated Eleanor to the point where she demanded their marriage be nullified. After the birth of their second daughter, the Pope agreed and Eleanor returned to Aquitaine. Along the way, Henry Duke of Normandy tried to kidnap Eleanor to claim her lands. She ended up falling passionately in love with the handsome younger man and ultimately married him. Soon after, in 1154, he was crowned King Henry II of England, and Eleanor was crowned Queen.
Their marriage was a tempestuous one, and while they had several children together, Henry was unfaithful and not the best of fathers. His eldest son, also named Henry, took up arms against his father along with many French lords– likely at Eleanor’s urging. This revolt was unsuccessful, and King Henry II imprisoned his wife for the next sixteen years. Her son, Henry the Young King died in 1183 and her husband, Henry II died in 1189, leaving her middle son, Richard I (the Lionheart) as the undisputed King of England. Richard was hardly in England during his reign, however, and if Eleanor didn’t outright rule the kingdom while he was gone, she was pretty close to it.
In her youth, Eleanor was considered to be the most beautiful woman in Europe. She was also sharply intelligent, ruthless, and not one to let men dictate her life to her. She wielded great power across two countries, and died in 1204 at the age of 82.
“If I could write everything that happened, I would shock the world.“
Though she was an illegitimate child, Caterina Sforza was born into a world of wealth, power, and politics in Renaissance Italy. While still relatively young, her beauty, intelligence, and dignity impressed men of rank in Rome, and she acted as an advisor to her first husband, Girolamo Riario. After he was assassinated in 1488, Caterina responded to his death with vengeance, destroying the family responsible for the act. She then took power as regent of Forli and Imola. These two states were small compared to others in the region, but were so strategically important that Caterina spent years negotiating with a host of armies, including that of France, Milan, and Naples. She earned the nickname, ‘la tigre’, after successfully defending her lands against the much larger Venetian army. When, in 1499, Caterina faced a French army led by Pope Alexander VI’s son, Cesare Borgia, she chose not to surrender and retreated to her fortress where she fought valiantly, but was captured a month later. She ultimately retired to the countryside and was devoted to furthering the fortunes of her children.
During one of the many attacks Caterina withstood on her lands, her children were captured by her enemies. In response to this, Caterina is said to have gone out to the wall overlooking the opposing forces, raised her skirts up so everyone could see her nethers, and declared that, even if they killed her children, she had the means to make more children who would rise up and defeat them. Needless to say, Caterina won the day.
“The most notorious woman on all the western coasts, a notable traitress and the nurse of all rebellions in the province for forty years.”
It’s said that when Grace, or Gráinne Mhaol as she’s commonly known in Ireland, was a child she wished to go to sea with her father. When he told her she couldn’t because her long hair would get caught in the ropes, she cut off all her hair and went to sea anyway.
Her father was lord of the Ó Máille dynasty, a sea-faring family who ruled the seas on the northwestern shores of Ireland. Though she had a brother, it was Grace who took over the family’s holdings when their father died. When her first husband was killed, she came home to reestablish her power base. She had a brief fling with a shipwrecked sailor that ended when he was murdered. She took her revenge on his killers, the MacMahon family, by attacking their castle of Doona in Blacksod Bay, thus earning her nickname, ‘The Dark Lady of Doona’. She was notorious in Ireland for her military skills and was constantly fighting to keep her lands free from control of England through the proxy of the Kingdom of Ireland. In 1593, after much fighting, two of Grace’s sons and her half-brother were taken prisoner by the English governor of Connacht, Sir Richard Bingham. Grace sailed to England where she met with Queen Elizabeth I, secured her family’s release and the removal of Bingham as governor with the promise that she wouldn’t stir up more trouble if the English left Connacht alone.
When time showed that Elizabeth I would not hold to her word, Grace continued to support Irish insurgents against England until her death in 1603.
There is a song, ‘Óró sé do bheatha abhaile’, about Grace O’Malley that was sung as a fast march by those involved in the 1916 Easter Uprising and the later Irish War of Independence.
Read More about Grace O’Malley: Ireland’s Pirate Queen: The True Story of Grace O’Malley by Anne Chambers
Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi
“We fight for independence. In the words of Lord Krishna, we will if we are victorious, enjoy the fruits of victory, if defeated and killed on the field of battle, we shall surely earn eternal glory and salvation.”
As a child, Lakshimibai was well educated and trained in horseback riding and swordplay. When she married Raja Gangadhar Rao Newalkar, the Maharajah of Jhansi (in northern India), she had a unit of all female guards who were just as well trained in the arts of war as she was. This was a time of change and unrest in India, as the British Empire was flexing its muscles in Asia and slowly taking over, usually through semi-legal means, but sometimes by force. The Raja’s dynasty seemed safe when Lakshmibai had a son, Damodar Rao, in 1851, but he died just four months later. To ensure their lands did not lapse into British control, the royal couple adopted a little boy, but when the Maharaja died in 1853 the Governer-General of the region rejected Lakshmibai’s adopted son’s claim and annexed Jhansi for Britain. Though Lakshmibai initially agreed to hold the lands for Britian, a series of British attacks and reprisals forced her hand, and when troops attempted to invade Jhansi in 1858, she held her position as long as she could before being forced to retreat.
Though Lakshmibai was killed by British forces later in 1858, she inspired Indian soldiers to keep fighting for their freedom and was considered by many to be the most dangerous woman in India.
“Tomoe was especially beautiful, with white skin, long hair, and charming features. She was also a remarkably strong archer, and as a swordswoman she was a warrior worth a thousand, ready to confront a demon or a god, mounted or on foot. She handled unbroken horses with superb skill; she rode unscathed down perilous descents. Whenever a battle was imminent, Yoshinaka sent her out as his first captain, equipped with strong armor, an oversized sword, and a mighty bow; and she performed more deeds of valor than any of his other warriors.”
– The Tale of the Heiki
Tomoe Gozen was a female samurai of twelfth century Japan, one of the few onna-bugeisha of the time, and the haf-sister of Yoshinaka Minamoto, a samurai general who wished to rule all of Japan. When they reached adulthood and Yoshinaka needed someone to help him lead his armies, he chose Tomoe for her martial skill and fierceness on the battlefield. After winning many victories and doing things like burning down the emperor’s house, Yoshinaka briefly became shogun. His enemies united against him, however, and he was forced to flee. Tomoe went with him as they fought their way out of the city, and by the time they made it out of town, there were only a handful of Yoshinaka’s men left. Tomoe herself was said to be unscathed.
As they fled through the woods, Tomoe encountered an enemy general. Her fighting skill impressed and frightened this general so much that he fled. They met again in battle, and though the general was confident enough to meet her in single combat, Tomoe beheaded him. She killed another general for good measure, and then disappeared from history.
The facts of her death and the finer details of her life are debated by historians, but Tomoe Gozen is one of the few warriors to have a rare Noh play devoted to her. There are only 200 Noh plays at all, and just 18 are devoted to warriors.
(I would love to link to a biography of Tomoe Gozen, but I couldn’t find any.)
Who are your favorite badass historical women?