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Jack Churchill leading a training exercise

Fighting spirit: 8 great warriors from history

Image: Jack Churchill (far right) leads a training exercise with his sword drawn | Public Domain

From the chariot-riding warriors of the ancient world to dynamite-throwing French Resistance fighters of World War II, history is of full of combatants who achieved fame and recognition with their fighting skill, bravery, and maverick ways.

Here we focus not on history’s great strategists and generals, but instead, we look at the most dangerous on a battlefield – the masterful scrappers you would be glad to have by your side. These were the tough men and women who fought in legitimate battles and who were not to be trifled with.

1. Cynane (c. 357-323 BC)

A princess and a half-sister of Alexander the Great, Cynane lived from around 357 to 323 BC and was a leading warrior of her time. She was the daughter of Philip II, King of Macedonia and Princess Audata of Illyria.

Audata taught her daughter the Illyrian tradition of warrior women, schooling her from a young age in military tactics and fighting. One ancient chronicler said that Cynane was ‘famous for her military knowledge: she conducted armies, and in the field charged at the head of them’.

Cynane led Macedonian men on campaigns and in battle, fighting with her half-brother. She quickly gained a fearsome reputation for her battlefield prowess and ruthlessness. While still a teenager she was said to have killed the queen of another country ‘by her own hand’.

Cynane was murdered by a rival in 323 while trying to marry her daughter to a king. Her angry supporters still made the marriage happen after her death, though.

2. Spurius Ligustinus (c. 221-after 171 BC)

In 171 BC, the mighty Roman Republic was calling upon old soldiers to come out of retirement and fight in its war with the Macedonians. Roman historian Livy records that a middle-aged man named Spurius Ligustinus stood up in front of the consul and tribunes in Rome and gave a brief account of his life. He also humbly asked that, if he returned to service, he be allowed to go in at his previous high rank of primus pilus (‘first spear’), a senior centurion.

Spurius’s request was agreed to – chiefly because this ‘low-born’, grizzled veteran was no ordinary soldier. Spurius was possibly the most decorated Roman soldier of the entire thousand years of the Roman Republic and Roman Empire.

Spurius joined the Roman army in 200 BC and is believed to have fought at the Romans’ decisive victory over the Macedonians at Pydna in 168 BC.

Spurius won the Civic Crown six times. This was Rome’s second-highest military honour meaning he must have truly distinguished himself in combat and saved the lives of his men on six occasions. Winners of such medals were highly respected in Roman society and were given some of the best seats at the amphitheatres.

3. Lü Bu (c. 156-199)

Second-century Chinese warlord Lü Bu wasn’t known as the ‘invincible warrior’ for nothing. Born in the far north of China in about 156, he rose to prominence as a warlord and mercenary in a time of fierce internal conflict in China.

Immoral, extremely disloyal, and cruel, he was nevertheless respected for his extraordinary fighting skills. Biographer Chen Shou, writing in the following century, described Lü Bu as a ‘valiant and powerful warrior’ who had the ‘might of a tiger’. Lü Bu was notorious in China for being a master with the bow and arrow, sword, and hand-to-hand combat.

Lü Bu could only be trusted to do one thing – be utterly ruthless and unbeatable when fighting. He lived by the sword and died by the sword, meeting his maker when executed by a rival in 199.

4. The Unknown Viking (Died 1066)

The Vikings were known for their savagery and skill in battle, but this anonymous warrior must have been a terrifying opponent, to say the least.

In September 1066, the English king Harold II travelled north with his forces to confront the army of Norwegian king Harald Hardrada. At Stamford Bridge, east of York, the English prepared to cross the river to meet the Viking invaders.

According to legend, a giant, lone Viking man-at-arms stood guard on the bridge and single-handedly defended it from Harold’s soldiers for three hours. This was supposedly long enough for the Vikings on the other side of the bridge to prepare for battle. This tough solitary soldier was said to have used a huge battle-axe to dispatch 40 men on the overpass before he was speared to death from under his feet.

This skilled Scandi slayer ultimately couldn’t save his comrades, though. The battle was a decisive victory for the English and marked the end of the Viking Age.

5. William Marshal (1147-1219)

If you were to ask medieval historians today who was the greatest knight of all, most would likely vote for Sir William Marshal. Born in Berkshire, as a youngster Willaim went to train as a squire with a noble relative in France. It wasn’t long before he was showing his famous talent for fighting.

At the Battle of Driencourt in France in 1167, William, though barely out of short trousers and having been made a knight just the evening before, defeated over 40 knights in the battle without stopping.

Young William’s biggest mistake in the battle, though, was losing his expensive horse – a mistake he would learn from, spending the rest of his knightly career winning fame and fortune by carting off prizes in tournaments and ransoming foes. Near the end of his life, he claimed that he’d beaten over 500 knights in tournaments.

William also went on Crusade, fought in France, and became a key right-hand man of Henry II and then Henry’s son Richard I (Richard the Lionheart). He later loyally served King John as Marshal of England and acted as Regent of England for a young Henry III.

Sir William never hung up his sword belt, though – he helped to win the Battle of Lincoln in 1217, when he was 69 or 70 years old.

6. Tomoe Gozen (c. 1157-c. 1247)

Tomoe Gozen remains one of the most famous warriors in Japanese history. She is described in the 14th-century chronicle The Tale of Heike as a beautiful and multitalented combatant. She was said to be able to ride the wildest horse down the steepest slope, hit any target with an arrow, and with her sword was a ‘warrior worth a thousand’.

Tomoe Gozen was a commander during the Genpei War, a civil war in Japan that ran from 1180 to 1185. In one skirmish, she led 300 men against thousands of rival cavalry, emerging victorious despite being just one of five survivors on her side.

At the Battle of Awazu in 1184, Tomoe Gozen famously killed the renowned samurai warrior Uchida Ieyoshi, cutting him down with her katana.

Perhaps the most famous incident of Tomoe Gozen’s life was when she charged at a group of 30 warriors, picked out the strongest of them, and easily beheaded him.

7. Elaine Mordeaux (c. 1915-1944)

Elaine Mordeaux was a heroic French Resistance leader who famously engaged a German Panzer Division in June 1944, delaying the arrival of the tanks to the coast and therefore assisting with the success of D-Day.

Elaine was in her late 20s in 1944, described as tall, fearless in battle, fluent in three languages, and an expert markswoman. Elaine led a group of 200 resistance fighters, about 70 of them women. Their attack on the Germans that day was a strategic success – they managed to kill over 300 German soldiers and cripple over 100 tanks. But it was a Pyrrhic victory, as most of the resistance fighters were killed, including Elaine, who was shot by a German sniper while throwing dynamite.

8. Jack Churchill (1906-1996)

Colonel John Malcolm ‘Mad Jack’ Churchill was a British army officer and commando who fought in World War II, and led troops into battles in France, Norway, Italy, and Yugoslavia. Not long after the war, he helped save the lives of over 500 Jewish doctors in the Middle East.

Churchill was also a one-time male model, film actor, adventurer, pioneering surfer, and competitive archer. He was as famous for being eccentric as he was for his exceptional fighting ability.

Churchill was known for always going into battle with his Scottish broadsword. He once quipped that: ‘In my opinion, any officer who goes into action without his sword is improperly dressed.’ In July 1943, in southern Italy, Churchill and just one other man snuck into a German-held position and captured 42 enemy troops and a mortar crew.

Jack was also known to play the bagpipes when advancing on the enemy and carried a longbow as well as his trusty sword. In fact, he is credited with making the last bow-and-arrow combat kill by a uniformed soldier after shooting a German officer with his longbow in 1940.