In 1980, an internal fight between Indian bandits ended with the death of one gang leader, and the victors’ capture of his lover, Phoolan Devi. They took her to an isolated village and subjected her to various abuses and humiliations. She escaped – then returned and massacred her tormentors by the dozen. Following are thirty things about her and other formidable women who visited vengeance upon their foes.
30. A Teenage Girl’s Journey to a Life of Banditry
In 1963, Phoolan Devi was born 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. From early on, Phoolan resisted injustices. At age ten, she 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 the sit-in only ended when they knocked Phoolan unconscious with a brick.
At age eleven, Phoolan’s family married her to a man in his thirties, who abused her in many different ways. She fled several times, but her family kept returning her to her husband until the marriage finally ended when Phoolan was sixteen. A wife leaving her husband was a serious taboo in Phoolan’s neck of the woods, and she became a social outcast. Her prospects grim, the teenaged Phoolan fell in with and joined a gang of rural bandits. One of her first acts upon becoming an outlaw was to visit vengeance upon her abusive ex.
29. Phoolan Devi Visited Vengeance Upon Her Abusive Ex-Husband by Gutting Him
Phoolan Devi was the only female in her rural bandit gang. The gang leader decided to make her his concubine and began abusing her, until another bandit stepped in, killed him, and took over the gang. He and Phoolan became lovers. Soon thereafter, she swept into her abusive ex-husband’s village at the head of bandits, seeking vengeance. She dragged her ex out of his house, gutted him with a knife, and pinned a note to him, warning men not to marry little girls. In subsequent months, Phoolan developed a reputation as a Robin-Hoodesque type of bandit queen, who robbed 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 bandit brothers. They seized Phoolan and imprisoned her in their out-of-the-way home village, Behmai. There, she was assaulted by many men, and subjected to sundry humiliations such as being paraded naked around the village. She eventually fled, but vowed to come back and wreak vengeance upon her tormentors. She did so, and how.
After fleeing from Behmai, Phoolan Devi formed a new bandit crew, this one exclusively of lower castes like her. On the evening of February 14, 1981, several months after her escape, Phoolan returned to Behmai at the head of her gang. She demanded that the villagers produce the bandit brothers who had imprisoned her, but they could not be found. So she lined up about two dozen of the village’s young men, including 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 over 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 seeking vengeance for the upper caste men killed by Phoolan assassinated her as she exited her Delhi home.
27. The Ancient Queen Who Bestowed a Terrible Vengeance Upon Her Foes
Ancient British heroine and resistance figure Boudicca (circa 25 – 61 AD) was a warrior queen of the Iceni tribe. She is best known for having led a massive revolt against the occupying forces of the Roman Empire. Boudicca was born into tribal royalty around 25 AD, and as a young woman was married to the king of the Iceni tribe. Upon her husband’s death in 60 AD, he left his wealth to his daughters and to the Roman Emperor Nero, on the assumption that Nero would return the favor and bestow imperial protection upon his family.
Instead, the Romans simply seized all the deceased’s assets and annexed his kingdom. When Boudicca protested, she was flogged, and her two teenaged daughters were brutally assaulted by Roman soldiers in her presence. Understandably incensed, Boudicca launched a revolt in East Anglia, which quickly spread. Disgruntled Britons rallied to her by the tens of thousands, and she led them in a whirlwind campaign of vengeance. During the uprising, she put London and numerous other Roman towns and settlements to the torch, and her forces vanquished as many as 70,000 Romans and British collaborators.
The incensed Iceni and other Britons unhappy with life under the Romans swept out of East Anglia, with Boudicca at their head on a war chariot. When the Romans sent a legionary detachment to subdue the rebels, it was annihilated. Boudicca and her followers then went on a rampage, in which they burned modern Colchester, Saint Albans, and London. They also massacred tens of thousands of Romans and Romanized British collaborators. They exacted vengeance for Roman abuses by torturing and executing their captors 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 Boudicca. When the armies eventually met, the Romans were greatly outnumbered. Nonetheless, the Romans were a disciplined force of professional legionaries facing a poorly trained and badly organized enemy. Boudicca led her forces in person and charged at the Romans in her war chariot, but discipline and professionalism prevailed, and the Romans won. Defeated, Boudicca committed suicide to deny the Romans the satisfaction of parading her in chains in a triumphal parade.
Beatrice Cenci (1577 – 1599) was the youngest of seven children – five sons and two daughters – sired by Count Francesco Cenci on his first wife. The Cenci were an ancient Roman patrician family that claimed descent from the gens Cinci. A brutal man, Count Cenci used his inherited wealth to indulge his tastes for depraved violence with impunity, which earned him the hatred of Rome’s people. The family lived together in the count’s palace in Rome, but when the mother, whom the count had routinely abused, died when Beatrice was seven years old, she and an elder sister were sent to be raised by nuns in a monastery.
Count Cenci’s depravity – although not that directed against his own family – eventually landed him in trouble with the authorities, and got him imprisoned. However, his aristocratic lineage and wealth ensured him lenient treatment. While their father was temporarily locked up, Beatrice’s older siblings found ways to escape the abuse. One of Beatrice’s brothers, Giacomo, simply disowned his wealthy father and left. Two other brothers got themselves killed in duels, and her older sister successfully petitioned the pope for permission to marry without her father’s consent. As to Bernice, her only out was through exacting vengeance upon her father.
24. Vengeance as the Only Escape From a Hellish Life
Beatrice Cenci was less fortunate than her siblings, and was unable to escape her abusive father. She told the authorities that her father had assaulted her on various occasions, but they did nothing. When Count Cenci got out of jail, he promptly shipped Beatrice, along with his second wife Lucrezia and his youngest son by her, Bernardo, out of Rome and to his stronghold, La Rocca. Secluded in his castle, and away from the eyes of the authorities in Rome, Count Cenci’s perversities increased, and the lives of his daughter and second wife became even more hellish.
In addition to repeatedly raping her, Beatrice’s father made her scrape scabies from his bodies, including from off his testicles. He also made his daughter and her stepmother share a bed with him. In desperation, Beatrice wrote to her elder brother, Giacomo, beseeching his aid. She also contacted the authorities, once again, but once again, they did nothing. Worse, the count found one of Beatrice’s letters begging for help, and beat his daughter bloody in retaliation. Beatrice decided that the only way to end the nightmare that was her life was to exact vengeance, and end the life of her father.
23. A Family’s Vengeance Falls Upon an Abusive Father
Fed up with Count Cenci’s abuses and depravities, Beatrice Cenci began plotting her vengeance upon her father, and cast about for ways to kill him. Her stepmother Lucrezia had also had enough of count Cenci’s abuse, and she agreed to help. So did Beatrice’s brothers, Giacomo and Bernardo. Beatrice was the plot’s ringleader, and she enlisted the help of the castellan, Olimpio Calvetti, by seducing him. She also hired another accomplice, a man named Marzio, to act as a hitman.
The plan was relatively straightforward. Olimpio Calvetti and Marzio were to kill Count Francesco Cenci in his bed, than toss him out of a balcony, staging the scene to make it look like an accidental fall. Accordingly, on the night of September 8th – 9th, 1598, Beatrice slipped her father a sleeping potion to knock him out. Olimpio and Marzio then snuck into his bedroom, held him down, and drove an iron spike into his head. They then dressed his body, and threw him over the balcony’s edge, breaking a part of it to make it look like it had collapsed. The duo then gathered the bloody bed sheets, and fled.
22. Sloppiness Leads to the Unraveling of a Family Murder Plot
Unfortunately for Beatrice Cenci and her accomplices, they did a sloppy job of covering their tracks. The fatal wound in the count’s head did not correspond to an injury sustained from a fall, and while Olimpio and Marzio had taken the bloody bed sheets, they had neglected to wipe blood spatters from elsewhere in the count’s bedroom. It did not take the investigators long to discover the murder of Francesco Cenci. Nor did it take them long to realize that his own family members committed the crime.
The papal authorities arrested Beatrice, her stepmother Lucrezia, her brothers Giacomo and twelve-year-old Bernardo, and her lover and hit man, Olimpio, and tossed them all in jail. The other hit man, Marzio, fled into the mountains, but they tracked him down. One of Count Cenci’s relatives executed him. The people of Rome, who knew just what kind of a horrible man Count Francesco Cenci had been, figured that he deserved his fate. They sympathized with Beatrice and her co-conspirators, and applauded her vengeance. However, the authorities saw things differently.
Although most Romans approved of the killing of Count Cenci, Pope Clement VIII, ruler of Rome and the Papal States where the crime had taken place, had other ideas. Viewing patricide as a heinous crime, and worried that leniency might encourage other children to murder their parents, the pope authorized the torture of the accused. They began with Olimpio, the lowest socially ranked of the conspirators. However, he kept mum, refusing to confess or implicate his lover Beatrice, until he died during the harsh interrogation.
Beatrice was also made of stern stuff, and withstood the torture, including getting stretched on the rack, without admitting to anything. Her brother Giacomo was not as tough, however. He had not been at the Cenci castle on the night of the murder, but under torture, he spilled out that his younger sister had been the chief culprit, and that she had planned everything. The rest of her family also broke under torture, and Lucrezia and young Bernardo pinned the blame on Beatrice as the ringleader.
Although torture had failed to extract a confession from Beatrice Cenci, the confessions extracted from the rest of her family were enough. All were tried, were found guilty, and were sentenced to death. The people of Rome, who approved of the vengeance visited upon the abusive Count Cenci, protested and managed to get the execution postponed. However, it was only a temporary reprieve, and Pope Clement VIII insisted that the sentences be carried out. On September 11, 1599, the Cencis were taken for execution in front of the Sant’Angelo castle in Rome.
Giacomo got the worst of it, getting tortured in a cart en route to the scaffold. Once he got there, his head was smashed in with a mallet, then his corpse was quartered. Lucrezia and Beatrice were then executed, more swiftly and mercifully, their heads chopped off with an ax. At the last minute, twelve-year-old Bernardo, who had been forced to watch the deaths of his mother and siblings, was spared execution. Instead, he was sentenced to life as a galley slave, but was freed a year later. The Cenci property was confiscated – and given to Pope Clement VIII‘s family.
19. The Medieval Moroccan Pirate Queen Who Wreaked Vengeance on the Spaniards
Lalla Aicha bint Ali ibn Rashid al Alami, better known as Sayyida al Hurra (1485 – 1561), which means “free and independent noblewoman” in Arabic, was the ruler of Tetouan in today’s Morocco. She was also a pirate queen who terrorized the waters off Iberia and North Africa, and wreaked vengeance on the Spaniards for having expelled her from her birthplace. Islamic records are oddly silent about her, but she was a powerful figure of the era, and an equal ally of the famous corsair Khayr al Din Barbarossa, who dominated the Mediterranean in the sixteenth century.
She was born into a prominent Muslim family in Granada, Spain, but when that kingdom fell to the Spanish Reconquista in 1492, she and her family were forced to flee to Morocco. The Moroccan sultan granted Sayyida, her husband, and their Reconquista refugee followers, the ruins of Tetouan, a city that had been destroyed by the Spaniards years earlier. The refugees 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.
18. This Warrior Queen Refused to Disappear Into Her Royal Hubby’s Harem
Sayyida al Hurra spent years ruling Tetouan as its queen. However, after years of widowhood, she needed to remarry for political reasons, and wed the sultan of Morocco. She was not about to vanish into her new husband’s harem, however. To emphasize her independence, and to demonstrate that she had no intention to giving up her power and position, the pirate queen refused to leave Tetouan for the wedding. The sultan had to come to her – the only time in Moroccan history that a sultan tied the knot outside his capital.
In the meantime, from her base in Tetouan, Sayyida was spurred on by bitter memories of her exile from Granada. She exacted vengeance on Spain for having expelled her from her birthplace, and conducted a ruthless campaign of piracy against the Spaniards. She allied with Khayrl al Din Barbarossa, the era’s most prominent corsair, who rose to become the Ottoman Empire’s most successful admiral. With Barbarossa controlling the Eastern Mediterranean and Sayyida controlling the Western Mediterranean and the Atlantic coast off Morocco and Iberia, the duo went to work.
17. Sayyida al Hurra’s Vengeance Run Was Stopped Not by Her Declared Enemies, But By Her Own Kin
Sayyida al Hurra led her own fleet, with which she prowled Spanish and Portuguese shipping lanes. Her aggressiveness and skill in exacting vengeance made her the undisputed pirate leader of the region. She amassed vast riches from booty, and raised fabulous sums from ransoms to free her captives. Indeed, during her piratical career, she was viewed by Europeans as the go-to contact in negotiations to release Christian captives. It is to those negotiations, and the records thereof, that history is most indebted for our knowledge of Sayyida al Hurra.
The pirate queen’s reign eventually ended as she neared her 60s. Fate proved unkind to her at the end of her adventurous life, as the end of her run came not at the hands of her enemies, but at those of her kith and kin. After three decades of striking terror into the hearts of captains and crews in the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, Sayyida’s downfall came at the hands of her son in law. That unworthy ousted her in a palace coup, and she was stripped of power. Her fate afterwards is lost to history.
16. Countess Caterina Sforza, the Terror of Renaissance Italy
Sometime around 1462, Caterina Sforza was born, an illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Milan. She grew into a strong and vibrant woman who combined the sword, sex, and diplomacy, to secure her power – and exact vengeance upon those who crossed her. Such traits led many to describe her as a “Renaissance virago” – a domineering, violent, and bad-tempered woman. It was not intended as a compliment. However, considering that the Italy of her day was an era of incessant warfare, intrigues, and assassinations, being a virago was an asset, not a liability.
Caterina’s husband Gioralmo Rialro was thrust into prominence when his uncle became Pope Sixtus IV. When Sixtus died in 1484, Rome was gripped by anarchy, as the deceased pope’s enemies turned on his supporters and relatives. Caterina’s residence was looted by a mob, so she rounded up some fighters, and despite being seven months pregnant, led them in seizing the city’s most strategic location, the fortress of Castel Sant’Angelo. From that strongpoint, she menaced the Vatican, until the College of Cardinals finally convinced her husband to get her to leave the fortress. In exchange, Caterina received a hefty payment as compensation for the damage to her residence.
15. Caterina Sforza Crushed and Visited Vengeance Upon Her Husband’s Killers
Caterina Sforza and her husband Gioralmo Riarlo left Rome for their holdings in Forli, which became her base of operations. In 1488, Gioralmo was assassinated by a rival family, the Orsis, and Caterina and her children were captured. The killers’ conquest of Forli was incomplete, however, as a nearby fortress, the Rocca di Ravaldino, still held out. So the Orsis released Caterina to talk the fortress into surrender, while keeping her children hostage to ensure her compliance. Once free and in the unconquered fortress, however, Caterina turned on the Orsis, vowing vengeance upon them.
When the Orsis threatened to kill her kids, she stood atop the Rocca di Ravaldino’s walls, bared her privates, and pointing to her vagina told them: “Go ahead! Hang them in front of me if you want! Here, I have what is need to make others!” The shocked Orsis were intimidated and refrained from harming the captive children. Caterina gathered her forces, and with the help of her relatives, was eventually able to crush the Orsis, free her children, and regain control of Forli.
14. Caterina Sforza’s Ferocious Vengeance Upon Her Lover’s Assassins
Soon after she recaptured Forli, Caterina Sforza fell passionately in love with a younger man, Giacomo Feo, and secretly married him. In her passion, she removed her elder son Ottaviano from power, and awarded his positions to her new hubby. Ottaviano’s partisans disapproved of the new arrangement, and in 1495, they assassinated Giacomo Feo. Caterina’s vengeance was ferocious. She responded by having the assassins massacred, along with their entire families. Her next enemies would prove the toughest of all: the Borgia clan, perhaps the most corrupt papal family, ever.
When Pope Alexander VI Borgia set out to enlarge the Papal States, Caterina’s lands were on his list. She fortified herself in Forli and personally led a fierce defense against the Borgia forces, refusing all peace offers, even at the cost of her children’s lives. However, her enemies’ artillery finally breached the fortress’ walls, and the Borgia forces stormed in. Caterina continued her resistance, engaging in hand to hand fighting, until she was finally overcome and captured. She was taken to Rome, and after a stint of imprisonment, was finally exiled to live out her remaining days in Florence.
13. The Nomad Queen Who Brought the Career of a Great Conqueror to an End
Queen Tomiri (flourished 500s BC) was ruler of the Massagetae, a nomadic confederation that stretched across the Central Asian Steppe from China’s borders to east of the Caspian Sea. A formidable warrior queen, she is credited with defeating King Cyrus the Great, founder of the Achaemenid Dynasty that ruled the first Persian Empire. Tomiri brought the illustrious career of the King of Kings, as Cyrus came to be known, and 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 made their living tending their herds most of the time, interspersed with raids into the surrounding settled lands bordering the Steppe. Their predation eventually grew too bothersome for Cyrus, 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, little knowing that his expedition would end in disaster, with Tomri gloating as she exacted vengeance upon his remains.
12. Queen Tomri’s Vengeance Upon This Empire’s Founder Has Resonated Throughout the Ages
Cyrus the Great won an initial victory against nomads commanded by Queen Tomri’s son, after a ruse in which he “forgot” a huge stock of wine in an abandoned camp. The Massagetae captured the wine, and unused to it, got rip roaring drunk. Cyrus then turned around and fell upon the inebriated nomads, killing many, including Tomri’s son. She sent him 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: “Tomri 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, Tomri had Cyrus’ corpse beheaded and crucified. She then threw his severed head into a vessel filled with human blood. According to Herodotus, she 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“.
11. The Irish Heroine Who Wreaked Vengeance Upon the English
Sixteenth-century Irish heroine Grainne Ni Mhaille (circa 1530 – circa 1603) wreaked vengeance upon the English occupiers of her homeland. She fought them on land, and preyed upon their shipping at sea. Her English foes vilified her as “a woman who hath imprudently passed the part of womanhood“, and she was mostly ignored by contemporary chroniclers. Yet, her memory has lived on in native folklore, and nationalists would later lionize her as an icon of the Irish fight for freedom and struggle against foreign domination.
There were two Irelands in the sixteenth century, with two distinct cultures. There was Dublin and its surrounding counties, which constituted an enclave known as the English Pale of Settlement or just the Pale. Its English and Anglicized residents were ever fearful of the hinterland comprising the rest of Ireland. That rest of Ireland, which came to be known as and gave rise to the term “Beyond the Pale”, was the land of the native Irish and the Gaelicized Old English. They were viewed by those in the English Pale as uncivilized and wild, given to raid and strife and interminable violence.
10. The Mhailles Dominated the Seas Around Their Seat of Power
Grainne Ni Mhaille was born and raised in Connaught, in western Ireland. She belonged to what those in the English Pale of Settlement viewed as a “wild Irish” hinterland, that was made up 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, and lusted after the exaction of vengeance upon their foes. All were part of a clientele system, in which the weak aligned with the strong, offering tribute in exchange for protection.
Grainne’s family, the Mhailles, were a clan of hinterland Irish nobility who lorded it over clients, who looked to them for protection in exchange for paying tribute. The Mhailles were, in turn, the clients of another and even more powerful hinterland Irish clan. They traded produce and raw materials for luxury good, fished, ferried passengers, levied tolls on shipping passing through their waters, and engaged in opportunistic piracy. For protection, the Mhailles built a row of castles facing the sea.
9. The Vengeance That Turned Grainne Ni Mhaille Into The Dark Lady of Doona
Grainne Ni Mhaille was married in her teens in 1546, and bore three children before her husband was killed in an ambush in 1565. Because of the era’s misogynistic laws, she was unable to inherit her husband’s property. So she settled on Clare Island, and made it her stronghold and base of operations. She launched a career of piracy, and started off with three galleys and a number of smaller boats. She used them with skill to prey upon shipping in nearby waters, and to raid coastal targets.
While seething over the laws that deprived her of her husband’s property, and building up her pirate fleet, Grainne consoled herself by taking as a lover a shipwrecked sailor. When her lover was killed by a rival family, the MacMahons, history got its first glimpse of Grainne Ni Mhaille’s ferocity. To exact vengeance for the death of her lover, she attacked Doona castle, where his murderers were holed up, and killed them. That earned her the nickname: “the Dark Lady of Doona“.
Grainne Ni Mhaille eventually remarried in 1566, but she was still mad at her sailor lover’s murder. So she 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 had stolen something from her, then fled to a church for sanctuary. Grainne surrounded the church and decided to wait him out. She then offered the fugitive the choice of starvation of surrender.
The thief chose a third option: by digging a tunnel and escaping. That made him one of the few who managed to escape Grainne’s vengeance. She became Ireland’s sea mistress, and a pirate queen who controlled the waters around Connaught with an iron fist. She preyed on shipping 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 capturing it, it became known thereafter as Hens Castle.
The Irish pirate queen’s run of dominance and vengeance eventually came to an end. After the English defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, they were free to focus on consolidating their grip on Ireland, and resources were freed to fight Irish piracy and pirates such as Grainne Ni Mhaille. To resist that English expansion, Mhaille allied with Irish lords rebelling against the English. However, in 1593, the English captured her sons and brother, so Grainne sailed to England, to petition Queen Elizabeth I for their release.
She met the English queen at Greenwich Castle, and the presence of such two formidable women in the same room must have been an electrifying sight. Grainne reportedly refused to bow, on the grounds that she did not recognize Elizabeth as Queen of Ireland. Elizabeth extracted from Mhaille a promise to cease assisting Irish rebels. Elizabeth did not live up to her end of the bargain, however, so Mhaille went back to helping the rebels, and reportedly died in one of her castles in 1603.
Khawla bint al Azwar (flourished 600s AD) was a Muslim Arab poet and warrior who accompanied her older 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. Khawla was the daughter of the chief of an Arab tribe, and during her youth, she was taught warrior skills such as swordsmanship and horseback riding alongside her brother.
She also learned poetry at the side of her sibling, who became a noted poet and warrior. When her brother converted to the then-new religion of Islam, Khawla followed suit and adopted the new faith. She first gained renown as a warrior in 634 during the Arab Siege of Damascus, when her brother was wounded and captured by the city’s Byzantine defenders. Khawla donned armor and arms, and covering her face with a shawl to hide her gender, charged the Byzantine rearguard alone to free her brother or exact vengeance for his loss. She fought until reinforcements arrived and rescued her sibling from captivity.
Khawla bint al Azwar’s brother kept getting into trouble that required his sister to take up arms and rescue him. A few months after saving him at the Siege of Damascus, Khawla’s brother was once again captured at the Battle of Ajnadayn. Once again, Khawla rushed to his aid, 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. He soon changed his mind, however, and placed her in command of a mobile column to pursue the fleeing Byzantines.
On another occasion, Khawla was herself captured during a raid on the Muslim camp, and taken prisoner along with other women. They were taken to an enemy general’s tent, who divided the captive women among his officers as slaves and concubines. Khawla, determined to free herself or at least die exacting vengeance instead of accept dishonor, roused the captives. Seizing tent poles, they fell upon their captors, and during the confusion, she made her escape. 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 or other public building after her.
Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley (1545 – 1567), was the second husband of Mary, Queen of Scots, and King Consort of Scotland from 1565 until his death two years later in an act of epic vengeance by his wife. Darnley had accomplished little of note in his brief life before his violent death at age 22. His single legacy was to impregnate his wife with the future King James VI of Scotland and James I of England, thus giving rise to the Stuart Dynasty. His wife, Mary Queen of Scots (1542 – 1587), was also his first cousin. Sole surviving child of Scotland’s king James V, Mary’s father had died when she was six days old, and she inherited the throne as an infant.
Scotland was ruled by regents while Mary was raised in France. In 1558, she married the Dauphin, France’s crown prince. He became King Francis II in 1559, but died within a year. The widowed Mary returned to Scotland, and in 1565 met her first cousin, Lord Darnley. The young man was handsome and well-proportioned and captivated her. Aside from attraction, a marriage made dynastic sense, as it would unite two Stuart branches. This would strengthen the Scottish royal family. A marriage was swiftly arranged, and Darnley ascended the throne as king consort. Shortly after wedding Darnley, Mary discovered an unhappy reality. Her second husband had been raised as a spoiled brat, with an excessive sense of entitlement.
3. Mary Queen of Scots Exacted an Epic Vengeance Upon Her Abusive Husband
Lord Darnley grew enraged when Mary refused to grant him the Crown Matrimonial. This would allow him to continue ruling after her death. When his wife got pregnant, Darnley worried instead of celebrated. He fretted over the possibility that an heir would push him further from the throne. He grew even more displeased soon thereafter, when Mary took the currency – with his head on it – out of circulation. Darnley eventually focused his rage on Mary’s French secretary, David Rizzio. He accused Rizzio of turning the queen against him. He also accused him of being her lover. On March 9, 1566, Darnley and some sidekicks burst into the queen’s dining room. They stabbed Rizzio to death in the presence of his horrified, pregnant wife.
It was an attempt to shock Mary into miscarrying, and also bend her to Darnley’s will. She did not miscarry, and gave birth to the future King James on June 19th, 1566. After her husband and his sidekicks committed bloody murder in her presence, the queen was intimidated. They also threatened violence against her and her unborn child at the time. After these atrocities, Mary begrudgingly pardoned Rizzio’s murderers – likely out of fear. However, Darnley would not get away with it for long: Mary’s vengeance, when it came, was epic.
The murder of David Rizzio in front of Mary took place against a backdrop of struggle. This struggle raged between Scottish Catholics and Protestants. Catholics looked to the staunchly Catholic Mary, so Darnley turned to the Protestants to help him with his plot. However, the fickle Darnley soon fell out with his Protestant co-conspirators. Just two days after murdering Rizzio, he switched back to his wife’s Catholic faction. On the night of March 11 – 12, 1566, he helped Mary escape from her palace, now teeming with Protestants. However, Darnley’s change of heart was too late to save the marriage, which was irrevocably ruined by Rizzio’s murder.
Mary, who neither forgot nor forgave, would have her vengeance. After giving birth in June, 1566, she bided her time. In November, she met with loyal nobles to figure out what to do about the “problem of Darnley”. They decided that the queen’s husband had to go. As described by contemporaries: “It was thought expedient and most profitable for the commonwealth … that such a young fool and proud tyrant should not reign or bear rule over them; … that he should be put off by one way or another; and whosoever should take the deed in hand or do it, they should defend”.
1. Mary Queen of Scots’ Allegedly Exacted Revenge on her Abusive Husband… by Blowing Him Up, Then Strangling Him to Death
A leading ally in the ensuing plot to get rid of Lord Darnley revealed himself. James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, organized a plot to assassinate the queen’s husband. On February 19, 1567, Darnley’s bedroom exploded with him inside it. He survived the blast and managed to stagger out of the wreckage. He was then seized and strangled to death. Three months later, Mary married Bothwell. The marriage turned out to be extremely unpopular. It united both Catholics and Protestants in denouncing the queen for marrying the man who had murdered her husband.
Mary and Bothwell raised an army against their opponents. But before they fought the battle, the royal couple’s forces evaporated; their men deserted them. They permitted Bothwell to leave, provided he left Mary behind. He jumped at the chance, and abandoned his wife to the tender mercies of her enemies. They took Mary captive to Edinburgh, where she was denounced as an adulteress and murderess, then imprisoned. On July 24, 1567, Mary abdicated (by force) in favor of her one-year-old son, James. She fled to England, where more political intrigues sucked her in. Those ventures ended with her beheading two decades later.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading