There are many examples of women who took up arms or commanded armies during the Middle Ages. Here is our list of ten medieval warrior women.
1. Joan of Arc
While her military career only lasted slightly longer than a year, Joan of Arc is one of the most well-known figures from the Middle Ages. A teenaged-peasant from northeast France, Joan began receiving visions from saints telling her to drive the English forces out of her country. In 1429, she was able to convince the French ruler Charles VII to give her an army to relieve the besieged city of Orleans. This was the beginning of a series of victories that Joan led in person, where the English were driven out of Orleans, then Jargeau a month later. She was twice during the fighting – first by an arrow that struck her shoulder, and then by a stone that hit her head and split her helmet in two.
Over the next few months Joan was able to lead French forces to several victories against the English, allowing Charles to be crowned at Reims. Her military career had a setback when she was unable to retake the city of Paris, and in May of 1430 she was captured during a small skirmish. A year later she would be tried and executed for heresy. Since then Joan of Arc has become a national symbol of France and canonized as a saint.
See also: Joan of Arc and the Siege of Orléans
2. Matilda of Canossa
Known as ‘The Great Countess’, Matilda has perhaps the best record of any female military commander in the Middle Ages. As the Countess of Tuscany, she was a major force in Italy for over 40 years. As a supporter of the Papacy, Matilda’s main opponent was Emperor Henry IV, and she commanded numerous campaigns against him. One of the writers from the time said of Matilda:
Brave and ever watchful, she often tormented the perverse
Mightily she undertook terribly violent battles with the king
For she endured steadfastly through thirty years
Fighting day and night to quell the tempests of the kingdom.
3. Isabella of Castile
Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile made an effective team when it came to military matters. While Ferdinand did most of the commanding on the field, Isabella oversaw the military administration. If necessary she would make an appearance among her troops – such as during the latter stages of a siege when she would arrive in full armour and rally her troops. At times Isabella even took personal command of armies in the field and led successful sieges.
4. Caterina Sforza
The Countess of Forli once said, “if I must lose because I am a woman, I want to lose like a man.” A bold Italian noblewoman, Caterina was heavily involved in the papal politics of the late 15th century. She frequently took the lead in military affairs, and even personally trained her own soldiers. Although her defence against a Venetian attack earned her the nickname ‘The Tiger of Forli’, in 1499 Pope Alexander VI sent his son Cesare Borgia to conquer her lands. Although she led a stout defence of Forli, she was eventually captured and taken back to Rome as a trophy.
The Danish history Saxo Grammaticus included an account of how Ragnar Lodbrok went to war with the King of Sweden. During the battle a woman named Lagertha distinguished herself. Saxo Grammaticus relates that she was:
a skilled Amazon, who, though a maiden, had the courage of a man, and fought in front among the bravest with her hair loose over her shoulders. All marveled at her matchless deeds, for her locks flying down her back betrayed that she was a woman.
Ragnar was so impressed with her prowess that he married her, and in later tales, she also fought in his battles. While some historians doubt the historical accuracy of this story, there are several accounts from the Viking Age of shieldmaidens and women warriors.
6. Al-Kahina / Dihya
The Berber queen of the Aurès, al-Kahina (also known as Dihya) began leading her people in the 680s against the Arab invasion of North Africa. While there are many legends around her life, we do know that al-Kahina defeated an Arab army at the Battle of Meskiana in 698. She would continue on fighting for three more years, dying in battle.
7. Sichelgaita of Salerno
The wife of the Norman leader Robert Guiscard, Sichelgaita is best known for her role in rallying the fleeing Norman soldiers at the Battle of Dyrrachium in 1081. According to the Byzantine chronicler Anna Comnena, she confronted her fellow soldiers and urged them to stop fleeing:
As they continued to run, she grasped a long spear and charged at full gallop against them. It brought them to their senses and they went back to fight.
Another chronicler adds that she was wounded by an arrow during the battle, but the Normans were able to defeat the Byzantines. A further look at her career finds that she took part in and commanded sieges and was more involved in her husband’s military activities than was previously known.
8. Jeanne Hachette
In 1472 Charles the Bold led his Burgundian soldiers against the French town of Beauvais. When they made an attack against the town’s walls, the citizens of Beauvais, including the women fought them off in hand-to-hand combat. One lady, Jeanne Laisne, grabbed a small axe and fought off the Burgundian standard-bearer, which rallied the defenders. She was renamed Jeanne Hachette by her fellow citizens in honour of the victory.
9. Isabel of Conches
The Anglo-Norman historian Orderic Vitalis noted a feud between Isabel of Conches, wife of Ralph of Tosny and Helwise, Countess of Evreux, in the 1090s. Orderic writes:
Both the ladies who stirred up such bitter wars were persuasive, high-spirited, and beautiful; they dominated their husbands and oppressed their vassals, whom they terrorized in various ways. But they were very different in character. Helwise on the one hand was clever and persuasive, but cruel and grasping; whereas Isabel was generous, daring, and gay, and therefore lovable and estimable to those around her. In war she rode armed as a knight among the knights, and she showed no less courage among the knights in hauberks and sergeants-at-arms than did the maid Camilla, the pride of Italy, among the troops of Turnus. She deserved comparison with Lampeto and Marpesia, Hippolyta and Penthesilea and the other warlike Amazon queens…
10. Joanna of Flanders
Joanna was known for her defence of the town of Hennebont in Brittany, against Charles, Count of Blois. After Charles had captured and imprisoned Joanna’s husband, he marched against the town in 1342. Joanna led the defence of the town. The chronicler Jean le Bel writes that:
the brave countess was armed and armored and rode on a large horse from street to street, rallying everyone and summoning them to join the defense. She had asked the women of the town, the nobles as well as the others, to bring stones to the walls and to throw these on the attackers, as well as pots filled with lime.
The key moment of the siege was when Joanna led 300 men out of Hennebont and burned down the enemy camp. She gained the nickname ‘Fiery Joanna’ for this feat. Joanna was able to hold off the besiegers until English troops arrived and forced the Count of Blois to retreat.
There are many more women who could be included on this list, including ones who defended castles or commanded forces. Some accounts, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine leading a troop of women during the Second Crusade, have been shown to be untrue or gross exaggerations made by medieval writers. Other tales, such as the story of Onorata Rodiani, who is said to have disguised herself as a man and joined up with a mercenary company in the 15th century, are also hard to verify. There are also many accounts of unnamed women who took part in battles or sieges, such as the woman of Toulouse, who operated a siege machine that killed Simon de Montfort as he led crusaders in an attack on the city during the Albigensian Crusade. Finally, there is the story of Big Margot, a lady who was the standard bearer for a Flemish army at the Battle of Roosebeke in 1382 and would die in battle.
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Top Image: BL Additional 15268 fol. 123r