12 of the Coolest Medieval Women of All Time

12 of the Coolest Medieval Women of All Time

Tim Flight - June 20, 2018

Once upon a time, a woman fed a man a piece of fruit he wasn’t supposed to eat, acting on the instructions of a snake. He was, at first, reluctant, but eventually agreed. When this came to light, both the man and the woman got in trouble. Logically, this was all the woman’s fault, right? Well, at least it was deemed to be from Biblical times until relatively recently. Medieval theologians elaborated, through thousands of turgid arguments and sermons, that this event – perpetrated by Eve, the first woman – demonstrated that women were innately stupid, easily tempted, and dangerous to men.

Woman’s essentially bad qualities meant that they were debarred from non-hereditary offices of power and denied the same rights as men in the medieval period, for their own protection as much as the men’s. Over 500 years since the Middle Ages officially ended, women are still undoing the damage done by the period’s theologians and their followers from more recent centuries. But not all women believed what they were told about their innate inferiority to men, and set about behaving as if they were equal. Smashing conventions and challenging ill-founded beliefs, here are 12 of the most badass medieval women.

12 of the Coolest Medieval Women of All Time
Effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Fontevraud Abbey, France, c.1204. Garden Court Antiques

Eleanor of Aquitaine

No one knows precisely when Eleanor of Aquitaine (c.1122-1204) was born, but by the age of 15 she had inherited the dukedom of Aquitaine, the largest and richest in France, and became the most eligible bachelorette in Europe. Her father, William X, Duke of Aquitaine, had presided over a vast and cultured territory, giving his daughter a fine education in arithmetic, history, and Latin, befitting a man. This made for a dangerous combination: a well educated woman, whose choice of husband would shift power wherever her affections lay. Her first marriage to the Dauphin, Louis, merely increased her influence.

Louis became King Louis VII of France shortly after their marriage. Her power was not blunted too much by her marriage, for in marriage contract dictated that Aquitaine would remain independent of France until Eleanor’s eldest son became king, meaning that she was in control of a huge territory that could technically rival France. Additionally, though wives were expected to obey their husbands like servants, Eleanor did not tone down her confident and extroverted personality, and successfully advised Louis to go to war with Theobald, Count of Champagne, over his opposition to royal permission for his sister’s marriage.

In 1147, Eleanor even accompanied her husband on a Crusade to the Holy Land, which he took in penitence for the horrors of the war with Theobald. Though her involvement was largely ceremonial, she was accompanied not only by her ladies in waiting but 300 soldiers of Aquitaine. The Crusade was an unmitigated disaster, and Eleanor was rather unjustly blamed for it. Malicious and unfounded rumours had spread that she was sleeping with her uncle, Raymond of Antioch, and these factors combined with her inability to produce a male heir led to Eleanor’s marriage to Louis being annulled in 1152.

The Duchess of Aquitaine was once again a power-broker. 8 weeks after her annulment, she had married Henry, Duke of Normandy, who became King of England in 1154. Though the marriage was tempestuous, perhaps from a combination of Eleanor’s refusal to act like a weak vassal and Henry’s notorious infidelity with Rosamund Clifford, it produced 5 sons and 3 daughters. Their eldest son, Henry, rose up against his increasingly ineffective father in the Revolt of 1173-74, and Eleanor was instrumental in securing support from 2 other sons, Richard and Geoffrey, and a host of powerful barons and lords.

The revolt failed, and Eleanor was imprisoned between 1173 and 1189 for her involvement. She was released when Henry died and her son, Richard the Lionheart, took the throne. She officially ruled England in his name for a month, and also reigned informally during the frequent periods in which Richard was away on Crusade. She survived Richard, and continued to be an important political figure during the early reign of her inept other son, King John, until her death in 1204. Conscious of her power and intelligence, throughout her life Eleanor refused to be bullied by men into subservience.

12 of the Coolest Medieval Women of All Time
Joan of Arc, France, c.1485. Wikimedia Commons

Joan of Arc

In 1429, France was in a very bad way. Close ties of English and French royal blood mingled with the lands that Eleanor of Aquitaine had owned, leading to both intense rivalry and Edward III proclaiming himself King of France, starting the Hundred Years’ War. At this date, France was losing badly. Suddenly, however, a mysterious peasant girl, aged only 17, appeared on the stage, and inspired a fierce resistance to England’s presence in France. She was Joan of Arc, and over the next few years of her short life (c.1412-31), she was to prove the biggest threat to England.

Joan became involved in the Hundred Years’ War because of mystical visions she received. In the humble garden adjoining her home, Saints Michael, Catherine, and Margaret appeared to 13-year-old Joan, commanding her to fight off the English and to crown the Dauphin King of France. Aged 16, she convinced the local garrison commander, Robert de Baudricourt, to take her disguised as a male soldier to the Dauphin, later Charles VII, by successfully predicting a French defeat at the Battle of Rouvray. Charles was impressed, and sent the unlikely figure of a teenage peasant girl to the besieged city of Orléans.

This was probably a strategic move by Charles, for Joan’s divine ordinance made the Hundred Years’ War into a religious matter and provided inspiration to the beleaguered and downhearted troops. Her appearance coincided with a change of strategy, as the defenders of Orléans launched successful attacks on the English, eventually driving them off. Though we don’t know for certain, contemporaries claimed that Joan was present at the final, decisive victory on 7th May 1429. What we do know is that Joan advised the Duke of Alençon on similarly offensive military strategy in the coming campaigns, which is truly staggering.

The English response to the appearance of Joan was to accuse her of being possessed by the Devil; part of their justification for the Hundred Years’ War was that God was on their side. The French, however, saw her as an emissary of God, for her aggressive strategy paid dividends, and the Dauphin was crowned at Reims, as the saints had commanded Joan to achieve. Joan’s inspiring tactics led to the English negotiating a peace treaty, but it didn’t last long, and her luck ran out in May 1430 when she was ambushed by the Burgundians, allies of the English.

In 1431 she was put on trial for heresy in Rouen. The trial was, of course, a farce, though the illiterate Joan stunned inquisitors by deftly avoiding their theological traps, and on 30th Mary 1431 she was burned at the stake. However we interpret her religious visions, Joan’s brief career is remarkable. Here was an illiterate female peasant, whose forthright views and inexplicable military brilliance inspired the losing side in a long and bloody war. Perhaps launching an offensive against the English was just common sense, but by changing Frances’s tactics she bested the failing men charged with defending France.

12 of the Coolest Medieval Women of All Time
Empress Matilda, England, 15th Century. Wikimedia Commons

Empress Matilda

On November 25, 1120, King Henry I of England was returning with his entourage from Barfleur in Normandy. This involved making the relatively simple crossing of the Channel between England and France. 300 of his enormous retinue, including his heir, William Adelin, travelled separately on The White Ship, a fast and well-constructed vessel. Unfortunately, heavy drinking on board before disembarkation led to sporting orders to overtake King Henry’s vessel, and somehow or other the ship struck a rock, and took all but one of its passengers to a watery grave. William died valiantly trying to rescue his half-sister.

This was problematic. Of Henry’s legitimate children, William was the only son, and his death left Henry with only a daughter conceived in wedlock, Matilda (c.1102-67), then-wife of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V. England had never been ruled by a queen before, and so Henry tried desperately to produce a son by his rushed second marriage. This failed, and in 1126 he made his barons sign a treaty promising to support Matilda when he died, and married her off to 14-year-old Geoffrey of Anjou, heir to the Count of Anjou, in anticipation of opposition to his newly widowed-daughter.

The marriage of a powerful 24-year-old woman to the humble 14-year-old heir to Anjou proved unhappy, however, and the couple were doubly-frustrated by Henry’s apparent desire to limit their power in Normandy. Relations were strained when Henry died in 1135 and, amongst rumours that the king had changed his mind about his successor, his nephew, Stephen of Blois, moved to seize power in England, despite having sworn to support Matilda in 1127. Undaunted, Matilda worked to secure her power in Normandy, and then in 1139 headed to England with the support of her illegitimate half brother, Robert of Gloucester.

The period of fighting between King Stephen and Matilda lasted 18 years and is known as The Anarchy. Staying at Arundel Castle, Matilda sent Robert to fight Stephen’s army, but was captured when Arundel was besieged. Stephen released her for unknown reasons, and Matilda continued to wage a campaign against her cousin. Despite the fierce fighting, neither side could gain the advantage, but in 1141 Matilda got her own back on Stephen by capturing and imprisoning him at Bristol Castle. Support for Matilda now increased, and the stage was set for her coronation as Queen at Westminster Abbey.

Unfortunately, support did not last, and the incarcerated Stephen had enough loyal troops to fight back. At the Rout of Winchester, Matilda was defeated by her namesake, Queen Matilda, and was forced to release Stephen from prison. After a daring escape from Oxford Castle Matilda realized she would never win the crown, and shrewdly started to find a way to secure the throne for her son, Henry. Having returned to Normandy in 1147, she helped Henry, when he was old enough, to invade England, and he was crowned King of England in 1154. Matilda definitely had the last laugh.

12 of the Coolest Medieval Women of All Time
Crusading knights fight their Saracen (Muslim) enemies, Paris, 14th Century. Medieval Histories

Margaret of Beverley

Though Eleanor of Aquitaine formally took up the cross and went on Crusade in 1147, she had no direct military involvement, and it was not until the mid-1180s that a woman first fought against the Saracens in the Holy Land. That remarkable woman was Margaret of Beverley (c.1150-1215), who was actually born in Palestine while her parents were on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Although she spent most of her early life in Beverley, Yorkshire, Margaret returned to the Holy Land as soon as she could after raising her orphaned brother, Thomas, a monk who later became her biographer.

In 1187, Margaret was in Jerusalem when it was besieged by Saladin (1137-93), the first Sultan of Egypt and Syria. Instead of cowering in fear or ministering to the men, as was expected of a woman, Margaret got stuck in: ‘I wore a breastplate like a man; I came and went on the ramparts, with a cauldron on my head for a helmet. Though a woman, I seemed a warrior, I threw the weapon’. Margaret was also wounded during the siege: ‘a millwheel fell near me; I was hit by one of its fragments; my blood ran… the scar remains’.

She was captured by Saladin shortly afterwards, and spent the next 15 months as a slave. ‘I was forced to carry out humiliating tasks; I gathered stones, I chopped wood. If I refused to obey, I was beaten with rods’. When her freedom was bought by a benevolent passerby, Margaret returned to Antioch, but again found herself trapped in a city besieged by Saladin. She managed to escape, and returned to England in 1192 following a peace treaty Saladin and Richard the Lionheart. Margaret’s bravery was incredible: without any martial training, she fought Saladin’s fearsome army, then survived cruel enslavement.

12 of the Coolest Medieval Women of All Time
Hildegard receives a divine vision and dictates it to Volmar, from the 1927-1933 German copy of the now-lost mid-12th-century Rupertsberg Codex of Scivias. Wikimedia Commons

Hildegard of Bingen

From great warriors we come to an intellectual powerhouse, Saint Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). She was the first woman in many fields, and the founder of natural history in Germany. A sickly child, at the age of 8 Hildegard was entrusted to the care of the Benedictine Monks of Disibodenberg. At 15, she decided to take orders herself, inspired by her tutor at the monastery, the mystic Jutta von Sponheim. Outwardly, Hildegard’s life was studious if unremarkable, but from a young age she had been receiving mystical visions, which she confided only to Jutta and a monk named Volmar.

At first, these had been visions of light, which she knew were sent from God even though she did not understand them. Then, at the age of 42, ‘the heavens were opened and a blinding light of exceptional brilliance flowed through my entire brain. And so it kindled my whole heart and breast like a flame, not burning but warming… and suddenly I understood of the meaning of expositions of the books [the Bible]’, as depicted above. She was told in her visions to write them down, 26 of which she described in her great work, the Scivias.

If Hildegard had been just a mystic, her life would be incredible enough, but she did far more than merely see visions of God. Hildegard was an undoubted polymath, even supervising the illustrations for the first manuscript of Scivias, such as the one above. She was an accomplished composer, 69 of whose works survive, each with an individual poetic text. The monophonic compositions span the genres of antiphons, hymns, and responsories. Incredibly, she also wrote an allegorical play, Ordo Virtutum (‘the order of the virtues’), complete with accompanying music, in her spare time whilst her abbey was being relocated.

Her scientific works were based not on divine revelation but her experience of treating sick nuns and tending the monastery garden. Additionally, she also gave detailed studies of animals, making her not just the mother of natural history in Germany but the very founder. Her works are also unique for their decidedly positive view of sexual relations, exhibiting none of the disgust usually found in medieval works on sex: ‘when a woman is making love with a man, a sense of heat in her brain, which brings with it sensual delight, communicates the taste of that delight during the act’.

She became magistra of the Disibodenberg nuns in 1136, upon Jutta’s death, turning down Abbot Kuno’s offer of becoming a prioress so as to be independent from him. When Kuno would not give her permission to move her growing convent to humbler quarters, she simply wrote to the Archbishop of Mainz. Bucking the trend for detached and subservient nuns, Hildegard also wrote personally to Henry II of England, Pope Eugenius III, and Emperor Frederick Barabarossa, to reprove them for their conduct and to advise them on their future behavior. The polymath Hildegard was a remarkable human, let alone woman.

12 of the Coolest Medieval Women of All Time
Christine de Pizan lectures a group of men, Paris, 1413. Wikimedia Commons

Christine de Pizan

Staying on the studious side of badass medieval women, we have the writer, Christine de Pizan (c.1364-1430). Born in Italy, Christine spent most of her life in France, and became the first professional woman of letters in the history of the country. Where Hildegard, for all her talents, had the security of a convent, Christine had only the power of her words to put food on the table. She wrote a wide range of literature, from courtesy manuals to lyric poetry and literary debates. But, more than anything, Christine is the first feminist as we would recognise one in history.

‘Philosophers, poets, and orators too numerous to mention… all seem to speak with one voice and are unanimous in their view that female nature is wholly given up to vice’, she says in Book I of her 1405 dream-vision text, The City of Ladies. Through the vision that follows, Christine constructs an allegorical city in which the walls and towers are built by examples of women from the past and present superior to men in their field. The vision starts with Christine reading Matheolus’s misogynistic treatise, Lamentations, and the rest of the text serves as her cutting and convincing response.

Christine is guided through the three parts of her vision by Lady Reason, Lady Rectitude, and Lady Justice, as she sees women whose piety, skill in war, intelligence, and innovation is superior to their male counterparts’. At the end of the work, Christine addresses all women, issuing a formidable and rousing battle cry: ‘in short, all you women, whether of high, middle, or low social rank, should be on your guard against those who seek to attack your honour and your virtue… have nothing to do with such men beneath whose smiling looks a lethal venom is concealed’.

Building a city out of the stories of great women may seem an unusual thing to write about today, but in Christine’s time the city was a powerful religious image. Heaven, in the Bible, is depicted as a city, specifically the New Jerusalem (eg. Revelation), and this tradition was the basis for one of the most popular texts of the Middle Ages, Augustine’s monumental City of God, which works on a contrast between an earthly and a heavenly city. Christine’s city also manifests her central message that women have made a significant contribution to civilisation, nowhere clearer than in cities.

As a whole, The City of Ladies is bitingly satirical, and makes an effective demolition of the misogynistic views legitimised by the medieval interpretation of Christianity through giving examples of the lives of women written ironically, for the most part, by men. Reading the text now, it is simply staggering that even today women are still not quite treated as men’s equals, to varying degrees worldwide. This is to say nothing of the centuries of open oppression that women suffered, or the fact that the most misogynistic text ever written, the Malleus Maleficarum, was published barely 80 years later.

12 of the Coolest Medieval Women of All Time
Catherine de Valois’s funeral effigy, England, 1437. Westminster Abbey

Catherine of Valois

The slight and delicate appearance of Catherine of Valois (1401-37), daughter of Charles VI of France (known insensitively as ‘Charles the Mad’ because of his mental illness), belied her destiny to change temporarily the fortunes of the Hundred Years’ War. Aged 19, she was married to King Henry V of England, a burly, battle-hardened warrior, who had been making the life of France miserable as he sought to become the first man to rule both kingdoms. So great was Henry’s new empire that he was called ‘king of all the world’ by the hyperbolic French chronicler, Enguerrand de Monstrelet.

But just 2 years later, the ‘king of all the world’ ingloriously died of dysentery during the Siege of Meaux. Catherine had by this time borne Henry a son, who became King Henry VI of England and France aged just 9 months. With the Hundred Years’ War still raging, the last thing England needed was the instability of a baby-king. As daughter of Charles VI, English lords viewed Catherine with suspicion, cruelly denying her much of a role in her son’s upbringing. However, as widowed mother to the king she wielded significant influence, and many feared her next matrimonial alliance.

Such was her potential world-changing influence that legislation was hastily drawn up in 1427 forbidding marriage to a queen without royal consent (or that of his advisers, given the age of Henry VI), under the penalty of her husband losing all his lands and possessions. Undeterred, Catherine began a sexual relationship with her servant, Owen ap Maredudd ap Tudor, a Welsh courtier, around 1430. This was scandalous: Wales had long been suppressed by England, and Welshmen were not even allowed to own property. They were married in secret, by contrast to the pomp and ceremony of her first marriage.

Marrying Tudor brought Catherine no benefit: he was not a rich man, had no possessions by law, and no political influence, and the marriage remained a secret until her death. The alliance, therefore, must have been for the purer reason of love, which reveals her strength of personality. Catherine could have allowed herself to be married off to a powerful lord chosen for political reasons by the king’s advisers, but she retained her right to choose a mate, and thought nothing of lowering herself by marrying beneath her station. Her grandson was Henry VII, founder of the Tudor dynasty.

12 of the Coolest Medieval Women of All Time
The Siege of Bristol, 1326, in which Isabella laid siege to a Despenser castle where her husband, King Edward II, was in hiding, Paris, 15th century. Wikimedia Commons

Isabella of France

Isabella of France (1295-1358) was the daughter of the King of France, Philip IV, known as the Iron King. Contemporary accounts of Isabella reveal her to be immensely wealthy and well-educated. From Philip she inherited a hard-nosed love of power, and aged 12 was married off to the son of Edward I, the ruthless king of England. We do not know how she viewed her coming alliance but, like most at the time, she probably expected to be marrying a bold warrior who would build upon the military successes of his father. It was, in theory, a good match.

Alas, theory and practice are oft-divergent. Edward II, her new husband, was as different from his father in personality as it was possible to be. Though a strapping man, Edward did not enjoy jousting, hunting, or military campaigns, but instead indulged himself in wine, music and poetry. Worst of all, 24-year-old Edward was homosexual, and at the time of their marriage ceremony was in the midst of a passionate affair with Piers Gaveston, the Earl of Cornwall. Instead of sitting with his wife at the wedding feast, he insulted her by sitting with Gaveston, to Philip’s utter fury.

Gaveston was captured and executed by Edward’s many enemies in 1312, but Isabella could only watch as her husband lost control of his father’s hard-won empire and started another gay relationship with Hugh Despenser. Nevertheless, for years Isabella did everything to support Edward against his many enemies. When de Badlesmere family refused to open the gates of Leeds Castle to him in 1321, the ruthless Isabella forced him to besiege the castle, hang 13 members of its garrison, and imprison the de Badlesmere family in the Tower of London. A harsh measure, of course, but someone had to maintain power.

However, when Edward and Despenser confiscated her lands, imprisoned her staff, and took away her children in 1324, Isabella’s patience was at an end. Mobilising an army opposed to Edward, Isabella seized control of the country with her lover, Roger Mortimer, in 1326. Presiding personally over many of the campaigns in the so-called Despenser War, Isabella had Hugh Despenser hanged, drawn, and quartered, in front of her, but saved the worst execution (allegedly) for Edward, who was murdered in Berkeley Castle with a red-hot iron poker inserted into his anus to symbolize the crime of sodomy he had committed.

Isabella and Mortimer ruled England between 1326 and 1330, with her young son, Edward III, crowned in 1327. Opposition to Mortimer forced Edward to seize complete control in 1330, and Isabella enjoyed a comfortable retirement until her death in 1358. Isabella was known as the ‘She-Wolf of France’ because of her violent retribution against her husband. However, she tolerated and supported her almost openly-gay husband for as long as she could, and it was only when he moved against her directly that she took up arms. Isabella, described as highly intelligent even by contemporaries, was not to be trifled with.

12 of the Coolest Medieval Women of All Time
The Tomb of Countess Matilda of Tuscany by Gianlorenzo Bernini, St Peter’s, Vatican City, 1633. Wikimedia Commons

Matilda of Tuscany

The remarkable Matilda (1046-1115) was the daughter of Margrave Boniface III of Tuscany, and lived through a tumultuous period in Italian history. As a child, Matilda endured the murder of her father, her widowed mother’s illicit marriage to Godfrey the Bearded (an enemy of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry III, who arrested Matilda and her mother as a result), and the deaths of her siblings. The studious and well-educated Matilda was forced into a disastrous marriage with her stepbrother, Godfrey the Hunchback, but left him in 1071, resisted his pleading, and seized his lands when he died in 1076.

Matilda was simultaneously a very pious woman and a fierce warrior. In 1077, after escorting Pope Gregory VII through northern Italy, she managed to make his sworn enemy, Emperor Henry IV, walk barefoot to her castle at Canossa to the Holy Father as penance. She even made Henry wait in the snow for 3 days before letting him visit the Pope. Matilda remained a powerful enemy of Henry and continued to oppose him, defeating the imperial army several times and forcing him to leave Italy altogether in 1097. Along the way, she founded 100 churches, monasteries, and hospices.

Matilda was crowned Imperial Vicar and Vice-Queen of Italy in 1111. She died of gout in 1115, and is one of only 3 women buried in St Paul’s Basilica, Vatican City. Her life is remarkable: surviving a tempestuous childhood and a dreadful marriage to her own stepbrother, she supported the Pope militarily despite her feudal obligation being to the Emperor, and brought about Henry’s downfall. Henry’s barefoot penance to Matilda’s castle pretty much sums her up: a woman who stood up for what she believed in, and proved herself superior to men when given an even playing field.

12 of the Coolest Medieval Women of All Time
Monument à Jeanne Hachette by Gabriel-Vital Dubray, Beauvais, 1851. Wikimedia Commons

Jeanne Hachette

Though the Hundred Years’ War ended in 1453, France was in an utter mess after 116 years of fighting the English on home soil. The countryside was decimated leading to widespread hunger, the royal coffers had been depleted, and alliances made and unmade between one another and the English had created a host of enmities amongst powerful families. One such family, the House of Burgundy, had been sometime allies of the English, and were instrumental in the capture of the national hero, Joan of Arc, whom they sold to the invaders, and in 1465 waged war against the French King.

Tensions between the crown and Burgundy and their allies frequently erupted after this date. In 1467 Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, supported by Edward IV of England amongst others, was moving against Louis King XI. One of his targets was the city of Beauvais, northern France. Charles’s army laid siege to Beauvais, greatly outnumbering the city’s paltry 300 soldiers, and instantly made their numbers tell. However, he did not reckon against a 26-year-old peasant woman, Jeanne Fourquet. Seeing a Burgundian soldier planting a flag on Beauvais’s battlements, she flung herself on him, and threw him in the moat.

Thenceforth known as Jeanne Hachette (‘Joan the Hatchet’), Fourquet bravely used her axe to hear down the Burgundian banner, and in so doing inspired the downhearted garrison, who eventually resisted the siege, successfully fighting off Charles’s troops. Fourquet’s courage saw Louis XI hold a procession in Beauvais in her honor, marry her to her lover, Colin Pilon, and grant her many gifts. A statue of Fourquet, hatchet in hand, was erected at Beauvais in 1851 (see above), and for centuries a religious procession took place in honor of her bravery. There was clearly something about 15th-century French peasant women.

12 of the Coolest Medieval Women of All Time
Joanna of Flanders spots the English Fleet, from Francois Pierre Guillaume Guizot, History of France, vol. II, Paris, 1869. Wikimedia Commons

Joanna of Flanders

It is a well-worn, and slightly patronizing, cliché that behind every great man lies a great woman. However, in the case of Joanna of Flanders (1295-1374), this could not be more true. A noblewoman by birth, in 1329 she married John of Montfort. When his half-brother died childless, John proclaimed himself Duke of Brittany, but not everyone agreed, beginning the War of the Breton Succession, which lasted between 1341 and 1365. When John travelled to Paris to seek the king’s support, he was imprisoned, but his bellicose wife simply named her infant son as Montfort leader, and got to work.

Having secured the assistance of Edward III of England, Joanna incredibly took up arms, donned armor, and travelled to Hennebont in 1342, where she expected a siege from the rival to Brittany, Charles of Blois. Standing on a watchtower, Joanna noticed that Charles’s camp was unguarded, and led a force of 300 men to burn the camp to ashes. Cut off from Hennebont by the enemy when they realized what was happening, she snuck back into it with reinforcements, rather than escape, and held the commune until Edward III’s army arrived to buttress her forces, and the siege was defeated.

Joanna then sailed to England to gather support, but her returning fleet was intercepted in the Channel by Blois’s allies. Joanna was equal to the task, according to the chronicler, Froissart: ‘with the heart of a lion, in her hand she wielded a sharp glaive, wherewith she fought fiercely’. She continued her campaign even after Montfort’s death in 1345, capturing Charles in 1347, but Edward III’s ambitions in Brittany saw Joanna imprisoned in England by her former ally. Nonetheless, she lived long enough in comfortable conditions to see her son, John, finally defeat the House of Blois in 1364.

12 of the Coolest Medieval Women of All Time
The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine of Siena by Giovanni di Paolo, Siena, c.1460. Wikimedia Commons

Catherine of Siena

After all that war and strife, it is perhaps just as well that we end with the peaceful but iron-willed Saint Catherine of Siena (c.1347-80). She showed signs of her resilience early in life, as she rejected her parents’ plans to marry her off to a rich suitor and took religious orders. She chose to become a tertiary of the Dominican Order; her parents’ insistence could not compete with a vision of Christ she had when she was just 6. Over her life, she had numerous religious visions, including one of St Dominic, which influenced her choice of order.

After several years of training and mystical visions, Catherine was told by Christ to leave her solitude, and to intervene in the troubles of the world. Her brave work with the poor and sick in Siena – this at a time when plague was common – gained her an enthusiastic band of followers. However, wider Italian politics began to impact negatively on her hometown, and in 1374 Catherine made her first foray into ecclesiastical matters by traveling to Florence. A year later, she used her influence to persuade the city-states of Pisa and Lucca to support the Pope against his enemies.

She had long-held that the Church was in need of reformation, and she did not let her status as a female tertiary hold her back. Catherine began corresponding with Pope Gregory XI, urging him to reform the clergy and his administration of the Papal States, and intervened on his behalf with his enemies. In 1376 she travelled to Avignon as ambassador for Florence to make peace with the Papal States, but was disowned after failing to do so, sending a stinging rebuke to the Tuscan city in response. She may even have been instrumental in the Pope’s return to Rome.

Catherine successfully negotiated peace between Florence and the Papacy in July 1378, and barely 4 months later involved herself in the Great Schism, when rival popes lived at Avignon and Rome. Though she supported Urban VI, the Roman Pope, and wrote to European leaders to gain their backing, this did not stop her from being openly critical of Urban in her letters to him. Assisting Urban in Rome, Catherine sadly died of a stroke in 1380. So great was her influence and strength of personality that even the head of the misogynistic medieval church had to listen to her advice.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Burne, Alfred Higgins. A Military History of the Hundred Years War from 1369 to 1453. Frontline Books, 2014

Castor, Helen. She-Wolves: The Women who Ruled England Before Elizabeth. London: Faber & Faber, 2010.

Christine de Pizan. The Book of the City of Ladies. Trans. by Rosalind Brown-Grant. London: Penguin, 2000.

Farmer, David Hugh. The Oxford Dictionary of Saints. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Jones, Dan. The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses and the Rise of the Tudors. London: Faber & Faber, 2014.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Seward, Desmond. The Hundred Years War. London: Constable, 2003.