Siege Warfare and Women (8th c.–17th c.)

views updated

Siege Warfare and Women (8th c.–17th c.)

An overview of women's participation in sieges during some of pre-18th-century Europe's major wars.

Since the time of Troy, women have been direct participants in siege warfare, both as besiegers and, more commonly, as defenders. Some, like Joan of Arc , played an important symbolic role in rallying military forces. As fortresses became more numerous, siege warfare became more common. Throughout the Middle Ages, in Europe in particular, women were expected to play their part in time of siege. High-ranking families often had scattered holdings, and while a male head-of-household was traveling, his wife, mother, or daughter was expected to "hold down the fort"—often quite literally. Men—and sometimes, women—might also be gone for months or years on Crusade or fighting in dynastic wars, where they might be imprisoned; again, women often took an active role in maintaining and defending the family's properties.

Women who found themselves besieged by an enemy were usually offered the option of surrender and safe conduct. Many chose to fight, despite the often severe consequences of defeat. A well-supplied castle or fortress could hold out against an enemy for long periods, hoping that allies might arrive to lift the siege or that the besieger might simply grow weary of enduring the food shortages, exposure to weather, and spread of disease that beset armies encamped for any length of time.

Women both defended and conducted sieges in the early centuries of the Middle Ages. Before the 12th century, many queens and queen-regents were directly involved in military action, including Ethelburg (fl. 722), Ethelflaed , Lady of the Mercians, Adelaide of Susa , Emma of Burgundy , and Emma of Italy (fl. 948–990). The armies of the abbess Matilda of Quedlinburg were instrumental in preserving the papacy in Italy during this period.

Queens become less prominent in the mid-to-late Middle Ages, when inheritance laws increasingly began to restrict women's access to power. However, the military responsibilities of noblewomen increased, as there were frequent conflicts over territory. Emma of Norfolk (d. 1100) held Norwich castle in the absence of her husband during the rebellion against William the Conqueror in 1075. Sichelgaita of Salerno fought by the side of her husband, the famous conqueror Robert Guiscard, in many sieges in the southern Mediterranean. In 1129–1130, Agnes of Saarbrucken defended the city of Spires against Bavarian and Saxon forces when her husband Frederick II, duke of Swabia, left her in charge. She held out for the better part of a year; finally, with no hope of relief, she was forced to surrender to King Lothar.

Agnes of Saarbrucken (fl. 1130)

Duchess of Swabia. Name variations: Agnes von Saarbrücken. Flourished around 1130; daughter of Frederick, count of Saarbrucken; became second wife of Frederick II (c. 1090–1147), duke of Swabia (r. 1105–1147), around 1130 or 1135. Frederick's first wife was Judith of Bavaria , mother of Frederick I Barbarossa.

Haye, Nicolaa de la (1160–1218)

Sheriff of Lincolnshire. Born in 1160 in Lincolnshire, England; died in 1218 in Lincolnshire; heiress of the de la Haye barony and hereditary castellan of Lincoln; lived during the reigns of Richard I and King John; married Gerard de Camville.

An English noblewoman, Nicolaa de la Haye inherited substantial wealth and property from her father, including the post of castellan (constable of a castle) of Lincoln. Several times, she had to defend her castle and estates against her enemies, most notably when the castle was placed under siege during the rebellion of the English barons against King John in 1216. Despite a breach in the walls, her forces captured half the knights in the rebel army and won a virtually bloodless victory. Nicolaa's high rank and popularity led her to be chosen sheriff of Lincoln, a position she held until her death in 1218.

Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California

Clare, Margaret de (fl. 1280–1322)

English noblewoman thought to be Lady Badlesmere. Name variations: Margaret de Clare; Margaret de Badlesmere; Marguerite de Clere; Lady Badlesmere. Flourished between 1280 and 1322; daughter of Thomas de Clare, lord of Thomond, and Juliane Fitzgerald; married Gilbert de Umphraville, in 1289; married Bartholomew Badlesmere (d. 1322), Lord Badlesmere, in 1312; children: Elizabeth Badlesmere (fl. 1315–1342); Sir Giles Badlesmere; Maud Badlesmere (d. 1366, who married John de Vere, 7th earl of Oxford).

In September 1321, at the outbreak of civil war in England between the loyalists and the Lancastrians, King Edward II sent his queen Isabella of France (1296–1358) to the castle of Lord Badlesmere at Leeds, Kent. Lady Badlesmere had been left to guard the castle and told to admit no one, so she would not permit the queen, who was accompanied by armed troops, to enter. Fighting ensued and some of the queen's attendants were killed. In mid-October, King Edward opened siege on the castle, and it soon fell. Many members of the castle garrison were executed, including Lord Badlesmere who was hanged at Canterbury in 1322. Lady Badlesmere and her children were sent to the Tower of London, and their subsequent fate is unknown. The lady's name is not given, but she is thought to be Margaret de Clare, wife of Bartholomew de Badlesmere.

Grandison, Katharine (fl. 1305–1340)

Countess of Salisbury. Flourished between 1305 and 1340; married William Montacute (1301–1343), 1st earl of Salisbury; children: Philippa Montacute (who married Robert Mortimer, 2nd earl of March); William de Montacute, 2nd earl of Salisbury (d. 1361, who married Joan of Kent ); John.

Women were often caught up in the civil and religious wars of the time. Englishwoman Nicolaa de la Haye , the hereditary castellan of Lincoln, held the castle during the rebellion against King John in 1216; he later appointed her sheriff. Many women, like Guirande de Lavaur , were involved in the French battles of Simon de Montfort against the Cathars. In the 14th century, the brutal wars between Robert Bruce of Scotland and the English, and civil war in England between the loyalists and the Lancastrians, occasioned a number of sieges that placed women like Lady Badlesmere (Margaret de Clare ), Isabella of Buchan and Agnes Dunbar in military roles. Katharine Grandison , countess of Salisbury, defended the castle of Wark in Northumberland against the Scots for several months in 1341; the siege was eventually raised by the arrival of Edward III's troops. In 1395, Margaret Keith , Lady Lindsay, successfully defended the Scottish castle of Fyvie against her nephew, Robert Keith.

The Hundred Years War between the French and English from the mid-14th to the mid-15th centuries offers a number of examples of women involved in war. Two women were prominently immersed in the battles for the succession to the duchy of Brittany in the mid-14th century: Jeanne de Penthièvre and Jeanne de Montfort . And in 1428, the English besieged Orléans on the bank of the Loire, and unwittingly provided the opportunity for Joan of Arc to become the best-known figure in the history of siege warfare.

Even women of relatively un-noble origins might find themselves cast as military leaders and fighters. Margaret Paston of mid-15th century England was among these, and is perhaps one of the best examples of how women in her position routinely functioned as military auxiliaries. Italian women, particularly of the Sforza family, were especially prominent in the 15th century. Margaret of Attenduli (Sforza) defended Tricarico against siege and rescued her brother from imprisonment. In the 16th century, Caterina Sforza fought against Cesare Borgia and negotiated with Machiavelli. The Sforza also fought against women; Francesco Sforza faced a determined corps of women, commanded by Camilla Rodolfi , who defended Vigevano against his siege.

The religious wars of the 16th century in France involved many women in siege warfare in such places as Metz, Poitiers, La Rochelle, Aubigny, Cahors, and Lille. Other instances in the 16th century include Kristina Gyllenstierna during the siege of Stockholm in 1520; Améliane du Puget in the siege of Marseilles in 1524; Marie Fourreé de Poix in the siege of Saint-Riquier in 1535; Marguerite Delaye , who lost an arm in the siege of Montélimar in 1569;Kenau and Amaron Hasselaar , sisters in the siege of Haarlem in 1573; Madeleine de Saint-Nectaire who defended Miremont from Henry IV's forces in 1575; and others.

The English civil wars of the 17th century, from 1642 to 1651, were characterized by numerous sieges of small strongholds, and provide a number of examples of women defenders of besieged castles. Among the Royalists were Charlotte Stanley , countess of Derby; Lady Mary Winter who refused to surrender Lidney House to Parliamentary forces; Lady Blanche Arundel , who defended Wardour Castle for the royalists; and Lady Mary Bankes , who held Corfe Castle. On the Parliamentarian side, Lady Brilliana Harley held Brampton Bryan Castle against the king for more than six months.

In addition to high-ranking women (and their women servants and attendants) who defended their castles, urban women of the lower classes sometimes found themselves besieged as well. The women of Gloucester and London were praised for their assistance during the sieges of the civil wars; the women of Lyme became famous for helping to repel the Royalists in 1643. In any siege, women naturally participated in defensive actions; examples include Marseilles and Pavia in 1425, Siena in 1552–53, Leucate in 1637, and Estagel in 1639. Women were injured or killed while carrying water or hanging out laundry in besieged cities and castles; they also helped build defensive entrenchments, acted as lookouts, cast bullets from lead, and threw rocks and boiling water from the battlements. Many women also fought. In Italy, 30 women of Mugello kept numerous armed men at bay in 1352; in Siena in 1554, three women's battalions uniformed in red and violet taffeta fought on the city walls.

Stanley, Charlotte (1599–1664)

French Huguenot and Royalist heroine during the English Civil Wars. Name variations: Charlotte de la Trémoille; countess of Derby. Born Charlotte de la Trémoille in 1599; died in 1664; daughter of Duc de Thouars; granddaughter of William the Silent (1533–1584), prince of Orange; married James Stanley, 7th earl of Derby (known as Lord Strange until 1642).

Seven years older than her husband James Stanley, Charlotte Stanley, countess of Derby, was said to have been a better soldier. In 1643, she was left in charge of Lathom House, a formidable fortress. She refused to surrender the stronghold to local Parliamentary forces, which began a bombardment of Lathom. When Parliamentarians attempted to cut off her water supply, she sent out a party and successfully stole their largest gun. After holding out for three months from February to May, despite her neighbor's pleas to surrender, she was relieved by Royalist forces and withdrew with her husband to the Isle of Man. In December 1645, the Parliamentarians laid siege on Lathom once more and, without the fortitude of Charlotte Stanley, the fortress surrendered. In 1651, James, known as the "Martyred Earl," joined forces with Charles II at Worcester and was captured and executed. Charlotte Stanley was notorious in 17th-century England. A Parliamentarian saying went: "Three women ruined the Kingdom: Eve , the Queen [Henrietta Maria ], and the countess of Derby."

Bankes, Mary (d. 1661)

British royalist. Name variations: Lady Mary Bankes. Birth date unknown; died in 1661; daughter of Ralph Hawtrey of Ruislip; married Sir John Bankes (a prosecutor and later chief justice of the Court of Common Pleas); children: daughters (names unknown).

During the English Civil Wars of the 17th century, Lady Mary Bankes was a Royalist who held Dorset's Corfe Castle while her husband stayed with the king Charles I in London. When she began to fear that Parliamentarian forces would attack her fortress, she stored many provisions and locked the gates to prevent surprise attacks. In 1643, the local Parliamentary Committee demanded that Lady Bankes turn over the four remaining guns of the castle to them, which she eventually did. However, she refused to surrender the castle, and on June 23, 1643, the first siege began. A force of some 600, led by Sir Walter Earle, attacked her with two siege engines. During the final assault, Lady Bankes personally defended the upper ward of the castle with only five soldiers, her daughters, and her women attendants. By heaving stones and red-hot embers down on the men attempting to climb ladders, Lady Bankes and her small force prevented a breach in the castle's defenses. The report of an approaching Royalist relief force ended the first siege of Corfe. Lady Bankes was besieged again in 1645 after her husband's death; this time a traitor apparently gave the enemy entry to the castle. Bankes and her children were permitted to depart without injury.

Siege warfare continued to involve women as it was practiced on an increasingly brutal scale in the 17th century. As larger cities were fortified and attacked, and firearms were introduced, women appear to be frequently active as defenders, particularly during the period of the Thirty Years' War. For example, the Spanish women of San Mateo are reported to have been especially energetic in shooting at their besiegers.

Women's participation in siege warfare was widespread and varied for centuries throughout Europe. Women provided an important force that supplemented, and sometimes substituted for, the trained military forces of the time.


Barrow, G.W.S. Feudal Britain: The Completion of the Medieval Kingdoms, 1066–1314. London: Arnold, 1956.

Bennett, H.S. The Pastons and their England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1932.

Bingham, Caroline. The Crowned Lions: The Early Plantagenet Kings. London: David & Charles, 1978.

Blashfield, Jean F. Hellraisers, Heroines, and Holy Women. NY: Superlative House, 1981.

Butler, Pierce. Women of Mediaeval France. Vol. 5. Philadelphia, PA: Barrie, 1907.

Collison-Morley, L. The Story of the Sforzas. NY: Dutton, 1934.

Comnena, Anna. The Alexiad of Anna Comnena. Trans. by E.R.A. Sewter. NY: Penguin, 1969.

Echols, Anne, and Marty Williams. An Annotated Index of Medieval Women. NY: Markus Wiener, 1992.

Fell, Christine, Cecily Clark, and Elizabeth Williams. Women in Anglo-Saxon England and the Impact of 1066. Colonnade, 1984.

Fittis, Robert Scott. Heroines of Scotland. London: Alexander Gardner, 1889.

Froissart, Jean. The Chronicle of Froissart. NY: AMS, 1967.

Fryde, Natalie. The Tyranny and Fall of Edward II, 1321–1326. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Gribble, Francis. Women in War. NY: Dutton, 1917.

Haskell, Ann S. "The Paston Women on Marriage in Fifteenth-Century England," in Viator. Vol. 4, 1973, pp. 459–471.

Jones, Michael. The Creation of Brittany: A Late Medieval State. London: Hambledon, 1988.

——. Ducal Brittany, 1364–1399. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970.

Kendall, Paul Murray. The Yorkist Age: Daily Life during the Wars of the Roses. NY: Norton, 1962.

Marks, Claude. Pilgrims, Heretics, and Lovers: A Medieval Journey. NY: Macmillan, 1975.

Melegari, Vezio. The Great Military Sieges. Trans. by Rizzoli Editore. NY: Crowell, 1972.

Norwich, John Julius. The Kingdom in the Sun: 1130–1194. NY: Harper, 1970.

Powicke, Sir Maurice. The Thirteenth Century. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Tallett, Frank. War and Society in Early-Modern Europe, 1495–1715. London: Routledge, 1992.

Vann, Richard T. "Women in Preindustrial Capitalism," in Becoming Visible: Women in European History. Eds. Bridenthal, Renate and Claudia Koonz. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1977, pp. 192–216.

Wakefield, Walter L. Heresy, Crusade and Inquisition in Southern France 1100–1250. London: Allen & Unwin, 1974.

suggested reading:

Fraser, Antonia. The Warrior Queens. NY: Knopf, 1989.

——. The Weaker Vessel: Woman's Lot in 17th-century England. London: Weidenfeld, 1984.

Hacker, Barton C. "Women and Military Institutions in Early Modern Europe: a Reconnaissance," in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. Vol. 6, no. 4, 1981, pp. 643–671.

Marshall, Rosalind K. Virgins and Viragos: A History of Women in Scotland from 1080 to 1980. Chicago, IL: Academy Chicago, 1983.

McLaughlin, Megan. "The woman warrior: gender, warfare and society in medieval Europe," in Women's Studies. Vol. 17, 1990, pp. 193–209.

Plowden, Alison. Women All on Fire: The Women of the English Civil War. London: Sutton, 1998.

Stafford, Pauline. Queens, Concubines, and Dowagers: The King's Wife in the Early Middle Ages. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1983.

Reina Pennington , Ph.D. Candidate in Military and Women's History, University of South Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina

About this article

Siege Warfare and Women (8th c.–17th c.)

Updated About content Print Article