The evidence of European female participation in armed conflict in the 12th and 13th centuries

The evidence for women in this period accompanying fighting males is without doubt and there is a plethora of evidence of women involved in non combatant roles within an armed conflict situation. The situation with regard to women as decisive and assertive members of a armed contingent is, however, much less clear.

The situation is complicated both by the contemporaneous accounts of the period often being unclear or contradictory as to the precise nature of a woman's role in any given situation and by more recent conflicts of perspective which further muddy the waters.

Until very recently much of history was interpreted from a male, imperialistic viewpoint, from which the notion of the 'weaker sex' as soldiers or generals was preposterous in the view of most, but not all, historians.

On the other hand, in the last few decades we have seen a rise of feminism scholarship and female historians have started to discover and re-interpret history from a feminism perspective, which sees women as equal to men. In addition, the rise in popularity of re-enactment has also seen an increased flurry of activity in research into women as warriors. Sadly all too often this research is conducted as backlash to modern women being told that they cannot fight within re-enactment societies unless they have proof that women fought in such a situation. This has led to a massaging of the information to provide such 'proof', a requirement for which seems totally preposterous given most modern males in re-enactment would fail as a 'typical' example of the men of their chosen re-creation.

This study aims to look at the evidence available from various sources for European women taking an active role in armed conflict during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, without regard to a male verses female agenda and bearing in mind that biologically there will always be differences and inequalities between the sexes and culturally those biological differences almost always give rise to differing gender roles.

The evidence for women as defenders

There are many instances where noblewomen defended their own or their relations castles. Extending this further it can also be seen that women would defend those beholden to them such as family members and underlings for which they were the 'liege lord' in their husbands absence.

Juliana, wife of Eustance of Breteuil was sent to Breteuil in 1119 to and he" provided her with the knights necessary to defend the fortress" against Henry I. Juliana was the illegitimate daughter of Henry and when he besieged the castle of Breteuil she shot her father with a crossbow. In this instance, unusual in the main of women defenders, Juliana was forced to surrender and made to jump into the frozen moat of the castle where, it is said by Orderic Vitalis she "fell shamefully with bare buttocks"(Truax 1999 pp116)(Nicolson 1997 pp343)

The wife of Hugh de Montfort in 1123, along with his brothers, was said by Orderic Vitalis to have held the stronghold at Montfort-sur-Risle in rebellion against Henry I whilst Hugh continued to Brionne. Robert of Tornigny mentions that on the advice of his wife Huge refused to give information on the stronghold to the King. Both of these recordings suggest the wife to be important both as advisor and defender. (Truax 1999pp114)

Orderic Vitalis also tells of Sibyl, wife of Robert Bordet defended Tarragona from potential Moorish attack, he writes " She was as brave as she was beautiful. During her husband's absence she kept sleepless watch; every night she put on hauberk (chain mail) like a soldier and, carrying a rod in her hand, mounted the battlements, patrolling the circuit of the walls to keep the guards on alert, and encouraging everyone with good counsel to be on the alert for the enemy's strategies." (Truax 1999pp115) It is clear from this description that Sibyl was considered both to be sufficiently versed in strategy to give counsel, and also brave, a term usually reserved for men. It should be noted that the bravery comes without qualification for her sex.

Muntaner describes how 2000 women assisted in his defence of a Catalan camp at Gallipoli against the Genoese. (McMillan 2000 pp134)

Perhaps more surprising is the evidence that women would take a different stance from their husbands or other male relative, to support or defend other family members.

In1139 Adeliza of Louvain, the former Queen of England, received the Empresses Matilda at Arundel castle. Arundel was part of her dowry from the late King Henry I . This action was both contrary to the desires of King Stephen and presumably the desires of Adeliza's second husband, William de Albini, a firm supporter of the King. Florence of Worcester states the when Arundel was beseigned by Stephen Adeliza argued that she offered hospitality to her kinswomen rather than invited the King's enemy. As a result safe passage to Bristol was granted to the Empress. (Truax 1999pp115)

In 1149 the "orden de la Hacha" was created for the women of Tortosa in Catalonia by Raymond Berenger, Count of Barcelona, who had defended their town against a Moor attack. Their rights from the military order included exemption from taxes and precedence over men at public assemblies.( 2003)

Nicole, Richard de la Haye's elder daughter inherited her father's English estates including the hereditary constableship of Lincoln castle. This was confirmed by charter in August 1189 by Richard I for herself and her husband Gerard de Camville. Lincoln was and defended both 1191 and 1216-7 (against the French). (Nicolson 1997), (Powicke 1953 pp11) Nicola was appointed joint sheriff with Philip Marc by King John in 1217.

This type of active involvement rarely extends outside of the family or dependant system and is often cited as being simply a case for women acting for their husbands in his absence. However, the evidence for action contrary to their husbands tends to rule out this as the only role, all be it the more common.

The evidence for women leading armies

The evidence of women of this period leading armies is generally restricted to those of the nobility.

Empress Matilda campaigned in England in the early 12th Century despite her husband, Geoffrey of Anjou's refusal to help her. Geoffrey had initially sent Matilda to Normandy immediately after Henry I's death where immediately the castles of Argenta, Extemes and Donfront surrendered to her. It is not stated whether any military force was necessary to accomplish this. However, after Geoffrey joined Matilda in Normandy, during the siege of Le Sap, he was injured by a javelin to the right foot. Matilda then joined him in this battle "bringing many thousands of soldiers with her" . Despite this the force failed on this occasion (Truax 1999 pp120)

Accounts vary as to whether Matilda was the primary commander of her English forces. Some suggest Robert of Gloucester took that role. However, most chroniclers seem to suggest otherwise. The Gesta Stephani stated Matilda arrived in Winchester with a large body of troops, began the siege then summoned her followers to join her. Robert of Gloucester was one such follower. Henry of Huntingdon states "after some time she, with her uncle the king of Scots, and her brother Robert, collecting their forces, settled down and besieged the castle of Winchester" In either case it is clear that Matilda was not only there but taking an active role. The Gesta Stephani makes her active role far clearer at Oxford, as an active commander and strategist where she is said to have dispatched troops of cavalry to raid, fortified castles and protected her adherents. (Truax 1999 120-121)

Matilda of Boulogne, King Stephan's wife, is also said to have participated in military activities. In 1138 she besieged Dover whilst Stephan was occupied attacking Hereford. The Queen lead the forces and instructed her relatives at Boulogne not to allow supplies into Dover, according to Orderic.

The Gesta Stephani shows that Matilda of Boulogne, after asking for her husbands release failed "with a splendid body of troops and an invincible band of Londoners who had assembled to the number of almost a thousand, magnificently equipped with helmets and coats of mail besieged the inner ring of besiegers from outside with great spirit and joy" This is further supported by the Anglo Saxon Chronicles and Henry of Huntingdon.(Truax 1999 pp120-122)

William of Malmsbury praises Countess Matilda of Tuscany as " a women, who, forgetful of her sex, and compared to the ancient Amazons, used to lead forth her hardy troops to battle" (Truax 1999 pp117)

Orderic Vitalis praises Isabel of Tosny thus "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 at Turnis. She deserved comparison with Lampeto and Maepsia, Hippolyta and Penthesilea and other warlike Amazon Queens" (Truax 1999 pp118) Here there is a comparison with others of her sex and in relation to it, but this does not seem to diminish the praise but rather show the admiration Orderic Vitalis had for such women.

Gwellian the wife of Gryffydd ap Rhys of Deheubarth, in 1136 led her husband's troops into battle.

In the years between 1220 and 1222 the widow of Arnoul II of Guines fought against her son over the control of her widow's portion.(McLaughin 1990 pp199)

In Catalonia many of the Queens of the 13th Century were active as advisors and strategists. Violante, wife of James I, initially was a symbol of his strength but soon became one of his chief advisors.

Constanza, wife of Peter II, was said to have reigned as monarch in Sicily. This included plans for defence and strategy. Some reports suggest her son James II was the commander , but as he was only sixteen at the time, at the very least she can be assumed to have been a very important advisor.

In the 13th century Matilda de Braose, wife of a Marcher lord, fought the Welsh and was praised for her beauty, wisdom and was said to be very vigorous.(Nicolson 1999)

The evidence for women in armies (non noble)

William Tyre, says of the women on the Third crusade "Even women regardless of their sex and natural weakness dared to assume arms and fought manfully, far beyond their strength" (Solterer 1991pp540)

The Muslim Chroniclers of the Third crusade also describes the participation of the Christian women "Among the Franks there were indeed women who rode into battle with cuirasses (breast plates) and helmets, dressed in men's clothes; who rode out into the thick of the fray and acted like brave men although they were but tender women" and " on the day of battle, more than one woman rode out with them like a knight and showed <masculine> endurance in spite of the weakness <of her sex> clothed only in a coat of mail, they were not recognisable as women until they had been stripped of their arms" (<Imad ad-Din> Solterer 1991 pp540) "I noticed the bodies of two women. Somebody told me he had seen four women engaged in the fight, of whom two were made prisoners" (<Baha al-Din> Nicolson 1997) "we remarked a woman killed in the fighting, and we heard her express herself by tears she was still shedding" (<Imad ad-Din> Nicolson 1997)

In July 1191 a female archer is recorded at Acre " behind their rampart he told me was a woman wrapped in a green melluta who kept shooting arrows from a wooden bow, with which she wounded several of our men, She was at last overpowered by numbers; we killed her" (<Baha al-Din> Nicolson 1997)

Women are said to have killed the crew of a Muslim vessel off Acre.

The "Order of the glorious St Mary" was the militissa religious order. This was created in 1233 by Loderigo d'Andalo of Bologna. This order was approved in 1261 by Pope Alexander IV 1261.( 2003)

In 1285 Dona Alicsen de Moutesquiu has been credited with saving her town on the plains of Roussillon, resisting the French with great courage. (McMillan 2000 pp131-2)

Marlcalda, wife of a captain in Peter III's army, was "of high spirts and strong in courage and body ; she was in truth as valiant a knight and went about daily with thirty armed horsemen and kept guard over the city and stationed her soldiers wherever they were needed to do battle, whether on the walls or in any other place in the city" She commanded thirty horsemen and was a participant to every council between the King and his captain. (McMillan 2000 pp132)

Mercedera a shopkeeper in Perelada, when besieged by the French in 1285 donned armour and taking a sword, lance and shield went outside the walls to collect cabbages. She found a French knight there and soon disarmed him, kept his armour and received 200 gold florins for his ransom. (McMillan 2000 pp133)

The evidence for women training to fight and/or to lead

The direct evidence for women learning to fight or lead is sparse. The only clear evidence unearthed so far is of 'Walpurgis' in the 13th Century sword and buckler manual known as I33.

However, from the evidence above, it is clear that women who did lead or fight, very often won and it can be concluded from that success that they were therefore trained to some extent as it is not reasonable to assume that their winning was by chance nor that others would have followed them so willingly had their leaders been totally innocent of the arts of war.

The evidence for women in literature

William of Malmsbury and Henry of Huntingdon both praise valiant ladies from Anglo Saxon times. Both mention Aethelflaeda, Lady of the Mercians. William writing " This most powerful woman assisted her brother greatly with her advice and was of equal service in building cities. You could not easily discern whether it was due to fortune or her own exertions that a woman should be able to both protect her own men and to terrify foreigners" Henry mentioned that Aethelburgh, wife of King Ina, stormed the castle at Taunton and razed it to the ground.(Truax pp118-119) Both these chroniclers seem to admire such qualities in these ladies.

Geoffrey of Monmouth may have based his heroines Gwendolen and Cordelia on women of the time. Gwendolen who is portrayed as having "assembled all the young men of the region and began to harass Locrinus with border forays" and ruling firstly as regent for her son and later on her own account in Cornwall. Cordelia ruled her father's kingdom for five years until she met her rebelling nephews who had " laid waste to a number of provinces and met the queen herself in battle" Geoffrey further mentions that the legendary King Arthur left the defence of Britain to both Mordred and Queen Guinevere (Truax 1999 119)

A professional mercenary of 1220s wrote admiringly of the Empress Matilda, some eighty years after the event. (Nicolson 1999)

The Romance of Gyron le Courtois (France 1235-39) tells of a knight struck down by an old woman (Nicolson 1999)

The 13th century tale of Berengier with the big arse, tells the story of a wife who defeated her husband by her presentation as a knight. (Nicolson 1999)

The "Romance de Silence" is a long involved tale of a girl who masquerades as a man and becomes a knight (Roche Mahdi 1992)

Shortly before 1300 a German Maren was written called " The Ladies' Tournament".

In this, an imaginary society exists, and whilst the men were away the ladies decided to hold a tournament. They donned their menfolk's armour and took on the names of their menfolk, or in one case an admired knight. The lady who took on the knights name triumphed over the other ladies. Sarah Westphal-Wilh suggests that the whole of the poem was concerned with the eventual result of the tournament winner gaining a dowry and thus gaining a good match. However, the poem gives much praise to the skill of the women and gives several indications that although an abnormality, the majority of the men did not feel it to be over threatening .

A similar 13th Century poem is "Li Tournoiement as dames" in this aristocratic and bourgeoisie women ride into Paris booted and spurred. They take part in a Tournament and are praised for their skill, courage and physical strength. The female winner is highly praised and indeed is described in a way that demasculated the narrator who is carried away by her.

The evidence for women authorisation to fight, laws and religious views

Most sources suggest that women were entitled to defend, lead armies or fight when these activities were partaken in the interests of her family. If she had a husband it should be under his authority, or if unmarried the authority of her father. If she was a widow she could and did act on her own authority. However, there are several cases of women acting against the 'proper authority'

Women could be given consent by their husbands or fathers to go on crusade . Pope Innocent III in 1209 believed a woman's crusading vows could be redeemed by a monetary payment if she was wealthy and accompanied by a retinue of soldiers.(Nicolson 1997 pp347) In the early 13th century those women taking the vow were a mere 8 among circa 750.


From the above it can be seen that there are a reasonable number of instances of women's active participation in armed conflict on many levels. However, this should not be confused as evidence for women's common participation in armed conflicts, the biological and vital functions of pregnancy, birth and child rearing do not make good companions in armed situations and this is undoubtedly a vital an unique role which only females can fulfil.

The literary evidence supports the glorification of women as fighters and in all cases sustains women as achieving success and glory as opposed to illustrating their potential failings in this field. This is in strong contrast to our modern heroines who generally start as potential hero types and metamorphism into sex toys in almost every case. Whilst it can be argued that some medieval forms start with sexual overtones the end result can be a complete role reversal.

Most women defenders succeeded in their defence. It is therefore rational to conclude that most noblewomen would learn of war skills , possibly at the same time as their male counterparts. In addition both noble and common women could have also received some training in the use of weapons, primarily as a defensive mechanism, but with the recognition that to be effective defensively one must also understand offensive stratagem. Common women used to wielding farm implements are more likely to be effective with a weapon.

In addition, it should also be considered the cultural expectations of a war leader. These are as 'liege lord' and may well have had little to do with physical sex, but the authority of the person in the leadership position. There is little evidence of medieval men objecting to female commanders, and this again can be contrasted with the opposition experienced by almost every modern female boss from time to time.

It is apparent from the evidence that whilst direct warfare is usually not a chosen or desirable female pathway, on many occasions women defended themselves, their family and their property. On rarer occasions women initiated warfare either as combatants or leaders. Therefore, it seems clear that although participation in warfare was not considered an everyday and desirable pursuit for females, it seems equally clear that in certain circumstances it was considered both acceptable, desirable and indeed admirable.


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COPYRIGHT Melanie Wilson 2003