The Fierce Female Knights of History

Female Knight
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There are plenty of fierce women who have battled their way through history in politics and warfare. Although from an academic standpoint women could not generally carry the title of knight, there were still many women in European history who were part of chivalric orders and performed the duties of female knights without the formal recognition.

Key Takeaways: Female Knights

  • During the Middle Ages, women could not be granted the title of Knight; it was reserved for men only. However, there were many chivalric orders of knighthood that admitted women and female warriors who performed the role.
  • Documented stories of women—primarily high-born—prove that they donned armor and directed troop movement in times of war.

Chivalric Orders of Europe

The word knight was not just a job title, it was a social ranking. For a man to become a knight, he had to be formally knighted in a ceremony, or receive an accolade of knighthood for exceptional bravery or service, usually in battle. Because neither of these were typically the domains of women, it was rare for a women to carry the title of knight. However, in parts of Europe, there were chivalric orders of knighthood that were open to women.

During the early medieval period, a group of devout Christian knights joined together to form the Knights Templar. Their mission was twofold: to protect European travelers on pilgrimage in the Holy Land, but also to carry out secret military operations. When they finally took the time to write down a list of their rules, around 1129 C.E., their mandates mentioned a pre-existing practice of admitting women to the Knights Templar. In fact, women were permitted as part of the organization during its first 10 years of existence.

Sword wielding warrior woman
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A related group, the Teutonic Order, accepted women as Consorores, or Sisters. Their role was an auxiliary one, often related to support and hospital services during times of war, including on the battlefield.

In the mid-12th century, Moorish invaders laid the town of Tortosa, Spain, under siege. Because the town's menfolk were already off at battle fighting on another front, it fell to the women of Tortosa to set up defenses. They dressed in men's clothing—which was certainly easier to fight in—picked up weapons, and held their town with an array of swords, farm implements, and hatchets.

In the aftermath, Count Ramon Berenguer of Barcelona founded the Order of the Hatchet in their honor. Elias Ashmole wrote in 1672 that the count granted the women of Tortosa numerous privileges and immunities:

"He also ordained, that at all publick meetings, the Women should have precedence of the Men; That they should be exempted from all Taxes; and that all the Apparel and Jewels, though of never so great value, left by their dead Husbands, should be their own."

It is not known whether the women of the Order ever fought in any battles other than defending Tortosa. The group faded into obscurity as its members aged and died out.

Women in Warfare

During the Middle Ages, women were not raised for battle like their male counterparts, who typically trained for warfare from boyhood. However, that doesn't mean they didn't fight. There are numerous examples of women, both noble and lower-born, who defended their homes, their families, and their nations from attacking outside forces.

Margaret The Queen
Margaret of Anjou directed troops during the War of the Roses. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The eight-day siege of Jerusalem in 1187 relied on women for success. Nearly all of the city's fighting men had marched out of town three months earlier, for the Battle of Hattin, leaving Jerusalem unguarded but for a few hastily-knighted boys. The women, however, outnumbered men in the city by nearly 50 to 1, so when Balian, Baron of Ibelin, realized it was time to defend the walls against the invading army of Saladin, he enlisted the female citizens to get to work.

Dr. Helena P. Schrader, Ph.D. in History from the University of Hamburg, says that Ibelin would have had to organize these untrained civilians into units, assigning them specific, focused tasks.

"... whether it was defending a sector of the wall, putting out fires, or ensuring that the men and women doing the fighting were supplied with water, food and ammunition. Most astonishing, his improvised units not only repulsed assaults, they also sortied out several times, destroying some of Saladin’s siege engines, and 'two or three times' chasing the Saracens all the way back to the palisades of their camp."

Nicholaa de la Haye was born in Lincolnshire, England, around 1150, and inherited her father's land when he died. Married at least twice, Nicholaa was the castellan of Lincoln Castle, her family estate, despite the fact that each of her husbands tried to claim it as their own. When her spouses were away, Nicholaa ran the show. William Longchamps, a chancellor of Richard I, was heading to Nottingham to battle against Prince John, and along the way, he stopped at Lincoln, laying siege to Nicholaa's castle. She refused to yield, and commanding 30 knights, 20 men-at-arms, and a few hundred infantrymen, held the castle for 40 days. Longchamps eventually gave up and moved on. She defended her home again a few years later when Prince Louis of France tried to invade Lincoln.

Women didn't just show up and perform the duties of knights in defensive mode. There are several accounts of queens who traveled into the field with their armies in times of war. Eleanor of Aquitaine, the Queen of both France and England, led a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. She even did it while dressed in armor and carrying a lance, although she didn't personally fight.

During the War of the Roses, Marguerite d’Anjou personally directed the actions of Lancastrian commanders during battles against Yorkist opponents while her husband, King Henry VI, was incapacitated by bouts of madness. In fact, in 1460, she "defeated the threat to her husband’s throne by calling on the Lancastrian nobility to assemble a mighty host in Yorkshire that ambushed York and killed him and 2,500 of his men outside his ancestral home at Sandal Castle."

Finally, it's important to note that over the centuries, there were countless other women who donned armor and rode into war. We know this because although medieval European writers documenting the Crusades emphasized the notion that pious Christian women did not fight, the historians of their Muslim opponents wrote of crusading women battling against them.

"a woman of high rank arrived by sea in late autumn 1189, with an escort of 500 knights with their forces, squires, pages and valets. She paid all their expenses and also led them in raids on the Muslims. He went on to say that there were many female knights among the Christians, who wore armour like the men and fought like men in battle, and could not be told apart from the men until they were killed and the armour was stripped from their bodies."

Although their names have been lost to history, these women did exist, they simply were not granted the title of knight.

Sources

  • Ashmole, Elias. “The Institution, Laws & Ceremonies of the Most Noble Order of the Garter Collected and Digested into One Body.” Early English Books Online, The University of Michigan, quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A26024.0001.001?view=toc.
  • Nicholson, Helen, and Helen Nicholson. “Women and the Crusades.” Academia.edu, www.academia.edu/7608599/Women_and_the_Crusades.
  • Schrader, Helena P. “Surrender of Jerusalem to Saladin in 1187.” Defending the Crusader Kingdoms, 1 Jan. 1970, defendingcrusaderkingdoms.blogspot.com/2017/10/surrender-of-jerusalem-to-saladin-in.html.
  • Velde, Francois R. “Women Knights in the Middle Ages.” Women Knights, www.heraldica.org/topics/orders/wom-kn.htm.