10 Historical Female Duelists and their Duels
10 Historical Female Duelists and their Duels

10 Historical Female Duelists and their Duels

Natasha sheldon - July 6, 2018

10 Historical Female Duelists and their Duels
Image from the Codex Manesse, showing two knights fighting. Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

Agnes Hotot

Joane Agnes Hotot was possibly one of the first known female duelists. Agnes was born around 1378, at a time when trial by combat was still commonly used. During the Middle Ages, people believed that God would guide the person in the right to victory. Trial by combat, therefore, was regarded as a relatively quick and decisive method of settling disputes. Just such a disagreement arose for Agnes’s own family. Her father, Robert de Hotot held the estate of Clapton or Clopton in Northamptonshire. De Hotot fell into dispute with a man called Ringsley over some land. So, to decide who had the right of the matter, the pair decided to settle the case by jousting.

However, shortly before the match was due to take place, de Hotot fell ill with gout. Unable to walk, let alone ride a horse and hold a lance, the knight looked like he would have to withdraw because of illness and so concede the fight. This sudden illness meant that de Hotot would automatically lose the argument and the land as people would interpret his gout as God’s judgment on the matter. However, help was at hand in the form of de Hotot’s only heir: Agnes.

Despite being a woman, Agnes decided that “rather than he should lose the land, or suffer in his honor,” she would take her father’s place. So, donning her father’s armor, she met Ringsley on the field of honor. Agnes must have been a practiced jouster- or else very lucky for after ” a stubborn encounter,’ she managed to unseat Ringsley and so defeat him. To add to the humiliation of this defeat, as her opponent lay unhorsed in the dirt at her feet, Agnes took great pleasure in revealing herself as a woman.

Agnes began by removing her helmet and letting down her hair. However, just to make sure no one was in any doubt of her sex, some versions of the story say she then also removed her breastplate to “disclose[d] her bussom.” Ringsley lost the land, the argument, and his honor by being thoroughly beaten by a girl. As for Agnes, her victory was seen as far from dishonoring her as a woman. When she married in 1395 to Richard de Dudley, Clopton passed into the Dudley family’s hands. However, the Dudley family decided to celebrate the victory of their newest member by commemorating her on their coat of arms: as a naked woman with disheveled hair, removing a war helmet.

Agnes Hotot was not the only woman to duel disguised as a man.

10 Historical Female Duelists and their Duels
The Comtesse de Saint Belmont. Google Images

The Comtesse De Saint- Belmont

In the late 1600s, an aristocratic French lady, the Comtesse de saint Belmont was forced to assume her husband’s identity to defend herself and her property from a very ungentlemanly squatter. The Comtesse’s husband, the Chevalier de Saint Belmont had been away, fighting for King Louis XIV. However, his absence looked to be a protracted one as during the fighting he was taken, prisoner. This unfortunate event left his wife on her own and solely responsible for the maintenance and protection of their lands and property.

At some point during the Comte’s absence, a French cavalry officer arrived at the estate. Instead of announcing himself to the Comtesse, he merely moved into the chateau, making himself quite at home and treating the place like a hotel. The poor Comtesse was at an initial loss as to how to manage this breach of good manners. Initially, she took a polite, restrained approach. She decided that, rather than confront her ‘guest’ face to face; it would be more prudent to confront him indirectly. So, she wrote him a letter, complaining at his discourtesy in setting himself up in her home uninvited and asking him to leave.

However, the officer was no gentleman. Not only did he not comply with the Comtesse’s request- he ignored the letter altogether. Finally, the Comtesse decided she had had enough of being ladylike and disregarded. So she hit upon another plan. She wrote a further letter to the officer, challenging him to a duel. However, this time she did not sign the letter as herself but rather as “Le Chevalier de Saint Belmont,” her husband. This time, the officer did reply to her message. The Comtesse’s unwanted houseguest had accepted the challenge.

So, dressing as a man, the Comtesse went out to meet her opponent. In a matter of minutes, she had disarmed the officer. Then, while holding his sword, she compounded the man’s defeat with humiliation by revealing her sex. “You thought monsieur, “she told him, “that you were fighting the Chevalier de Saint Belmont but you are mistaken. I am Madame de Saint Belmont. I return you your sword, Monsieur and politely beg you to pay proper respect to any request made by a lady in future. Finally, the Comtesse dismissed the man and told him to leave”This time, he was more than happy to comply.

Other women also fought over property-but with fatal results.

10 Historical Female Duelists and their Duels
Ekaterina Polesova and Olga Zavarova Ekaterina Polesova stabs Olga Zavarova Artist: Mikhail Yurko. Google Images

Olga Zavarova and Ekaterina Polesova

Olga Zavarova and Ekaterina Polesova were neighboring wealthy property owners in the Orel province of Russia who could not get along. For the years, the ladies wrangled; arguing over petty matters fuelled more by their dislike of each other than anything of real substance. However, in June 1829, things came to a head when dislike turned into outright enmity and Olga Zavarova and Ekaterina Polesova finally and literally crossed swords.

Precisely who challenged who is unknown. Nor is the event that acted as a catalyst and sparked the violence. All that is known is that the ladies armed themselves with their husband’s sabers and made for the appointed place. The venue was one thing the ladies could agree on, and they selected a birch grove near their properties for the duel. Accompanying the ladies were their daughter’s governesses who they had appointed as seconds. As a consequence, there was no choice but to bring along both Olga and Ekaterina’s fourteen-year-old daughters who were forced to watch their mothers fight.

The Code Duello required that seconds gave potential combatants the chance to settle their differences without violence before the duel began. So, the governesses dutifully asked their mistresses to make up. However, such as the pitched hatred of Olga and Ekaterina for each other that nothing short of bloodshed would do. They were so geared up for a fight that they turned on their seconds and threatened them with violence if they tried to interfere again! The duel was quick, brutal and fatal to both parties. Olga struck Ekaterina in the stomach, a wound that proved fatal a day later. However, Olga died instantly when the wounded Ekaterina killed her with a single blow to her head.

The enmity between the two families sadly did not end with the deaths of Olga and Ekaterina. For in June 1834, the ladies’ two daughters, Alexandra Zararova and Anna Polesova met again in the same place, to re-enact for themselves the events they had witnessed six years earlier as fourteen-year-old girls. The two young ladies employed the same governesses as their seconds and also selected sabers as their weapon of choice. This time, the outcome was clean and decisive as Alexandra killed Anna outright, thus redeeming her dead mother Olga’s reputation.

While the Zararova and Polesova duels were fuelled by deep hatred, other duels occurred between semi-naked society ladies disputing the arrangement of flowers.

10 Historical Female Duelists and their Duels
An early 20th-century magazine illustration of the duel between Princess Pauline Metternich and Countess Anastasia Kielmannsegg. Google Images

The ‘Emancipation’ Duel

In 1892, in Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein, a duel occurred which the newspapers of the time declared unique. The ‘Emancipation Duel’ was the first duel where the duelists, the seconds and the presiding judge were all women. The only men present were male servants who were ordered to stand some distance away, their backs to the action to prevent them from watching. The reason for this strange order, it was said, was because the duel, which was between Princess Pauline Metternich, the wife of the Austrian ambassador of Paris and Countess Anastasia Kielmannsegg, the wife of the Statthalter of Lower Austria was fought with the duelists stripped to the waist.

The reason for the duel was equally original. Not only was Princess Pauline a diplomat’s wife, but she was also a patron of the arts and charity. In 1892, she was appointed as Honorary President of the Vienna Music and Theatrical exhibition. For the Princess, everything had to be just so. However, she found herself at loggerheads with the president of the Ladies Committee of the Exhibition, Countess Anastasia Kielmannsegg over the arrangement of the flowers at the event. The ladies could not agree and so incensed was the Princess; she challenged the Countess to a duel.

So, the Princess, the Countess, their two seconds, the Princess Schwarzenberg and Countess Kinsky and the president of the fight, Baroness Lubinska (who also happened to be a medical doctor) left for Vaduz to settle the matter. Rapiers were the ladies’ weapons of choice, and they agreed that they would settle the matter with first blood. The fight was over quickly. According to a supposed eyewitness account, after a few parries, the Princess cut the Countess’s nose, an action that so shocked her that ” “in a stereotypical feminine gesture, threw both hands up to her cheeks,” thus allowing the Countess to pierce her forearm.

The fight was stopped, and the Princess declared the winner as she inflicted the first wound. Both newspaper accounts and the witness account agree that the ladies politely accepted the decision and quit the scene on more cordial terms. However, the newspaper accounts omit one detail supplied by the mystery eyewitness. It seemed that the Baroness, in her capacity as a doctor was concerned about post-fight infections that could occur if any soiled cloth was pushed into a wound by a rapier. It was for this reason, according to the eyewitness, that she insisted the ladies fought topless.

According to the eyewitness, as soon as blood was drawn, the two seconds fainted, and the resulting cries were enough to cause the male servants waiting out of sight to ignore their orders and rush to the scene. There, the outraged Baroness attempted to drive them off with her umbrella crying,” avert your eyes, you lustful wretches,” to preserve the modesty of the aristocratic fighters. But is this account reliable? We cannot be sure. However, it certainly makes the emancipation duel doubly unique.

Other female duelists fought over patriotism rather than flowers.

10 Historical Female Duelists and their Duels
Astié de Valsayre vs. Miss Shelby, from the Illustrated Police News, 10/04/1886. Google Images

Miss Shelby versus Madame Marie-Rose Astie de Valsayre

Madame Marie-Rose Astie de Valsayre was notorious in her native France. A well-known feminist, she was a famous advocate for the equality of women. Astie de Valsayre actively campaigned for women to have the vote, equal pay-even to wear trousers. She also fought for women to have the right to join the Professions. Astie de Valsayre herself was a qualified doctor, having studied medicine in 1870, the year it became legally open to women in France. She was also an expert fencer, who opened her own fencing school and encouraged women to take up the sport to aid breastfeeding- another cause about which she was passionate.

In 1886, Astie de Valsayre’s passions collided when she put her skill with the foil to use in defending the honor of French medicine. The French activist became involved in a debate with a fellow feminist and female doctor, Miss Shelby. Miss Shelby was an American, and she and Astie de Valsayre became embroiled in an argument about the relative merits of French and American female doctors. “My adversary Miss Shelby maintained [American] female doctors were superior to those in our country, “Astie de Valsayre later told newspapers. Naturally, she disagreed.

When Astie de Valsayre disputed Miss Shelby’s argument, the American called her an idiot. Outraged by this insult, Astie de Valsayre took her glove, slapped Shelby about the face and challenged her to a duel. The pair somewhat dramatically agreed to meet on the fields where the Battle of Waterloo had been fought some seventy-one years earlier. However, firstly, Astie de Valsayre generously agreed to postpone the fight for fifteen days. “I gave her a delay so that she could practice a little, her inferiority being great next to mine. “Astie de Valsayre later explained.

Finally, the appointed day arrived and the two ladies, accompanied by four American seconds met to do battle. During the second pass, Astie de Valsayre wounded Miss Shelby in the shoulder. The seconds called first blood, and the duel was declared in favor of Madame Astie de Valsayre. Miss Shelby was forced to concede that French doctors were best -something she was now able to judge for herself, as it was French doctors who were responsible for treating her wound.

However, just a month later, Madame Astie de Valsayre was once again spoiling for a fight. This time her target was Englishwoman Catherine Booth, the co-founder of the Salvation Army. Astie de Valsayre ordered Mrs. Booth to leave France and take her ‘pernicious doctrines’ with her- or face her blade. However, unlike Miss Shelby, Mrs. Booth, a committed pacifist, declined.

Some ladies, however, used dueling as a way of sorting out their love lives.

10 Historical Female Duelists and their Duels
The Duel of Isabella de Carazzi and Diambra de Pottinella by Jose de Ribera. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

Isabelle De Carazzi and Diambra De Pottinella

On May 25, 1552, Naples in Italy was the setting of a battle between two Italian noblewomen for the love of one not so nobleman. Isabella de Carazzi and Diambra de Pettinella were good friends. However, they inadvertently fell in love with the same man. Fabio de Zeresola was a handsome man and a great favorite of the ladies of Naples society. Unbeknownst to Diambra and Isabella, he was seeing them both – a fact that was not discovered until he inadvertently threw an amorous glance at Isabella at a Naples society wedding.

Diambra who was sitting next to her friend saw the glance- and was outraged. Demanding an explanation, it soon became clear that Fabio was courting them both. But rather than turn up on the cad who was two-timing them with each other, the former friends turned on each other- and began to argue about who should have Fabio. Isabella insisted it should be her as with one glance, Fabio had shown he loved her more. Diambra however, was having none of that. Fabio was hers; she declared because she would die for him. And with that, she challenged Isabella to a duel.

The former friends agreed to meet six days later in a local field, where like knights in a tournament they would fight each other to win the hand of Fabio. The prospect of the whole spectacle whipped all of Naples society up into a fever of excitement, and on the appointed day, the entire Naples Court, including the Spanish Viceroy turned out to watch Isabella and Diambra turn the whole notion of chivalry on its head. Isabella chose blue as her color and rode out in a diamond-crested helmet while Diambra wore green and a helmet topped with a serpent of gold.

The war trumpet blew; the ladies took up their lances and charged each other. This joust was just the first part of the duel. Once their lances splintered, Isabella and Diambra moved onto maces and set about each other with such ferocity that Diambra eventually dealt a blow, Isabella, such a blow to her shield that it felled her horse. Diambra then demanded that the fallen Isabella concede Fabio to her. However, Isabella was not finished. Seizing a sword, she darted at Diambra and knocked her over, unhelming her.

Isabella then did something else equally startling. She conceded defeat. What Fabio de Zeresola made of this arrangement is known. Nor do we know if he or Isabella abided by it. However, the “duel of women” as it became known was memorable enough to be immortalized by the seventeenth-century painter Jose de Ribera.

Nor were Isabella De Carazzi and Diambra De Pottinella, the only ladies, to duel for love.

10 Historical Female Duelists and their Duels
The duel between Madame De Polignac And Madame De Nesle. Google Images

The Comtesse De Polignac and the Marquis De Nesle

Women continued to duel with each other over men even in enlightened eighteenth-century France. This time the aristocratic ladies in question, Madame de Nesle and Madame de Polignac had never been close friends. However, they ended up as deadly enemies when they became rivals for the heart of Armand de Vignerot du Plessis, third Duke de Richelieu and the great-great-nephew of the infamous Cardinal Richelieu.

The Comtesse de Polignac was renown for her love affairs. However, she had met her match in Richelieu. The Duke was a notorious womanizer, and a grand manipulator of women and de Polignac fell for him hard. However, once he had toyed with her for a while, de Richelieu left her for the “very beautiful and very romantic” Marquise de Nesle. Richelieu not only abandoned de Polignac; he tormented her. He refused to speak to or acknowledge her, driving the woman into a senseless frenzy of jealousy.

Eventually, de Nestle became weary of de Polignac’s histrionics. So, in 1721, she wrote to the Comtesse and challenged her to a duel. The Comtesse accepted. This time, pistols were the weapons of choice and the ladies agreed to meet in the Bois de Boulogne with their seconds at the appointed time. The ladies were to walk towards each other until they were within just a scarf’s distance from each other and then fire at will. Madame De Nesle fired the first shot- but it fell short of its target. However, when Madame de Polignac fired her shot, she succeeded in wounding her rival in the shoulder.

Because of the quantities of blood, de Polignac believed that her rival was dead- or soon would be. However, before returning to her carriage, she treated the potential corpse to a haughty diatribe. “I will teach you the consequences of robbing a woman like me of her lover,” said de Polignac, as she stood victorious over the prone body of the Marquise. Then, as de Nesle’s seconds attended to her, she muttered to herself: “If I had the perfidious creature in my power, I would tear out her heart as I have blown out her brains.”

However, much to the Comtesse’s disappointment, the Marquise lived. However, de Polignac still had her revenge, albeit indirectly. For shortly afterward, the Duke moved on to a new lover, abandoning the Marquise in favor of the daughter of the Regent of France, Charlotte Aglae d’Orleans. Presumably, this lady was so well placed that no one wanted to duel her. Or maybe Richelieu’s past lovers had realized that he simply was not worth the bloodshed.

Female dueling continued until as late as the turn of the twentieth century.

10 Historical Female Duelists and their Duels
A Bleeding Woman. Google Images

Marta Duran and Juana Luna

One of the last, classical-styled duels between women occurred in May 1900 in Mexico-and once again the motive was love. Marta Duran, a society lady, was attending a ball with her lover Rafael Riquelme. However, she was alarmed to notice that Rafael’s eye was roaming- specifically in the direction of Juana Luna. It seemed that Juana was not displeased with Rafael’s interest in her and was indeed actively encouraging it. An argument broke out between the two women, and eventually, Juana challenged Marta to a duel.

The next morning, the two ladies, with their two seconds traveled in separate carriages to a deserted area on the outskirts of Mexico City. There, they attempted to resolve the matter with swords. The fight was not to be settled by first blood- nor was it over quickly as Marta and Juana fought for several rounds. In the second round, Marta was severely wounded but still would not concede. However, by round three, she was sluggish from blood loss and Juana took advantage of this to end matters by injuring her sword-bearing arm. Marta had no choice but to concede the fight and vow to give up Rafael. She and Juana then kissed and parted.

However, there were repercussions to this duel. Marta’s wounds were so severe that she needed to see a surgeon illegally as in Mexico government permission was required for surgery and seeking it would mean revealing Marta had fought a duel. However, the police learned she had received illegal treatment and began an investigation. Marta was taken to Juares Hospital for treatment. However, it seems that Juana and the seconds were arrested and placed in solitary confinement in prison. Unsurprisingly, these events somewhat cooled the ardor of both women and in the end, both Marta and Juana happily gave up Rafael.

 

Where Do We Get this Stuff? Here are our sources:

Top 10 Female Duels And Duellists, Hannah Janssen, List Verse, September 4, 2017

7 Duels Between Women, Livius Drusus, Mental Floss, February 26, 2016

10 Most Bizarre Duels in History, Alexander Meddings, History Collection, September 25, 2017

History of the Scots Greys, G F Bacon, The Navy and Army Illustrated, January 15th, 1897

The life and Adventures of Mrs. Christian Davies, the British Amazon, commonly called Mother Ross, who served as a foot soldier and Dragoon in several Campaigns, Daniel Defoe, 1741

The Story of Julie d’Aubigny: the French Opera-Singing Sword Fighter, Jade Cuttle, Culture Trip, 9 August 2018

Mademoiselle Maupin, The Vintage News, Tijana Radeska, Sep 5, 2016

Joane Agnes Hotot, Geni.com

A Curious Guide to London, Simon Leyland, Bantam Press, 2014

Local and General News, Ashburton Guardian, Volume XIV, Issue 2799, October 14, 1892

Honor in the Modern World: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, Laurie M. Johnson, Dan Demetriou, Rowman & Littlefield, 2016

Duel, James Landale, Canongate Books, 2005

Carlton Genevieve, History’s Most Bizarre Duel Was Fought Between A Topless Princess And A Topless Countess, Ranker, December 29, 2017

The Lesbian Diva and Swordswoman! Julie d’Aubigny aka Mademoiselle Maupin, Georg Predota, Interlude, October 29, 2016

Bentley’s Miscellany, Volume 57, Richard Bentley, 1865

1900: Women Duel: In Our Pages 100, 75 and 50 years ago, The New York Times

Duel between Women: American Senoritas Fight with swords, Auckland Star, Volume XXXI, Issue 124, May 26, 1900

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