Skip to main content
A woman holding a sword and wearing armour standing in a field

5 female medieval military leaders


From the ordinary peasant girl whose holy visions made her a military icon to the fearsome countess who took on the Holy Roman Emperor, meet the women who made history on the battlefield during the Middle Ages.

1. Joan of Arc

Born in a French village around 1412, Joan of Arc’s rural existence was upended when she started having visions of the archangel Michael and other celestial figures. These made the teenager believe she was destined to be a champion of France, which at the time was mired in the Hundred Years’ War against England.

Clad in men’s clothes and utterly sure of her divine duty, Joan cut a distinctive and convincing figure. Even the future Charles VII of France – disinherited by a treaty with the English – believed in her. Decked out in specially commissioned armour, Joan became an inspiring figurehead, rallying French troops to defeat English forces besieging the crucial strategic target of Orléans. Her further military exploits led to Charles being crowned king of France.

But her martial career was short-lived. Captured by English forces, she was put on trial on charges of heresy and witchcraft. Showing courage to the end, Joan was burnt at the stake aged just 19. She is now one of the patron saints of France.

2. Matilda of Tuscany

Countess of Tuscany in the 11th and early 12th centuries, Matilda was caught up in what’s known as the Investiture Controversy – an ongoing dispute between several popes and monarchs over the right to appoint members of the clergy. In one celebrated chapter of the Controversy which took place in 1077, King Henry IV of Germany sought to get himself back into Pope Gregory VII’s good books by standing barefoot in the snow outside Matilda’s castle for three whole days, while the Pope and Matilda were inside.

A later break between the Pope and Henry led to all-out conflict and Henry’s invasion of Rome itself. Throughout years of warfare, Matilda took the Pope’s side, playing a vital role as the leader of a guerrilla campaign against Henry, who would become the Holy Roman Emperor.

Matilda’s gritty determination in those tumultuous years, and her vital importance to the Papacy, made her one of the most consequential Italian women of the medieval age.

3. Caterina Sforza

Another Italian noblewoman who made her mark during the Middle Ages was Caterina Sforza, Countess of Forli. Being married to the nephew of Pope Sixtus IV meant she was immersed in the often-dangerous political intrigues and power struggles of the mid-15th century, and these came to a head when the Pope died and anarchy broke out in Rome.

Wearing a velvet hat and satin dress, a heavily pregnant Caterina rode on horseback to a papal fortress, where she gathered troops. She was prepared to use force to lay down terms for the election of the new pontiff. It was only the intervention of her husband that made her reluctantly depart the scene.

Several years later, after her husband was killed by rival nobles who then took Caterina and her children prisoner in her city-state of Forli, she allegedly dared the attackers to go ahead and kill her children. As the story goes, she raised her skirt and said ‘Hang them even in front of me, here I have what’s needed to make others’.

Her iron will would make Caterina a formidable, often ruthless ruler of Forli, overseeing military campaigns to secure her city-state, and having enemies and their families executed. In one fabled incident of 1499, Caterina held out in a fortress after Forli was invaded, refusing to surrender and even donning armour to fight in person. None other than Niccolo Machiavelli, master political schemer, would write of how Caterina’s fighting spirit made her the talk of Italy in her lifetime.

4. Isabella I of Castile

The queen of Castile, one of the kingdoms that would one day make up Spain, Isabella is perhaps most famous for her backing of Christopher Columbus’ world-changing voyage in 1492. But her direct, hands-on involvement in decisive military campaigns throughout her reign also earned Isabella a lasting reputation as a warrior-queen of the Middle Ages.

Her claim to the throne of Castile was disputed in what became known as the War of the Castilian Succession, in which she played an active part. In one notable confrontation, she stifled an armed uprising by getting on her horse, riding out to the rebels and negotiating their cooperation.

Later, during a long conflict against the Islamic Emirate of Granada in the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula, Isabella would turn up in person to boost troop morale. Historians have also credited her with introducing field hospitals for stricken soldiers – a game-changing innovation in warfare.

5. Joanna of Flanders

When John III, Duke of Brittany, died in 1341, it triggered an epic two-and-a-half-decade succession battle between the rival dynasties of Montford and Blois. After claimant John of Montford was imprisoned during the conflict, his wife Joanna of Flanders took up the mantle of his cause.

One of her most famed exploits was the defence of Hennebont, a town besieged by Blois forces. Here, she donned battle armour and led hundreds of soldiers to storm the Blois camp and burn their supplies in an audacious, shock attack.

In a later skirmish, Joanna found her ship under attack when she was sailing back from raising support in England. As sailors and knights fought on the deck, Joanna got stuck into the combat with a glaive (a bladed weapon), helping to successfully fight off the marauders.

Described by one medieval chronicler as having “the courage of a man and the heart of a lion”, Joanna’s efforts were integral to the Montford dynasty eventually winning the war of succession. Centuries later, her exploits would make her one of the historical icons of feminist campaigners during the Victorian era.