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Women in Medieval Wars

By Rob Morgan

I came upon a review in 'BBC History' last month, of a book entitled 'Women, Armies and Warfare in Early Modern Europe', published by Cambridge UP at £13.99. The author J.A.Lynn II, writes almost entirely outside the medieval period (sadly!) but one of the reviewers quotes, speaking of the fIrst decade of the 30YW, was this.

A cavalry brigade of 3,000 men, would have been accompanied by a camp community of at least 4,000 ..... many of whom were female.

That's a lot of spare people. Nurses, wives, washerwomen, 'vivandieres', whores and so on. Not forgetting servants, waggoners and chancers.

The train of followers is so often neglected on the table top, yet can sometimes prove to be decisive, what's true about the 'Renaissance' is true about medieval warfare, Agincourt and the camp's a good example. Two battles for the price of one, arguably!

A brief search came up with an article by Verbruggen in the 'Journal of Medieval Military History' Vol IV, entitled 'Women & Medieval Armies', it proved interesting reading, though I suppose almost inevitably he ends it with another substantial account of Jeanne d'Arc, that doyen of military amazons, and bane of the English.

Women followed soldiers, and many fought with them and alongside them, even led armies and commanded fortresses and cities. Eleanor of Aquitaine is a splendid example. The numbers were so substantial on occasion, that measures were taken to reduce the numbers of females on campaign, or to remove them from the conflict zones. Verbruggen mentions the vast numbers of women on the crusades, but they were present and violently active in many, most, other wars. Sieges, such as Bruges in 1302, and Toulouse in 1217-18, at the latter it was a trebuchet operated by a crew of women which killed de Montfort. While at Orleans in 1428, more than just one maid fought the English; being particularly active in re-supplying munitions, and projectiles, as well as standing armed alongside the men I do think Verbruggen's assertion that during the campaigns of the 1380's the Flemish standard was carried into battle by a fully-harnessed woman known as 'The Great Margot' has something to offer the wargamer.

Much later, Beauvais resisted the rash attacks of Charles the Bold in 1472, and as it was the efforts of the women which were paramount, Louis XI rewarded them for their acts of loyalty and courage.

Charles, that soon-to-be-put-down Burgundian spoilsport actually limited the numbers of women in his army by Ordnance of 1473 (probably unconnected with his drubbing at the hands of the good women of Beauvais), in which he permitted ‘no more than 30 women for a company of 30 Lances; = 810 soldiers and 106 male servants’. He also forbade his soldiers from 'keeping a woman for personal use'. No wonder his neglected and probably dejected Burgundians were slaughtered by the Swiss soon after. A short modelling note occurs at this point, clearly Burgundian figures should be 'grubby' and tattered for the fInal 1476-77 campaigns, hardly a washerwoman available!

He comments on the substantial role of women in the mercenary companies of the 100YW, mentioning a company of Ecorcheurs in 1439, assembled from 'soldiers and bandits' 5,000 mounted troops in all, of whom 300 were women!

As commanders women are well remembered, and were pretty competent too, well up on Charles the Bold in most cases. The internal conflicts of the Norman lands in the 1090's and beyond had several prominent female leaders, and naturally he deals with the Empress Matilda on campaign during the Anarchy; also with Nicola de la Hay's defence of Lincoln Castle on two occasions, the second when she was a very elderly lady indeed.

In what's not a particularly lengthy article, I warmed to Jeanne de Clisson, widow of Olivier de Clisson, executed for treason by Philip VI, a sort of French King, in 1343. She pulled a superb coup at Brech castle, leading only 400 men-at-arms, and later assembled a fleet and waged war against the French at sea, capturing many of Philip's ships. My kind of woman, Jeanne! She died in exile in England at an advanced age.

So, on the wargames table? Not many female fIgures around, unfortunately, but there ought to be. I know 'Peter Pig' does make a few 15mm female peasants, and there were a couple of 'Peter Laing' medieval women. One or two isolated fIgures in the 'fantasy' and similar ranges. I think there's clearly big a gap in the wargames market, not only for female military leaders, and not all dressed in armour with cropped hair like the 'Maid of Orleans'; take Matilda, she astonished her bodyguard when forced to retreat with all speed, because she could 'ride like a man'.

As for women fighters, well, a pack of women in action during a siege, hurling rocks, and brandishing weapons might be a good start, as might a few women to work a siege engine. Or what about the idea of a mounted mercenary company in which almost 20% of the troops are women? I've seen more than one pitch in on the re-enactment field, and with as much success as the men.

It isn't perhaps that these 'figures' are absent from the table-top, and most ranges,because they had no real military role to play in battle, siege or campaign. It's simply that they've been left out, forgotten, and by leaving them out, the accuracy of medieval warfare must obviously be affected. Look what it did to Charles the Bold and his doomed Lances.