Since time immemorial, women have stood alongside their men-folk in defence of home and hearth. This is purely a survival instinct – for women have had a far deal more to lose should home and hearth fall to invaders.
Women have long been considered the “spoils of war” regardless of time and history, whether they be carried off as unwilling wives, concubines or slaves. And status did not exempt one – no, for the higher the woman’s status, the greater her “value” as a prize.
A women’s role in warfare can be divided into a number of different categories:
(1) Women who actively contributed to the defence of their homes, estates, or castles. Women undertook this defensive role usually in their father’s or husband’s stead.
* Agnes Randolph, Countess of Dunbar ~~~ defied the Earl of Salisbury for five months when he laid siege to her castle at Dunbar (January – June 1338).
* Caterina Sforza, Countess of Forli ~~~ rebelled against the incursions of Cesare Borgia, son of Pope Alexander VI.
“My Prince, I advise you to treat with Caterina Sforza under a white flag. Her troops are too strongly encrenellated in the fortress, and it will take months to root the rebels out. For everyday we fight, more of your loyal troops are slaughtered, more of your good citizens have property damaged or destroyed, and the crops go unharvested and children starve. The battle must be ended.” (Source: Niccolo Machiavelli “The Prince”)
* Eschiva of Tiberias ~~~ defended her town and castle against the forces of Saladin (July 1187). The attempted relief of Tiberias by the Crusaders led to the fateful Battle of Hattin.
* Stephanie of Milly, Lady of Outlrejourdain ~~~ defended her castle of Kerak against both Nur ed-Din (1170s) and Saladin (1183).
* Jimena ~~~ led defence of Valencia (1101 – 1102), though forced to abandon city in the face of overwhelming odds.
(2) Women who acted in a military capacity, similar to a modern-day general of an armed force. These were usually noblewomen who did not necessarily take to the battlefield. However, there are instances of some women who actually did take to the battlefield at the head of their armies.
* Deborah ~~~ gathered and led her Israelite army against the Canaanites (c.1125BC).
* Zenobia ~~~ led her army with the Romans against Persia (260sAD) and against Rome (270sAD).
* Artemesia ~~~ commanded a small flotilla of warships as part of the navy of the Persian King Xerxes against the Greeks (280BC).
“She had obtained the sovereign power after the death of her husband; and, though she had now a son grown up, yet her brave spirit and manly daring sent her forth to the war, when no need required her to adventure.” (Source: Herodotus)
* Boudicca ~~~ led her army into battle against the legions of Roman in Britain (60sAD).
“the whole island rose under the leadership of Boudicca, a lady of royal descent – for Britons make no distinctions of sex in their appointment of commanders.” (Source: Tacitus)
* Thamar of Georgia ~~~ successfully led her troops in crushing internal rebellions (1189 – 1191), and against the Turks (1190s – 1200s).
* Isabella of Castile ~~~ during the war of succession, she rode hundreds of miles to gain support for her cause – at great personal cost; and she personally took to the battlefield and captured the city of Toledo (1475).
* Philippa of Hainault ~~~ raised an army in the absence of her husband, King Edward III, to defend England’s northern borders from the invading Scots. Though Philippa was not actually present on the battlefield of Neville’s Cross (30/09/1346), credit for the victory goes to her. “So she sent out a summons to men at arms throughout the kingdom of England, wherever she thought they would be, and told them to be at Newcastle-upon-Tyne on a certain day, to resist the Scots.” (Source: Jean Froissart, Chroniques: Livre I, Le manuscrit d’Amiens, Bibliothèque municipale no. 486, ed. George T. Diller, vol. 2 (Geneva, 1992).)
* Empress Maud ~~~ she also fits into Category (5) as she led her army in defence of her succession rights.
“the empress rode every day with the army, and she gave good advice on the most difficult matters; in the whole army there was not a baron so skilled and experienced in war as she was, and there was much talk about her throughout England.” (Source: Histoire des Ducs de Normandie et des Rois d’Angleterre, ed. Francisque Michel, Paris, 1840).
* Matilda of Boulogne ~~~ whilst her husband King Stephen was a captive of Empress Maud, she raised an army to meet Maud on the field of battle.
“she sent for knights throughout all lands, wherever she could get them, and assembled such a great army that she besieged the empress and her son Henry and the king of Scotland and the earl of Leicester and many other noble barons all together in the city of Winchester.” (Source: Histoire des Ducs de Normandie et des Rois d’Angleterre, ed. Francisque Michel, Paris, 1840).
Aethelflaed - Lady of Mercians
* Urraca of Castile ~~~ forced to defend her inheritance against her husband Alfonso I of Aragon (1111), and to deal with internal strife from her nobles.
* Matilda of Canossa ~~~ with her mother Beatrice, led an army in support of the Papacy against the Holy Roman Emperor (1060s), and then by herself (1080s).
* Aethelflaed, Lady of Mercia ~~~ in conjunction with her brother Edward, she continued their father Alfred’s policy of resistance to the Viking incursions in Britain, obtaining victories on her own behalf.
(3) Women who disguised themselves as men in order to fight in battle. This occurrence became more usual from the 17th Century onwards.
* Mary Read~~~ fought in the Spanish War of Succession (1701 – 1704) as an armed cadet, a foot soldier and a cavalryman; and again in Holland in the infantry before “turning” pirate.
* Mother Ross (aka: Christine Davies) ~~~ a woman who purportedly passed as a male foot soldier and dragoon during the War of the Spanish Succession died on the 7th of July 1739 and was interred in the burying ground belonging to Chelsea Hospital with military honours.
(4) Women who actively fought at the head of an armed force, in a paid or “professional” capacity. These women were usually known as “Condottieri” or mercenaries. These Condottieri were renown throughout Italy from the mid-13th Century until the mid-16th Century. Many Condottieri were highly paid and “contracted” for a certain period of time. Their employer frequently changed. And it was not unknown for a Condottieri to acquire land or titles.
* Onorata Rodiano ~~~~ artist and soldier.
she “had entered the service of Oldrano Lampugnano as a cavalryman, and that was in the year 1423. She lived then with her name and her clothing changed under various captains and held various military offices.” (Source: Conrado Flameno Storia di Castelleone (1590).
(5) Women who led an armed force in the assertion of inheritance rights, either their own, their husband’s or their children’s rights.
* Isabella of France, Queen of England ~~~ gathered about her an armed force consisting of mercenaries from Hainault and disaffected English nobles, and landed in England (1326) to overthrown the government and install her son in his father’s stead.
* Jeanne of Flanders, Countess of Montfort ~~~ she actively fought during the War of Succession in Britanny (1360s).
“The countess of Montfort was there in full armour, mounted on a swift horse and riding through the town, street by street, urging the people to defend the town well. She made the women of the town, ladies and others, dismantle the carriageways and carry the stones to the battlements for throwing at their enemies. And she had bombards and pots full of quick lime brought to keep the enemy busy.” (Source: Jean Froissart, Chroniques: Livre I, Le manuscrit d’Amiens, Bibliothèque municipale no. 486, ed. George T. Diller, vol. 2 (Geneva, 1992).)
* Margaret of Anjou, Queen of England ~~~ during the War of the Roses, she fought valiantly to preserve the rights of her husband and then her son to rule as monarchs of England.
(6) Women who went on Crusade, though did not necessarily take an active role in fighting. Whilst their men-folk were actively engaged in the fighting, these women remained on the sidelines, at a safe distance.
(7) Women who did actively fought in the Crusades.
In this last category, it is very hard to list any single woman by name. On both the First and People’s Crusades, many women, usually of middle to low birth, did actually fight alongside their male crusading counterparts, as did quite a number of children. It was mostly out of the sheer need to survive.
Women and children would also have been used in the building of barricades or ditches, to aid in the defence of campsites or towns and cities. This was a common sight at Acre in 1291, before the city fell. Moslem chroniclers documented women acting not only in a defensive role but also in an attacking role, their sex only being identified after death.
* Margaret of Beverley ~~~ who was present at the siege of Jerusalem 1187
"‘During this seige, which lasted fifteen days, I carried out all’, she said, ‘of the functions of a soldier that I could. I wore a breastplate like a man; I came and went on the ramparts, with a cauldron on my head for a helmet. Though a woman, I seemed a warrior, I threw the weapon; though filled with fear, I learned to conceal my weakness.’ "]
( 8) Women who were members of Military Orders. Again, these women may not have been active “soldiers”.
* Female Hospitallers (more so in the 13th century)
These female Hospitallers could be not only consorores or donate, but also fully professed sisters who joined the Hospital in existing or newly founded houses specifically for sisters or in commanderies—sometimes even as commanders. (Source: Women in the Military Orders of the Crusades by M. Bom 2012).
* Knights of St. John ~~~ these women were called “soeurs hospitalières” or “sisters of mercy”.
In England, Buckland was the site of a house of Hospitaller sisters from Henry II’s reign to 1540. In Aragon, there were Hospitaller convents in Sigena, San Salvador de Isot, Grisén, Alguaire, headed each by a commendatrix. In France they are found in Beaulieu (near Cahors), Martel and Fieux. The only other military order to have convents by 1300 was the order of Santiago, which had admitted married members since its foundation in 1175. and soon women were admitted and organized into convents of the order (late 12th, early 13th c.). The convents were headed by a commendatrix (in Spanish: commendadora) or prioress. There were a total of six in the late 13th century: Santa Eufenia de Cozuelos in northern Castile, San Spiritu de Salamanca, Santos-o-Vello in Portugal, Destriana near Astorga, San Pedro de la Piedra near Lérida, San Vincente de Junqueres. The order of Calatrava also had a convent in San Felices de los Barrios. (Source: Francois Velde’s Heraldic.org)
* Teutonic Knights ~~~ the Teutonic order accepted “consorores” who assumed the habit of the order and lived under its rule; they undertook menial and hospitaller functions.
As is clear, this is just a basic overview of the role women had to play in warfare throughout history. There are many more examples, from many other nations that I have not forgotten nor ommitted purposely, but their stories will have to wait for another time.