Social Education 58(2), 1994, pp. 74-76
National Council for the Social Studies

A Trilogy of MedievalWomen Warriors

Sandra K. Wales
Generations of students have no concept of how their women ancestors fought, survived, and side by side with the men, carved out new countries. Traditionally, women leaders have been left out of history books, especially women who were warriors.
Writing women back into history in an entertaining format, while keeping to the facts as much as possible, is a challenge to historical fiction writers like myself. In a search for background for a novel about Empress Matilda, a forgotten queen of England and the subject of the first novel in my trilogy of women warriors, I discovered that this fascinating woman merely existed in footnotes and line references. The challenge of writing an entire novel from footnotes about a woman in the twelfth century was huge. The tone of older historians was derogatory toward women warriors. How could accurate research be done?

Since Empress Matilda was the granddaughter of William the Conqueror and the daughter of Henry I of England, I started by researching the lives of those men. After collecting titles for a bibliography, I used interlibrary loan to acquire materials from around the United States.

To give depth to the novel and con&Mac222;rm facts, I researched many related topics at the Library of Congress. What dyes were available? Were there forks? What foods were served at banquets? How were names spelled and capitalized? How did medieval noblewomen fulfill their roles of managing and leading in peace and war, while feeding and clothing hundreds of people on a daily basis, providing medical care, overseeing apprenticeships, and in the absence of their husbands, defending the castle and the land?

This research process is repeated for each of my novels. The women warriors featured in each volume of the trilogy-Empress Matilda, Aethelflaed of the Mercians, and Boadicea, Queen of the Iceni-illustrate the rich stories usually neglected in history books.

Empress Matilda
The &Mac222;rst reference to Empress Matilda's leading an army mentioned that she was asked by her husband, Count Geoffrey, to bring her army from Anjou to help him fight in Normandy. However, when she got to Count Geoffrey, his foot had been injured so badly with a pole-ax that they could not continue the fight at that time.

Empress Matilda was trusted by her husband because she had the ability to lead an army. There are no references to her military training, but common sense tells us that she had to have been taught warfare since she raised her own army and she and Count Geoffrey formed an alliance.

This wasn't the first time that Empress Matilda had been a champion for a ruler. At the age of fifteen, she had been her first husband's representative in the Italian courts, acting as a judge. Henry V of the Holy Roman Empire, Matilda's first husband, had the duty of preserving the Catholic Church and providing protection for the pope. It was Empress Matilda's awesome task to settle civil disputes, making her judgments law that had to be obeyed. Matilda was considered an intelligent woman who ruled impartially. She was not only respected by the Italians, but by the German people who were her husband's subjects. When her husband was dying, he passed the seal of government to her, asking that she rule in his stead. Even though the German people wanted her to rule them, there was too much political intrigue in that situation for her, so she left Germany for England and her father's castle (Pain 1978).

Another military stance taken by Empress Matilda was an invasion of England on September 30, 1139. Ironically, histories usually say that 1066 was the last invasion of England. That event is credited to Empress Matilda's grandfather, William the Conqueror, while Matilda's invasion has been left out of history books. She, like her grandfather, came across the English Channel with an army, landed, fought, and ruled. Although some histories claim that she was never crowned, several sources state that she did have a ceremony in which she was declared ruler of England. Furthermore, Empress Matilda issued charters and had money struck in her image, a custom only allowed to rulers.

Stephen de Blois, who had been reared in her father's court, had sworn fealty to Empress Matilda in her bid for the throne, and bowed to her and his king, not once but twice, swearing that he would uphold Henry I's wishes that Matilda be the first female king of England. Others who had sworn to support her were her illegitimate brother, Robert of Gloucester, along with Brian fitzCount and Miles of Gloucester. Unfortunately, when Henry I died, Matilda was in Anjou with her second husband, Count Geoffrey Plantagenet. Stephen de Blois seized the treasury and the crown, necessitating the raising of an army by Matilda to claim her throne.

Historians should have credited Empress Matilda with the last invasion of England. She was supported by many men as she raised an army, plotted the invasion of England, and carried out her plan, thus beginning a civil war that continued for nineteen years.

During this period of civil unrest in England, two other women are mentioned as having been in command of their armies. Countess de Redevers had the difficult task of defending her castle while it was under siege by Stephen de Blois. The Count de Redevers was fighting for Matilda in another part of England when Stephen decided he needed another fortress. For three months, the Countess directed her knights and protected the people within the castle until the well ran dry during a summer drought. Then the clever Countess used wine in place of water, including dousing the &Mac222;rebrands that flew across the walls from Stephen's army. Alas, the wine ran out and the castle was lost.

In 1141, Robert of Gloucester captured Stephen de Blois and gave him to the Empress. Ironically, while Stephen was held captive by Empress Matilda, she was attacked by an army commanded by Stephen's wife, Maithilde de Boulogne. Thus, England was fought over by two women warriors, both in command of their armies and both competent leaders.

Aetheszlig;æd, Lady of the Mercians
Three centuries earlier, we meet the heroine of the second novel in my trilogy. Aethelflaed, daughter of King Aelfred the Great of Wessex, won every battle in which she was engaged.

In the ninth century, the island that is present-day Britain was divided into smaller countries, one of which was Mercia. Highly educated and apparently well versed in military strategy, Aethelflaed ruled Mercia side by side with her husband while her father ruled neighboring Wessex. Aethelflaed was called "Lady of the Mercians" by historians of her time. Since the title "Lady" was reserved for women who ruled, this title shows she was recognized as a leader (Wainwright 1975).

When her husband died, she continued to rule Mercia. Although information about Aethelflaed's life is sketchy, interesting facts have been discovered about this intriguing woman. She must have been trained in military tactics at the direction of her father and husband, for she fought persistently against the scourge of Wessex and Mercia, the Vikings. It was through her alliance with her brother, Edward, and her father, King Aelfred, that the Vikings were pushed from Britain.

Her specific contribution to the war effort, besides leading her army, was the building of a series of forts along the Mercian-Viking border. Aethelflaed believed that to have each fort manned with an army was more efficient than the older tactic of wasting days marching across country to counterattack the Vikings.

Not only did Aethelflaed face the problem of the Vikings, but the Welsh swept into her territory, murdering Abbot Egbert and his companions. In A.D. 916, she stormed into Wales with her army, capturing the Welsh queen and thirty-three members of her court. Aethelflaed was so successful that all the Welsh kings submitted to her authority.

The Vikings continued to raid Mercia. Aethelflaed and Edward led a two-pronged attack against the Vikings beginning in 917. Edward swooped down on the enemy in the south, while Aethelflaed led her army into Derby, taking its garrison in a short battle that left four of her lieutenants dead. Fort after fort fell to the sister-brother team as the result of Aethelflaed's brilliant military strategy (Newark 1989).

In the spring of 918, Edward advanced on Stamford while Aethelflaed rode at the head of her troops into Leicester. Her military prowess was well known, and the Vikings surrendered without a fight. Not only did Leicester submit to Aethelflaed peacefully, but to the north the fort of York sent an emissary to defer to the Lady of the Mercians in order to keep her from coming after them.

In a cruel twist of fate for Edward, at the pinnacle of their combined successes, the Lady of the Mercians died in June of 918 after a short illness. In order for Edward to assume control of Mercia to pair with Wessex, he had to downplay Aethelflaed's successes, for it was necessary that he control Aethelflaed's army and her country. The Vikings were waiting and hoping that a split would occur in order to counterattack (Newark 1989).

Although her own countrymen did not write a great deal about her remarkable abilities, the chroniclers in foreign courts were lavish in their praise of Aethelflaed. Thanks to the Irish and Welsh chronicles, we know about this exceptional woman.

Boadicea, Queen of the Iceni
In the first century A.D., the Romans pushed their way onto the island of Britain, stealing whatever they could carry. When Boadicea, the Queen of the Iceni, protested, the Romans dragged her into the middle of the town square, pulled her tunic to her waist, and lashed her bare back. To further insult Boadicea, the Romans raped her two teenage daughters, then rode away, certain that the queen would no longer be so arrogant. Queen Boadicea, however, recovered from her wounds and proceeded to gather an army of 250,000 "barbaric" men and women from several other British countries.

Boadicea waited until the Roman governor of Britain, Suetonius Paullinus, had marched to Wales to conquer the Druids so that all of southeast England was left unprotected. Boadicea then gave the order for the attack on the Roman garrison of Colchester to begin. Swooping down on the inhabitants at dawn, she caught them totally unaware. The only safe place was a lavish temple built to honor the Roman Emperor Claudius. The Romans raced to the temple and barricaded themselves inside. Boadicea and her army burned down the town and then destroyed the temple, leaving nothing of Colchester but ashes (Matthews 1988). Boadicea and her army continued to raid Roman towns, laying waste to Londinium, as well as part of the Roman army under the command of Petillius Cerealis. The Romans, chauvinistic in their beliefs, were badly shaken. The governor of Britain, Suetonius Paullinus, marched his army double-time from Wales to lead the campaign against Boadicea before the Romans lost all of Britain.

Although Boadicea was a formidable warrior, she finally met her match in Suetonius Paullinus, an able general who fought in many campaigns for Rome and conquered everyone he faced. Paullinus carefully chose an open field with a thick forest at his back to make a stand against Boadicea and the thousands of Celtic warriors. He admonished his men to fear not a mere woman, but fight as they had been taught. The Roman army machine faltered for a few moments when they first spied Boadicea and her daughters riding in a chariot at the head of a massive army of raucous warriors. Urged by Paullinus, however, the Romans moved forward as a well-training fighting machine. Boadicea and her army of men and women never hesitated, taking hit after hit until finally they had to retreat. Unfortunately, the wagons filled with supplies and Celtic spectators blocked Boadicea's retreat, and her army was slaughtered. She escaped, but knowing that she would spend her life as a fugitive or, if captured, as the object of ridicule by the Romans, committed suicide along with her daughters. Her death was a triumph, however, for word came from Rome that the Britons were no longer to be maltreated, terrorized, or have their property seized (Newark 1989).

Contrary to modern beliefs, the Celts and Boadicea were not as barbaric as they have been portrayed in the history books. Since Boadicea's father and husband were both kings, she grew up with knowledge of Druidism, a complex religion, and probably had a command of several languages, including Latin and Greek. During that period of time, Greek was used to keep household accounts. The Romans underestimated the Britons' intelligence, determination, and pride. They certainly underestimated the tenacity and the desire for revenge of the warrior queen of the Iceni.

Women Warriors in History Class
The women described here are just a few of the many medieval women who were excellent military strategists. When the lives of these three women were introduced as part of medieval history for the seventh, eighth, and ninth grades, the students were captivated by these warrior women. However, the classes were not without arguments. Sexist attitudes derived from the usual exposure to history that omits the role of women were evident in the following conversation between two ninth graders.

Shaun, an intense boy, waved his hand furiously as he shouted out, "Wait a minute! Girls didn't wear armor in medieval times!"

Cassie Elaine screamed, "What about Joan of Arc!"

The fight escalated as the room erupted into arguments. The result was that the students spent the next week researching medieval women warriors.

Matthews, John. Boadicea: Warrior Queen of the Celts. Poole, Dorset, UK: Firebird Books, 1988.Newark, Tim. Women Warlords. London: Blandford, 1989.Pain, Nesta. Empress Matilda: Uncrowned Queen of England. London: Wiedenfeld and Nicolson, 1978.Wainwright, F.T. Scandinavian England. Chichester: Phillimore & Co., Ltd., 1975.

Sandra K. Wales holds an Ed.D. in curriculum and instruction from West Virginia University, and is currently an administrator at a K-9 school in Preston County, West Virginia and author of Matilda: The Forgotten Queen of England. ©1994©1994©1994©1994©1994©1994©1994