Woman Knights in the Middle Ages

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Posted by Sir Randal MacNiall Bundy on January 16, 1998 at 05:39:47:

Women Knights in the Middle Ages

Submitted by: Sir Randal MacNiall Bundy, (Chevelier d'Elstow)

For the Knights of Ladonia and the Citizens of Ladonia

Were there women knights in the Middle Ages? Initially I thought not, but further
research yielded surprising answers. There were two ways anyone could be a
knight: by holding land under a knight's fee, or by being made a knight or inducted
into an order of knighthood. There are examples of both cases for women.

Female Orders of Knighthood

There is a case of a clearly military order of knighthood for women. It is the order
of the Hatchet (orden de la Hacha) in Catalonia. It was founded in 1149 by Raymond
Berenger, count of Barcelona, to honor the women who fought for the defense of the
town of Tortosa against a Moor attack. The dames admitted to the order received many
privileges, including exemption from all taxes, and took precedence over men in public
assemblies. I presume the order died out with the original members.

There is a famous figure in French history, nicknamed Jeanne Hachette, who fought to
repel a Burgundian assault on the town of Beauvais in 1472. The King exempted her
from taxes, and ordered that, in an annual procession to commemorate the event, women
would have precedence over men. This story seems to be a carbon copy of the Order of
the Hatchet story...

In Italy, the Order of the glorious Saint Mary, founded by Loderigo d'Andalo, a
nobleman of Bologna in 1233, and approved by pope Alexander IV in 1261, was the first
religious order of knighthood to grant the rank of militissa to women. This order was
suppressed by Sixtus V in 1558.

In the Low Countries, at the initiative of Catherine Baw in 1441, and 10 years later
of Elizabeth, Mary and Isabella of the house of Hornes, orders were founded which were
open exclusively to women of noble birth, who received the French title of chevalière
or the Latin title of equitissa. In his Glossarium (s.v. militissa), Du Cange notes
that still in his day (17th c.), the female canons of the canonical monastery of
St. Gertrude in Nivelles (Brabant), after a probation of 3 years, are made knights
(militissae) at the altar, by a (male) knight called in for that purpose, who gives
them the accolade with a sowrd and pronounces the usual words.

In England, ladies were appointed to the Garter almost from the start. In all,
68 ladies were appointed between 1358 and 1488, including all consorts. Though many
were women of royal blood, or wives of knights of the Garter, some women were neither.
They wore the garter on the left arm, and some are shown on their tombstones with this
arrangement. After 1488, no other appointments are known, although it is said that the
Garter was granted to a Neapolitan poetess, Laura Bacio Terricina, by Edward VI. In
1638, a proposal was made to revive the use of robes for the wives of knights in
ceremonies, but it came to nought. (See Edmund Fellowes, Knights of the Garter, 1939;
and Beltz: Memorials of the Order of the Garter).

Unless otherwise noted, all the above is from the book by H. E. Cardinale, Orders of
Knighthood, Awards and the Holy See, 1983. The info on the order of the Hatchet is
reproduced elsewhere as well, e.g., a Spanish encyclopedia. I have seen the order of
glorious Saint Mary discussed elsewhere, but without mention of women. I have yet to
identify the orders of the Hornes family.

Women in the Military Orders

Several established military orders had women who were associated with them, beyond the
simple provision of aid. The Teutonic order accepted consorores who assumed the habit
of the order and lived under its rule; they undertook menialand hospitaller functions.
Later, in the late 12th century, one sees convents dependent on military orders are
formed. In the case of the Order of Saint-John (later Malta), they were soeurs
hospitalières, and they were the counterparts of the frères prêtres or priest brothers,
a quite distinct class from the knights. In England, Buckland was the site of a house
of Hospitaller sisters from Henry II's reign to 1540. In Aragon, there were Hospitaller
convents in Sigena, San Salvador de Isot, Grisén, Alguaire, headed each by a
commendatrix. In France they are found in Beaulieu (near Cahors), Martel and Fieux.
The only other military order to have convents by 1300 was the order of Santiago, which
had admitted married members since its foundation in 1175. and soon women were admitted
and organized into convents of the order (late 12th, early 13th c.). The convents were
headed by a commendatrix (in Spanish: commendadora) or prioress. There were a total of
six in the late 13th century: Santa Eufenia de Cozuelos in northern Castile, San
Spiritu de Salamanca, Santos-o-Vello in Portugal, Destriana near Astorga, San Pedro
de la Piedra near Lérida, San Vincente de Junqueres. The order of Calatrava also had
a convent in San Felices de los Barrios.

Source: Alain Forey, Women and the Military Orders in the twelvth and thirteenth
centuries, Studia Monastica XXIX, Montserrat, Barcelona 1987.

Women Knights

Medieval French had two words, chevaleresse and chevalière, which were used in two
ways: one was for the wife of a knight, and this usage goes back to the 14th c. The
other was as female knight, or so it seems. Here is a quote from Menestrier, a 17th
c. writer on chivalry: "It was not always necessary to be the wife of a knight in
order to take this title. Sometimes, when some male fiefs were conceded by special
privilege to women, they took the rank of chevaleresse, as one sees plainly in
Hemricourt where women who were not wives of knights are called chevaleresses."

I could find no trace of any title bestowed on Jeanne d'Arc. Her family was made noble,
with nobility transmissible through women, which was quite unusual. She did ride a
horse and dress up in armor, but she did not wield a sword and never killed anyone,
but rather grasped her banner pretty tightly.

See also the Nine Worthy Women (les neuf preuses).

Modern Women Knights

Modern French orders include women, of course, in particular the Légion d'Honneur
(Legion of Honor) since the mid-19th c., but they are always called chevaliers. The
first documented case is that of Marie-Angélique Duchemin (1772-1859), who fought in
the Revolutionary Wars, received a military disability pension in 1798, the rank of
2nd lieutenant in 1822, and the Legion of Honor in 1852.

The first woman to be granted a knighthood in modern Britain seems to have been Queen
Mary in 1917, when the Order of the British Empire was created (the first order open
to women). The Royal Victorian Order was opened to women in 1936, the Order of Bath
and Saint Michael and Saint George in 1965 and 1971 respectively. Queen consorts have
been made Ladies of the Garter since 1901 (Queens Alexandra in 1901, Mary in 1910,
Elizabeth in 1937). The first non-Royal woman to be made Lady Companion of the Garter
was Lavinia, duchess of Norfolk in 1990 (†1995), the second was Baroness Thatcher in
1995 (post-nominal: LG). On Nov. 30, 1996, Marion Ann Forbes, Lady Fraser was made Lady
of the Thistle, the first non-Royal woman (post-nominal: LT).

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