Friday, October 30, 2015


Boudicca - also called Baoedicea, Bonduca, Vonduca, Voadicea, Woda, Bonduca, Vloadiciea, and so on - is probably the best-known of our Badass Chicks of History. She was an ancient queen of a British tribe who stood up to the Roman Empire. Ever since, she's served as an example of how effective a native insurgency can be against foreign occupying troops. She's also become a symbol of courage in the face of a lost cause. Let's learn more about her, and her lesser-known daughter of the same name who took up the fight after Boudicca's death.

Boudicca's name probably comes from an early Celtic word "bouda," which means "victory." An English equivalent of her name might be, therefore, "Victoria." Britain was not under a single ruler at this time. Various warlords ruled tribal kingdoms. One of the most powerful were the Iceni, who lived in northeastern Britain, and it was this kingdom that Boudicca married into. She was the daughter of the King of the Brigantes (another tribe), and through her mother, Europeia, the daughter of the King of Scots, she claimed to be descended from the Trojans and from Alexander the Great's general Ptolemy. If true, that's a pretty convoluted bloodline, but it's indicative of the fact that Boudicca certainly saw herself as descended from badasses.

Like a lot of legendary women, Boudicca had a wicked stepmother, Cartismandua. She forced Boudicca to marry her son by her first marriage - Arviragus, also called Prasutagus, the King of the Iceni. Not a bad marriage, all things considered.

Meanwhile, the Emperor Claudius had come to Britain to conquer. He needed military victories to bolster public opinion of him. Despite the fact that Julius Caesar had made much of "conquering" Britain, the truth is he was essentially driven off the island. Claudius saw himself as concluding unfinished business. Plus, the British Isles were rich in timber, tin, and slaves. And after all, Rome was running out of places to conquer by this time.

At any rate, Claudius's legions defeated Arviragus not once, but several times. In order to obtain peace, Arviragus was compelled by Claudius to divorce Boudicca and instead marry Claudius's daughter Gwenissa. This attempted brokerage of peace backfired, sparking a widespread rebellion among the Iceni and surrounding tribes. At first, their leader was Caractacus, Boudicca's brother. Later, Arviragus himself renewed his relationship with Boudicca and joined his forces to her brother's.

However, they were defeated by the Romans every single time they took the field against them. The Roman general Vespasian (who would later become Emperor) defeated Caractacus and Arviragus and made peace on terms that humiliated and essentially bankrupted the British.

Time passed; Claudius died and his degenerate nephew Nero became Emperor. Arviragus, at the end of his life (and still legally married to Gwenissa), hoped to protect Boudicca and their two daughters after his death. He came up with a terrible plan - he made the Emperor Nero the co-heir to his kingdom, along with Boudicca and her daughters.

The Romans did not acknowledge any transfer of power or property through a female, however. When Arviragus died, the Roman Governor of Britain, Suetonius (no relation to the Roman historian of the same name) was out of the country on business. He'd left his jackass procurator, Catus, in charge. Within a few weeks of Arviragus's death, Catus descended up on the Iceni. He confiscated all of Arviragus's property, levied crushing taxes, and demanded a huge payment from Boudicca (this was either a repayment of a loan made to her father by the Romans, or the re-imposition of some kind of extortion-type payments her father had once made).

Boudicca didn't have the money. Catus had her stripped and publicly flogged. Before her eyes, he ordered his legions to gang-rape Boudicca's two daughters. But for some reason, that was enough, and he left the territory, with Boudicca "burning for revenge," in the words of one historian.

As months past, word got out, and the Britons were outraged. Boudicca personally rode about the country in her war-chariot with her daughters, raising troops for a rebellion. She quickly amassed some 80,000 warriors from various tribes. It is estimated that some 5,000 women actually served in this force (which really isn't all that unusual among Celtic peoples - more than one Roman historian has written of "Amazons" fighting among the Celts of Europe).

Boudicca's force struck like lightning, with rapid successes - at first. They "rushed down like wild beasts" upon the Roman-held city of Camoludunum, and executed "with every torture they could devise" some 70,000 people. It's not to Boudicca's credit, but she made a point to execute all of the noble Roman women by cutting off their breasts and vaginally impaling them on tree branches as sacrifices to the Old Gods. I guess she was irritated.

Then even more Britons flocked to her banner, including her other brother, Corbred, King of Scots. They together devastated various Roman manors and agricultural centers, before falling on the city of Verulam (now St. Alban's).

There, however, the 9th Legion (and some auxiliary troops from other legions) under the command of Petilius Cerialis, were waiting. A fierce battle followed before the gates of the city, but the Romans, perhaps underestimating their opponents, were totally defeated. Even the Roman historians Tacitus and Cassius Dio say Boudicca's forces killed more than twice the number that they lost, and that not a single Roman foot-soldier escaped the slaughter. The cavalry, along with Petilius, fled the scene to fight another day. Meanwhile, the pro-Roman citizens of Verulam were put to unspeakable tortures and eventually all killed, regardless of age or gender.

One person Boudicca really wanted to capture, though, fled the battle. Catus, who'd ordered the rape of her daughters, was wounded in the battle. He fled to Gaul (France) and never came back, escaping her revenge.

This defeat obliged Suetonius, the governor, to come back to Britain in a hurry. He was able to raise a force of 10,000 legionnaires from various other legions in Germany and Gaul. He marched his force toward the relatively new commercial center of Londonium (London), which was full of Romans and Romanized Britons. Suetonius then got word from his scouts and spies that Boudicca was marching on the city with a force of about 100,000 (another source says 250,000).

Now Suetonius was no idiot, and as far as Roman governors go, he wasn't even that bad a guy. But he was going to follow orders. Irritated with Catus for instigating all of this with unnecessary cruelty and greed, he demoted him and ensured that Catus would have no career in Roman politics. Suetonius was pretty sure his 10,000 Romans couldn't take 100,000+ Britons, especially ones full of righteous indignation. He decided to pull out of the city, regroup elsewhere, and look for a better battle site to face Boudicca. This he did, despite the wailing and begging of the people of Londonium - who by now knew exactly what fate they, their wives, and children would face at Boudicca's hands.

And face it they did. Boudicca's army fell on Londonium and after only a token resistance, the town fell. True to form, Boudicca ordered every single inhabitant of the city killed in imaginative ways. By now, I think it's safe to say Boudicca may have lost a bit of the moral high ground.

Suetonius was no coward but he was understandably reluctant to face Boudicca's much-larger force in the open. He was also reluctant because he saw the entire war as resulting from mismanagement and mistakes on the part of the Romans. But eventually, he found a good place to draw Boudicca into battle. No one knows exactly where it was, but it was a long, narrow field bordered on two sides by hills and one by a dense forest. Suetonius lined up his legionnaires with their backs to the forest, let it be known where he was, and awaited Boudicca's attack.

He chose his ground wisely. The narrowness of the battlefield ensured that the British war-chariots didn't have much room to maneuver, and Boudicca couldn't even fit her entire fighting force into the field. They could only attack in waves, which was to the Romans' advantage.

It's worth pausing here to recount an eyewitness Roman description (through Dio, writing later) of Boudicca, who they could plainly see riding in the chariot, exhorting her troops to figh:

"She was a woman of lofty stature, with a noble, severe expression, and a dazzlingly fair complexion, remarkable even among the British women, who are famous for the whiteness of their skin. Her long yellow hair, floating in the wind, reached almost to the ground. She wore a tunic of various colors, hanging in folds, and over this was a shorter one, confined at the waist by a chain of gold. Round her alabaster neck was a magnificent torque of twisted gold-wire. Her hands and arms were uncovered, save for the rings and bracelets which adorned them. A large British mantle surmounted, but did not conceal the rest of her attire."

As bold as they were, the British fought in an undisciplined manner. They relied on overwhelming numbers and tactics designed to inspire fear, donning war-paint and screaming like banshees throughout the battle. This worked well when they had a lot of room to run around in. But again, the battlefield was narrow. Suetonius also had more experienced troops than any the British had faced before. They were all 10 to 20 year veterans who'd seen battle in Germany and Gaul. Their iron discipline, superior weapons and armor, and phalanx-style tactics were simply better for fighting in this environment, even against greater numbers. After dispatching the first few waves of British with heavy javelins, they formed a wedge and moved forward. The British fell back under the weight of the phalanx, and, fleeing, found their route blocked by a line of carts they'd set up as a last line of defense (where their families were waiting). Trapped, only a few managed to escape. The rest were slaughtered. Suetonius ordered a pursuit.

Boudicca knew that if she was taken alive, she'd be lucky to be killed. Most likely she'd be raped, tortured, and sent to Rome in chains to march in a triumphal parade before being strangled in the Temple of Mars. She was also distraught because her daughters had been lost in the fighting - she assumed they were slain. Boudicca took poison - suicide being an honorable way out in most ancient cultures - and died. Some say she fell ill and died. Either way, she was buried as a queen with full honors.

But the story doesn't end here! Boudicca's daughters hadn't been killed in the battle - they'd been captured. They were brought before Suetonius, who complimented them on their bravery in battle. He apologized for the way Catus had treated them, and expressed sympathy for them. It was too little too late, but for a Roman, it was an admirable bit of damage control.

The oldest daughter was named Heanua (or Lannosea). Suetonius arranged for her to be married to Westmer (called Marius by the Romans). He was the son of Arviragus and Claudius's daughter Gwenissa (so he was both half-Roman and his new bride's half-brother). The Romans then made Westmer King of the Iceni, and he ruled them quietly for a long time.

But the youngest daughter, also named Boudicca, inherited more than just her mother's name. She was sent to live with her sister and Westmer in his court. But there, her hatred of the Romans and her ambitions for revenge made Westmer nervous. He was afraid she'd stir up trouble, so he banished her from his court.

True to her namesake, this younger Boudicca raised an army of Brigantes (another British tribe) and Picts from Scotland, and sailed to Galloway. This was a Roman-controlled region of southwest Scotland. In the dead of night, she launched a surprise attack, and killed several hundred men before the Roman commander, our old friend Petilius, re-grouped the startled Romans. The British were defeated, and the Romans chased them back to their camp, slaughtering many. But young Boudicca escaped. The next day she marched her remaining forces to the Roman headquarters in Galloway, attacked it and set it on fire. But soon afterward, she was captured in an ambush. Some say she killed herself with poison. Others say she was captured and interrogated, and, giving a disrespectful answer, was killed by guards. Who knows?

What we do know is that Boudicca has become a symbol for fighting against oppression. If her revenge tactics were a little heavy-handed, perhaps she can be forgiven. Frankly, I think Suetonius comes off pretty well in this story. But the truth is, the Emperor Nero was so discomfited by this rebellion that he considered pulling out of Britain forever. He launched an investigation and decided the Romans had acted inappropriately (seriously? Nero thought someone acted inappropriately?). He blamed Suetonius and installed another governor.

I think it's safe to say that Boudicca had every reason to be outraged. I also think she over-reacted a bit. But one thing I can't deny: Boudicca is certainly a Badass Chick of History.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Jeanne de Clisson, Lioness of Brittany

When you think of female pirates, Anne Bonny or Mary Read come to mind. But they didn't have awesome nicknames like Jeanne de Clisson, the Lioness of Brittany. Driven by revenge for her husband's unlawful execution, Jeanne commanded a fleet of black ships and wielded a massive battle-axe, personally beheading any French nobleman she found. She got away with it, too, seeing her husband's honor posthumously restored, and died happily of natural causes. But it was a long, hard road on the way.

Jeanne was born in 1300, so she lived well before the so-called Golden Age of Piracy. Her hunting grounds were pretty much limited to the English Channel. Her prey: the French. Always the French. Particularly the French nobility. She was either a great heroine or a bloodthirsty bitch - maybe a little bit of both. But whatever else she was, she was certainly a Badass Chick of History.

Brittany is a part of northern France, but in the 1300s, they thought of themselves as Bretons, not Frenchmen. Jeanne's father was a nobleman, and her mother was from a noble family as well. They wanted to ensure young Jeanne had a strong marriage. At age 12 (not at all unusual for the time) she married the 19-year-old Baron Geoffrey of Chateaubriant. They had two kids, a boy and a girl, who would inherit their father's estates one after the other. Goeffrey died when he was 33 years old, leaving Jeanne young and still marriageable.

Four years later, she married Olivier de Clisson IV, a knight who held an important castle and estates in Brittany. It was the second marriage for both of them, and it was fertile: Jeanne bore five more children to Olivier. All in all, Jeanne spent the first part of her life in peace and domestic tranquility, despite the winds of war that had begun to blow.

Brittany was ruled by a Duke who paid nominal homage to the King of France. In reality, French kings were often weak and local nobles had a lot of power, relatively speaking. But when the Duke died without a direct heir, there were two nobles who each had a claim to take the duchy - Charles of Blois, who the French preferred, and John Montfort, who the English preferred. Unfortunately, this led to the War of the Breton Succession, which was just a chapter in the so-called Hundred Years War. The situation was complicated and we can't get into it all here, but it proved to be fateful for Jeanne.

Olivier and Jeanne supported Charles of Blois, as did most of the nobles in Brittany. But Montfort acted fast, and with English backing, took the Breton city of Vannes in 1342. Olivier and another nobleman were in charge of the defenses of the town. They did a good job at first - it took Montfort and the English several tries to take it. In the end, Olivier was captured. He was ransomed back to the French for such a low amount that Charles of Blois became suspicious. He accused Olivier of not doing all he could to defend Vannes.

When a truce between the English and French cooled things down for a while, Charles invited Olivier and several other nobles who'd irked him to a tournament in Paris. Once there, Olivier was captured and beheaded. His body was hung in a gibbet in Paris and his head returned to Brittany for public display as a warning to anyone else who might piss off the mighty Charles of Blois. This shocked the nobility. There was no demonstration of guilt, no trial, and public display of the body was a slap in the face to the family honor, as such treatment was usually reserved for low-class criminals.

It was this act of brutality that turned Jeanne into a Badass Chick of History.

She took her two sons to see the head of their father, and swore revenge against the French king, Philip VI, and Charles of Blois. Returning home, she sold every scrap of real estate she'd inherited - she had a plan and needed every ounce of money she could squeeze out of her estates. She used some of this initial money to hire a mercenary force of fighters who were at least nominally loyal to Olivier's memory, and she personally led them in several assaults on French forces.

Jeanne was merciless. She took a castle in Brittany and massacred every single inhabitant without regard to age or gender. She left one person alive to tell the French king what she had done. The force then stormed off and destroyed to a man another French garrison nearby.

Charles and the King turned up the heat, and Jeanne, now landless but with significant funds and a band of loyal followers, decided to get out of the kitchen - for now. She escaped by boat and fled to England. Unfortunately one of her sons died on the way; she left the others in the care of John of Montfort, who she now supported as the rightful ruler of Brittany.

Popular in England, she found the English nobles ready to assist her. With the rest of her own money, and some assistance from the King of England, Jeanne ordered the construction of three huge warships. As if three ships of war weren't fearful enough, she had them painted entirely black, but had the sails dyed a deep red crimson. Jeanne wanted to make sure everyone - especially the French - knew whose ships those were.

As soon as the ships were complete, Jeanne took her remaining band of soldiers, gathered up more from British ports, and sailed out into the English Channel. Within a week she'd taken a French merchant ship and slaughtered everyone on board except for one sailor. Him, she sent back to Paris with a warning for Charles and the French king. Ship after ship followed - together, her three warships were almost unstoppable. Her force quickly became known as The Black Fleet.

Before long, Jeanne had earned the nickname "The Lioness of Brittany." She didn't take prisoners, and looting enemy ships was just a way to pay her men. Revenge was her driving aspiration, and it kept her going for 13 long years on the sea. She's believed to have captured or scuttled almost 100 French ships, raided at least a dozen coastal villages, and put more than 3,000 French to the sword. And she didn't just order her men to kill everyone, either: no, Jeanne had all the survivors lined up on the deck of the captured ship, and she personally ran every one of them through with a broadsword. At some point in her career, she became fond of the battle axe as a weapon, and began using it to behead any French noble she found. She'd send the heads back to Paris (now ruled by King Jean II) with taunting, threatening letters.

She also assisted the English in the Hundred Years War. When King Edward III of England invaded France, the Black Fleet supplied his troops at the Battle of Crecy. This is when she met Sir Walter Bentley, and English knight who'd been instrumental in helping Edward III storm across France. In fact, he'd triumphed with English forces when he was outnumbered more than two to one at the Battle of Mauron. He was, you might say, a Lion fit for the Lioness of Brittany. He was rewarded with a castle and lands in Brittany. In 1356, Jeanne perhaps felt that she'd had enough revenge. After all, the English had taken control over much of Brittany, and after 13 years of piracy and slaughter, maybe Jeanne was running out of steam. Her old enemy Charles of Blois had been captured by the English (he was held as a prisoner for nine years, then ransomed). King Philip VI was long gone. She was fast approaching 60 years old. Jeanne decided to call it a day.

Together, she and Sir Walter settled in the castle of Hennebont, a port town on the coast of Brittany, overlooking the sea where Jeanne had been responsible for so much violence. Happily for her, she lived out the rest of her days in peace, seeing most of her children be granted estates or married well. Her son Olivier, who'd been fostered in England by Montfort, eventually inherited his father's estates and title. In fact, he'd go on to serve as the Constable of France under King Charles VI.

Jeanne lived for three more years in peace, writing that she was "content that justice has been served" (maybe a little too much justice, to be honest...). Jeanne died quietly of natural causes in 1359.

She left behind her a legend and legacy that was later novelized by romantic writers on both sides of the Channel. However, today her legend is less well-known. It should be noted that the Hundred Years War was a stage of action for many Badass Chicks of History, including Montfort's wife, who supposedly went into battle with a flaming sword, and the most Badass Chick of them all, Joan of Arc. Maybe Jeanne de Clisson, the Lioness of Brittany, has been a bit overshadowed by more famous or more recent fighting women. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that Jeanne surely ranks highly among the Badass Chicks of History.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Sarah Emma Edmonds

Franklin Thompson was a soldier, mail courier and spy for the Union Army during the American Civil War. He was also a woman. 

When Sarah Emma Edmonds was a little girl growing up in New Brunswick, Canada, she read a book called "Fanny Campbell, the Female Pirate Captain." It told the tale of a woman who, dressed as a man, had dashing adventures as a pirate. She later said it was this book that inspired her to start dressing like a boy.

Sarah's father was a farmer, and he'd really wanted boys to help with the crops. He was irritated that instead, he got a daughter, and he treated her abominably, physically and emotionally abusing her. She'd often dress as a boy and hire herself out for labor jobs just to escape the drudgery of her real life.

In 1857, as the American Civil War was brewing south of the Canadian border, Sarah's father attempted to force her into an arranged marriage with a much older man she did not love. She decided this would not be her fate. Running away from home, she slipped across the border to America. Terrified of being tracked down - and more than a little inspired by her childhood hero Fanny Campbell - Sarah decided to disguise herself as a man, and took the name Franklin Thompson. Her good looks shone through as "boyishly handsome," and she quickly landed a job as a traveling Bible salesman. She turned out to be amazingly successful at this, and was sent west to Michigan, where she ended up in Flint, staying at a boarding house and continuing to sell Bibles.

"Thompson" was considered by the Flint locals to be intelligent and politically active. She was a strong believer in the Union. She wrote that she believed if the Confederacy was allowed to secede, it would be the eventual death of the United States. When the Civil War broke out and recruiting posters went up for the Union Army, "Franklin Thompson" decided to enlist.

"Franklin Thompson"
So in May 1861 joined up for a three-year stint with the 2nd Michigan Infantry. Luckily for her, extensive physical examinations were not required to enlist, so no one knew her secret. Her compassionate nature (and possibly a feminine nurturing instinct) ensured she was assigned as a male leader of a nursing unit assigned to the army of Union General George B. McClellan. She was at the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas), and although she wasn't involved in the forward fighting, she stayed behind to help cover the retreat of wounded soldiers. In fact, she barely escaped a Confederate cavalry picket, hiding until they passed by. Eluding them, she made her way back to the Union forces, and was present at several other major battles, including the Second Battle of Bull Run, a few skirmishes in the so-called Peninsula Campaign, and the battles of Antietam and Vicksburg.

While she was normally in the rearguard of the army in some sort of field hospital during battles, Sarah saw actual combat more than once. At the Battle of Williamsburg the field hospital was overrun by Confederates, and she took up a musket and helped fight them back, even personally leading a bayonet charge, according to one eyewitness. Then, under withering cannon-fire and later pouring rain, she and another soldier carried stretcher after stretcher of wounded soldiers to safety miles away.

At the Second Battle of Bull Run, she was assigned to carry messages - more dangerous than it sounds. Carrying orders from one part of the battlefield to another, Sarah was thrown from her horse when it was shot out from under her. She landed in a ditch, broke her leg, and sustained several internal injuries. It's speculated she might not have sought out the level of medical treatment she really needed, because she didn't want to be discovered as a woman and sent home. She also acted as a courier in the Battle of Fredericksburg, serving as an orderly to Col. Orlando Poe. She avoided direct action but was in the saddle constantly throughout the battle, relaying orders.

During this time, Sarah was assigned to military mail delivery, which was incredibly dangerous. It often involved journeys of more than 100 miles, and when it wasn't directly through enemy territory, mail carriers were in constant danger from "bushwackers" and southern sympathizers behind Union lines. While she would often be assigned back to nursing duties, Sarah continued carrying mail - always as Franklin Thompson, of course - and it was sometime during this service that she began to act as a spy for the Union.

It turns out Sarah was aching for revenge - she had a close male friend in her unit, James Vesey, who may have known her secret. He was killed in a Confederate ambush and she was devastated. When she learned a Union spy had been captured and executed in Virginia, she applied for the job, and, as Franklin Thompson, got it. 

Used to riding long distances alone and handling herself without an escort, Sarah was sent behind enemy lines to gather information. Already a master of disguise, fooling her own fellow soldiers and commanders, she adopted new disguises to help in her espionage work. She even had an alternate identity in the south as a black man named Cuff, which she'd use to get close to Confederate troops to overhear plans and make notes of troop strength and locations. To do this, she used silver nitrate to dye her skin black, and wore a black wig. No one ever suspected Cuff. She also operated as a white woman under the name Bridget O'Shea. "Bridget" was an Irish immigrant, a peddler who sold soap, fruit and other luxuries to Confederate soldiers. Another time, she disguised herself as a black woman to get a job as a laundress for the Confederates. This paid off when she found a packet of official war papers an officer had left in his jacket when he sent it to be laundered. We don't know what was in those papers, but we know it was important enough that she immediately returned to Union territory and "delighted" the Union command with the contents of the papers. The commanders then sent her (still thinking she was Franklin Thompson, of course) into Maryland disguised as a detective named Charles Mayberry to track down a secret agent working for the Confederates. It's worth noting that no official proof of any of these spying activities has come down to us, other than stories Sarah herself shared. But formal records, then and now, of espionage activities were often not kept.

Although Sarah managed all of this without ever taking a bullet, without ever letting her real identity and gender be known, there was one enemy she couldn't fight - malaria. When she realized she'd come down with it, she was terrified that army doctors would discover her secret.

Sarah applied for a medical furlough, but it was denied. One evening in the spring of 1863, "Franklin Thompson" slipped away from camp, and Sarah Emma Edmonds entered a private hospital. By the time she'd healed, she was ready to resume her identity as Thompson and go back to war - but, to her horror, she saw posters saying Franklin Thompson was being hunted as a deserter.

Rather than risk execution as a deserter, Sarah decided to quit while she was ahead. She acquired feminine garb and started living again under her real identity, fears of her father's vengeance long gone. But Sarah was still called to serve. She quickly secured a position with the United States Christian Commission as a nurse - a female one - and went right back into the field hospitals to care for wounded soldiers.

As the war wound down, newspaper stories about other female soldiers who had dressed as men to serve the Union began to surface. Frances Clayton was one, and we'll visit her in a future article. Pauline Cushman was another. Sarah realized she had a story to tell, and she wasn't likely to be punished for her Franklin Thompson charade. She wrote a book called "Nurse and Spy in the Union Army." It was a best-seller, and, continuing her convictions, she donated almost all of the proceeds to help wounded soldiers in their recovery.

Things turned out well for Sarah. She met and married a mild-mannered Canadian mechanic named Linus Seelye three years after the war. They had three children together. In the late 1870s she attended a reunion of the 2nd Michigan Infantry and was "warmly received." Her fellow-soldiers remembered Franklin Thompson as "fearless and active." Despite the fact that women who'd done what she did were often considered "mentally ill" (that's 1860s code for "lesbian") or prostitutes, the men of the 2nd Michigan Infantry treated her like a hero.

In fact, her fellow soldiers thought so much of her they joined together to petition to have the charges of desertion against Franklin Thompson formally rescinded. They also fought to get her a military pension due to her injuries from the fall from her horse at the Second Battle of Manassas. Wouldn't you know it - one act of Congress later, they were successful. Sarah received a full military pension and Franklin Thompson was cleared as a deserter.

Sarah lived on and was active with veteran's organizations, including the Grand Army of the Republic, of which she is the only female member. She lived until the late 1800s, and was buried with full military honors in Houston in 1901.

So it seems Sarah was able to live out her dreams of dressing like a man and having adventures after all. And, like the storybook hero Fanny Campbell, Sarah got a happy ending.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Bona Lombardi

After spending some time in the 20th century in our last two posts, let's go back to Renaissance Europe, which has always been a historical arena for badassery. Lots of women from European history stand out, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine or Queen Elizabeth of England. But let's meet a woman who isn't as famous as either, and was more of a badass (physically speaking) than both.

Bona Lombardi was a popular, beautiful and intelligent peasant girl who became a mercenary warlord in war-torn Renaissance Italy. True love led her to fight for a living. It's also possible true love killed her - but a sword never did.

Few places and times in Europe were more horrific than Italy in the 1300s and 1400s. Italy was not politically united, with small principalities and city-states constantly at one another's throats. Worse still, paid bands of mercenary soldiers from all over Europe were strutting their stuff around Italy, in the pay of one local warlord or another. They'd often switch sides. When they weren't paid, the mercenaries tended to loot, pillage and rape whatever and whoever was nearby.

These warlords were known as Condottieri. Some were statesmen and talented generals. Most of them were overpaid thugs with a curse of ignorance and a penchant for needless brutality. As it happens, female Condottieri were not unheard of, and Bona Lombardi was one of them. But she didn't start off that way: she was, in the beginning, just a beautiful peasant girl.

Around 1430, a gentleman from Parma, one Captain Brunoro, was ordered by the ruler of Milan to set up a base in the middle of some recently conquered territory, the better to keep an eye on the restless province. Of course, that didn't keep him occupied 24/7. Even Captain Brunoro needed some time off. When he got it, he loved to go hunting. During one such trip, he stopped for a rest in a wooded grove where the local peasantry was putting on a spring festival. One of the girls there hit him "like the thunderbolt," as the Italians say. Not only was she the prettiest girl there, in Brunoro's opinion: she surprised him with her wit and charm and the sophistication of her answers to his questions.

Brunoro returned home, but he couldn't stop thinking about the girl. Using his power to ask around, he found out the girl was Bona Lombardi, and that he wasn't the only one who was smitten with her. Local lads from throughout the neighborhood of the town of Sacco had all sought her hand, with no success. Even the local girls admired her, and often made her the "Queen" in their nature festivals. Bona was an orphan, raised by her uncle, who was a priest, and his sister, the manager of a thriving country household.

Bona's father, Gabriel, was a warrior - another private mercenary in one of the ubiquitous Italian armies - and he was killed when she was just a child. Her mother, stricken with grief, died soon after. Perhaps some of Gabriel's martial spirit passed into his young daughter. Certainly there was some dark foreshadowing of her own fate in the fate of her parents.

Needless to say, Brunoro found plenty of opportunities to just happen to amble past Bona's household that summer. He visited with Bona often, and eventually, he asked her to marry him. She agreed, but was afraid her uncle and aunt would not approve, so they kept the marriage a secret.

It soon became apparent that Bona was just as smitten with Brunoro as he was with her. She couldn't stand to be away from him, even for a short separation when his military endeavors would take him away for a mission. Instead of waiting for him at home, Bona dressed herself up in Condottierre armor and followed her husband into all his battles.

Mercenaries work with a dynamic national soldiers don't: they're not fighting for a cause, but for pay. With the ever-shifting tapestry of battlefields and constant rise and fall of petty princes throughout Italy, Brunoro often found himself obliged to switch employers. Like a lot of Condottierri, he sometimes found himself going up in battle against respected former employers.

Because of these shifting loyalties, Brunoro managed to anger someone who would have been better left alone: King Alexander of Naples. For some reason - we're not sure exactly why, but it had to do with shifting political moves - Alexander developed a bitter hatred for Brunoro, and was determined to do him in. Alexander ordered his men to lay an ambush for Brunoro as he and a small band went on a fact-finding mission. For once, Bona wasn't with him. Brunoro fell for the ambush hook, line and sinker. He was captured and by the next day found himself languishing in the prisons of Naples.

He probably would have stayed there until he died, but for the courage and tenacity of his badass wife. Bona tried everything. First she offered Alexander bribes to let Brunoro go. Alexander refused. Then Bona begged him, trying to rouse pity in the king's heart. Despite her good looks and charm, this too failed. Finally, she flat-out threatened Alexander with military intervention if he didn't release Brunoro. Alexander laughed in her face. But when it became apparent that Bona's good name and her husband's reputation had earned her a host of local allies, Alexander relented. Rather than face a mercenary force led by a female Condottierri - and possibly face the ignominy of losing to her - he released Brunoro.

The two continued to fight together as husband and wife. Said one contemporary, "(Bona) learned the art of war to perfection." She was so admired by the people of Venice, for example, that she was offered command of the defense of the the town of Negropont on the Greek island of Euboea. The Turks were hell-bent on making headway into the Mediterranean world through the Black Sea and Greece. In the end, propriety reigned, and Bona and Brunoro were offered joint command together, rather than her alone, which showed she had respect for her husband's abilities (and, probably, pride).

As the constant wars stretched on, Brunoro managed to get himself captured again. During a war between Milan and Venice, Brunoro led an attack on a Provoze Castle in Brescia. Bona was traveling a few days behind her husband with a small relief force. When she arrived and learned he'd been captured, she went ballistic (to use a modern turn of phrase). She went among the disheartened Venetian soldiers and with a combination of shame and good coaching, roused them to a renewed sense of vigor. Bona personally led the charge in a second attack on Provoze Castle - and this time, with her at their head, the Venetians stormed the gates, scaled the walls, and took the castle in a matter of hours.

Brunoro, languishing away in chains, must have been very happy to see Bona, who personally released her husband and all the rest of the prisoners.

But Brunoro and Bona's story doesn't have a happy ending. He died in 1468 - whether from natural causes or as the result of a battlefield injury we don't know, although the latter seems likely. Bona descended into a terrible depression. She told everyone she couldn't - and more importantly, wouldn't - long survive her husband. She ordered the creation of a marble tomb to hold both of their remains. After interring Brunoro in it, she simply wasted away. She didn't commit suicide, but seems to have literally died of a broken heart. Said one contemporary, "she sank into a state of languor from which she never recovered." She died soon after her husband, and both were buried together.

So while it may not have turned out all right in the end, Bona and Brunoro had a good ride, and before it was over Bona Lombardi certainly proved that she was a Badass Chick of History.