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Ladyfencers

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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