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Ladyfencers

The Challenger: Mme de Valsayre

The Challenger: Mme de Valsayre | Ladyfencers series

There's nothing more dangerous than a woman who is well educated and conscious of her worth. Contemporary to Marie-Thérèse Figueur, [read the story here] our new Lady Fencer is always from France and she was in Waterloo...

There’s nothing more dangerous than a woman who is well educated and conscious of her worth. Contemporary to Marie-Thérèse Figueur, [read the story here] our new Lady Fencer is always from France and she was in Waterloo… fighting a first-blood duel.

 


Meet Mme de Valsayre, the Challenger, a progressist woman who left a mark in France’s history and made several newspapers all around the world talk about her!



Introduction: Paris, in a study, April 1886

We are greeted by a great number of cats and dogs.
In fact so many that the other tenants of the building are asking for the eviction of the owner, Mme de Valsayre.
We then come into a study, furnished in a simple manner, where Mme de Valsayre, a small woman of 37 years, receives us to talk about the latest incident.
The incident happened some days ago in the form of a duel between Mme de Valsayre and an American woman called Miss Shelby on the battlefield in Waterloo.

 

The insult

She sat in her armchair and adjusted her oval glasses with a quick gesture.

«My adversary, Miss Shelby or Shelley, maintained that American female doctors were superior to those in our country.
I refuted her, she called me an “idiot” —in response, I threw my glove in her face.
Even though knowing herself to be inferior a fighter in advance, she did not withdraw.

 

The urge to fight

«The taste for weapons has come to me only recently, in 1884, two years ago. A young man, who signed with his pseudonym «Polignac» in a morning newspaper, insulted me and refused to give me reparation. I had to whip him in public, and nearly fought a duel. Did you think that I could step back against Miss Shelby?

We met on the terrain fifteen days later her offense. I thought to give her ample time for practice in order to gain up on my own skills, her inferiority being great next to mine.

I wounded her slightly on the arm and immediately she extended her hand to me with these most honourable words: “Now, I can offer you my apologies.”
We are reconciled now and probably will go to Congo together to help the civilisation of said country.

But you know, it is no easy thing for a woman to fight a duel in France.
All the French I asked to be my seconds laughed in my face. So the duel had to be witnessed by four Americans!»

 

The benefit of fencing

After Mme de Valsayre finishes these anecdotes, she shows us a bit around.
First she plays one of her original pieces on the violin. Beautifully, we have to admit.
But no wonder, as she had a thorough musical education before tending to the study of medicine.

After that, she shows us her most interesting possession. Her sword, which she calls «Rolande» and treats with very much respect. While holding the blade in her hands she continues to talk about fencing:

«Fencing for women. That is my new project. Fencing is so beneficiary.
It helps women’s physical rehabilitation, benefits the reproductive organs and general mental health.
Also, fencing’s cultivation of an energetic and well-regulated muscular activity along with the development of the chest is as good as sports like gymnastics, swimming or bicycling.
So I hope more women pick up fencing to empower themselves and grow stronger!»

 

Conclusion: Paris is not ready yet!

We start to see what drives Mme de Valsayre to promote the usage of swords to women.
And we would really like to hear more about it. But a dog is tearing on our heels and we think it’s time to go.
«Thank you, Mme de Valsayre! We will publish the article on Monday, 5th of April in Le Gaulois! »

– – –

An elegant man, dressed in blue, is sitting in a cafè in Rue Rivoli. He puts his fine hat on and stands up:
«What a woman! Paris is not ready yet!» he chuckles, folding the newspaper and leaving a few coins on the table.

 


Madame Marie-Rose Astié de Valsayre was a doctor, musician, writer and a pioneer in feminism in France. As a skilled fencer, she really opened a fencing club dedicated to women. During her life she did not shy away from defending her beliefs, and she was always eager to pick up arms to prove her point.

If you want to read the original article from Le Gaulois follow this link HERE

And if you enjoyed “The Challenger: Mme de Valsayre”, you might want to check out our LadyFencers series, where we handpick the most incredible women in history – from noble-hearted ladies to downright nutjobs – who left funny or epic stories behind, for better or worse!
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Marie the Unconstrained | Ladyfencers series

There were women in history who fought in battle as men did. Like Nakano Takeko, in this previous blog post. Fearless, moved by a sacred fire, they always were on the front lines. This time we travel to France, to meet a bold, free spirit. ...

There were women in history who fought in battle as men did. Like Nakano Takeko, in this previous blog post. Fearless, moved by a sacred fire, they always were on the front lines. This time we travel to France, to meet a bold, free spirit.


Today we’ll tell you about Marie the Unconstrained, one of the most famous female soldiers of all times, thanks to the entertaining biography we had left, “Madame sans Gêne”, published in 1842.



Introduction: A small village around Orléans – 1842

The Sun shines through the milky windows of the Inn, bathing the taproom in bright light and illuminating the scene that unfolds before our eyes. An old lady and a man sit at one of the tables, the woman talking and the man scribbling away on a piece of paper.

«Did you write word for word, what I just told you?» Marie-Thérèse Figueur asks the man she is dictating her memoirs to. «Of course, Madame,» he replies, «please continue».

 

A soldier’s life

«So, I was wounded for the first time in my maiden battle as a cavalry trooper in Colonel Pinon’s Légion des Allobroges at the Siege of Toulon, where I met Napoleon for the first time, by the way. He was an artillery officer back then.

I already got my nickname le petit Sans-Gêne, the small « one » uncostrained, in that unit.
I guess my adventurous character and my androgyne features were the reason for it. And an adventurous career I definetly had.
After the siege of Tuolon, my unit was reorganised and I became a dragoon in the 15e régiment de dragons.

I learned the real soldiering there, horsemanship, formation manouvers and weapon training. And it paid off.
You know, in the campaign of 93-94 I saved General Noguè’s life, who was grievously wounded, got two horses shot from under me and nearly was made corporal.
At the time, I was only 19 years old. I didn’t know what destiny had in store for me yet, but this is how it began.»

 

First marriage and turbulent times

«In 1796 I married my first husband, who was a cavalryman with the 8th hussars. I joined them as well, but garrison duty was not made for me.
So when my husband transferred, I stayed with the 8th and participated in the invasion of Switzerland. My life was clearly on the battlefields. I frankly don’t know, there has always been a fire inside of me. I then transferred back to the 15th and finally to the 9th regiment of dragoons and that was when the real fun began!

But the Battle of Genola in ’99 changed everything. When I was wounded by four sabre cuts, I got captured  but finally could escape.

Unfortunately the sabre wounds affected my future service. But when I got honourably discharged in 1800, I received twice the pension of a basic soldier, thanks to the recommendation of the great generals Augereau and Lannes. I had friends where it mattered!»

 

Moving on

«In 1802 I decided to re-enlist after the effects of my wounds had ebbed away.
I got a good position and even got invited by Napoleon, who got ahead as first consul…to dinner! Can you imagine?

I was even an attendant of Josephine, his first wife. But that was not for me, if you are a little smart you got that I can’t stand boredom and calm.
And so, I joined the Paris garrison. In 1805, I was even proposed for the Napoleonic army’s gallantry medal, the Légion d’honneur!

Then I served even more, in the infantry, in Spain, in many places, later as cantinière but got captured eventually… again. Now you can think that I learned nothing. The truth is I always learned everything from war and adventure. I wasn’t like the other “dames”. I was unique, fierce. And I still am!

Finally, in 1814 I got a place in the prestigious regiment of chasseurs à cheval, formerly Napoleon’s personal escort, but I didn’t follow them to Waterloo. Didn’t have to see that.»

 

Later Life

« After Waterloo, I opened a Table d’hôte restaurant in partnership with a remarkable woman, madame Jeanne Garnerin, a renowned balloonist and pioneer parachutist. We were uncostrained, free to choose our own way, thanks to our determination, strength and willingness. I regret nothing, I wanted it all. I also married again, this time with the man I loved.

And now I sit here telling you about my life. What more could I want? Will is power. Will is to be unconstrained.»

The man, baffled by that life story, finishes writing the last words and replies: «Few people live to tell such a story. Madame Sans Gêne, ma chère Marie, your story will be known all over the world and will sell a lot of copies! »


Marie-Thérèse Figueur died January 16, 1861 in Paris, one day before her 87th birthday.
Her biography, though revised, was a worldwide success, mainly thanks to the comedy by Victorien Sardou and Émile Moreau debuting in 1893 which gave the spark for the opera buffa by Umberto Giordani and seven films!

If you want to read her complete memoires follow this link HERE

And if you enjoyed the story about Marie the Unconstrained, you might want to check out our LadyFencers series, where we handpick the most incredible women in history – from noble-hearted ladies to downright nutjobs – who left funny or epic stories behind, for better or worse!
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Sela, the Pirate Princess | Ladyfencers series

History of power has always been ruled by greed and envy. But not only men took part in this game, also women had territories, armies and...

History of power has always been ruled by greed and envy. But not only men took part in this game, also women had territories, armies and… fleets. We previously talked about Grace o’Malley, the Pirate Queen , but this time we go back at the time of the Ancient Danes, to meet the Princess of the Seas.


Today we’ll tell you about the Pirate Princess Sela, one of the first recorded pirate women in history, whose story appears in one of the most important sources for the early history of Denmark, the Gesta Danorum.



Introduction: The shores of Norway – 5th century

A light breeze blew over the land, birds were singing and Sela’s face was warmed by the sun when she extended her arm to shake Horwendill’s hand as a gesture of goodwill after days of playing cat and mouse along the shores of Norway.

 

The sea gives, the sea takes.

Never has it been so cold, when I rode on the waves of the sea, driven by the oars of my men. Not when wind and rain tormented us nor when we waded through the tide on the shore, when we raided the small villages that were so fortunately close to the sea. The sea gives, the sea takes. Be it goods and fish or pirates.

«Come, let us meet unarmed and find peace.», King of Jutland’s messenger had told my men.
A jealous and hateful man, Horwendill is. Fearing me so much, he set up this meeting to “talk”, to end the war started between him and my brother, King Koller.

 

The betrayal

A sharp pain shot through Sela’s body, when the spatha that had killed her brother Koller before, pierced her side.
«Traitor!», she spat, accompanied by a gush of blood from her lips, towards her enemy. That coward!
I always imagined dying on the planks of my ship, that brought me the glory that Horwendill, King of Jutland could never achieve. Not even by becoming a pirate like myself.

How could I have been so reckless? Why didn’t I put on my shirt of linked iron rings before the meeting?
Knowing all the cunning tactics on the field of battle, proficient with spear, sword and shield and yet, he fooled me.
After he killed my brother in the duel, I thought he would be man enough to fight again, if he wanted to end the war. Once and for all.

Sailing towards dark shores

A feeling of coldness she never experienced before, embraced her body and her eyelids started to become heavy.
«I trusted in his goodwill, when no challenge came. And now I pay the price. At least it will be fast» she realised.
And all these thoughts rushed through Princess Sela’s mind in split seconds, when she slipped away into the darkness.


This is how we imagine Sela’s end, as there is no proof of her existence nor accounts of her life and death besides one sentence in the «Gesta Danorum», written by Saxo Grammaticus in the 12th century. He tells the history of Denmark often mixed with sagas and legends, yet it is one of the most important sources for the early history of Denmark.

Saxo Grammaticus mentions Sela, the Pirate Princess, in book three, right after the part when Horwendill killed Koller in a duel, as follows: Deinde sororem eius, Selam nomine, piraticis exercitam rebus ac bellici peritam muneris, persecutus occidit. «Then he pursued that (Koller’s) sister, with the name Sela, skilled in piracy and experienced in war and killed her.»

In terms of setting a timeframe, we are talking about the early 5th century, late antiquity, centuries before the time we call the Viking Age.

If you enjoyed the story about Sela, the Pirate Princess, you might want to check out our LadyFencers series, where we handpick the most incredible women in history – from noble-hearted ladies to downright nutjobs – who left funny or epic stories behind, for better or worse!
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The Last Samurai | Ladyfencers series

This time we are leaving Europe to meet a woman who gained her place in the Japanese history at the time of the Boshin War, the civil Japanese war fought between 1868 and 1869 for the restoration of the Imperial authority against the Tokugawa shogunate. ...

This time we are leaving Europe to meet a woman who gained her place in the Japanese history at the time of the Boshin War, the civil Japanese war fought between 1868 and 1869 for the restoration of the Imperial authority against the Tokugawa shogunate.


Today we’ll tell you about the Last Samurai, Nakano Takeko, who fought following the way of Bushido.



Introduction: A dying wish – Japan, 1868

In a dignified silence Yuko Nakano drops to her knees, next to the lying body of her sister Takeko. The sound of the battle around them fades – the metal clanging, the shrieks of horror and pain, the crackling of gunpowder – muffled by the blood furiously pumping in their ears.

They have a window of opportunity, now that their opponent is retreating and regrouping.
To get to the walls before the soldiers reach firing range and reload.
They barely have time to make it, let alone drag a body with them across the soggy, heavy battlefield.

Takeko Nakano is dying, exactly as she expected, and it’s time to execute her dying wish. She stares at her sister, who’s holding her head tight, with her piercing steely eyes, and points at the walled town. At the temple behind those walls. A tear runs across Yuko’s cheek, drawing a clear line on dirt and blood. She nods. She knows.


A disciplined fighter

The temple has been a favourite place of Takeko’s since her recent return to her native Aizu. She spent most of her life in Edo – which now goes with the name of Tokyo – where she trained with Master Akaoka Daisuke in sword, spear and hand-to-hand combat.

And when we say “training” we mean all day, every day, for about ten years straight. This, combined with an uncanny discipline and an innate talent forged one of the most famous female warriors in Japanese history. She excelled in the use of naginata, a weapon that can be described as a wakizashi blade stuck on top of a giant pole.

Onna-musha, combatant women, weren’t at all uncommon but during the late Edo period, peace brought some undesired social effect. As samurais handled pens more often than swords, the absence of wars turned them into bureaucrats, and their female counterparts were gradually submitted into serving their men’s ambitions.


Back to Aizu

But not all of them liked this. Our heroine Takeko was obviously one of them. At the first sign of threat to her liberties she upped and left Edo, moving back to Aizu. At that point she was a certified master and started teaching the art of naginata to the women and kids at the Aizuwakamatsu castle. She even dedicated herself to hunting and prosecuting peeping toms loitering near the women’s bath houses.

It was a momentous time for Japan, 1868 was the start of the Boshin war, a brief civil conflict that defined Japan as we know it. As expected, when Takeko was finding her place in the world, with her privileged status at a noble castle, this is exactly when things go awry.

 

The War

To make it short: on one corner the Tokugawa shogunate for a traditional old-school samurai country, on the opposite corner the Meiji Emperor team for a modern, open country.
Takeko and her hometown sided for Tokugawa, for the old ways that reflected her way of life and the choices that would consistently accompany her very end.
When the Meiji forces overthrew the Shogun, 30.000 imperial soldiers brought the last sparks of war to Aizu.
Surrendering isn’t an option. Takeko Nakano gathers a Joshitai, a small troop of well trained women, armed with the deadly naginatas. Her mother Kouko and sister Yuko, along with another famous warrior, Yaeko Yamamoto, join her.

 

The Way of Bushido

It is a hopeless fight: outnumbered five-to-one, and outgunned by professional soldiers with modern rifles, Takeko launches the attack. Because this is the way of bushido.

The soldiers stop shooting, being confused by what exactly is going on. The Joshitai women had styled themselves, hair and clothes, in a suitable battle fashion, and the soldier hesitate, thinking it is probably a motley gang of desperate teenage boys.

 

The Last Samurai

Only it isn’t a bunch of teenagers. And the soldiers realise that too late. Before they know the Joshitai rain on them a furious whirlwind of poles and blades.
Takeko takes seven of them out before one of the soldiers can get his wits together just enough to load his rifle and shoot her. Point blank right in the chest.

Now Yuko, and some of the surviving Joshitai, have a very narrow window to grant their leader’s wish. Her hands tremble as she lowers the blade to Takeko’s neck. One blow, two blows. Finally she manages to hack her sister’s head off, saving it from becoming a trophy and taking it to the temple for a hasty, but sacred burial.


Shortly after the battle the Meiji era began, heralding the new modern Japan with various reforms like the abolishment of the samurai class. This makes Takeko Nakano one of the Last Samurai.

If you enjoyed the story about Nakano Takeko, you might want to check out our LadyFencers series, where we handpick the most incredible women in history – from noble-hearted ladies to downright nutjobs – who left funny or epic stories behind, for better or worse!
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The Fearless Jouster | Ladyfencers series

"Girls just wanna have fun" sang Cyndi Lauper in the 80's. Breaking the rules is a way to get rid of society's stereotypes and be pioneers of a new thinking generation. We feel like this from time to time, being fencers and swordmakers. But going back to...

“Girls just wanna have fun” sang Cyndi Lauper in the 80’s.
Breaking the rules is a way to get rid of society’s stereotypes and be pioneers of a new thinking generation. We feel like this from time to time, being fencers and swordmakers.
But going back to the 80’s of 1300, there was a girl, a fearless jouster, who decided to fight for her land to save her father’s honour. Doesn’t this make you think about Disney’s Mulan?
If so, you are a Disney nerd like us and you’re ready to start singing!


Today we’ll tell you the story of an English Fearless Jouster, Lady Agnes Hotot, who left a mark on the thin silver thread between history and legend.



Introduction: England, 1380-1390

«The milky light of an uncertain dawn washes over the muddy court of the estate of Clopton. The rugged roofs of the buildings struggle to keep the mist out, pushing in from the fields like the last heaving of a receding tide. A small crowd is gathered, the sleepy faces of children holding on to their mothers’ gowns, the men getting ready for a day of ploughing, the blacksmith weighing the tongs in his right hand.»

The narrator pauses for a moment, waiting for the last noises to die out across the dining room.

«Their heads turn to watch the two horsemen entering the improvised list field, flanked by their squires. One is in full armour, donning the colours of the Hotot house, while Ringsley, the challenger, takes a good look around with his dark black eyes, before reaching down for the helmet.
The Hotot family gathers on a balcony, worried but dignified, looking at the two knights; nobody notices the absence of Agnes, daughter and heir of Robert De Hotot.»


Guided by God

«The night before the duel Agnes Hotot was in her room, trying to pray, but could not focus. She was looking at her hands as if prayers could spontaneously spring out of them, but nothing happened. Doubt and worry were clouding her mind. Before that day she never questioned the legitimacy of trial by combat, and she even felt relieved when the long-drawn land dispute between her father and Ringsley was to be concluded in that way. The Hand of God would have guided the righteous man – her father in this case – to defeat the insolent challenger».

His voice rises on the word righteous, triggering a set of approving nods across the tables in front of him. The audience is captured.

«But how would she interpret the illness that struck her father a few days before the duel? The words of her mother were still lingering in the empty room».

The narrator clears his throat, pitching the tone up to imitate a female voice.

«How can you question the Will of God? She said. The illness was sent to test you, and if He wants you taking the place of your father, then you must have faith in Him».

Someone in the audience chuckles, it wasn’t his intention to be funny but a benevolent bit of humour never hurt a storyteller. He picks up the pace from where he left, this time with his own honeyed, firm voice.

«But mother had left after the prayer, and Agnes felt as if she had taken all the certainties of faith with her. She looked at her own hands, not delicate and pale like those of the ladies of Leicester, but thick and reddened by exercise. Because she jousted, and she fenced, since she was just about able to walk. Is this where God is leading me? She thought. Or is this a test, not to challenge His Will?
A few hours later, wide awake in the dark of night, she realised that there was no rational way to solve that. Rather than he should lose the land, or suffer in his honor, she thought, I will take my father’s place».

This time the narrator doesn’t make a thin voice but works a tonal crescendo to punctuate the pathos of the moment, to deliver to his audience the full drama of Agnes’ decision. He loves to tell this story and so many people are staring at him in the banquet hall, silent and wide-eyed.


The Joust

«The following morning Agnes is helped into her armour by her father’s squire. Only he – and few other family members – knows about that, and she chooses an uncomfortable full-helm with just a slit for the eyes, to completely conceal her identity.»

Now it’s time for the narrator to bring his listeners back to where his tale started: to the muddy court with knights and sleepy children.

«The jousters are ready, facing each other at the opposite ends of the court. For a long moment time stands still and in a heartbeat the whole world explodes into Agnes’ helmet.
The thundering hooves, the pounding heart, the bouncing of her body on the saddle. She deflects the first blow with her shield and, on the second charge, everything becomes clear, she can see more than the slit allows her. Her lance crashes so hard on Ringsley’s armour to send him flying and landing with a dull sound in the mud.»

The audience gasps as if they were witnessing the duel in that very moment. The food is now cold on their plates and their drinks all but finished. The narrator leaves this moment linger and holds out a hand to the lady at his right.


The Hotot Knight triumphant

«The Hotot knight turns around, standing a few feet from the defeated enemy, looking at the cheering crowd. Silence falls on the court when the knight removes the helmet to let the long, chestnut-blonde hair flow.
A girl. Fighting. And winning. What they are seeing is so distant from their convictions to make them doubt their own eyes.
What would you have done my friends? Would have you believed that? Perhaps not.»

He grabs a cup of wine and with a sweeping gesture embraces the hall, as if posing the question to each single guest.

«With a quick snap at the leather braces the fearless jouster removes her breast plate, proudly standing atop of her horse, providing the ultimate proof of her true identity and gender.»

The graceful blonde lady sitting by the right of the narrator quietly smiles.


Eterna Vita

«For the imprudent challenger there was no bigger humiliation than being defeated by a woman. For me, Richard de Dudley, Lord of Barnwell and Clopton, there is no bigger honour than being blessed with a life with such a remarkable woman at my side. So much so that, from now, our family’s coat of arms will be modified to accommodate a symbol of this episode of incredible courage and devotion, might this serve as an example to the future generations.»

He embraces his wife and together they raise their cups, immediately followed by all the guests loudly cheering: Eterna Vita to Lady Agnes! Eterna Vita to Lord Richard!

Lady Agnes Hotot Dudley lived a long life, honoured and known as a fearless jouster and possibly the first badass Lady Fencer in history.

If you enjoyed the story about this Fearless Jouster, you might want to check out our LadyFencers series, where we handpick the most incredible women in history – from noble-hearted ladies to downright nutjobs – who left funny or epic stories behind, for better or worse!
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The Duel of Isabella and Diambra | Ladyfencers series

The reasons why women accepted to duel in the past were not that different from the ones that move men. Even if it sounds rare and weird, fierce women fought for their honour. There are peculiar yet fascinating episodes, like the Duel of Isabella and...

The reasons why women accepted to duel in the past were not that different from the ones that move men. Even if it sounds rare and weird, fierce women fought for their honour. There are peculiar yet fascinating episodes, like the Duel of Isabella and Diambra.

 


Today we’ll tell you the story of a duel for love, pride and honour.
This is the story of the duel of Isabella dè Carazzi and Diambra dè Pottinella, Neapolitan gentleladies. 



Introduction: Napoli, 1552 

There they stand, their horses snorting in the misty dust of the square, the sun glistening on their helmets. One adorned with diamonds, and the other with a golden snake.

This is 1552, a fine day of May like any other in Naples, but one that will long be remembered. This is the day the two noblewomen went head to head in full war gear for the shared love of Fabio de Zeresola, a man dangerously popular with the ladies.

Isabella Dè Carazzi and Diambra Dè Pottinella were friends, until the day a social gathering put the three of them around the same table. When Isabella saw the glance Fabio cast Diambra, she knew. Without hesitation she challenged her former friend and the altercation escalated pretty quickly.

“Fabio is mine!” she yelled
“Liar.” she growled


The Duel

Fast-forward six days, to the duel that became the social event of the year. The whole court of Naples was there, including the Marquis of Pescara and future Governor of Milan, Francesco Ferdinando d’Ávalos d’Aquino d’Aragona, mingling with common people who put their daily chores on hold for the occasion. Duels weren’t a daily occurrence, but the two women fighting for a man was something unheard of.

They mounted their horses and ferociously charged with lances, ready to knock the opponent off the horse.

After the initial clash, Isabella and Diambra switched to maces to determine the victor of the fight, panting, gasping for some more air before launching another attack.
In that very moment the silence drops amongst the vast crowd witnessing the duel, the only noise is the flapping of matching velvet robes and thundering hooves. Diambra smashed Isabella’s shield in half and knocked her off the horse demanding that she admits that Fabio belongs to her.


Compassion

Diambra looked down at her foe hitting the floor in a tangle of fabric and metal, savouring the victory. But the taste quickly turned sour as she saw Isabella standing up, charging her with a sword and pinning her to the ground. But she didn’t however go further: she adjusted her cloak and sheathed the sword.

‘I am better than that. Who is this man, after all?’ Isabella must have wondered.

‘We are of noble heritage, sophisticated members of the Neapolitan èlite. He… he is just a charmer.’
The love of such a man wouldn’t be enough to justify such violence. This was a matter of honour, pride and chivalry.


A minstrel’s brush

Pride, Honour, Chivarly: words of immense power, yet dark plagues affecting the human soul through the centuries.
This is the story that has been handed down and reached me, a hundred years later.

The intensity of the fight and the chivalrous attitude of those two extraordinary ladies inspired me to paint the Women Gladiators, a large allegory of vice and virtue. Because those fights are destined to be immortal, as a beautifully cruel reminder of the true nature of a duel of honour.  You might have guessed by now that my name is Jusepe de Ribera but you can call me Lo Spagnoletto.


Jusepe de Ribera, called Lo Spagnoletto, famous spanish painter of the 17th century and naturalized Neapolitan citizen, left us an intense painting today preserved in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, making that story immortal.

If you enjoyed the story about this Duel of Isabella and Diambra, you might want to check out our LadyFencers series, where we handpick the most incredible women in history – from noble-hearted ladies to downright nutjobs – who left funny or epic stories behind, for better or worse!
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Russian Sabre Revenge

A Russian Sabre Revenge | Ladyfencers series

Women duellers in the past were quite rare, but not impossible to find. Digging through dusty books and oral history we found more women who grabbed a sword and mastered the art of fencing than official account care to remind us. This is exactly why we...

Women duellers in the past were quite rare, but not impossible to find. Digging through dusty books and oral history we found more women who grabbed a sword and mastered the art of fencing than official account care to remind us.

This is exactly why we created this Lady-Fencers series, to celebrate those peculiar and avant-garde personalities, with blade in hand, through history! We find their stories not only inspiring – it took guts for a woman to hold a sword in those centuries when the meaning of the word “ladylike” was set in stone – but also amusing, mostly due to the reactions of their contemporary men.


Today we’ll tell you the story of not just one, but two all-female duels.
This is the story of a Russian Sabre Revenge.


 

Introduction: Russia, 1829. 

Olga Zavarova didn’t like Ekaterina Polesova.

They both were healthy property owners, in a province halfway between Moscow and Kiev, and while the Zar Nicolaj I was fighting back the Ottomans with thousands and thousands of soldiers, they were very busy: quarrelling!

God knows why: but they were neighbours and you know how it is. While you might decide to send a stern message to your neighbour that went on all night with a loud barbecue they didn’t. They had their husband’s cavalry sabres at hand, so why not just settling the beef by crossing swords?

 

The Duel

Apparently the only thing they managed to agree on was the field: The Birch Grove.
Olga was expecting to spill the blood of that annoying WITCH on the ground, once and for all!

The day came. The trees were whispering in the early morning.
Heavy steps approached the battlefield, they weighed like the thousands of Russian soldiers in the War against the Turks. They met with their respective 14 years-old daughters, and the daughters’ governesses as seconds.

According to the Code Duello, the seconds encouraged the mistresses to reconcile and avoid the fight. But the ladies were so riled up that the poor governesses nearly got skewered on the spot.

The fight was brutal. Short but incredibly violent. Olga was hit in the head with a blow so hard and precise to kill her instantly, but not before slashing Ekaterina at the stomach, a fatal wound that would kill her slowly and painfully.

But this story wouldn’t be ended so juicy without another bit of spicy vengeance.

Of course you expected more.
Someone was plotting in the dark. Someone was ready to fight back.
– Beethoven 5th Symphony intro sounding in the background –

 

The Revenge

5 years later, in that same birch grove, another gauntlet was thrown down.
Because you know, history repeats and we never learn from it.

Alexandra Zavarova and Anna Polesova stood up, facing each other in anger.
If those surnames sound familiar is because they literally are!
The previously mentioned daughters grew up and possibly thought of little else than avenging their respective mothers.
Holding sabres, and with the same governesses as seconds – who, this time, wisely ignored the Code Duello and refrained from trying to stop the duel – they re-enacted the fight, this time with a clearer outcome.

Alexandra killed Anna and redeemed her mother Olga’s honour. And doing so reminded us that the difficulties of neighbouring relationships know no geographical, cultural, or chronological boundaries.


If you enjoyed the story about this Russian Sabre Revenge you might want to check out our LadyFencers series, which we started recently on our social media channels, where we handpick the most peculiar women in history – from noble-hearted ladies to downright nutjobs – who left funny or epic stories behind, for better or worse!
Follow us! → Instagram | Facebook

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Pirate Queen

The Pirate Queen | LadyFencers Series

Here starts our "Ladyfencers" journey, from the social posts directly to our blog. Who's better than a siren, to introduce you incredible women-warriors during the centuries? History and legend blend seamlessly when talking about Grace O'Malley, the Pirate Queen of Ireland, a woman so bold and...

Here starts our “Ladyfencers” journey, from the social posts directly to our blog.
Who’s better than a siren, to introduce you incredible women-warriors during the centuries?


History and legend blend seamlessly when talking about Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen of Ireland, a woman so bold and ambitious to be still relevant today. We’d like to tell you her story.


Put a bunch of outcasts, renegades, criminals, weirdos and nut jobs on a boat. Send them afloat on a grog-fuelled, scabies-ridden voyage and what do you get? That’s right. Pirates!

It must have been terrifying to catch sight of a skull-and-crossed-bones flag from your peaceful merchant vessel, and for very good reasons. But piracy has always been a reliable source of good stories thanks to the eccentricity of characters such as the fabulous Grace O’Malley, exuberant woman-warrior who was literally off her rockers!

THE ORIGINS

Heir of a sailor dinasty, when she inherited her father’s fleet and land, she didn’t leave the duty to her husband, as it was customary. No, instead she decided to step up and commandeer a little army, dedicating her life to seafaring, plundering and rebelling. Thus flipping a massive finger at the gender role stereotypes of the time.
Her father must have got a hint of what was to come when Grace, still a child, asked him to take her on a diplomatic trip to Spain. He reasonably refused, explaining that her hair would be hazardous on a ship, so chopped her mane off and went anyway. There’s quite some login in to that girl madness, right?

THE RISE

Behind her impetuous attitude there was a lucid, working brain. In fact she managed to grow her family’s commercial network with Spain and Portugal, and got strategically married twice to increase her land and political power.
In between marriages she genuinely fell in love with a sailor who, shortly after, was murdered by the MacMahon family. Guess what happened to them. One could hardly find one living MacMahon in Doona after the Pirate Queen of Connaught gave them the O’Malley treatment!

THE SWORN ENEMY

But our Grace wouldn’t be a proper Irish legend without having ruffled some English feathers. As it happened her actions didn’t go unnoticed in England, so that Sir Richard Bingham, the English governor who was appointed to rule over her territories, captured one of her sons and took some of her cattle and land.
Sir Bingham was powerful and ruthless, so Grace was cornered, and instead of going berserk on Bingham and his fleet, she had to choose a diplomatic path: she requested an audience with Queen Elizabeth I, who curiously accepted.

THE MEETING BETWEEN TWO QUEENS

Grace parked her ship in the middle of the Thames and swaggered in the Palace with a simple request “free liberty during her life to invade with fire and sword all your highness’ enemies without any interruption of any person whatsoever”.
Basically she wanted to keep her independence and keep on pirating, but in a way the Queen would be cool with. And she was. Perhaps moved by the plights of Grace, instead of throwing her in the Tower of London, she sent her back home with a signed letter ordering to free her family and restore her lands.

Grace O’Malley and Elizabeth I (from Anthologia Hibernica volume II) – 1794

The meeting went surprisingly smoothly, all things considered, and it makes me wonder if, were there two men instead of two women, it would have ended in a bloodbath. Surely her being a woman didn’t play well with her role in history.
Despised by her English enemies, and feared by local aristocrats and church, her name survived mostly on folklore, thus making it hard to discern the real events behind the legend.
She was a remarkable woman, who fought her way through life in a time when freedom for women was rather limited, and she lived up to her seventies who wisely mixed warfare and diplomacy and even managed to carry a dagger to her meeting with the Queen…of course “for her self-defense”.

Conclusion

There are many songs and legends passed from minstrel to minstrel about the untameable Grace, the cropped-hair girl, the Sea Sovereign, the Irish Pirate Queen. Like this excerpt we chose, from Irish Minstrelsy by James Hardiman.
The armies of Elizabeth
Invaded her on land
Her warships followed on her track
And watched by many a strand
But she swept her foes before her
On the land and on the sea
And the flag of Grace O’Malley
Waved defiant proud and free

If you’d like to read the whole song and more poems about her, don’t miss this collection!
See you for the next episode, ol’ Sea Dogs!

A RUSSIAN SABRE REVENGE | LADYFENCERS SERIES 〉〉 

Cover: Suzanne Mischyshyn
County Mayo – Westport House Grounds – Statue of Grace O’Malley (1530-1603)
CC BY-SA 2.0

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