Rozalia Zemlyachka had tens of thousands executed by drowning with weights tied to their legs. When the waters were calm and visibility was good, rows of standing bodies off the shores of the Crimea could be seen at the bottom as they swayed like a horrific underwater forest, and gently moved back and forth with the currents. The author of the macabre executions returned to Moscow, and was awarded the Order of the Red Banner – then the highest Soviet military award.
She spent the rest of her life climbing the Communist Party’s rungs, and joined the Central Control Commission – the organization that kept a watchful eye on the party. Zemlyachka worked closely with the NKVD during the Great Terror, and so impressed Stalin with her ruthlessness that she was made head of the Control Commission in 1939. That made her 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.
Jeanne de Clisson (1300 – 1359), also known as the Lioness of Brittany, was one of France’s most dangerous female outlaws. A Breton noblewoman, she was born in the town of Belleville-sur-Vie into a prominent family, which had ruled the area for centuries. She was married at age twelve, and bore her husband two children before he died in 1326. She remarried in 1328, but that marriage was annulled two years later, so she remarried once more, this time to a wealthy Breton named Olivier Clisson. When the French accused her third husband of being an English spy and executed him as such, the widow Clisson went on the warpath. She turned pirate, preyed on French ships in the English Channel, and tortured and executed every French nobleman she came across.
In 1342, during the Hundred Years War, Jeanne’s husband was military commander of a town that was captured by the English, and he was taken prisoner. They released him soon thereafter in a prisoner exchange – the only Frenchman who was freed. Between that and an unusually low ransom requested by the English, Olivier Clisson was suspected of treason. He was tried and convicted by a court of French aristocrats, and beheaded in 1343. Jeanne viewed her husband’s execution as a cowardly murder, took her young sons to see their father’s head mounted on a spike, and vowed revenge. She sold her estates, used the proceeds to raise a force of armed followers, switched her loyalties to the English, and began to attack the French.
Jeanne de Clisson was not taken seriously at first. Then she attacked and captured a French castle, and massacred its entire garrison, except for one man whom she let live to tell the tale. The dangerous widow was taken seriously from then on. Aware that her forces were too small to withstand a determined French counterattack, Jeanne retreated across the Channel to England. There, she bought and outfitted three warships, and as a signal of her intent, painted them black and dyed their sails red. She led her black fleet into the English Channel, fell upon French shipping, and soon gained a reputation for savagery. Among other things, she routinely massacred nearly all who fell into her hands, except for a few survivors spared so they could spread the tale.
French nobles in particular were in serious trouble if they were discovered aboard any ship captured by the widow Clisson. Although there was serious money to be made ransoming them, as the was custom of the day, she wanted none of that. Instead, she tormented the nobles, then personally chopped off their heads with an ax, and finally tossed their corpses overboard. She continued her murderous rampage against the French wherever she could find them, for thirteen years, before her blood lust was finally sated. Eventually, in 1356, Jeanne Clisson gave up the life of piracy and retired to her estates in Brittany. She remarried for a fourth time, and settled into a castle on Brittany’s southern coast, where she died peacefully in 1359.
Few women of the Middle Ages were more dangerous than Sichelgaita of Salerno (circa 1040 – 1090), a Lombard warrior princess and the Duchess of Apulia in southern Italy. A six-foot Amazon, she met and married Robert Guiscard, an equally dangerous Norman adventurer who turned Sicily and southern Italy into a Norman domain. Sichelgaita rode armed and armored and went into combat at Guiscard’s side, or led men into battle on her own. Between them, the power couple roiled and terrorized the Mediterranean for decades during the second half of the eleventh century.
Sichelgaita was born into the ruling family of the Duchy of Salerno, and from an early age, she exhibited a passion for swordsmanship and horseback riding. After her father the Duke of Salerno was murdered in a palace coup, she helped her brother regain the duchy, and she regained her place as the duchy’s most privileged woman. Brother and sister then had to deal with encroachment from Normans to their south, who had settled in Italy after a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
In 1058, Sichelgaita met the Normans’ leader, Robert Guiscard, and the two fell passionately in love. Guiscard, a Norman knight who had settled in southern Italy in 1047, was widely known as the Wily or the Weasel, and was impressed by the six foot Amazon who went into battle, fully armed and armored. He divorced his wife and married Sichelgaita, and the duo became one of the medieval era’s most dangerous power couples. For the next eighteen years, she was the Weasel’s constant companion, both on and off the battlefield.
Sichelgaita helped Guiscard consolidate his and her family’s hold on southern Italy, and one of those consolidations was of her birthplace, the Duchy of Salerno. In 1076, clad in shining armor and mounted astride a stallion, she rode up to the walls of Salerno, which was ruled by her own brother, and demanded the city’s submission. When her brother refused, Sichelgaita and Guiscard put the city under siege, and starved it into surrender. She then took command of Salerno, and sent her brother into exile.
6. A Woman Who Not Only Fought, But Led Men in Combat
Sichelgaita did not only fight at her husband’s side, but also led men on her own in independent commands. An ambitious couple, she and Robert Guiscard attempted to take over the Byzantine Empire by marrying one of their children into the imperial household. A palace coup in Constantinople foiled those plans, however, so the duo decided to take over Byzantium the hard way, through straightforward conquest. In 1080, while her husband attacked Taranto in southern Italy, Sichelgaita led a siege against Trani on Italy’s Adriatic coast.
Her greatest exploit came a year later at the Battle of Dyrrhachium on the Albanian coast, on October 18th, 1081. There, the dangerous warrior princess, clad in full armor, led an advance force ahead of the main body. She ran into a powerful Byzantine army that offered fierce resistance. Sichelgaita determined to press the attack and keep the Byzantines pinned in place until Guiscard arrived with reinforcements, but her men faltered, and some fled. As seen below, Sichelgaita turned the tide with a bravura battlefield performance.
5. A Medieval Amazon’s Greatest Battlefield Performance
As a near-contemporary wrote of the Battle of Dyrrhachium: “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, 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 the Byzantine Empire had to be discarded because of developments back in Italy, when a conflict broke out between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor. In 1084, Sichelgaita and her husband Guiscard resumed the attempted conquest of Byzantium. The dangerous power couple won some initial victories. One of them was a ferocious naval battle against a combined Venetian-Byzantine, that gained them the islands of Corfu and Cefalonia. Soon thereafter, however, Guiscard took ill and died in 1085, and the campaign fizzled out. Sichelgaita retired to Salerno, where she died five years later, in 1090.
Famous – or infamous, depending on whether viewed from the perspective of admirers or detractors – Indian bandit queen Phoolan Devi was born in 1963 in Utter Pradesh, India, into a lower caste family that ranked barely above the Untouchables. The lot of lower castes – especially of impoverished lower caste girls like Phoolan – was no bed of roses, as she learned all too soon. She did not simply accept it, however, and from early on, Phoolan gained a reputation for her willingness to stand up to oppressors and resist injustice.
When she was ten-years-old, Phoolan defied an uncle who wanted to cut a tree on her father’s tiny land plot, and organized her village’s girls to conduct a sit-in. They resisted efforts to remove them by force, and their sit-in only ended when Phoolan was knocked out unconscious with a brick. At age eleven, Phoolan’s family married her to a man in his thirties, who abused her physically and sexually. She fled several times, but her family kept returning her to her husband until the marriage finally ended when Phoolan was sixteen.
For a wife to leave her husband was a major taboo in Phoolan Devi’s neck of the woods. So when she ditched her abusive husband, she became a social outcast. Her prospects grim, the teenaged Phoolan fell in with and joined a gang of rural bandits. She was the only female in her outlaw outfit, and the gang’s leader decided to take advantage of her and make her his concubine. He took to assaulting her, until another bandit stepped in, killed him.
Her assailant’s killer took over the gang, and soon, he and Phoolan became lovers. Once she had established herself as a bandit in her own right, one of her first acts as an outlaw was to visit vengeance upon her abusive ex. So she swept into that unworthy’s village at the head of a group bandits, to exact payback. She dragged her ex out of his house, gutted him with a knife, and pinned a note to him, in which she warned men not to marry little girls.
After she took care of her ex, Phoolan Devi became known as more than just a dangerous outlaw. She earned a reputation as a Robin-Hoodesque figure, who robbed from the upper castes and shared her loot with the impoverished. That phase of her life ended when an internal gang struggle ended with the murder of her lover, and his replacement as gang leader by two upper caste brothers. They seized Phoolan and imprisoned her in their out-of-the-way home village, Behmai. There, she was assaulted by many men, and was subjected to sundry humiliations such as being paraded naked around the village.
She eventually fled, but vowed to come back and pay her tormentors back, with interest. She formed a new bandit crew, this one exclusively of lower castes like her. On the evening of February 14th, 1981, several months after her escape, Phoolan returned to Behmai at the head of her gang. She demanded that the villagers produce the brothers who had imprisoned her, but they could not be found. So she demonstrated just how terrible a mistake the villagers had made to mess with such a dangerous woman, with an epic vengeance that rocked India.
Phoolan Devi lined up about two dozen of the village of Behmai’s young men, whose numbers included some who had assaulted her, and ordered them killed. What came to be known as the Behmai Massacre rocked India. A massive manhunt was ordered, but Phoolan evaded her pursuers, helped by the region’s poor, who saw her as a heroine. Two years after the massacre, tired of life on the run, Phoolan negotiated a surrender for herself and the remnants of her gang.
As more than 10,000 people watched, she and her followers laid down their rifles, and were taken into custody. A villain to some, a heroine to others, Phoolan was kept in pretrial detention for eleven years, until the charges were finally dismissed and she was released in 1994. She became a women’s rights activist, and in 1995, one year after her release, she was elected to India’s parliament. Her eventful life was cut short in 2001, when a man who sought vengeance for the upper caste men killed by Phoolan assassinated her as she exited her Delhi home.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading