Women Who Took their Vengeance in an Epic Fashion

Women Who Took their Vengeance in an Epic Fashion

Khalid Elhassan - February 28, 2021

Women Who Took their Vengeance in an Epic Fashion
Grainne Ni Mhaille. Wikimedia

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.

Women Who Took their Vengeance in an Epic Fashion
Clare Island. Galway Tourism

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“.

Women Who Took their Vengeance in an Epic Fashion
Rockfleet Castle, one of Grainne Ni Mhaille’s strongholds. YouTube

8. How Cocks Castle Became Hens Castle

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.

Women Who Took their Vengeance in an Epic Fashion
Grainne Ni Mhaille, Ireland’s pirate queen, and Queen Elizabeth I of England. Pintrest

7. The Pirate Queen Meets Queen Elizabeth I

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.

Women Who Took their Vengeance in an Epic Fashion
Khawla bint al Azwar in action. Wikimedia

6. The Arab World’s Most Famous Warrior Poetess

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.

Women Who Took their Vengeance in an Epic Fashion
Byzantine cavalry. Byzantine Military

5. This Woman Truly Was Her Brother’s Keeper

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.

Women Who Took their Vengeance in an Epic Fashion
A Jordanian stamp commemorating Khawla bint al Azwar. Mythology

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.

Women Who Took their Vengeance in an Epic Fashion
Mary Queen of Scots. History

4. The Jackass Who Married a Queen

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.

Women Who Took their Vengeance in an Epic Fashion
Lord Darnley, and Mary Queen of Scots. Unofficial Royalty

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.

Women Who Took their Vengeance in an Epic Fashion
John Opie’s ‘The Murder of Rizzio’, 1787. Wikimedia

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.

Women Who Took their Vengeance in an Epic Fashion
Francois Clouet’s ‘Mary Queen of Scots’. Google Art Project

2. Getting Rid of an Abusive Royal Husband

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”.

Women Who Took their Vengeance in an Epic Fashion
The explosive end of Lord Darnley. General History

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.

Also Read: The Investigations of the Murder of Lord Henry Darnley Will Shock You.

Women Who Took their Vengeance in an Epic Fashion
James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell. Pintrest

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

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

Ancient Origins – The Spirit of Beatrice Cenci: A Tale of Terrible Injustice in Ancient Rome

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

Atlas Obscura – The Femme Fatale Whose Tragic End Festers in the History of Rome

British Heritage Travel – Did Mary Queen of Scots Kill Her Husband Lord Darnley?

Cottrell, Leonard – The Great Invasion (1958)

Cassius Dio – Roman History, Book LXII

History Collection – Major History Mistakes Made in the Movie Mary, Queen of Scots

Devi, Phoolan – I, Phoolan Devi: The Autobiography of India’s Bandit Queen (1996)

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

History Today – The Murder of Darnley

Milestone Rome – The Tragic Story of Beatrice Cenci

National Geographic History Magazine, March 15th, 2019 – This Renaissance Warrior Woman Defied Power Popes to Defend Her Land

Tacitus – The Annals, Book XIV

Wikipedia – Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley

Wikipedia – Phoolan Devi