Ten Great Military Leaders, Probably Cranky Ones

This post is all Boudicca’s fault.

When reading lists of great female military leaders, Boudicca keeps appearing on them. And when these are usually lists of no more than ten people, I get a wee bit judgey at that.

It’s not that Boudicca isn’t an iconic figure. She is. She, in righteous anger, raised a massive army and led it against the superpower of the day, winning several encounters before her tragic defeat and death. It’s a powerful story, and she’s an extraordinary figure.

What she isn’t is a great military leader.

There’s more to generalship than getting together a great big mob and burning down a nascent London. Boudicca did win a couple of a battles, yes, when the Romans were all confused and didn’t have a clue what was going on. The second they got themselves together, it was all over, and despite being massively outnumbered by Boudicca’s Iceni and their allies, the Battle of Watling Street was more like a massacre. Tens of thousands of Britons died, very few Romans did, and Boudicca’s rebellion was over less than a year after it began, having achieved very little.

I’m also a bit tetchy cause I once read in a history book that Boudicca nearly succeeded in pushing the Romans out of Britain. Which, no, not even close, not even a little. They never considered it. I trusted you, history book, and you betrayed me with your false facts.

So here’s my list of 10 Great Female Military Leaders. They’re not necessarily the Greatest Ever, but they are very good, well I’m terribly fond of them, anyway. Boudicca isn’t on it:

1) Aethelflaed (d. 918)  – Oh, Aethelflaed! I love Aethelflaed. Her one flaw is suddenly dying with no explanation whilst everything was going just swimmingly.

She was born towards the end of the ninth century, the eldest  daughter of that dude who’s remembered for burning the cakes, and grew up to be Lady of the Mercians. Mercia being one of those ye olde English kingdoms that were around when the Vikings were really big on invading every week. And she was called Lady, not queen, since queen, at the time, meant exclusively ‘wife of a king’ (cf. Empress Matilda, Lady of the English.)

So, with the Vikings hanging around, Aethelflaed was pretty into military matters. She built castles, led armies, won battles. She took back Derby, Leicester and York, kidnapped princesses of annoying kings and nicked back the bodies of saints. All in all, she was amazing. Which was why, when she died, her people were perfectly happy to have her daughter inherit her rule.

Unfortunately her brother Edward had other ideas. Aethelflaed had a pretty keen alliance with her brother, who ruled the neighbouring kingdom of Wessex, when she was alive. Alas, he was less keen on his niece Ælfwynn, who he succeeded in deposing six months after her mother’s death. Boo, Edward.

2) Matilda of Tuscany (1046 – 1115) – The twelfth century was an amazing time for people called Matilda. There were rather a few very powerful, very intelligent women with the name hanging around western Europe at the time. The most militaristic of them was Matilda of Tuscany, who wasn’t even twenty before she was taking part in her first battle, at her mother’s side.

In her adult years, she was the main supporter of the Pope are a crucial time in the history of the Catholic Church. One might go so far as to call it a revolution of sorts, for the conflict between Pope Gregory and the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV, led to a reordering in the power structure when the Pope secured primacy over the monarchs of western Europe in theological matters. It was a power that would not be overthrown until Henry VIII of England decided he really, really wanted his first marriage annulled.

Matilda’s part in this was her constant, unequivocal military support in favour of the Pope. In battle, she wore armour and led armies herself. She controlled vast lands in Italy, and was a bit of a problem for the Holy Roman Empire, being at war with Henry IV, on and off, for over a quarter of a century.

At one point he succeeded in deposing her, but three years later she was back after defeating his allies.

When she was under siege at her castle at Sorbara, she lead a night attack, armed with her father’s sword, to drive off the besiegers. She lead armies at Ferrara, Rome and Prato.  She drove Henry IV back from her castle at Nogara. When nearly seventy years old, she still took to the field, leading her army against rebels in Mantua.

After succeeding his father, Henry V crowned her with a rather keen title: Imperial Vicar Vice-Queen of Italy.

3) Harriet Tubman (1820 – 1913) – One of the most heroic figures of 19th century America, Harriet Tubman escaped slavery then risked her life time and time again to free others for over ten years as she led expeditions on the Underground Railroad. She never got caught, but there were a plethora of exciting rumours about her. Not all wars are armies on the battlefield and changing borders; this woman led small expeditions, and saved hundreds of lives.

When the American Civil War broke out, Tubman supported the Union, and first worked as a nurse in Port Royal before she stepped up her efforts when Lincoln made the Emancipation Proclamation, and used her knowledge of the land to work as an armed scout and spy. She spent the remainder of the war dividing her time between scouting, nursing, and helping newly freed slaves.

She was the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the Civil War, guiding the attack on plantations of the Combahee River, which rescued some 700 slaves.

4) Artemisia (fl. 480 BCE) – Sadly, I’m going to have to see this 300 sequel at some point since it features Eva Green playing Artemisia of Caria, and being quite in love with both Eva Green and Artemisia, I really don’t care how lacking the movie might be in other respects.

But, yes, Artemisia! An admiral! Of ships! She went asailing around the Med some 2500 years ago under the command of Xerxes, Persian King, and against the Greek city-states. She was a little too early for Alexander the Great but I’m pretty bloody sure that in any sea battle, she would have sunk him good. (This view not at all influence by my vast and undulating dislike of Alexander the Great, obv.)

Anyway, she fought at Artimesium, and Salamis, where she contributed five ships of her own to the Persian side, had a great rep for strategy and impressed Xerxes enough that he gave her some smashing armour and he listened to her advice in military matters.

(The second Artemisia of Caria is the one who commissioned the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.)

5) Isabella of Castile (1451 – 1504) – Isabella of Castile was one of the great European monarchs, though a ruler more inclined towards order and justice, than mercy or compassion. She didn’t fight herself, though she did travel with her army, and would turn up at sieges, her presence being rather inspiring to her dudes. She wanted to fight, but the precedent of history was not, alas, enough for her. She felt that she couldn’t go into battle herself because she wasn’t a man. Hrrm.

As a military leader, Isabella’s great success lay not in her ability swing a sword or lead an army, but as a quartermaster.  She restored Castile’s finances from the utter mess they’d been left in by her brother, and provided most of the soldiers, arms and provisions needed to complete the conquest of the Granada, which was a joint venture with her husband, and king of Aragon, Ferdinand.

She made sure of the supply train would get to her army what it needed and the transport would get them to where they needed. And as any French general invading Russia will tell you, supply trains are kind of important for armies to win and stuff.

In her younger years, she did once put down a rebellion by going into the rebelling town alone and negotiating a peace. Just saying, you don’t need to swing a sword to win a war.

6) Fu Hao (d. 1200 BCE) – Some 3200 years ago, the most powerful military leader in the world was Fu Hao. She was both a general and a priestess for the Shang Dynasty in ancient China. She raised and led armies of over 10000 in battle. She led the campaigns against many of the Shang dynasties enemies and was rewarded with her own fiefdom in the Chinese empire. She’s not the only woman to have led armies in the Chinese bronze age, but dammit, she’s the one everyone should have heard of.

Her tomb was discovered, unlooted, in 1976 and contained over a hundred weapons, amogst a whole lot of over exciting stuff.

7) Tamar of Georgia (1160 – 1213) – I hate to do this, but in Tamar’s case, it’s kind of painfully true: she’s Georgia’s Elizabeth Tudor, and the same unshakeable admiration I’ve got for Elizabeth I, I have for Tamar. She ruled over Georgia’s Golden Age, when her country reached a zenith of power and cultural achievements.

Militarily, she was big on expansionism. Her armies won numerous victories in the second decade of her rule, taking territory from the Kingdom of Armenia, the Ildegizids, and defeating the sultan of Rûm. She sent an expedition against the Byzantine Empire that ended up founding the empire of Trebizond.

She had a slightly troublesome ex-husband, who kept trying to overthrow her. She defeated him in battle, captured him and, very kindly, exiled him instead of snicking his head off.

She’d share the conditions of her troops, at one point marching barefoot alongside them, and although she didn’t fight, she did travel with the army, and addressed her troops before she sent them off into battle.

8) The Trung Sisters (d. 43) – I’m happy to say that it seems more and more that the Trung sisters are making inroads into popular consciousness, from my perspective, anyway. Hurrah! The only sadness is we don’t know more about them, or possibly there’s more good stuff that just hasn’t been translated into English. Alas for me.

Anyway, in 39 AD they begin a three year revolt in Vietnam against Chinese rule. At its height, their army was over 80 000 strong and they had some three dozen female generals. They liberated much of their country, but were unable stand against the massive force the Chinese sent against them in 43 AD. After their defeat, they committed suicide.

9) Tomyris of Massagetae (fl. 530 BCE) – What we know of Tomyris is short, but sweet. When Cyrus the Great , Persian emperor, invaded her land he engaged the Massagetae forces in battle, and defeated them. Tomyris send him a message, demanding a second fight. This one she won, killing most of the Persian forces and Cyrus himself.

10) Catherine the Great (1729 – 1796) – There’re an absurd number of fabulous things Catherine did, but just to concentrate on her military achievements: like Tamar of Georgia, she was a keen expansionist and under her rule, Russia pushed west, into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and south, against the Ottoman Empire. They won the first Russo-Turkish War, annexed the Crimea , and got access to the Black Sea, which was a big deal.

Catherine was fully involved in the process, attending the twice weekly war strategy meetings and came up with a somewhat ridiculous but actually successful plan to send her fleet 5000 miles around the coast of Europe, so it could sneak up on the Ottomans.

She was at war for only six years, at peace for nineteen, and yet still doubled the number of subjects she had by the end of her reign.

She also decided it best to keep out of the American War of Independence, when the British asked for her assistance. That’s right, the British asked the Russians to help them fight the Americans. History, eh?

And so ends the list.

Till next time, delicious readers!

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 This post is written as part of the Women’s History Month Cranky Ladies of History blog tour. If  you would like to read more about cranky ladies from the past, you might like to support the FableCroft Publishing Pozible campaign, crowd-funding an anthology of short stories about Cranky Ladies of History from all over the world.

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3 thoughts on “Ten Great Military Leaders, Probably Cranky Ones

  1. Sylvia McIvers says:

    I just read of Aethelflead in “Hild” by Nicola Griffith, and here she is again 😉

    Indeed, you don’t need to swing a sword to change the course of history, or even to change the course of those who swing swords.

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