‘Female knight’ may well strike you as a contradiction in terms: how could a knight of medieval times be a woman? Surely this was a male domain?
When you imagine a woman in armour, no doubt Joan of Arc springs to mind. She famously disguised herself as a soldier, and she was instrumental in military campaigns. However, she was not a knight in the true sense, for she wielded the army’s banner, not a sword.
But there are records of some brave women in the Middle Ages fighting as valiantly as any man. In Catalonia, Spain, for example, the Order of the Hatchet was founded by the count of Barcelona to honour a group of women who defended the town of Tortosa against an attack by the Moors. According to a book entitled The Institution, Laws, and Ceremony of the Most Noble Order of the Garter (1672), “Women hearing of, to prevent the disaster threatning their City, themselves, and Children, put on mens Clothes, and by a resolute sally, forced the Moors to raise the Siege.” These women were knighted, and afforded great privileges: exemption from taxes; the right of ownership over their husband’s apparel and jewels upon widowhood; and, most progressive of all, a right to precedence over men at public meetings.
It is notable that these brave women felt compelled to disguise themselves as men when acting as knights. So, too, did Spain’s legendary and lone female knight, Juana Garcia de Arintero. (The following is pieced together from various sources, a definitive legend – as is invariably the case with legends – being difficult to find.)
The year was 1474, and the War of the Castilian Succession was imminent. It would be fought over the Crown of Castile, between the supporters of Joanna la Beltraneja, daughter of the late King Henry IV of Castile (known as The Impotent), and Henry’s half-sister, Isabella. Joanna was married to the king of Portugal, and Isabella was married to Ferdinand II of Aragon (known as the Catholic); hence the war that broke out pitched Spain against Portugal.
Isabella and Ferdinand worked to rally the Spanish to their cause, nobles and peasants alike. When word of the recruitment drive reached the remote Castilian village of Arintero, Don Garcia had no help to offer: he was too old to fight, and had only daughters, seven of them. His daughter Juana, however, did not accept that her gender should prevent her fighting for the cause, and she convinced her father to teach her the battle skills of a knight.
When the time came, Juana joined the ranks, disguised as a man named Diego Oliveros. For months she fought arduously alongside knights who had no idea of her deception. She fought all the way through to the final battle of Toro, in which an enemy’s sword tore her doublet and she was revealed as a woman.
After the battle, she was summoned to the victorious King Fernando’s tent. He decided her subterfuge was unimportant, and rewarded her as he would a man with privileges. His wife, however, Isabella, was less understanding. At the time, a woman dressing as a man was expressly forbidden by the Church.
Whether at Isabella’s instigation or simply in the grip of jealously, a group of men accosted Juana on her way home to Arintero. Some say she died fighting them off; others say she escaped and married a nobleman from the Asturias.
The village of Arintero was destroyed during the Civil War, but when it was rebuilt the people affixed a plaque on the home of the Garcias which reads: If you want to know this brave warrior, take off your armour and you will see: the Lady of Arintero.
It is a wonderful and inspiring story, don’t you think? I can imagine it being a very powerful film. Whether it would be a biographical or fictional work, I will leave you to decide.