Thursday, December 3, 2015

Christiana Davies, "The Pretty Dragoon"

Christiana Davies was better known to her friends as Kit Cavanaugh. A fierce fighter with a violent streak and a nose for plunder, Kit's fellow soldiers in the British Army called her "the Pretty Dragoon." The nickname was ironic - they all thought she was a man. Christiana was, indeed, masquerading as a man, on a mission to find her lost husband. She found him, but not in the way she expected. Along the way she racked up enough points to earn her a place among the Badass Chicks of History.

Davies was born in Dublin, Ireland. Her father was a respected brewer and maker of fine malts. He started his little daughter off with sewing lessons. She was terrible at it and bored by it. Then he decided to teach her to read and write. Her tutor said she had no patience for it, but was instead "mad with desire for the out-of-doors." Eventually her father relented and allowed her to work with the men. She spent her early teen years plowing, making hay, and going horseback riding. She loved to ride a gray mare her father and uncle gave her, and would spend hours bareback storming around the countryside. 

Like many teenage girls, she developed an inappropriate crush on a male relative of her mother's. The fellow took advantage. This was quietly hushed up. Further romantic entanglements were put off by wars in Ireland conducted by King James II of England. He was Catholic, and was eventually forced to cede the crown to his daughter Mary and her husband. Even though Davies' father was a Protestant, he supported James. Wounded in battle, his property was confiscated and the family fell into poverty. 

Harassed by local Catholic militias, Davies' mother once took refuge in a parish church with some other belligerent Protestants. A Catholic militia blocked up the church and intended to burn it down, with the Protestants inside. When Davies heard of this, she took a cooking-spit and ran to the rescue. The teenage girl stabbed a grown sergeant in the leg. She was arrested, but the attack was diverted, and because it wasn't authorized, the authorities released Davies with a warning. 

The family fortunes having fallen, she moved into Dublin proper to work at her aunt's pub. Davies excelled at the work. When her aunt died, she left the place to her. Davies met her first husband here, Richard Welsh. He worked as a waiter in the pub while she ran the place. They had two children together, and while she was pregnant with their third, he disappeared. 

She later received a letter from him, saying he'd been press-ganged into service in the British Army and was currently serving in the Netherlands. There is, however, evidence that he in fact volunteered for this service. But Davies was determined to track him down. She left her kids with her mother, took some of Richard's clothes, cut her hair, and joined up with the British infantry. 

It's reported she passed all military drills with flying colors, and she soon found herself in Holland as a member of the 1st Royal Foot. She survived numerous battles, and developed a reputation of being greedy for loot. But Davies was captured by the French and sent to a military prison. She was released after nine days in a prisoner exchange - in the meantime, no one learned her secret. She was terrified of being discovered, however, because the French captain at the prison was actually her paternal cousin. He never recognized her. 

Soon after, she became involved in an affair. She began, in her own words, "very merrily making love to the young and pretty daughter of a wealthy burgher." The girl fell madly in love with Davies, ending her relations with a British sergeant. He was angry about it, and challenged Davies to a duel. She killed him and was arrested. The girl's father, however, anxious to avoid scandal, arranged for Davies to be released. But as soon as she was free, Davies broke it off with the girl, pretending to have received a commission to join the Royal Dragoons (dragoons are soldiers who ride into battle on horses, but dismount to fight). She did, however, manage to successfully join up with the dragoons voluntarily, relying on her childhood horseback riding experience.

This is when Davies got her nickname "the Pretty Dragoon," and put up with a lot of good-natured teasing from her fellow soldiers for being so feminine-looking. She managed to fool them all. Davies said in her autobiography that she even urinated with her fellow soldiers by wearing a "tube affixed with leather straps." One wonders what other uses Davies but this tube to, because she was apparently so successful at impersonating a man that a prostitute accused her of being the father of her child. Rather than expose her secret, Davies was obliged to pay child support for a kid that couldn't possibly have been hers. 

One contemporary described her as "absolutely fierce," particularly when it came time for plundering a city or town after a battle (this was one way soldiers supplemented their incomes). Davies was instrumental in taking down the bell from a Catholic church and having it shattered so the men could share the metal. She once looted 100 hats from a shop, intending to re-sell them. But her favorite plunder was silver plate, and she was particularly fond of a huge silver chalice she stole from a burning church in Bavaria. "I spared nothing," she wrote. "I burned or destroyed anything I couldn't carry away."

Once, when on a routine patrol, Davies' unit got lost. They came across a peasant's hut, where a sow had birthed several piglets. Mouth watering for fresh pork, Davies beat the peasant and took one of the pigs. A fellow soldier tried to take it from her, and a fight erupted. He cut off her left pinkie finger, and she put his eye out with the butt of her pistol. The two were disciplined when they returned to headquarters, but Lord Hay, the general of the dragoons, was so fond of his "Pretty Dragoon" that Davies escaped any serious punishment. 

Davies soon found her husband. She was shot in the leg at the Battle of Schellenberg, and exasperated the wound by continuing to fight. After the battle, she was given less strenuous duty of guarding French prisoners. One of the other soldiers stationed to guard them turned out to be her husband, but she recognized him before he recognized her. Worse for him, he was in the process of publicly making love to a Dutch girl when Davies found him. She "abused him and great length and hit him about the face," says a contemporary, but she ended up forgiving him (after all, it had been 13 years since the two had seen one another, and both had been unfaithful). Richard agreed to keep her secret, and they told everyone they were brothers. 

Davies was the jealous type. When she learned that one of Richard's former mistresses was following the army, she attacked the poor girl and cut her nose off! 

At the Battle of Donawert in 1704, Davies was shot in the hip and thrown from her horse. It took three surgeons to remove the musket-ball, but throughout the operation, Davies managed to conceal her gender. 

However, when she was struck in the head with a fragment from a mortar shell at the Battle of Ramillies, she suffered a serious skull fracture. While she was unconscious, army doctors discovered that she was a woman. But - in a move that really is astounding when you consider the time - Lord Hay, commander of dragoons, ordered that her pay be continued. When she recovered, he asked her to stay with the army as a cook and quartermaster.

"She is a pretty lass," Hay wrote, "but she was the best man I ever had." 

Hay thought it best for propriety's sake if Richard and Davies were remarried in front of the soldiers. None of them seemed to think any less of her after they realized she was a woman. In fact, she became a beloved mascot of the dragoons. At her wedding, all the soldiers lined up to kiss the bride, a process which took hours. They all chipped in to buy her a female wardrobe. Some begged for scraps from her garments to wear into battle, or asked her to kiss their muskets for good luck.

Though she spent her time now dressed as a woman and doing woman's work - such as cooking and issuing supplies - she couldn't stop her addiction to looting. Whenever a battle ended and there was pillaging going on, she'd dress as a man and join in. 

Her reunion with Richard didn't last long, sadly. He was killed at the Battle of Malpaquet. Davies was grief-stricken, and spent a day and a half examining some 200 corpses, so that she could find and bury her husband. 

A certain Captain Ross took her under his wing, and the troops began to call her "Mother Ross." The relationship does not seem to have been romantic, however, because Davies married another dragoon named Hugh Jones. But he too died in battle soon after. 

In 1792, the war was in its final stages. Davies returned to England with the rest of the Dragoons. Hay introduced her to noble patrons who ensured she got an audience with Queen Anne. The queen is said to have been fascinated by Davies, giving her a cash award and a modest lifetime pension. 

Davies went back to Dublin, where she was reunited with her children. But it's said they did not recognize her and had little to do with her. She opened a new pub, and then met an ex-soldier named Davies. They married, and that's how she got the name we know her by. But Davies was something of a jackass. "My evil genius persuaded me to marry him," she wrote. He ran through her pension as soon as she got it, and no matter how much money she made at the pub, it slipped through her husband's fingers. The two were not settled, stay-at-home types anyway, and soon sold the pub and spent years travelling all over Ireland, Scotland, and England. They were supported in part by Davies' noble patrons and admirers. 

But they were both getting older, and their health was failing. Davies suffered from both scurvy and dropsy and a host of other ailments, as did many ex-soldiers. However, Lord Hay managed to secure her a living space at the Royal Hospital Chelsea, a nursing home for military veterans. He even got her husband a job there. 

One night, as her husband was ill, Davies stayed up all night at his bedside. In doing so, she caught a cold, which blossomed into a terrible high fever. She, who had been shot at least three times and lived to tell the tale, fell victim to a germ and died soon after. 

Lord Hay made sure her final request was honored. A burial with full military honors was ordered, and as a final mark of respect, the Royal Dragoons insisted Davies be buried in her uniform. And so another Badass Chick of History passed into legend. 

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