Bloody Mary and Other Fearsome Women From History
Bloody Mary and Other Fearsome Women From History

Bloody Mary and Other Fearsome Women From History

Khalid Elhassan - October 14, 2023

Bloody Mary and Other Fearsome Women From History
Bolshevik soldiers in Crimea. Voice Crimea

The Bloody Rozalia’s Horrific Underwater Forrest of Swaying Corpses

Rozalia Zemlyachka was sent to Crimea as Secretary of the Crimean Regional Committee of the Russian Communist Party. Crimea was one of the last enclaves of the Whites – those opposed to the Bolshevik Reds. She was determined to stamp out that opposition, once and for all. Conscientious about her job, she wanted to economize on mass murder and do it as cheaply as possible. At a time when the Bolsheviks were running low on munitions, she decreed it unreasonable to waste bullets on captives slated for execution. To cut costs, she ordered rocks tied to condemned prisoners’ legs, who were then tossed off barges into the sea. Tens of thousands were killed that way, and when the waters were calm and visibility was good, rows of upright bodies could be seen like a horrific underwater forest, swaying with the currents on the sea bottom.

Bloody Mary and Other Fearsome Women From History
Rozalia Zemlyachka, as commemorated in a 1975 Soviet pre-stamped envelope. Wikimedia

Zemlyachka returned to Moscow, and was awarded the Order of the Red Banner – then the highest Soviet military award. She continued to climb the Communist Party’s rungs, and joined the Central Control Commission – the organization that kept a watchful eye on the party. She worked closely with the NKVD throughout the bloody Great Terror, and so impressed Stalin with her ruthlessness that she was made head of the Control Commission in 1939. That made Zemlyachka the only woman in the USSR’s highest administrative body, the Council of People’s Commissars. She died of natural causes at age 71 in 1947, and was honored with a burial in the Kremlin.

Bloody Mary and Other Fearsome Women From History
Lakshmi Bai. World 4

A Fearsome National Heroine Who Fought British Colonialism

Lakshmi Bai, also known as the Rani of Jhansi (circa 1830 – 1858), was the rani, or queen, of the Indian princely state of Jhansi in northern India. She is best known as a leader of the Indian Mutiny against British rule in 1857 – 1858, in which she personally led troops in combat. Her exploits made her an Indian national heroine, a symbol of resistance to British rule, and a martyr for independence. Born and raised in an upper caste Brahman family, Lakshmi was raised different than most girls of her class.

Brought up among boys in a prince’s household, Lakshmi was taught to ride horses, and became proficient in martial arts such as swordsmanship and marksmanship. When she came of age, she was married to the maharaja, or princely ruler, of Jhansi. The couple did not have children, but her husband adopted a child as his heir. Upon her husband’s death, the British employed legal chicanery. They refused to recognize the adopted child as heir to Jhansi, which they annexed to the territory of the East India Company. Lakshmi vowed “I shall not surrender my Jhansi!” That became her war cry in the subsequent rebellion.

Bloody Mary and Other Fearsome Women From History
The fight for Jhansi. Wikimedia

A Female Fighter in a Bloody Rebellion

In 1857, Indian troops in British service mutinied, and their rebellion spread throughout northern India. Lakshmi was declared regent of Jhansi, and governed on behalf of the underage heir. She raised troops and joined the rebels, and disgruntled natives from across India flocked to her standard. Lakshmi led her forces in a series of successful engagements that asserted her command and consolidated her rule. Eventually, the British sent an army to recapture Jhansi. When they demanded her surrender, she responded: “We fight for independence. In the words of Lord Krishna, we will if we are victorious, enjoy the fruits of victory, if defeated and killed on the field of battle, we shall surely earn eternal glory and salvation.”

Bloody Mary and Other Fearsome Women From History
Statue commemorating Lakshmi Bai’s fight, with her child strapped to her back. Holidify

The British surrounded Jhansi, and a bloody battle ensued, in which Lakshmi Bai personally led her troops. British heavy artillery eventually reduced her fortifications and breached the city walls. When Jhansi was about to fall, Lakshmi led a small force in a ferocious attack that cut its way to safety. The fearsome ruler fought through the British siege lines with her child strapped to her back. She escaped, reached other rebel forces, and resumed the fight. She was finally killed in battle on June 17th, 1858, in an engagement against British cavalry.

Bloody Mary and Other Fearsome Women From History
Joan of Arc. Owlcation

The Pious Teenage Girl Who Became a National Heroine

France’s national heroine Joan of Arc, also known as the Maid of Orleans (1412 – 1431), is the world’s most famous female warrior of all time. As a teenager, she personally led French forces into combat, and won a series of miraculous victories that revived France’s national spirit, and turned the tide of the war. Born into a peasant family in Lorraine, Joan was noted for her piety since childhood. In her teens, she saw visions from various saints, who directed her to save France from English domination.

At the time, France was exhausted, downtrodden and reeling from a series of massive defeats at the hands of the English. The French crown was also in dispute between the French Dauphin, or heir to throne, and the English king, Henry IV. At age sixteen, Joan left home, and led by voices and visions from the saints, travelled to join the Dauphin. In 1429, she convinced the French heir to give her an army, which she took to relieve the city of Orleans, besieged by the English at the time.

Bloody Mary and Other Fearsome Women From History
Joan of Arc in combat. PBS

The Fearsome Maid of Orleans Personally Led Her Armies Into Bloody Combat

Endowed with remarkable mental and physical courage, Joan of Arc led her men in a whirlwind campaign against the English besiegers of Orleans. She lifted the siege in nine days, and put the English to flight. It was a momentous victory that repulsed an English attempt to conquer France. Then Joan, now known as “The Maid of Orleans”, convinced the Dauphin to crown himself king of France. She was then sent on various military expeditions, and in one of them in 1430, she was thrown off her horse and captured by the Burgundians.

Joan’s captors kept her for several months, then sold to the English, who were eager to get their hands on the girl who had caused them so much trouble. Although she had saved her country, she was now abandoned by her countrymen to fend for herself. The English and their French collaborators accused her of heresy and witchcraft, and locked her in a dark and filthy cell to await trial. Manacled to her bed with chains, she was incessantly harassed by her inquisitors at all hours of day and night in an effort to break her will and spirit.

Bloody Mary and Other Fearsome Women From History
Saint Joan of Arc. The Given Institute

A Martyred Saint

Joan of Arc adamantly refused to confess to any wrongs, and her accusers were unable to prove either heresy or witchcraft. In frustration, they turned their attention to the way in which she had dressed in male attire on the field of battle. Her captors claimed that such cross dressing violated biblical injunctions, and convicted her on those grounds. On May 30th, 1431, she was taken on a cart to Rouen, where the nineteen-year-old Maid of Orleans was burned at the stake.

Bloody Mary and Other Fearsome Women From History
The execution of Joan of Arc. Catholica

Two decades after her death, an inquisitorial court was ordered by a new pope, to reexamine Joan of Arc’s trial. The court debunked all the charges against her, cleared her posthumously, and declared her a martyr. In 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte made her a national symbol of France. She was beatified in 1909, then canonized as a Saint by the Catholic Church in 1920. Today, Saint Joan of Arc is one of the patron saints of France, and the most famous female warrior of all time.

Bloody Mary and Other Fearsome Women From History
Artemisia I of Caria. Gambargin, Deviant Art

The Fierce and Bloody Artemisia

Artemisia I of Caria (flourished in the 400s BC) was ruler of Halicarnassus in Caria – a satrapy, or province, of the Persian Empire in southwestern Anatolia. A warrior queen and naval commander, she fought for Persia’s King Xerxes in his invasion of Greece. She was most famous for her role in the bloody naval Battle of Salamis in 480 BC, which her side lost, but in which she distinguished herself. She was the daughter of the king of Halicarnasus, who named her after the Greek goddess of the hunt, Artemis.

When she grew up, Artemisia married the satrap of Caria, and after his death, assumed the throne of Caria as regent for her underage son. Ancient reports depict her as a courageous and clever commander of men and ships. She distinguished herself in the naval Battle of Artemisium, which was fought simultaneously with the more famous Battle of Thermopylae. She so discomfited the Greeks in that engagement that they put a bounty on her head, and offered 10,000 drachmas to whoever killed or captured her. The reward went unclaimed.

Bloody Mary and Other Fearsome Women From History
The Battle of Salamis. Encyclopedia Britannica

The Unfortunately Farcical End of a Fearsome Woman

The bloody naval Battle of Artemisium was followed soon thereafter by the even greater and bloodier naval Battle of Salamis. In that engagement, Herodotus describes Artemisia as the only commander on the Persian side worthy of mention: “I pass over all the other officers [of the Persians] because there is no need for me to mention them, except for Artemisia, because I find it particularly remarkable that a woman should have taken part in the expedition against Greece. She took over the tyranny after her husband’s death, and although she had a grown-up son and did not have to join the expedition, her manly courage impelled her to do so“.

After the Battle of Salamis, Artemisia escorted King Xerxes’ sons to safety, then faded from history. Legend has it that her end came after she fell madly in love with a man who ignored her, so she blinded him in his sleep. However, her passion continued to burn hot despite his disfigurement. To rid herself of her feelings for him, she decided to leap from a tall rock that reportedly held mystical powers, such that jumping off it would snap the bonds of love. Instead, she fell down and snapped her neck.

Bloody Mary and Other Fearsome Women From History
Sichelgaita. Art Station

The Female Half of a Fearsome and Bloody Medieval Power Couple

Sichelgaita of Salerno (circa 1040 – 1090) was a Lombard warrior princess and the hereditary duchess of Apulia in southern Italy. Born into the ruling family of the Duchy of Salerno, she exhibited a passion for swordsmanship and horseback riding from an early age. A six foot Amazon, she met and married Robert Guiscard, a Norman adventurer who turned southern Italy and Sicily into a Norman domain. Armed and armored she fought at Guiscard’s side, or led men into battle on her own. The power couple roiled the Mediterranean world of their day.

After her father the duke was murdered in a palace coup, Sichelgaita helped her brother regain the duchy, and she regained her place as the duchy’s most privileged woman. Brother and sister then faced encroachment from Normans to their south, who had settled in Italy after a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In 1058, she met the Normans’ leader, Robert Guiscard, and the two fell passionately in love. So Guiscard divorced his wife and married Sichelgaita. For the next eighteen years, she was Guiscard’s constant companion, on and off the battlefield, and helped consolidate his and her family’s hold on southern Italy.

Bloody Mary and Other Fearsome Women From History
Sichelgaita. B&B Peter Pan

The Ambitious Sichelgaita

In 1076, clad in armor and mounted astride a stallion, Sichelgaita rode up to the walls of Salerno, then ruled by her brother, and demanded the city’s submission. When her brother refused, Sichelgaita and Guiscard besieged the city, and starved him into surrender. She then took command of Salerno, and exiled her brother. In addition to fighting at her husband’s side, Sichelgaita also led men on her own in independent commands. She and her husband were full of ambition, and they even tried to take over the Byzantine Empire by marrying one of their children into the imperial household.

Bloody Mary and Other Fearsome Women From History
Robert Guiscard, Sichelgaita’s husband, being invested by the pope as Duke of Apulia, Calabria, and Sicily in 1059. Amazon

A palace coup in Constantinople foiled that plan, however. So they decided to take over Byzantium the hard way, by straightforward conquest. Sichelgaita’s greatest exploit came in the resultant war at the Battle of Durazo on the Albanian coast, in October, 1081. She led an advance force ahead of the main body, which encountered a powerful Byzantine army that offered fierce resistance. Sichelgaita pressed the attack to keep the Byzantines pinned in place until Guiscard arrived with reinforcements, but her men faltered, and some fled. As seen below, she took charge, and turned the tide of the battle.

Bloody Mary and Other Fearsome Women From History
Sichelgaita. Wikimedia

A Bloody Medieval Amazon

As described by near contemporaries: “Directly Sichelgaita, Robert’s wife (who was riding at his side and was a second Pallas, if not an Athene) saw these soldiers running away. She looked fiercely after them and in a very powerful voice called out to them in her own language an equivalent to Homer’s words “How far will ye flee? Stand and fight like men!” And when she saw that they continued to run, she grasped a long spear and at full gallop rushed after the fugitives; and on seeing this they recovered themselves and returned to the fight.She was badly wounded in the fight, but held part of the battlefield until reinforcements arrived to turn the tide and win the hard-fought engagement.

Despite the victory, the plans to conquer Byzantium were discarded because of developments back in Italy, when a conflict broke out between the pope and the Holy Roman Emperor. In 1084, Sichelgaita and Guiscard resumed the attempted conquest of Byzantium. They won some initial victories, such as a ferocious naval battle against a combined Venetian-Byzantine fleet, which gained them the islands of Corfu and Cefalonia. Soon thereafter, however, Guiscard took ill and died in 1085, and the campaign in Greece fizzled out. Sichelgaita retired to Salerno, where she died five years later, in 1090.

Bloody Mary and Other Fearsome Women From History
The Trung sisters. National Geographic

Vietnam’s National Heroines

The Trung sisters, Trung Nhi and Trung Trac (circa 12 – 43 AD), are Vietnam’s national heroines. They led an independence movement and rebelled against China’s domination of their country. They broke the Chinese yoke and established an independent Vietnamese state, which they ruled for three years. Vietnam had groaned under Chinese domination for about a century by the time the Trung sisters were born. Trung Trac, the older sister, was married to a Vietnamese nobleman who resisted Chinese hegemony, and objected to a particularly oppressive Chinese governor’s ham handedness.

For his troubles, Trung Trac’s husband was executed by the Chinese to cow other would-be rebels. In response, his widow organized and rallied other Vietnamese nobles to resist the Chinese. With the help of her sister Trung Nhi, Trung Trac launched a rebellion in the Red River Delta, near modern Hanoi, in 40 AD. From there, the revolt quickly spread up and down the long Vietnamese coast. After generations of life under foreign domination, the Vietnamese were ready to rebel, and the uprising became wildly popular.

Bloody Mary and Other Fearsome Women From History
The Trung sisters led a female army. Pinterest

A Bloody Rebellion by an Army of Women

Unique among armed rebellions, the Trung sisters’ forces were made mostly of women. With those predominately female armies, the rebel siblings seized numerous Chinese forts and citadels, and chased out or defeated their garrisons. Within a few months, China’s authority in Vietnam was broken, the Chinese were forced out of the country, and Trung Trac was proclaimed queen. Although greatly outnumbered, the siblings managed to keep the invaders out of for three years. Eventually, however, the Chinese concentrated a massive force to recapture Vietnam.

Bloody Mary and Other Fearsome Women From History
Vietnamese female soldiers march past a Trung sisters monument. Connected Women

In 43 AD, the Trung sisters were finally defeated in battle. Captured, they were decapitated by the Chinese, who then reasserted their control over Vietnam. Although their independent state proved short lived, the Trung sisters successfully planted the seeds of Vietnamese national identity. Conventional wisdom in Vietnam has it that if the Trung sisters had not rebelled and fought against the Chinese, Vietnam would have been wholly absorbed and dissolved into China, and there would be no Vietnamese nation today.

Bloody Mary and Other Fearsome Women From History
Virginia Hall. University of Kent

The Rich American Who Ended Up as a WWII Resistance Heroine

Life in World War II’s resistance in Europe was pretty tough. Whether it was the Gestapo hot on their heels, the ever-present danger of betrayal by collaborators, or mere bad luck, capture and doom were never far away. Life was harder and more dangerous still for resistance figures with readily identifiable characteristics – especially if such characteristics were known to the Nazis. Virginia Hall, a one-legged spy who spent much of WWII dodging the Gestapo in occupied France, could attest to that.

Bloody Mary and Other Fearsome Women From History
Virginia Hall transmitting from German-occupied France. CIA

Hall was born into a wealthy Baltimore family in 1906, but she was not into the usual fripperies that rich young ladies of her era were into. Among other things, she did not want to simply become somebody’s dutiful housewife. Instead, she was a total Tomboy: a free spirit, athletic, independent, and liked to thumb her nose at convention. As she wrote in a schoolbook in 1924: “I must have liberty, with as large a charter as possible“. At age twenty, she headed to Europe to blazer her own path.

Bloody Mary and Other Fearsome Women From History
Virginia Hall’s 1930s drivers license. Time Magazine

The One-Legged Spy

Virginia Hall attended Radcliffe and Barnard colleges, her era’s female counterparts of Harvard and Columbia universities. There, she studied French, German, and Italian. She liked travel and public service, so she tried to combine the two and become a US diplomat. Unfortunately, the State Department’s sole career track for women back then was clerical. So Hall became a clerk at the American consulate in Turkey. There, she accidentally shot herself in the leg while hunting, and the limb was amputated. She got a wooden prosthetic, which she nicknamed “Cuthbert”. Because of her gender, Hall was repeatedly denied promotion to diplomat. So she resigned in 1939. She was in France when the Germans invaded, and volunteered to drive an ambulance for the French Army. When France fell in 1940, she fled to Britain.

Bloody Mary and Other Fearsome Women From History
Gestapo sketch of Virginia Hall. Rhapsody in Words

There, Hall joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a clandestine organization tasked with espionage and sabotage in occupied Europe. She became one of the first spies infiltrated into France. It was hazardous duty: more than a third of female SOE agents sent to France perished. She established an espionage network named Heckler that gathered valuable information and coordinated with the Resistance. The Gestapo learned that a “Limping Lady” was operating on their turf, and circulated bulletins – along with sketches – to be on the lookout for her. However, Hall used various aliases and disguises, and continued her clandestine work under the Nazis’ noses despite her tell-tale limp. Along the way, she recruited a Lyon brothel owner, and used his establishment as a kind of headquarters. She also had a sixth sense for danger, which allowed her to evade capture on many occasions.

Bloody Mary and Other Fearsome Women From History
Virginia Hall. All That is Interesting

An Overlooked Heroine and the Bloody Gestapo

Klaus Barbie, a bloody minded Gestapo official known as “The Butcher of Lyon” for the thousands whom he ordered tortured and killed, was hot on Virginia Hall’s trail. He plastered wanted posters all over the place that featured a sketch of her face above the words: “The Enemy’s Most Dangerous Spy – We Must Find and Destroy Her!” Hall, who was so good at disguises that she could be four different women with four different identities in a single afternoon, evaded his clutches. Eventually, things got hot enough that she had to flee France. She made a hazardous escape in 1942 that included a 50-mile trek on foot in heavy snow across the Pyrenees Mountains into neutral Spain. The Spanish arrested her for lack of an entrance visa, and she spent six weeks in jail before she was finally freed and returned to Britain.

Bloody Mary and Other Fearsome Women From History

Soon as she caught her breath, Hall volunteered to return to France. The SOE decided it was too dangerous. By then, however, the US had joined WWII, and its Office of Strategic Services (OSS), America’s version of the SOE, was glad to have her. Back in France, this time as an OSS agent, Hall called in airdrops for the Resistance, and coordinated their activities with the Allies. Her network eventually numbered 1500 members, including a French-American soldier, Paul Goillot, whom she eventually married. Hall’s extraordinary heroism earned her a Distinguished Service Cross. She was the only woman to receive such an award – America’s second highest distinction – in WWII. After the war, she spent fifteen years in the CIA. Despite her vast hands-on experience, she faced discrimination as a woman, and was restricted to desk duty. She eventually resigned in 1966, and died in relative obscurity in 1982.

 

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

 

Clements, Barbara Evans – Bolshevik Women (1997)

Collector, The – The 5 Cruelest Women in History to Hold Power

Devries, Kelly – Joan of Arc: A Military Leader (2003)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Lakshmi Bai

Encyclopedia Britannica – Matilda, Daughter of Henry I

Futurist Dolmen – Rozalia Zemlyachka: An Incomplete Biography

Gonick, Larry – The Cartoon History of the Universe, Volume III: From the Rise of Arabia to the Renaissance (2002)

Hanley, Catherine – Matilda: Empress, Queen, Warrior (2019)

Herodotus – The Histories, Books 7 and 8

History Collection – One of History’s Greatest Minds, Hypatia, Was Brutally Disposed of for Being a Woman With too Much Power

Journal of Medieval History, Volume III (2005) – Sichelgaita of Salerno: Amazon or Trophy Wife?

Kiernan, Ben – Viet Nam: A History From Earliest Times to the Present (2019)

Lebra, Joyce C. – Women Against the Raj: The Rani of Jhansi Regiment (2008)

Legends of America – Belle Starr, the Bandit Queen

Love British History – 9 Times the Empress Matilda Was a Total Badass

National Archives – Virginia Hall of the OSS, May 12, 1945

National Public Radio – ‘A Woman of No Importance’ Finally Gets Her Due

Owlcation – 10 Famous Female Outlaws of the Wild West

Porter, Linda – Mary Tudor: The First Queen (2007)

Richey, Stephen Wesley – Joan of Arc: The Warrior Saint (2003)

Salisbury, Joyce E. – Encyclopedia of Women in the Ancient World (2001)

Shirley, Glenn – Belle Starr and Her Times: The Literature, the Facts, and the Legends (1982)

Smithsonian Magazine, April 8th, 2019 – How a Spy Known as ‘The Limping Lady’ Helped the Allies Win WWII

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