Matilda of Tuscany

Matilda giving directions to the Pope and a penitent King. No joke.

Matilda pointing directions to the Pope and a penitent King.

The Amazing Countess was a strong force in Italy for many years. She was brilliant and could speak several languages, and she was also a key figure in the long and complicated Investiture Controversy.It was Matilda who convinced Pope Gregory VII to meet the excommunicated Emperor Henry IV and restore him to the Church. In the years that followed she was one of the papacy’s best allies, often taking to the field at the direct head of her forces to defend first Gregory and then his successor Pope Urban II against Henry IV and his own successors. Through decades of political dynamics and military maneuvering, it was Matilda who came out on top. In the year 1111, Emperor Henry V crowned her Imperial Vicar and Vice-Queen of Italy, a title she would hold until her death in 1115.

Lagertha

Lithograph of Lathgertha by Morris Meredith Williams (1913)

Lithograph of Lagertha by Morris Meredith Williams (1913)

In one of the best books that a lot of people have never heard of, the Gesta Danorum, by the 12th-century monk, Saxo Grammaticus, the story of Lagertha is told. Born into the family of King Siward of Norway, she and other female relatives were forced into prostitution by King Frø of Sweden when he defeated Siward. (King Siward’s grandson)The dead king’s grandson, Ragnar Lodbrok went to war against Frø to avenge Siward, and several of these abused women took arms alongside Ragnar’s forces. Lagertha is described as an Amazon among them, hewing her foes and leading them all to victory. Ragnar eventually courts her as his wife killing a bear and a hound with a spear and his bare hands. I guess it’s a Vikings thing. He eventually divorced her in favor of a political marriage to a Swedish princess, but Lagertha still came to his aid when he was in need and saved his life when he faced civil war in Denmark. And then, when her second husband proved unworthy, she cut him down with the point of a spear that she concealed in the folds of her dress. After that, she ruled over vast lands in her own authority (and as a badass, still) until the time of her death.

(For the sake of transparency, I should admit that Lagertha might well be a fiction. There is good reason to believe that her story and her name are the result of a series of misreadings of tales about the minor Norse deity, Thorgerd. But there’s a chance she was real.)

Jeanne Hachette

Illustration by H. Grober

Illustration by H. Grober

Born Jeanne Fourquet or Laisné, this peasant girl earned her name in history by wielding only a hatchet. On June 27, 1472, just over four decades after the death of fellow Frenchwoman Joan of Arc, Jeanne lived in the town of Beauvais, which was besieged by the forces of the Duke of Burgundy. That day, the Burgundians made a vicious assault, and according to the stories they managed to make their way onto the battlements of the town. In declaration of the impending victory, a Burgundian planted a flag upon the battlement—a deeply symbolic act of victory, as the Americans who raised the flag on Iwo Jima can attest. In that perilous moment, with the future of her city in doubt, Jeanne took in hand an axe and rushed the flag. She smote the man, tore down the flag, and the tide of the siege was turned.

Joanna of Flanders

joannaflanders

When the Duke of Brittany died without heir in 1341, there were two rival claimants for the duchy: Charles of Blois and John of Montfort. John went to the court of King Philip VI of France to press his claim but instead he got imprisoned because Philip was Charles’ nephew . Rather than capitulate to this act, John’s wife, Joanna of Flanders, declared their infant son the de facto leader of the Montfort claim and promptly declared war against the House of Blois. What would become known as the War of the Breton Succession became a kind of “Cold War” during a time of supposed truce in the Hundred Years War when Joanna called upon King Edward III of England to defend her claim. In one of her many moments of triumph, she was besieged in the two of Hennebont by the forces of Charles. Touring her fortifications, she saw that the enemy encampment was ill-defended and so, donning armor and taking arms, she led a raid that burned the enemy’s tents and supply lines and then went on to seize another nearby town. For the daring action she is known as “Jeanne la Flamme,” and it was just one of her many exploits.

Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc depicted in a manuscript dated May 10, 1429

Joan of Arc depicted in a manuscript dated May 10, 1429

Of course. I mean, obviously. The Maid of Orléans is one of the most remarkable figures in history: of any kind, of any gender, of any age. At the age of sixteen, with the kingdom of France teetering in the Hundred Years War with England, she walked from her home in Domrémy to the town of Vaucouleurs. She asked to see the garrison commander, and she informed him that God had told her that she needed to stand at the king’s side in the war. According to legend, she told him that divine revelation had also informed her that French forces had been defeated at the Battle of Rouvray. When word later arrived that this was, in fact, true, she was granted an escort to Chinon, where she met the king. Within months she led the French forces that lifted the siege of Orléans—the first in a striking series of victories. Captured in an ambush on 23 May 1430 ), she was transferred into English hands and put on trial for ecclesiastical crimes. She was burned at the stake on 30 May 1431.