7 Female Warriors and Queens You Should Know

Boudicca's Uprising
Boudicca - also written as Boadicea, Boadaceia or Boudica - was a British Celtic warrior queen who led a revolt against Roman occupation. Getty Images / Archive Photos / Kean Collection

Throughout history, women have fought side by side with the male warriors in their lives—and many of these strong women have become great warrior queens and rulers on their own right. From Boudicca and Zenobia to Queen Elizabeth I and Æthelflæd of Mercia, let's take a look at some of the mightiest female warrior rulers and queens you should know.

01
of 07

Boudicca

Boudicca and Her Chariot
Boudicca and Her Chariot. C.C. From Aldaron at Flickr.com.

Boudicca, also known as Boadicea, was a queen of the Iceni tribe in Britain, and led open rebellions against invading Roman forces.

Around 60 C.E., Boudicca's husband, Prausutagus, died. He had been an ally of the Roman empire, and in his will, left his entire kingdom to be split jointly between his two daughters and the Roman emperor Nero, in the hopes that this would keep his family and the Iceni safe. Instead, the plan spectacularly backfired.

Roman centurions moved into Iceni territory, near present-day Norfolk, and terrorized the Iceni. Villages were burned to the ground, large estates were confiscated, Boudicca herself was publicly flogged, and her daughters were raped by Roman soldiers.

Under Boudicca's leadership, the Iceni rose up in rebellion, joining forces with several neighboring tribes. Tacitus writes that she declared war on General Suetonius, and told the tribes,

I am avenging lost freedom, my scourged body, the outraged chastity of my daughters. Roman lust has gone so far that not our very persons, nor even age or virginity, are left unpolluted... They will not sustain even the din and the shout of so many thousands, much less our charge and our blows... you will see that in this battle you must conquer or die.

Boudicca's forces burned Roman settlements of Camulodunum (Colchester), Verulamium, now St. Albans, and Londonium, which is modern London. Her army massacred 70,000 supporters of Rome in the process. Eventually, she was defeated by Suetonius, and rather than surrender, took her own life by drinking poison.

There is no record of what became of Boudicca's daughters, but a statue of them with their mother was erected in the 19th century at Westminster Bridge.

02
of 07

Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra

Zenobia's Last Look on Palmyra. 1888 Painting.
Zenobia's Last Look on Palmyra. 1888 Painting. Artist Herbert Gustave Schmalz. Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Zenobia, who lived in the third century C.E., was the wife of King Odaenathus of Palmyra in what is now Syria. When the king and his eldest son were assassinated, Queen Zenobia stepped in as Regent to her 10-year-old son, Vaballathus. Despite her late husband's allegiance to the Roman Empire, Zenobia decided that Palmyra needed to be an independent state.

In 270, Zenobia organized her armies, and began conquering the rest of Syria before moving on to invade Egypt and parts of Asia. Finally, she announced that Palmyra was seceding from Rome, and declared herself empress. Soon, her empire included a diverse range of people, cultures, and religious groups.

The Roman Emperor Aurelian marched east with his army to take back formerly Roman provinces from Zenobia, and she fled for Persia. However, she was captured by Aurelian's men before she could escape. Historians are unclear on what became of her after that; some believe that Zenobia died as she was being escorted back to Rome, others maintain that she was paraded in Aurelian's triumphal procession. Regardless, she is still seen as a hero and freedom fighter who stood up to oppression.

03
of 07

Queen Tomyris of the Massagetae

Queen Tomyris taunted the fallen Persian king Cyrus II (530-BC)
ZU_09 / Getty Images

Queen Tomyris of the Massagetae was the ruler of a nomadic Asian tribe, and the widow of a dead king. Cyrus the Great, King of Persia, decided he wanted to marry Tomyris by force, in order to get his hands on her land—and that worked out for him, at first. Cyrus got the Massagetae drunk at a huge banquet, and then attacked, and his forces saw a sweeping victory.

Tomyris decided she couldn't possibly marry him after such treachery, so she challenged Cyrus to a second battle. This time, the Persians were slaughtered by the thousands, and Cyrus the Great was among the casualties. According to Herodotus, Tomyris had Cyrus beheaded and crucified; she may have also ordered his head stuffed into a wine barrel full of blood, and sent back to Persia as a warning.

04
of 07

Mavia of Arabia

Palmyra, Great Colonnade and Temple of Bel
Luis Dafos / Getty Images

In the fourth century, Roman Emperor Valens decided he needed more troops to fight on his behalf in the east, so he demanded auxiliaries from the area that is now the Levant. Queen Mavia, also called Mawiya, was the widow of al-Hawari, king of a nomadic tribe, and she wasn't interested in sending her people off to fight on Rome's behalf.

Much like Zenobia, she launched a revolt against the Roman Empire, and defeated Roman armies in Arabia, Palestine, and the fringes of Egypt. Because Mavia's people were nomadic desert-dwellers who excelled in guerrilla warfare, the Romans simply couldn't fight them; the terrain was virtually impossible to navigate. Mavia herself led her armies into battle, and used a combination of traditional fighting blended with Roman tactics.

Eventually, Mavia managed to convince the Romans to sign a truce agreement, leaving her people alone. Socrates notes that as a peace offering, she married her daughter to the commander of the Roman army.

05
of 07

Rani Lakshmibai

Statue of Zashichi Rani, Rani Laxmibai near Balgandharva Theater or Rangmandir, Pune
Statue of Zashichi Rani, Rani Laxmibai near Balgandharva Theater or Rangmandir, Pune. ePhotocorp / Getty Images

Lakshmibai, the Rani of Jhansi, was an instrumental leader in the Indian Rebellion of 1857. When her husband, the ruler of Jhansi, died and left her a widow in her early twenties, the British overlords decided to annex the state. Rani Lakshmibai was given a chest of rupees and told to leave the palace, but she swore she would never abandon her beloved Jhansi.

Instead, she joined a band of Indian rebels, and soon emerged as their leader against British occupying forces. A temporary truce took place, but ended when some of Lakshmibai's troops massacred a garrison full of British soldiers, their wives, and children.

Lakshmibai's army fought the British for two years, but in 1858, a Hussar regiment attacked Indian forces, killing five thousand men. According to witnesses, Rani Lakshmibai herself fought dressed as a man and wielding a saber before she was cut down. After her death, her body was burned in a huge ceremony, and she is remembered as a hero of India.

06
of 07

Æthelflæd of Mercia

Alfred the Great and Æthelflæd, 13th century
Heritage Images/Getty Images / Getty Images

Æthelflæd of Mercia was the daughter of King Alfred the Great, and the wife of King Æthelred. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle details her adventures and accomplishments. 

When Æthelred became old and unwell, his wife stepped up to the plate. According to the Chronicle, a group of Norse Vikings wanted to settle near Chester; because the king was ill, instead they appealed to Æthelflæd for permission. She granted it, on the condition that they live peacefully. Eventually, the new neighbors joined forces with Danish invaders and attempted to conquer Chester. They were unsuccessful because the town was one of many that Æthelflæd had ordered fortified.

After her husband's death, Æthelflæd helped to defend Mercia from not only the Vikings, but also raiding parties from Wales and Ireland. At one point, she personally led an army of Mercians, Scots, and Northumbrian supporters to Wales, where she kidnapped a queen in order to force the king's obedience.

07
of 07

Queen Elizabeth I

Queen Elizabeth I
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Elizabeth I became queen following the death of her half sister, Mary Tudor, and spent more than four decades ruling Britain. She was highly educated and spoke several languages, and was politically savvy, in affairs both foreign and domestic.

In preparation for the attack by the Spanish Armada, Elizabeth donned armor—implying she was ready to fight for her people—and rode out to meet her army at Tilbury. She told the soldiers,

I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul that... any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.

Sources

  • “The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.” Avalon Project, Yale University, avalon.law.yale.edu/medieval/angsaxintro.asp.
  • Deligiorgis, Kostas. “Tomyris, Queen of the Massagetes A Mystery in Herodotus’s History.” Anistoriton Journal, www.anistor.gr/english/enback/2015_1e_Anistoriton.pdf.
  • MacDonald, Eve. “Warrior Women: despite What Gamers Might Believe, the Ancient World Was Full of Female Fighters.” The Conversation, 4 Oct. 2018, theconversation.com/warrior-women-despite-what-gamers-might-believe-the-ancient-world-was-full-of-female-fighters-104343.
  • Shivangi. “Rani of Jhansi - the Best and Bravest of All.” History of Royal Women, 2 Feb. 2018, www.historyofroyalwomen.com/rani-of-jhansi/rani-jhansi-best-bravest/.