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 north-east 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, which Joan was able to do just after a few days. For 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 she has become a national symbol of France and canonized as a saint.
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 her:
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, she 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 she even took personal command of armies in the field and led successful sieges.
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. 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 tale, there are are several accounts from the Viking Age of shieldmaidens and women warriors.
6. Khawlah bint al-Azwar
The sister of one of the leading Muslim commanders during the early Islamic conquests of the Middle East in the 7th century, on a few occasions she took up arms herself during battles, including leading a troop of women against the Byzantine army at the Battle of Yarmuk in 636.
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. He writes “Both the ladies who stirred up such bitter wars were persuasive, high-spirited, and beautiful; they dominated their husbands an 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 he 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 she 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. – read more about her in
‘The boldest and most remarkable feat ever performed by a woman’: Fiery Joanna and the Siege of Hennebont
There are many 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 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 while he tried to attack the city during the Albigensian Crusade. Finally, one can mention the story of Big Margot, a lady who was the standard bearer for a Flemish army – she would be killed at the battle of Westrozebeke in 1382.
Some sources about women in medieval warfare:
Susan Abernethy, The Siege of Beauvais in 1472
Mary Elizabeth Ailes, “Camp Followers, Sutlers, and Soldiers’ Wives: Women in Early Modern Armies (c. 1450–c. 1650)”, A Companion to Women’s Military History (Brill, 2012)
James Blythe, “Women in the Military: Scholastic Arguments and Medieval Images of Female Warriors,” History of Political Thought, Vol. 22:2 (2001)
Kelly DeVries, “The Use of Gunpowder Weaponry by and Against Joan of Arc During the Hundred Years War“, War and Society, Vol.14 (1996)
Kelly DeVries, “Teenagers at War During the Middle Ages“, The Premodern Teenager: Youth in Society, 1150-1650 (Toronto, 2002)
Val Eads, “Sichelgaita of Salerno: Amazon or Trophy Wife? Journal of Medieval Military History, Vol.3 (2005)
Valerie Eads, “Means, Motive, Opportunity: Medieval Women and the Recourse to Arms” -Paper presented at The Twentieth Barnard Medieval & Renaissance Conference, “War and Peace in the Middle Ages & Renaissance,” December 2, 2006
Leszek Gardeła, “‘Warrior-women’ in Viking Age Scandinavia? A preliminary archaeological study, ” Analecta Archaeologica Ressoviensia: Funerary Archaeology (Archeologia Funeralna), Volume 8, Rzeszów (2013)
David J. Hay, The Military Leadership of Matilda of Canossa, 1046-1115 (Manchester University Press, 2010)
Elizabeth Lev, The Tigress of Forli: Renaissance Italy’s Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici (Mariner Books, 2012)
Christoph T. Maier, “The Roles of Women in the Crusade Movement: A Survey.” Journal of Medieval History, Vol. 30, no. 1 (2004)
Megan McLaughlin, “The Woman Warrior: Gender, Warfare, and Society in Medieval Europe.” Women’s Studies, Vol. 17 (1990)
J. F. Verbruggen, “Women in Medieval Armies.” Journal of Medieval Military History, Vol. 4 (2006)