Warrior Queens

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by Antonia Fraser

  As a matter of fact, both these morals can be derived quite correctly from Boadicea’s story, although in modern parlance we might prefer to transform Ubaldini’s ‘morals’ into questions. Was Boadicea a savage attempting to destroy a superior civilization in a series of atrocities (and a female savage to boot …)? Or was she a patriotic leader rising up against an alien and brutal occupying power? Suffice it to say for the moment that in this respect the existence of so many variations of her name has evidently been a positive advantage in the promotion of her legend.

  Thus the learneds’ Boudica can easily possess quite different characteristics from the chariot-driving heroine aloft on London’s Embankment without troubling the national consciousness too much. This celebrated Warrior Queen turns out to be like Proteus, he who could assume different shapes at will, beginning with her very name. Returning to Warrior Queens in general and the paradox which they present, it will be found that the protean quality is something which many of them have in common with Boadicea.

  The central nature of this paradox can be stated as follows: whereas woman has on the whole, taking the rough with the smooth, the good epochs with the bad, been considered inferior to man throughout history, the arrival of a Warrior Queen, by whatever accident of fate, descent or sheer character, has been the signal for a remarkable outburst of excitement and even awe, sometimes accompanied by admiration and enthusiasm for her cause, beyond the ability of a mere male to arouse.

  ‘In man’s apparel … hanging about her the skins of beasts, before and behind, with a Sword about her neck, an Axe at her girdle, and a Bow and Arrows in her hand, leaping according to the custom, now here, now there, as nimbly as the most active among her attendants, all the while striking her Engema, that is, two Iron Bells, which serve her instead of Drums …’. Thus the Dutch Captain Fuller, commander of her personal bodyguard, admiringly described the seventeenth-century Queen Jinga of Angola, in her long battles against the Portuguese invaders. To Fuller, Jinga was ‘A Cunning and Prudent Virago’, despite or even because of her habit of keeping fifty or sixty young men as husbands (and another habit of human sacrifice); he served her faithfully for many years.6

  Conversely, the emergence of a Warrior Queen has at other times been accompanied by disgust and fear at her very existence, emotions which would never be aroused by a male leader occupying the same position: Queen Jinga, the nightmare of the armed and voracious Amazon come to life, was viewed quite differently by her Portuguese enemies. To those on the other side, the actual atrocities committed or instigated by a woman leader bring about a special shudder, which recalls our reaction to the knives on Boadicea’s chariot: it is not so much the mythical weapons themselves as the woman driving the chariot which gives us surely that special frisson.

  Part of this frisson – of fear or admiration – is undoubtedly due to the fact that woman as a whole has been seen as a pacifying influence throughout history, this pacifying role being perceived as hers by nature and hers in duty. The whole question whether women actually are more pacific by nature is not the subject of the present book. For our purposes, it is however highly relevant that they have been perceived as such.

  Some feminist writers have recently promulgated strongly the notion that a matriarchal society would or did lack the aggression that does and did characterize a patriarchal one. (Evidently non-pacific types such as Mrs Gandhi, Mrs Meir and Mrs Thatcher count as honorary men for the purposes of this argument because they have adopted masculine values in order to succeed in the patriarchal world.) ‘And I know, in the depth of my being and in all my knowledge of history and humanity, I know women will struggle for a social order of peace, equality and joy’ wrote the distinguished historian of women Joan Kelly in 1982, on the eve of her death. On the other hand, Lynne Segal, author of Is the Future Female?, expressed another view in an interview in 1987: ‘I accept that women are gentler at the moment’, but ‘if they had the same amount of power as men, they wouldn’t be more virtuous.’7

  But the argument is not a novel one. The writings of Christine de Pisan in the fourteenth century drew attention to the pacifying potential of ‘the good princess’. ‘Supposed weakness is in fact often a moral strength,’ she wrote, ‘as when women, who are physically weak and timid, are therefore more inclined to make peace and avert wars.’ She added, citing the work of Queen Blanche, mother of St Louis: ‘O God, how many great blessings in the world have often been caused by queens and princesses making peace between enemies.’8 Thus in a sense the concept of the Warrior Queen cuts across not only man’s view of woman’s traditional weakness but also woman’s view of her own ordained role as a peacemaker.

  Nevertheless almost every culture throughout history has had its Warrior Queen or Queens either in fact or in fiction, or in some combination of them both. The United States of America is so far one of the significant exceptions in spite of ‘the singular address and happy boldness’ which Alexis de Tocqueville discovered in its unmarried young ladies as long ago as 1835. When a possible future Warrior Queen was presented in the 1984 Vice-Presidential Candidate Geraldine Ferraro, the reaction was, as will be seen, extremely uneasy. The Roman Empire, for all the host of noteworthy Empresses, those celebrated, strong-minded and sometimes disreputable women, was another imperium where an actual female reign would, as Gibbon pointed out, have appeared ‘an inexpiable prodigy’.9

  It is certainly of importance to the story of Boudica and her uprising against the Roman regime in Britain that she herself, in her gender as well as in her independence, bore something at least of the appearance of a prodigy, and an unwelcome one, to the occupying power. But of course both Rome then and the United States now have experience of dealings with foreign ‘Warrior Queens’.

  The opportunity should be taken to define the way in which the term will be understood in the present study. A potential Warrior Queen, in the modern sense, is one who might under certain circumstances have to take the decision to deploy her country’s military resources. Thus for these purposes Mrs Thatcher at the time of the Falklands War played the Warrior Queen while Queen Elizabeth II was merely the reigning monarch. In the historical sense on the other hand, a Warrior Queen will be regarded as one who combined both elements of rule and martial leadership. It must therefore be emphasized that Joan of Arc (although admittedly a frequent source of inspiration to many Warrior Queens) was not actually one herself in our terms. Since she led but did not rule, like the heroic ‘General’ Harriet Tubman, who commanded an action in the American Civil War, Joan of Arc belongs to that other wider category of Women Warriors, a fascinating but more diffuse subject than that of the present study: women having fought, literally fought, as a normal part of the army in far more epochs and far more civilizations than is generally appreciated.10 Similarly Judith, the pious assassin of Holofernes (another frequently cited comparison) belongs to the category of Warrior Woman, or maid – although as a matter of fact the historical Judith was a widow.

  If one examines a saying of Muhammad: ‘The men perish if they obey the women’, or another of his alleged quips regarding a princess on the Persian throne: ‘No people who place a woman over their affairs prosper’, the lesson of history does not exactly confirm the truth of this notion.11 On the contrary a Warrior Queen – or female ruler – has often provided the focus for what a country afterwards perceived to have been its golden age; beyond the obvious example (to the English) of Queen Elizabeth I, one might cite the twelfth-century Queen Tamara of Georgia, or the fifteenth-century Isabella of Spain. The extra value of a Warrior Queen as a rallying point for the chivalric feelings of her nation will be one of the recurring themes of this book.

  Returning to America and its present culture, the United States does of course lack a hereditary monarchy, which for better or for worse is a system inclined to throw up such things as queens, and thus by implication Warrior Queens, from time to time. The irony of this situation was summed up by Gibbon:

  In every age and country, th
e wiser, or at least the stronger, of the two sexes has usurped the powers of the State, and confined the other to the cares and pleasures of domestic life. In hereditary monarchies, however, and especially in those of modern Europe, the gallant spirit of chivalry, and the law of succession, have accustomed us to allow a singular exception; and a woman is often acknowledged the absolute sovereign of a great kingdom, in which she would be deemed incapable of exercising the smallest employment, civil or military.12

  So we have an extension to the paradox of the Warrior Queen: the phenomenon is found almost everywhere (if not within a culture, by conflict with another culture); yet the person concerned is generally regarded as the ‘singular exception’ and that very singularity for better or for worse provides her aura.

  There is after all a good deal to be said – in purely practical terms – for General de Gaulle’s view of the omnipresence of force in history: ‘Is it possible to conceive of life without force?’ he wrote in The Edge of the Sword. ‘Force has watched over civilization in the cradle: force has ruled empires, and dug the grave of decadence … It is true to say that the fighting spirit, the art of war, the virtues of the soldier are an integral part of man’s inheritance. They have been part and parcel of history in all its phases, the medium through which it has expressed itself.’ He concluded that ‘the noblest teachings of philosophy and religion have found no higher ideals’ than those of ‘self-sacrifice for the sake of the community, suffering made glorious – these two things which are the basic elements of the profession of arms’.13

  One can gainsay de Gaulle’s conclusion, or at least his overall description of the profession of arms, without contradicting his general – and even obvious – point that history can be interpreted at one level as the history of ‘force’. If this be true, and, more importantly, society itself has believed it to be true, then on the one hand the traditional lack of involvement of woman in the world of ‘force’ will add to her air of inferiority; on the other hand her involvement in that world, when it occurs, stands a good chance of raising her status. As Tacitus wrote of the warlike Germans: ‘Renown is easiest won among perils.’14 To put it another way, many women leaders have found in the crucible of war – if successfully survived – the fiery process which has guaranteed them passage into the realms of honorary men.

  It is because ‘all history has been made by men’ and ‘it is still a world that belongs to men’, in the words of Simone de Beauvoir, that the characters and careers of those women who have been the singular exceptions become crucial.15 Such careers have always afforded much of interest to both sexes, not just because a tradition of independent womanhood is kept alive for the female sex in darker days. The same names will be found recited over and over again like an encouraging (or admonitory) litany the moment a new Warrior Queen appears. Not merely Boadicea herself, but Penthesilea, Judith, Semiramis and Zenobia from ancient times are invoked in this roll-call of the armed and female faithful. Zenobia drew upon comparisons to Cleopatra, from whom she claimed to be descended. Dio Cassius compared Boadicea to Semiramis. Elizabeth I and Catherine the Great, frequently compared in their own time to the above (Catherine to her admiring correspondent Voltaire was his ‘Semiramis of the North’), themselves provided the rich sources of historical comparison.16

  An appeal to bygone ‘heroines’ as a source of strength and above all validity would indeed appear to be exceptionally important where female leaders are concerned, down to our own day. The unnatural, even bizarre aspect of a woman in such a role – ‘that boisterousness with which she terrifies us’, in the words of an eighteenth-century commentator on Boadicea – is thus tacitly admitted, before being justified by this sonorous appeal to the past. The names of the ‘heroines’ cited do of course vary to a certain degree – but not nearly as much as the character and circumstances of the women citing them. At the time of the Falklands War, Mrs Thatcher as Prime Minister neatly recalled Queen Victoria by quoting her in a television broadcast: ‘Failure? The possibilities do not exist.’17 The evocation of the strong and successful female image was surely as important as the sentiment, although inspection reveals little in common between the nineteenth-century hereditary monarch and the late-twentieth-century democratically elected leader – except their sex.

  It is also true that exactly the same names from this important but limited female pantheon can be used to insult, while the nature of the insult can also vary. When Denis Healey, as a senior Labour statesman, reflected that Mrs Thatcher reminded him ‘very much’ of Catherine the Great, he was not of course referring to the former’s impeccable private life, but to the imperiousness ‘allied to a temperament which is in many ways very masculine’ which he considered both ladies had in common.18 Yet the allusion to Catherine the Great, Voltaire’s ‘Semiramis of the North’, like that to Semiramis herself, is one which could in different circumstances bear a sexual connotation, since both the ninth-century BC Semiramis and the eighteenth-century AD Catherine the Great might be described, at least in popular terms, as ‘a great sovereign and a great lover’. Boccaccio in the fourteenth century delineated Semiramis as one who on the one hand showed ‘that in order to govern it is not necessary to be a man, but to have courage’, and on the other hand ‘gave herself to many men’ along the way.19

  The presumed sexual voracity of a Warrior Queen, at least up till the twentieth century, will be found to be one of the recurring themes of her treatment at the hands of her contemporaries and of history. Conversely, but not contradictorily, another theme will be found to be her chastity: on occasion maintained, according to the myth, under the most remarkable circumstances – against all the available evidence. Sometimes the same woman – such as Matilda of Tuscany, whom we shall find leading her men in the cause of the eleventh-century Pope Gregory VII – bears both accusations. This treatment of the Warrior Queen as a supernaturally chaste creature, put against that other image of her as preternaturally lustful (the Voracity Syndrome), seems to indicate that, because her sex is first and foremost what makes the Warrior Queen remarkable, her sexuality must always be called into question as well.

  Other themes will be found to occur and recur: that of the Holy (and sometimes Armed) Figurehead is one of them, from the Arab Lady of Victory to Isabella the Catholic, scourge of the Spanish Moors (such characters frequently also forming part of the Chaste Syndrome). Then the Appendage Syndrome runs through the whole book: the stressed connection of so many Warrior Queens to the nearest strong masculine figure. In turn the Shame Syndrome, whereby all the surrounding masculine figures are described as failing in courage compared to the Warrior Queen herself, underlines in another way the purely masculine context in which most Warrior Queens have operated. It is this context which has enabled many a Warrior Queen, endowed with a partner, to be hailed as the ‘Better-Man’ (of the two). Conversely, the ‘Only-a-Weak-Woman’ Syndrome has the normally robust female leader indulging in a sudden diplomatic outbreak of modesty, pleading the notorious weakness of her sex, generally for good practical reasons of self-interest.

  It is indeed this recurrence of themes which gives the Warrior Queens chosen for discussion here their special significance. As has been stated, this is not intended to be an encyclopaedic work on a vast subject, and even such compelling figures as the real, not the operatic, Brünnhilde, a sixth-century Visigothic Queen of Austrasia, or the ferocious Nanny, wife of Old Cudjoe, chief of the Maroons, who led a seventeenth-century uprising in Jamaica, do not necessarily find a place in it.20

  One important theme may be termed the Tomboy Syndrome, whereby the Warrior Queen in youth, all unknowing of her martial destiny, is depicted as unconsciously eschewing dolls in favour of soldiers, domestic pursuits in favour of hunting.21 The Tomboy Syndrome in particular demonstrates the perpetual need for reassurance which the emergence of a Warrior Queen seems to evoke: this woman is not like other women, runs the refrain; this being so, her strangeness should be established from the start. A quotation from the sta
rt of one of the many historical romances in English on the subject of Boadicea shows that the British Queen is certainly not immune from the syndrome: ‘Wait for us, Boadicea! That horse of yours must have invisible wings to carry you at such speed.’ So runs Boadicea by Betty King, published in 1975.22 (Absolutely nothing is in fact known about the childhood of Boadicea.)

  Boadicea is selected as the pivot of this book partly for the fascinating combination of fame and ambiguity which her career provides, partly because so many of the themes which recur in the treatment of other Warrior Queens are raised in her story and its subsequent treatment. Stories of these other historic Warrior Queens are brought forward where relevant not only to supplement hers but also to illustrate the universality of the subject. But it is Boadicea who is a convenient starting-point, and Boadicea who is the engrossing exemplar.

  Nevertheless the first task, before turning to the true story of Boudica in her own time, in so far as it can be established, must be to look back into the depths of time and culture. Is there something primitive in the human heart which can be held accountable for the mingled awe, horror, and ecstasy which so often attends the manifestation of a Warrior Queen in our midst? Is it the deep-rooted allegiance which we owe to the idea of woman-as-goddess which makes her fleshly apparition before us, fully armed, in the guise of the Warrior Queen so thrillingly traumatic?


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