The Most Formidable Women in History that Made Men Cower Before Them

The Most Formidable Women in History that Made Men Cower Before Them

Khalid Elhassan - April 23, 2022

Few were more powerful than Empress Matilda (1102 – 1167), heir to the English throne. When her father the king died, however, the magnates who had sworn to support her decided they did not want a female monarch. So they reneged, and supported a rival claimant. Matilda did not meekly accept such treachery. She raised an army and fought for her right, plunging England into a period of strife so awful that it came to be known simply as The Anarchy. Below are thirty things about her and other tough women from history.

The Most Formidable Women in History that Made Men Cower Before Them
Twelfth-century illustration of Matilda’s marriage to Henry V. University of Cambridge

30. Holy Roman Empress and Heir to the English Throne

As a child, Matilda was betrothed to Henry V, King of Germany, and Holy Roman Emperor from 1111 to 1125. Her father sent her to her future husband in Germany when she was eight, and the couple were married six years later. Their reign as emperor and empress was turbulent, marked by rebellions and wars in both Germany and Italy, which Matilda governed for some years as regent. The couple were childless, and her reign as empress ended in 1125 when her husband died. In the meantime, back in England, Matilda’s brother and heir to the English throne had gotten himself killed in 1120 in a drunken ship race. That left Matilda’s father without a male heir, and try as he would sire another son, he was unsuccessful.

The Most Formidable Women in History that Made Men Cower Before Them
The crowning of Empress Matilda and Emperor Henry V. Pinterest

When the widowed Matilda returned to England in 1125, her father declared her his heir. In 1126, the realm’s barons were assembled at Westminster, where they swore to support Matilda. The following year, she was married to Geoffrey Plantagenet, heir to the Count of Anjou. When her father died in 1135, Matilda prepared to ascend England’s throne. Unfortunately, the nobles reneged on their oath, and threw their support to her cousin Stephen of Blois, who was crowned King Stephen I. Matilda was not having it. She was pregnant at the time, but soon as she gave birth in 1136, she raised her forces, and for the next three years, fought Stephen in Normandy. By 1139, she had secured Normandy, and then set her eyes on England.

The Most Formidable Women in History that Made Men Cower Before Them
Matilda’s flight from Oxford. Flickr

29. The Feisty Matilda won out

In 1139, Matilda and her illegitimate half-brother Robert of Gloucester landed in England, and plunged it into civil war. Early on, King Stephen besieged and trapped her in Arundel Castle, but she negotiated an exit. She established her court at Gloucester, and the two sides settled down to a series of castle sieges. Things improved dramatically for Matilda in 1141, when she defeated and captured King Stephen at the Battle of Lincoln. The throne was in her grasp, but then she blew it. Matilda entered London to be crowned later that year but treated the locals so disrespectfully that they rose up in revolt and chased her out of the city. She retreated to Oxford, where she was besieged in the winter of 1142. Trapped, she climbed down the city walls in a snow storm, then crossed the frozen Thames River on foot to safety.

The Most Formidable Women in History that Made Men Cower Before Them
A Matilda II tank in WWII’s North African Campaign. Imperial War Museums

In the meantime, her half-brother had been captured, and to secure his release, she exchanged him for King Stephen. The war then entered a stalemate, but Matilda kept up a fight that threw England into lawless chaos that came to be known as “The Anarchy”. It finally ended in 1153, when a truce was brokered, whereby King Stephen was allowed to keep the throne, in exchange for recognizing Matilda’s son, Henry, as his heir. Although Matilda did not become queen, her son became King Henry II, and founded the Plantagenet Dynasty that ruled England for centuries. Matilda was never liked, but her feistiness and determination were grudgingly respected. In WWII, Britain fielded not one, but two tanks named after her, the Matilda I and the Matilda II – the latter, the only British tank to serve throughout the entire war.

The Most Formidable Women in History that Made Men Cower Before Them
Sayyida al Hurra. Head Stuff

28. A Tough Moroccan Pirate Queen

Lalla Aicha bint Ali ibn Rashid al Alami is better known to history as Sayyida al Hurra (1485 – 1561), which means “free noblewoman” in Arabic. She had been born into a prominent Muslim family in Granada, but when that kingdom fell to the Spanish Reconquista in 1492, her family fled to Morocco. The Moroccan sultan granted Sayyida and her husband, and their Reconquista refugee followers, the ruins of Tetouan, a city destroyed by Spaniards. The couple and their followers rebuilt and restored Tetouan, and after her husband’s death in 1515, Sayyida became its queen – the last queen in Islamic history to rule independently.

In addition to ruling Tetouan, Sayyida was also a pirate queen who terrorized the region’s waters. Islamic records are oddly silent about her, but she was a tough woman and a powerful figure of the era. After years of widowhood, Sayyida wed the sultan of Morocco. However, she was determined to emphasize her independence and demonstrate that she would not cede her power and position. So she refused to leave Tetouan for the wedding. The sultan had to come to her – the only time in Moroccan history that a sultan married outside his capital.

The Most Formidable Women in History that Made Men Cower Before Them
Sayyida al Hurra prowling the deck of a captured ship. Weapons and Warfare

27. The Enemy Couldn’t Take Down This Boss, But Her Own Family Did

From her base in Tetouan, spurred on by bitter memories of her exile from Granada, Sayyida al-Hurra conducted a ruthless campaign of piracy against the Spaniards. She allied with Heyreddin Barbarossa, the era’s most prominent corsair, who rose to become the Ottoman Empire’s most successful admiral. With Barbarossa in control of the Eastern Mediterranean and Sayyida in control of the Western Mediterranean and the Atlantic coast of Morocco and Iberia, the duo went to work. She led her own fleet, prowled Spanish and Portuguese shipping lanes, and became the region’s undisputed pirate leader.

Tough as nails, Sayyida amassed vast riches from seized booty and from ransoming her captives. Indeed, during her piratical career, she was the go-to contact in negotiations to release captured Christians. It is to those negotiations, and the records thereof, that history is most indebted for our knowledge of Sayyida al Hurra. Her reign eventually ended as she neared her sixties, after three decades of striking terror into the hearts of the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean sailors. Sayyida’s downfall came at the hands of her son-in-law, who ousted her in a palace coup. She was stripped of power, and her fate thereafter is lost to history.

The Most Formidable Women in History that Made Men Cower Before Them
Queen Teuta. Pinterest

26. The Ancient World Pirate Queen that was Tougher than Most

In the third century BC, piracy flourished among the Illyrian tribes that inhabited the coasts of modern Croatia and Albania. Piracy had been suppressed for a time in the Classical period, when the powerful navies of Athens and Rhodes kept the Greek world’s waters relatively safe. Phillip II of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great followed suit, but after Alexander’s death, his successors focused their energies on fighting each other. With no strong naval presence to keep them in check, the Illyrians took full advantage of the many hidden inlets along their coastlines and turned to piracy as a way of life.

That eventually led to conflict with the expanding Roman Republic. Rome became a dominant Mediterranean naval power for the first time after its victory over Carthage in the First Punic War (264 – 241 BC). However, that newly-won dominance was challenged by the Illyrians across the Adriatic Sea from the Italian Peninsula. Most notably the Illyrian Ardiaei tribe and their fearless ruler, Queen Teuta (reigned 231 – 227 BC). She had inherited the kingdom after the death of her husband, King Agron, in 231 BC. She continued her husband’s expansionist policies, pushed her realm’s borders deeper into the Balkans, and encouraged and supported her subjects’ piratical activities.

The Most Formidable Women in History that Made Men Cower Before Them
Teuta ordering the seizure of Rome’s envoys. Imgur

25. Teuta’s War With Rome

Rome’s beef with Queen Teuta began when some of her pirates seized and plundered Roman vessels. When the merchants complained to the Roman Senate, it initially tried to handle the problem with diplomacy. Two envoys were accordingly sent to Teuta’s court to complain. She responded that piracy was legal among the Illyrians, and that her government had no right to interfere with its citizens’ private enterprises. When the Roman diplomats retorted that Rome would then have no choice but to make her change Illyrian laws, Teuta stopped feeling diplomatic. She ordered one of the Roman envoys killed, and the other imprisoned.

The outraged Romans declared war in 229 BC. A fleet of 200 warships was sent to harry the Illyrians at sea, while an army of 20,000 men and cavalry crossed the Adriatic to harry Teuta’s kingdom by land. The pirate queen conducted a fierce resistance that gave the Romans no end of trouble. However, Teuta’s kingdom was no match for the might of Rome, and in 227 BC, she was forced to surrender and sign a humiliating peace treaty. She kept her throne, but as a Roman vassal forced to pay an annual tribute, and left to rule over a shrunken realm, stripped of much of its territory.

The Most Formidable Women in History that Made Men Cower Before Them
Ahhotpe I recovers the body of her husband, who was killed fighting the Hyksos. National Geographic

24. A Fearless Ancient Egyptian Warrior Queen

Ahhotpe I (circa 1560 – 1530 BC) was a warrior queen of the Ancient Egyptian Seventeenth Dynasty. Among other things, she led armies in combat against the Hyksos – foreign Semitic invaders who had conquered Egypt’s Nile Delta. After her husband was killed fighting the invaders, Ahhotep took over Egypt’s throne and armies as regent during the minority of her son, Ahmose I. She kept up the pressure against the Hyksos until her son was old enough to take over the fight.

According to a stele that recorded her deeds during this period: “The king’s wife, the noble lady, who knew everything, assembled Kemet [Egypt]. She looked after what her Sovereign had established. She guarded it. She assembled her fugitives. She brought together her deserters. She pacified her Upper Egyptians. She subdued her rebels, The king´s wife Ahhotpe given life. … She is the one who has accomplished the rites and taken care of Egypt… She has looked after her soldiers, she has guarded her, she has brought back her fugitives and collected together her deserters, she has pacified Upper Egypt and expelled her rebels.”

The Most Formidable Women in History that Made Men Cower Before Them
Artifacts recovered from the tomb of Ahhotpe I. Temple of Mut

23. This Ancient Queen Fought Fiercely to Secure Her Son’s Throne

Eventually, Ahhotpe’s son Ahmose I came of age, and personally took over the reins of power. A boss in his own right, Ahmose drove out the Hyksos invaders who had dominated northern Egypt for generations, and reunified Egypt. He then founded the Eighteenth Dynasty, Ancient Egypt’s most famous and successful. During that dynasty, the Egyptian Empire reached the zenith of its power, stretching from Syria in the north to Nubia in the south, and from Mesopotamia in the west to the Libyan deserts in the west.

Ahhotpe’s days as a warrior did not end when her son came of age. While Ahmose was busy in the south warring with Nubians, a cabal of Hyksos-sympathizing rebels tried to seize the throne. Ahhotpe rallied loyal troops, fought them off, and foiled their attempt. For that, she was rewarded with the “Golden Flies of Valor” – Ancient Egypt’s highest military award for courage. It was discovered by archaeologists in a tomb, along with weapons and jewelry, thousands of years later.

The Most Formidable Women in History that Made Men Cower Before Them
Fu Hao. Pinterest

22. This Woman Dominated a Bronze Age Court

Fu Hao (died circa 1200 BC) was one of the most powerful women of Chinese history. She was one of the Shang emperor’s numerous wives, but she was so remarkable that she swiftly cemented her place as the imperial favorite. She also became the leading figure in court and throughout China in her lifetime. In addition to being a wife and mother, she was also a formidable general who led armies into battle, as well as a priestess and a capable politician.

It was traditional for Shang Dynasty emperors to secure the allegiance of neighboring tribes by marrying a wife from each. That is how Fu Hao came to be one of Emperor Wu Ding’s 64 wives. Once at court, she exhibited remarkable intelligence, as well as military aptitude, and rose rapidly to become the emperor’s favorite wife and most trusted confidant. She also rose to command the Shang armies, led them into battle, defeated and subdued restive tribes, and brought them into the Chinese fold.

The Most Formidable Women in History that Made Men Cower Before Them
The tomb of Fu Hao. Flickr

21. The Powerful Female Warrior Who Pacified China’s Borders

Fu Hao led an army of 13,000 men, which was huge for that era, and the largest ever assembled under any one Shang general. One of her earliest victories came against an obstinate tribe that had troubled the Shang rulers for generations. The female warrior personally led her forces into battle, decisively defeated the turbulent tribe, and ended its menace once and for all. She led numerous other military campaigns to consolidate Shang rule, and successfully conducted the earliest large-scale ambush in Chinese history.

At the head of her forces, Fu Hao successfully expanded and pacified the Shang borders. She was given her own fiefdom on the Shang border, the better to guard against potential enemy encroachment. She predeceased her husband, who built her a lavish tomb. In the 1970s, archaeologists discovered Fu Hao’s tomb, intact, with a treasure trove of jade and bronze. It also included a wide variety of war artifacts, such as great battle axes, which were apparently her favorite weapon.

The Most Formidable Women in History that Made Men Cower Before Them
Tomoe Gozen. Tokyo National Museum

20. A Fearless Female Samurai

Tomoe Gozen (circa 1157 – 1247) is Japan’s most famous female samurai, or onna-bogueisha. A formidable and powerful warrior, she was famous for her courage, her physical strength, and her skill with a variety of weapons. She put those assets to good use on the battlefield, as she fought in the Japanese civil war that led to the creation of that country’s first shogun (military dictator) government – the political system that would govern Japan from the 1180s until 1868.

It was not unusual for women in Japan to receive military training, and for centuries, women of the samurai class were taught swordsmanship, archery, and the use of polearms. It was defensive training, however, for the women to protect themselves and their households in the absence of their menfolk. Tomoe however wanted to test her mettle and skills in battle. So she sought an active career as a warrior, and was accepted into the service of a general named Minamoto Yoshinaka.

The Most Formidable Women in History that Made Men Cower Before Them
Tomoe Gozen. Imgur

19. A Powerful and Intimidating Beauty

As described by contemporaries: “Tomoe Gozen was especially beautiful, with white skin, long hair, and charming features. She was also a remarkably strong archer, and as a swordswoman, she was a warrior worth a thousand, ready to confront a demon or a god, mounted or on foot. She handled unbroken horses with superb skill; she rode unscathed down perilous descents. Whenever a battle was imminent, Yoshinaka sent her out as his first captain, equipped with strong armor, an oversized sword, and a mighty bow; and she performed more deeds of valor than any of his other warriors.

By 1184, Tomoe Gozen’s fighting exploits had made her famous. Her greatest exploit came that year, at the Battle of Awazu, when she was part of a small force of 300 samurai that was set upon by a far bigger army of around 6000. She fought with extreme courage and skill against overwhelming odds. Eventually, however, her force was whittled down from 300 to only Tomoe, her commanding general, Yoshinaka, and five other warriors. As the end neared, Yoshinaka ordered her to leave the battlefield, as it would be shameful for him to die alongside a woman. Reluctantly, she obeyed, beheading one more enemy warrior on her way out. Thereafter, she fades from history.

The Most Formidable Women in History that Made Men Cower Before Them
Khawla bint al Azwar. Flickr

18. A Warrior Poetess

Khawla bint al Azwar (flourished 600s AD) was a Muslim Arab poet and warrior who accompanied her elder brother during the Islamic conquests of Syria, Palestine, and Jordan. She fought at her brother’s side, and at the head of her own forces in independent command in numerous battles, and became famous for her fighting skill, courage, and toughness. The daughter of a tribal chief, in her youth she was taught warrior skills such as swordsmanship and horseback riding at the side of her brother.

Khawla also learned poetry at her sibling’s side, who became a noted poet and warrior. When her brother converted to the then-new religion of Islam, Khawla followed his suit and adopted the new faith. She first gained note as a formidable warrior in 634, in the Arab siege of Damascus, when her brother was wounded and taken prisoner by the city’s Byzantine defenders. Khawla donned armor and arms, covered her face with a shawl to hide her gender, and charged the Byzantine rearguard alone. She fought until reinforcements arrived to rescue her brother from captivity.

The Most Formidable Women in History that Made Men Cower Before Them
Khawla bint al Azwar in action. Wikimedia

17. The Islamic World’s Most Famous Female Fighter

At the battle of Ajnadayn in 634, Khawla’s brother was again taken prisoner, and she again rushed to his rescue, covering her face and charging in alone until reinforcements arrived. By the time the Byzantines were beaten, Khawla was drenched in blood. The army’s commander, Khalid ibn al Walid, unaware of her identity or gender, ordered her to remove the shawl from her face. When she finally relented, he ordered her to the rear, but soon changed his mind and put her in command of a mobile column to pursue the fleeing Byzantines.

On another occasion, Khawla was herself captured in a raid on the Muslim camp, and taken prisoner along with other camp women. They were taken to an enemy general’s tent, who divided the captive women among his officers as slaves and concubines. Khawla roused the captives to seize tent poles and fall upon their captors, and escaped in the resultant confusion. To this day, she is remembered as one of the greatest female warriors in the history of Islam, with hardly any sizeable city in the Muslim world that does not have at least one school named after her.

The Most Formidable Women in History that Made Men Cower Before Them
Grace O’Malley. Imgur

16. A Fearless Irish Female Pirate

Sixteenth-century Irish heroine Grace O’Malley (circa 1530 – circa 1603) fought the English on land and preyed upon them at sea. They vilified her as “a woman who hath imprudently passed the part of womanhood“, and she was mostly ignored by contemporary chroniclers. Yet, her memory lived on in native folklore, and nationalists eventually lionized her as an icon of the Irish fight for freedom. It was a struggle that took place against the background of two Irelands in those days, with two distinct cultures.

There was Dublin and its environs, an English enclave ever fearful of the hinterland comprising the rest of Ireland. The rest of Ireland was the land of the native Irish and the Gaelicized Old English, whom the English viewed as uncivilized and wild, given to raid and strife and interminable violence. O’Malley was born and raised in Connaught, in western Ireland, part of the “wild Irish” hinterland, which consisted of numerous autonomous territories. Its rulers and inhabitants frequently feuded, raided each other, rustled cattle, captured and lost castles and strongholds, and otherwise vied for advantage and dominance. All were part of a clientele system, in which the weak aligned with the strong, offering tribute in exchange for protection.

The Most Formidable Women in History that Made Men Cower Before Them
Rockfleet Castle, one of Grace O’Malley’s strongholds. YouTube

15. A Turn to Piracy

The O’Malleys were Irish nobility, with clients who looked to them for protection. They in turn were clients of another, even more, powerful family. They traded produce and raw materials for luxury goods, fished, ferried passengers, levied tolls on ships in their waters, engaged in opportunistic piracy, and sheltered in castles facing the sea. Grace O’Malley was married in 1546, and bore three children before her husband perished in an ambush in 1565. The era’s misogynistic law barred her inheritance of her husband’s property. So she settled on Clare Island, and made it her stronghold and base of operations. She started her piratical career with three galleys and a number of smaller boats, and preyed on ships and raided coastal targets. She seethed over the laws that deprived her of her husband’s property, and built up her pirate fleet.

O’Malley consoled herself by taking as a lover a shipwrecked sailor. When he was killed by a rival family, the MacMahons, history got its first glimpse of her ferocity, To avenge her lover, she attacked Doona castle where his murderers were holed up, and killed them. That earned her the nickname: “Dark Lady of Doona“. She remarried in 1566, but still mad at her sailor lover’s murder, this amazing lady had another go at the MacMahons in Doona Castle, and seized it by surprising the garrison while they were praying. Around that time, she also went after a thief who stole something from her, then fled to a church for sanctuary. So she surrounded the church and decided to wait him out, offering him the choice of starvation or surrender. He chose the third option, digging a tunnel and escaping.

The Most Formidable Women in History that Made Men Cower Before Them
Grace O’Malley and Queen Elizabeth I. Wikimedia

14. A Pirate Queen Meets Queen Elizabeth I

Grace O’Malley became Ireland’s sea mistress and a fearless pirate queen who controlled the waters around Connaught with an iron fist. She preyed on ships and coastal communities along Ireland’s western coast, as well as on eastern settlements on the Irish Sea. While expanding her control, she personally led a raid on a seaside stronghold known as Cocks Castle. To commemorate her courage in its capture, it became known thereafter as Hens Castle. After defeating the Spanish Armada in 1588, the English were able to focus on consolidating their grip on Ireland, and fighting Irish pirates such as O’Malley.

In response, O’Malley allied with Irish lords rebelling against the English. However, in 1593, the English captured her sons and brother, so she sailed to England, to petition Queen Elizabeth I for their release. She met the English queen at Greenwich Castle, where Grace reportedly refused to bow, on the grounds that she did not recognize Elizabeth as Ireland’s queen. Elizabeth extracted from O’Malley a promise to stop helping Irish rebels. However, Elizabeth did not live up to her part of the bargain, so O’Malley went back to helping the rebels, and reportedly died in one of her castles in 1603.

The Most Formidable Women in History that Made Men Cower Before Them
Joan of Arc. Wikimedia

13. Joan of Arc, the World’s Most Famous Female Warrior

France’s national heroine Joan of Arc, also known as the Maid of Orleans (1412 – 1431), is perhaps the world’s most famous female warrior of all time. As a teenager, this prodigy led French armies to victory against rampaging English invaders in the Hundred Years War. At the head of her forces, she won a series of victories that revived French national spirit, and turned the tide of the war. Feats are hardly expected from a girl born into a peasant family in Lorraine, who was noted for her piety since childhood.

At an early age, Joan began seeing visions from various saints, who directed her to save France. At the time, her country was exhausted, downtrodden and demoralized after a series of humiliating 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, traveled to join the Dauphin. In 1429, she convinced the French heir to give her an army, which she took to relieve French forces besieged by the English at Orleans.

The Most Formidable Women in History that Made Men Cower Before Them
Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc) in armor before Orleans (1428-1429). Painting by Jules Eugene Lenepveu (1819 – 1898), 1886-1890. The Pantheon, Paris

12. The Inspiring Girl Who Put English Invaders to Flight

Joan of Arc was endowed with remarkable mental and physical courage. Those assets came in handy when she led her forces in a whirlwind campaign that lifted the siege of Orleans in a mere nine days and sent the English fleeing. It was a momentous victory that repulsed an English attempt to conquer France. After that feat, Joan convinced the Dauphin to crown himself king of France, which he reluctantly did. She was then sent on a variety of military expeditions.

In one of those expeditions in 1430, she was thrown off her horse and captured by Burgundians. Her captors kept her for several months while negotiating with the English, who were eager to get their hands on the girl who had caused them so much trouble. Eventually, Joan was sold to the English, and 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 pending her trial.

The Most Formidable Women in History that Made Men Cower Before Them
Saint Joan of Arc. Emaze

11. A Powerful Warrior Saint

Manacled to her bed with chains, Joan of Arc was incessantly harassed by her inquisitors at all hours of day and night in an effort to break her will and spirit. She adamantly refused to confess to wrongdoing, and her accusers were unable to prove either heresy or witchcraft. In frustration, they turned their attention to how she had donned male attire on the field of battle. On grounds that such cross-dressing violated biblical injunctions, they convicted her. On May 30th, 1431, she was taken on a cart to her site of execution in Rouen, where the nineteen-year-old Maid of Orleans was burned to death.

Two decades later, a new Pope ordered an inquisitorial court to reexamine Joan of Arc’s trial. It 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. Five centuries after her death, she was beatified in 1909, then canonized as a Saint in 1920. Today, Saint Joan of Arc is one of the patron saints of France, and the most famous female warrior of all time.

The Most Formidable Women in History that Made Men Cower Before Them
Countess Elizabeth Bathory. History Today

10. This Homicidal Countess Was More Bad Than Powerful

Countess Elizabeth Bathory de Ecsend (1560 – 1614) is more in the just plain bad than anything. A wealthy aristocrat, she owned vast estates in what are now Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania. She also owns the Guinness Book of World Records’ record for most prolific female murderess, having tortured and killed hundreds of young women between 1585 and 1609. She was probably history’s most vicious female serial killer. She was born into the Bathory family, a distinguished aristocratic lineage that ruled Transylvania as a de facto independent principality within the Kingdom of Hungary. The future countess was raised amidst wealth and privilege, received an excellent education from top-notch tutors, and at age twelve, was betrothed to a prominent Hungarian aristocrat.

A year later, however, she got pregnant by a commoner. Her fiance had her lover castrated, then torn to pieces and fed to the dogs. Elizabeth gave birth to a daughter, who was quietly hidden. She wed her betrothed in 1575, but cuckolded him throughout their married life – a task made easier by his frequent absences on military campaigns. Elizabeth developed a taste for sadism, and sometime around 1585, began to torture and kill young girls. She started off with servants at her castle, then serf girls from nearby villages. Eventually, her victims included the daughters of local gentry, sent to her castle by their families to receive an aristocratic education and learn courtly manners.

The Most Formidable Women in History that Made Men Cower Before Them
Elizabeth Bathory. Medium

9. A Countess Who Killed Hundreds in a Variety of Cruel and Fiendish Ways

Elizabeth Bathory was a vicious piece of work. Witnesses saw her stab victims; pierce their lips with needles; burn them with red hot irons; bite their breasts and faces; and cut them with scissors. Some of her victims were beaten to death, while others were starved. In winter, she sent serving girls out in the snow, where she had water poured over them and watched them turn into human icicles. In summer, she coated her victims in honey, and watched them get tormented by ants, bees, and other insects. She drank her victims’ blood in the belief that it would preserve her youth, and bathed in their blood for the same reason.

The Most Formidable Women in History that Made Men Cower Before Them
Cachtice Castle, where Elizabeth Bathory was imprisoned. Guide to Slovakia

The exact number of Bathory’s victims is unknown, but estimates range as high as 650. Rumors of the goings-on at her castle eventually got out, and the authorities conducted an investigation. In December, 1610, she and four accomplices were arrested. The accomplices were tried, and three were convicted of murder and sundry crimes and executed. However, justice in the 1600s was even more elusive than it is today, and punishment for crimes depended on the culprit’s standing. Elizabeth Bathory was a countess, and her family was powerful and influential. Despite overwhelming evidence of her guilt, she never faced trial. Instead, she was quietly sent to a castle in today’s Slovakia, where she was confined to a windowless room until her death, five years later.

The Most Formidable Women in History that Made Men Cower Before Them
Zheng Yi Sao, also known as Ching Shih. Wikimedia

8. History’s Most Extreme Female Pirate

Zheng Yi Sao, also known as Ching Shih or Madame Chin (1775 – 1844), was a Chinese Qing Dynasty pirate who terrorized South China in the early nineteenth century. She commanded tens of thousands of outlaws, and was arguably history’s most successful pirate. She challenged the British Empire, the Portuguese Empire, as well as the Chinese Qing Dynasty, and still survived to retire from piracy and into a peaceful life. A former prostitute who married a powerful pirate named Cheng, she participated fully in his piratical activities. Upon his death, she inherited his outlaw realm, and became known as Ching Shih, Chinese for “Cheng’s Widow”.

She was not just a widow who lucked into a huge inheritance: her own legacy as an infamous pirate far exceeded that of her departed husband. Her success owed much to her talent for choosing capable subordinates. The most formidable of them was Cheung Po Tsai (1783 – 1822), whose name translates as “Cheung Po, the Kid”. He was a poor fisherman’s son who was kidnapped at age fifteen by Madame Ching and her husband, and pressed into their crews. The teenager exhibited a precocious talent for the new career suddenly thrust upon him, and rose swiftly through the ranks.

The Most Formidable Women in History that Made Men Cower Before Them
Zheng Yi Sao, also known as Ching Shih. Pinterest

7. Madame Ching’s Pirate Fleets Controlled the Coast of Southern China

Before long, Cheung Po Tsai had become the Chings’ favorite protege and subordinate and was adopted by them. After Cheng’s untimely death by drowning, Madame Ching took over his pirate fleet, and she selected Cheung as her right-hand man. The pirate queen and her adoptive son soon developed an incestuous affair, and eventually married. Madame Ching’s scale of piratical operations far exceeded anything seen in the Caribbean in the Golden Age of Piracy. At the height of her power, she controlled over 300 ships, and commanded up to 80,000 outlaws.

To put that in perspective, Blackbeard, the Age of Piracy’s most notorious villain, commanded no more than 4 ships and 300 men. With her massive armada, Madame Ching controlled and held for ransom the shipping lanes around southern China. Her widespread depredations and the resultant outcry finally compelled the Chinese authorities to launch a massive campaign to eradicate piracy and restore order. In 1810, she saw the writing on the wall, decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and accepted a pardon. Madame Ching abandoned piracy, and returned to her hometown, where she opened a gambling house and brothel. She died peacefully in bed in 1844, surrounded by her family.

The Most Formidable Women in History that Made Men Cower Before Them
Boudica. Wikimedia

6. A Formidable Ancient Briton Queen

Boudica (circa 25 – 61 AD) was an ancient British warrior queen born into a tribal royal family, who as a young woman married the king of the Iceni tribe that inhabited today’s East Anglia. She led a massive revolt against the occupying forces of the Roman Empire that had recently conquered Britain. In that uprising, this fearless queen put London and numerous other Roman towns and settlements to the torch, killed as many as 70,000 Romans and British collaborators.

When Boudica’s husband died in 60 AD, he left his wealth to his daughters and to the Roman Emperor Nero. The assumption was that the Roman ruler would return the favor and bestow imperial protection upon the Iceni king’s family. Instead, the Romans simply seized all the deceased’s assets and annexed his kingdom. When Boudica protested, she was flogged, and her two teenaged daughters were assaulted by Roman soldiers. Understandably incensed, Boudica launched a revolt, that quickly spread.

The Most Formidable Women in History that Made Men Cower Before Them
Boudica. Imgur

5. A Whirlwind of Vengeance That Swept Through Roman Britain

Disgruntled Britons rallied to Boudica by the tens of thousands, and she led them in a whirlwind campaign of vengeance. Sweeping out of East Anglia, with Boudica at their head on a war chariot, the rebels annihilated a legionary detachment sent to subdue them. They then went on a rampage, in which they burned what are now Colchester, Saint Albans, and London. They also massacred tens of thousands of Romans and Romanized British collaborators, torturing and executing them in a variety of gruesome ways ranging from impalement, to flaying, to burning alive, to crucifixion.

The Most Formidable Women in History that Made Men Cower Before Them
Statue of Boudica in front of Westminster Abbey. Wikimedia

Eventually, the Romans rallied, gathered their legions into a powerful force, and marched off to meet Boudica. When the armies eventually met, the Romans were greatly outnumbered, but they were a disciplined force of professional legionaries, against an untrained and disorganized enemy. Boudica led her forces in person and charged at the Romans in her war chariot, but discipline and professionalism prevailed over courage, and the Romans won. Defeated, Boudica took her own life to deny the Romans the satisfaction of parading her in chains in a triumphal parade.

The Most Formidable Women in History that Made Men Cower Before Them
Queen Thomyris. Caspian News

4. A Tough Nomadic Queen

Queen Thomyris (flourished 500s BC) was the ruler of the Massagetae, a nomadic confederation that stretched across the Central Asian Steppe from east of the Caspian Sea to China’s borders. A formidable warrior queen, she is credited with the defeat of Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire. Indeed, she brought his brilliant career of uninterrupted conquests to a screeching halt in 530 BC. According to ancient sources, the Massagetae were Iranian-speaking nomads who led a hardy pastoral life on the Eurasian Steppe.

They tended their herds most of the time, interspersed with raids into the surrounding civilized lands bordering the Steppe. Their raiding eventually grew too bothersome for Cyrus the Great, who had recently founded the Persian Empire, and whose realm now encompassed many of the territories being raided. So he led an army into the Steppe to bring the nomads to heel. He won an initial victory against a nomad contingent commanded by Thomyris’ son, with a ruse in which Cyrus “forgot” a huge stock of wine in an abandoned camp. As seen below, the tribesmen took the bait.

The Most Formidable Women in History that Made Men Cower Before Them
Queen Thomyris and the head of Cyrus the Great. Ancient Records

3. Cyrus the Great Must Have Rued the Day He Came Across This Warrior Queen

The Massagetae captured the wine left behind by Cyrus, and swiftly got down to enjoying it. Unused to the drink, it was not long before they were rip-roaring drunk. Cyrus then turned around and fell upon the inebriated nomads, killing many, including Thomyris’ son. She sent the Persian king a message, challenging him to a second battle, which the overconfident Cyrus accepted. She personally led her army this time, and as described by Herodoutus: “Thomyris mustered all her forces and engaged Cyrus in battle. I consider this to have been the fiercest battle between non-Greeks that there has ever been….

They fought at close quarters for a long time, and neither side would give way, until eventually, the Massagetae gained the upper hand. Most of the Persian army was wiped out there, and Cyrus himself died too.” The Persian army was virtually wiped out. After the battle, Thomyris had Cyrus’ corpse beheaded and crucified. She then threw his severed head into a vessel filled with human blood. According to Herodotus, addressed Cyrus the Great’s head as it bobbed in the blood: “I warned you that I would quench your thirst for blood, and so I shall“.

The Most Formidable Women in History that Made Men Cower Before Them
Tanukhid warriors. Steam

2. The Warrior Queen of the Tanukhids

Warrior Queen Mawia commenced her rule of the Tanukhid Confederation in 375 AD. Her realm was an agglomeration of Arab tribes whose range stretched from northern Arabia, through eastern Jordan, to southern Syria. In the fourth century AD, they became the first Arabs to serve as foederati, or allies, of the Roman Empire. The relationship soured, however, over a religious dispute. The Tanukhids were Orthodox Christians, but in 364 Emperor Valens, an Arian, ascended the throne. The doctrinal dispute between Arianism and Orthodox Christianity revolved around whether Jesus had always existed alongside God, and is thus his equal, or whether he was begotten by God, and is thus His subordinate.

To people today, that might seem like a trifling difference, but it mattered to people at the time – enough for them to kill or get killed over it. The Tanukhids asked Valens to send them an Orthodox bishop, but he insisted on sending them an Arian one instead. So Queen Mawia, who had recently ascended the throne, withdrew from her capital of Aleppo into the desert. There, she began to gather support throughout the region, and to form alliances with other Arab tribes in preparation for a revolt. In the spring of 378, she launched a massive uprising against the Roman Empire.

The Most Formidable Women in History that Made Men Cower Before Them
Queen Mawia. Pinterest

1. An Uprising That Shook the Roman East

The Roman east was badly shaken when Queen Mawia’s uprising commenced. Rufinus of Aquileia, a fourth-century monk, wrote: “Mawia, the queen of the Saracens, began to rock the towns and cities on the borders of Palestine and Arabia with fierce attacks“. A formidable warrior, she led her troops into the Roman province of Palestine until they reached the Mediterranean, then continued on as far as Egypt. Rufinus added that she despoiled Rome’s provinces, laid them to waste, and “wore down the Roman army in frequent battles, killed many, and put the rest to flight“. Mawia’s revolt was a kind of ancient world blitzkrieg, as she swept in with her forces, overran Roman territories, and left death and devastation in her wake.

Emperor Valens ran out of options, and was forced to sue for peace. Mawia demanded an Orthodox bishop, and insisted that a hermit monk named Moses, whom she admired, be made that bishop. The Arian Valens agreed, and Moses became the first Arab bishop of the Arabs. In return, the Tanukhids resumed their alliance with Rome, and joined Valens in a war against the Goths, which ended in a Roman defeat at the Battle of Adrianople. The renewed alliance proved short-lived, however, and the Tanukhids rebelled again in 383. This revolt was quickly put down, and it marked the end of the alliance. It is unknown whether Mawia led the second revolt. What is known is that she lived until 425 and died in Khanasir, a town east of Aleppo, where an inscription notes her death that year.


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

Amazing Women in History – Sayyida al Hurra, Islamic Pirate Queen

Ancient Egypt Online – Ahhotep I

Ancient Origins – Grace O’Malley: The 16th Century Pirate Queen of Ireland

Ancient Origins – Tomoe Gozen: A Fearsome Japanese Female Samurai of the 12th Century

Ancient Origins – Tomyris, the Female Warrior and Ruler Who May Have Killed Cyrus the Great

Atlas Obscura – The Chinese Female Pirate Who Commanded 80,000 Outlaws

Archaeology Archive – Mavia of Arabia

Cassius Dio – Roman History, Volume II, Books 12-35

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

Encyclopedia Britannica – Boudicca

Encyclopedia Britannica – Elizabeth Bathory

Encyclopedia Britannica – Matilda, Daughter of Henry I

Fordham University Ancient History Sourcebook – Herodotus: Queen Tomyris of the Massagetai and the Defeat of the Persians Under Cyrus

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

Historical Reflections, Vol. 8, No. 3, Women in China – One Woman’s Rise to Power: Cheng I’s Wife and the Pirates

History Collection – Women Who Inspired the World Despite Being Put Down

History Ireland, March/ April 2005, Volume 13 – Grainne Mhaol, Pirate Queen of Connacht: Behind the Legend

History of Royal Women – Fu Hao, Queen, General, and Priestess

Lacovara, Peter, and Maniaci, Gianluca, eds. The Treasure of the Egyptian Queen Ahhotep and International Relations at the Turn of the Middle Bronze Age (2022)

History Collection – Top 12 Fearsome Female Warriors

Love British History – 9 Times the Empress Matilda Was a Total Bad*ss

Odyssey – Feminist Muslim Warrior Series: Khawla bint al Azwar, the Muslim Mulan

Peterson, Barbara Bennett – Notable Women of China: Shang Dynasty to the Early Twentieth Century (2016)

Polybius – The Histories, Volume I, Books 1-2

History Collection – Women That Left Their Mark Throughout History

Rejected Princesses – Elisabeth Bathory: The Blood Countess

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

Roesch, Joseph E. – Boudica, Queen of the Iceni (2006)

University of Hawaii at Hilo, Hohonu 2015, Volume 13 – Women Warriors of Early Japan

Way of the Pirates – Sayyida al Hurra, Pirate Queen of Islamic West

World History Encyclopedia – Mavia