“Although women military leaders are rare throughout history, they are far from unheard of. Joan D’Arc and Boudica are two of the more famous examples; there are many more.”
THE ARCHEOLOGY WORLD was buzzing last October when an excavation in Guatemala unearthed what experts believe is the long sought final resting place of the Mayan warrior Queen K’abel.
The 1,500 year old tomb was discovered amid a larger dig in what was once the ancient Mayan city of El Perú-Waka.
In addition to the deteriorated skeletal remains of what appeared to be some sort of royal female, the crypt featured a hieroglyphic inscription on the wall that read: “Lady Snake Lord” – one of K’abel’s official titles.
The ruler of the Wak region of the ancient Mayan civilization from 672 CE to 692 CE, K’abel headed up the warlike and expansionist Snake dynasty. And in this monarchy, the queen was much more than a symbolic figure head – K’abel’s other known title of “supreme warrior” meant that she would almost certainly have commanded armies and likely even outranked her husband, king K’inich Bahlam.
Although women military leaders are rare throughout history, they are far from unheard of. Joan D’Arc and Boudica are two of the more famous examples of female commanders, however there are many more. Consider these:
England’s Castle-building queen
Æthelflæd, queen of Mercia from 911 CE to 918 CE, might have inherited her military prowess from her father Alfred the Great of Wessex, a legendary slayer of Vikings. In order to cement a diplomatic alliance, Alfred married his daughter off to the Mercian ruler at the height of the Viking conquest of Anglo Saxon England. While Æthelred’s new hubby had earned himself a fearsome reputation for ruthlessness on the battlefield, by the early 10th Century he was in declining health. Soon the responsibility for protecting Mercia fell to his bride. In her eight years in power, Æthelflæd presided over the construction of a chain of fortresses across the kingdom. She ordered strongholds built or expanded at Bridgnorth, Tamworth, Stafford, Eddisbury, Warwick, Chirbury, Runcom as well as Hereford and Gloucester. In 916 CD, she personally led a successful military expedition into the Welsh kingdom of Brycheiniog.
The fighting princess
The Mongol princess Khutulun didn’t just wield a sword at her father’s side on the battlefield, she was also famous for fighting off male suitors… literally! The daughter of the Mongol ruler Kaidu, who presided over a vast realm stretching from China to Afghanistan between 1280 and 1301, Khutulun became the king’s chief military adviser in his war against Kublai Khan of China. Despite his daughter’s celebrated martial proficiency, Kaidu ordered the young princess to settle down and get hitched — mostly to quash rumours that the two were incestuously involved! Khutulun agreed, but demanded that any suitor must first take her on in hand-to-hand combat — the first challenger to prevail would win her hand. To up the ante, vanquished opponents would have to pay the princess a fine of several dozen horses. She supposedly fended off as many as 100 amorous contenders and amassed a small fortune in the process. Undefeated, Khutulun eventually did agree to marry, although who she chose or why remains unclear. Some say it was out of love. Others suggest it was to protect her father’s reputation. Kaidu supposedly wanted the throne to eventually go to his favourite daughter, however one of the king’s 14 sons rose to claim the throne following the ruler’s death in 1301.
Not all renowned fighting women did battle on land – a number commanded vast fleets of warships. Consider these:
Ching Shih was a famous female pirate who ruled the China Sea in the early 19th Century. Born into poverty in Canton in 1775, Ching spent much of her early life as a prostitute until she was carried off by the powerful pirate warlord Zheng Yi. According to the story, the abducted 26-year old used her feminine charms to win the affections of Zheng, who eventually took her as his wife. When Zheng died in 1807, Ching assumed command of all of his ships and men. As a pirate leader, she amassed a flotilla of 300 vessels and commanded as many as 40,000 sailors. Ching’s so called Red Flag Fleet terrorized the Chinese coast and demanded any vessel that sailed through her waters to pay an exorbitant toll. Both the Portuguese and British navy tried to defeat her in battle. Neither could. Ching finally hung up her cutlass when Chinese authorities offered her an amnesty. She retired at 36 and was even allowed to keep her plunder – a major accomplishment, considering that many famous pirate leaders throughout history either died in battle or at the end of the hangman’s noose.
While not as famous as Ching Shih, Laskarina Bouboulina became a celebrated naval hero in 19th Century Greece. After marrying into a family of wealthy merchant ship owners, Bouboulina found herself suddenly in control of a prosperous shipping business when her husband was killed fighting North African pirates. In 1816, the Ottomans attempted to impound her fleet during the Russian-Turkish War. Angered, Bouboulina converted her vessels into warships and sailed into battle against the Turks. Not only did she supply Greek nationalists with arms and equipment, she ordered the construction of the Agamemnon, one of the largest fighting vessels in the eastern Mediterranean at the time. In 1821, Bouboulina commanded an eight-boat squadron that blockaded a number of Turkish-held ports throughout the Aegean. In honour of her accomplishments, the Russians awarded her the rank of admiral. Following the defeat of the Ottomans in Greece, Bouboulina became embroiled in a Hellenic civil war and was imprisoned in 1824. Her fortune gone, the former shipping magnate turned naval hero was shot dead in a petty family argument the following year.
Poland’s Woman Warlord
After being raised on the legends of other famous women warriors (including that of Laskarina Bouboulina), a 25-year-old Polish heiress named Emilia Plater gave up a life of aristocratic luxury and raised her own regiment of 350 partisans to fight against Russia. Together with her small army, Plater joined in the November Uprising of 1830. After leading her small army at the battles of Prastavoniai and Mejszagoła, the young leader was awarded a captaincy in the Polish–Lithuanian 25th Infantry Regiment. Plater commanded a company of troops in the unit for most of 1831 until she fell ill in December in the field. She succumbed to a fever two days before Christmas. Plater’s exploits were greatly embellished throughout Poland after her death and were later widely celebrated across Europe. She was the subject of numerous books and paintings of the Romantic period and even a Polish army unit in World War Two was named in her honour. Emilia Plater is considered her homeland’s answer to Joan of Arc.
Speaking of Joan of Arc, it’s likely that the immortal teenage heroine found her own inspiration from another female warrior of France – “Fiery” Joanna of Flanders. Born in 1295, Joanna married a nobleman named John of Monfort. Soon after they were joined, Joanna’s husband became embroiled in a bitter feud with Charles of Blois over who would control of the region of Brittany. When in 1341, her husband was arrested and imprisoned by King Phillip VI of France (an ally of Charles), Joanna raised her own army to take the disputed territory for herself. The conflict became known as the Breton War of Succession. While occupying the town of Hennebont, Joanna’s army was overpowered and surrounded by Charles’ forces. While surveying the encirclement from a church tower, Joanna quickly recognized that her enemies had deployed themselves poorly. She tried to lift the cordon by storming the enemy leader’s encampment with a force of 300 men-at-arms and putting Charles’ headquarters to the torch. Although the blockade held, her courageous gambit earned the nickname Jeanne La Flamme (Fiery Joan). The siege was finally lifted when Edward III of England intervened on her behalf. In a subsequent battle, Joanna’s army captured Charles himself. Although with her spousing having died in captivity, Joanna’s rampage was done. She ended up fleeing to England where she went mad and was supposedly confined to Tickhill Castle.