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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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“.
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 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