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