These military queens hail from every age and from every corner of the world. Meet valiant leaders like the Trung Sisters, who fought to defend ancient Vietnam from the invading Chinese, or Zenobia of Palmyra, who opposed invading Roman forces and tried to carve out her own sphere of influence in her homeland of Syria.
And then there’s Grace O’Malley, yet another of those great queens who fought in battle, who was a female Irish pirate leader, rivaling her contemporary Elizabeth I for power. And whether or not these queens who fought in battle were always successful in their military endeavors, these women wielded power incredibly well in their own right.
Boudicca Was A Blood-Thirsty British Rebel
The Romans began to really make some headway into Britain in the 1st century CE, but not every Brit was having it. One such Brit was Boudicca, who ruled the Iceni (located in modern eastern England). Ruling her tribe after her husband died (and left his private property to the Romans in an attempt to gain Roman approval) around 60 CE, Boudicca saw her territory taken over, her daughters raped, and her kingdom taken.
Boudicca rose in rebellion against the Roman invaders, rallying thousands behind her banner. In the process, she burned down the Roman settlements of Camulodunum, Verulamium, and Londonium (modern London), allegedly slaughtering 70,000 people in the process. Eventually, the British governor Paulinus repressed the rebels at the Battle of Watling Street in 61 CE, and Boudicca reportedly committed suicide by poison.
This 19th-century Indian Queen is a fascinating figure. Raised to fight and ride, Lakshmi was married to the ruler of Jhansi in northern India but was widowed at quite a young age. Childless, she and her hubby had adopted a young boy as their heir, but their British overlords used this opportunity to formally annex Jhansi. However, the Queen wasn’t taking this lying down; at age 22, in 1858, she rose up against the Brits.
For over a year, war raged between the British invaders and the Queen Regent of Jhansi. The British forces battered down her men; in the Spring of 1858, they besieged her home, and she barely managed to escape. Later, Lakshmi managed to recapture the fortress of Gwalior, then marched to confront the British army, a conflict in which she was killed.
Age: Dec. at 30 (1828-1858)
Birthplace: Varanasi, India
This pirate queen was a true Renaissance woman – that is, a woman of the 16th century. Born into a sea-faring family, Grace O’Malley was basically born to sail, and she got a ton of booty from both of her husbands that helped fuel a career on the ocean. Grace made her name by raiding the west coasts of Scotland and her native Ireland, as well as defending her own riches. She was also politically active, resistant to encroaching English rule over Ireland.
Legend has it that Grace was so tough that she gave birth on a boat, then fought to protect that vessel against fellow pirates the very next day. One verifiable truth, however, is that the “Queen of the West” had a meeting with England’s Queen Elizabeth I to get support against her enemies. Legend also has it that she also made a series of demands to the Queen that the monarch obliged.
Age: Dec. at 73 (1530-1603)
Birthplace: County Mayo, Republic of Ireland
Amanitore Was The Amazing Lady Who Took On The Romans
The ancient realm of Meroe in Nubia (modern Sudan) had some pretty amazing queens (better known as kandakes) 2,000 years ago. Among the most famous of them was a fabulous woman named Amanitore, who ruled alongside her son (or husband) in the 1st century BCE. The Romans invaded around that time, and the geographer Strabo recorded how a one-eyed Nubian queen, whom he called “Candace,” fought fiercely.
Chronologically, this might well have been Amanitore. This Queen marched with thousands on the Roman forces, who fortified their stronghold in defense. The Romans ultimately triumphed, but not before a head of a statue of Augustus was captured. Amanirenas and Augustus agreed on a peace treaty a few years later, which contained terms really favorable to Meroe, in 21 or 20 BCE. They even included the caveat that Amanirenas didn’t have to pay tribute to the Roman emperor – pretty remarkable for a Roman treaty!
Mavia Of Arabia Nearly Brought Rome To Its Knees
Mavia is a fascinating ancient monarch, Queen of a federation of nomadic tribes who lived in the the modern Levant. In the late 4th century CE, Roman Emperor Valens needed more troops to fight his enemies in western Europe, so he called for auxiliaries from the east; Mavia wasn’t having any of this, especially once she assumed power after her husband died.
In response to Valens’s demands, Mavia went on the offensive, conquering town after town, bringing them into her fold. She pretty much routed the Romans, causing them to flee when she stormed into their territories like Egypt. Eventually, Mavia got in good with Valens when he made her favorite monk the bishop over her home area. In exchange, Mavia did help the Romans out at the Battle of Adrianople, which Valens lost, and she even married her daughter to a Roman official. But this alliance eventually disintegrated. After that, the record is lost.
Mavia wasn’t the only Levantine ruler to rise up against Rome; her rough-and-tumble predecessor was Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra in modern Syria in the late 3rd century CE. She came to power as the wife of Odaenathus, an increasingly important King at the time, but when Odaenathus and his eldest son were killed, Zenobia became Regent for her own child with her late hubby. But while Odaenathus had been a client king (subordinate and allied to Rome), Zenobia wasn’t having that and decided to make a move.
While the western part of the Roman Empire was in quite a bit of turmoil in the 260s, Zenobia took advantage. She conquered more of Syria, then Egypt in 269, and, later, occupied pockets of Asia Minor. Then she declared herself independent of Rome. Eventually, the Roman Emperor Aurelian beat her in battle at Antioch, then captured her and her son as they tried to flee. The Romans eventually captured and destroyed Palmyra, while Zenobia and her son were taken to Rome, possibly being featured as part of Aurelian’s triumph back in Rome or committing suicide.
Age: Dec. at 34 (240-274)
Birthplace: Palmyra, Syria
The Trung Sisters Were Freedom Fighters Of Ancient Vietnam
The Trung Sisters were a pair of fantastically brave Vietnamese warrior women who fought to oust their Chinese overlords in the first half of the 1st century CE. Under the control of the Chinese for decades, Vietnam got into dire straits when the Han Dynasty tried to crack down really hard in the 30s and 40s CE. Violence broke out, allegedly claiming the life of the husband of Trung Trac, the elder Trung sister.
This possibly spurred her to rebel alongside her sister, Trung Nhi, and they managed to get the Chinese governor of Vietnam out! They made themselves joint Queens of an independent state, but their forces – mostly made up of peasants who weren’t really militarily trained – didn’t match up to those of their rivals. The Trung Sisters were defeated in battle and, as legend has it, they committed suicide by drowning themselves rather than being killed.
Artemisia I of Caria Became A Brilliant Persian Ally
Everyone knows about that time the Persian ruler Xerxes invaded Greece, but did you know that one of his number one allies was a woman? Artemisia, Queen of Caria in Asia Minor, sailed into help with five ships, although she and Xerxes fought a bit. Her big assistance came at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE.
While Xerxes plopped himself down on a big golden throne and watched the conflict from shore, Artemisia sailed her ships against the Greeks. She got trapped between the Greek and Persian fleets and managed to make a clever escape, since the Greeks mistook her for an ally. Another sign of her brilliance is that she apparently advised Xerxes against getting involved in this conflict. Xerxes made her a key advisor after that.
Birthplace: Halicarnassus, Turkey
In the Early Modern era, many African coastal nations faced a lot of trouble from slave traders, but Zinga, Queen of Ndongo, took these bad guys on. In 1624, she ascended to the throne of Ndongo – located in modern Angola – first as Regent, then as a sovereign in her own right. Her reign was hotly contested by other contenders to the throne, so Nzinga allied herself with the Portuguese against her rivals (which also put an end to the Portuguese slave trade in Ndongo), solidifying this union by baptizing herself into the Catholic faith (even though the Portuguese governor treated her with the utmost disrespect).
Not long after this, the Portuguese turned their backs on Nzinga; during her nearly 40-year reign, she would ally herself with the Dutch and fight in battle whenever necessary, all to preserve her nation’s independence. Once, she had to flee Ndongo, so she created a new nation called Matamba, for which she recruited runaway slaves and Portuguese-trained African men as soldiers. Nzinga also helped develop Matamba in the international trade market.
Age: Dec. at 80 (1583-1663)
Mother Lü Upended A Dynasty
In the first three decades of the 1st century CE, a rebellion toppled a usurper in China. A brand-new emperor, Wang Mang, took the throne and implemented a lot of reforms, but one woman took him down. This woman, Mother Lu, was formidable, even though she wanted to restore slavery and the status quo; the movement she led was called the Red Eyebrow Rebellion.
Mother Lu was really old school, urging her peasant followers to restore the old Han Dynasty and their traditional ways (that included slavery), which Wang Mang had disrupted. Apparently, her supporters painted their eyebrows crimson to look like demons; hence, the name of their movement. Rich landowners joined in what became a six-year conflict; eventually, Wang Mang was killed, the Hans were restored, and slavery came back.
Æthelflæd Of Mercia Fended Off Raiders
Alfred the Great was known as one of the most formative monarchs of Anglo-Saxon England, but his kids were pretty great, too, especially his daughter Æthelflæd. Married to the ruler of the kingdom of Mercia, the fierce Queen became known as the “Lady of the Mercians.” Since her husband was old, Æthelflæd got to do a lot of ruling herself, and, once she had one child, she refused to sleep with him again, which many people admired.
But her most important feat was when she worked to drive out invading Vikings from her lands. She built lots of forts in which to install soldiers to defend Mercia and her family’s territories from not only the Vikings, but also Danish, Welsh, and Irish raiders. She also captured the Viking stronghold of Derby in 917 CE all by herself. To subdue the Welsh, Æthelflæd even captured a Welsh queen and held her hostage in exchange for her husband’s obedience.
Tomyris Beat The Invincible Persian King Cyrus
Cyrus the Great, King of Persia, was most definitely great by himself, but arguably greater was his arch rival, Queen Tomyris of the Massagetae, a nomadic people in Central Asia. In 529 BCE, Cyrus decided to conquer these horse-riding, bow-wielding tribes led by Tomyris, widow of the king, as Herodotus noted. Cyrus pretended that he wanted to marry Tomyris, but she saw that for a deception; next, he tried to build a bridge across a river to get to her.
Finally, Cyrus put out a great banquet and abandoned it; the Massagetae approached, got drunk, and passed out. Cyrus came back and slaughtered many of them, including Tomyris’s child. Tomyris called him a coward and drew him into battle by trapping his soldiers in a narrow pass, butchering all the Persians, including Cyrus; she even put his head in a bag of blood afterwards.