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Warriors and Queens. Geniuses and schemers.  Masters of swords and horses. They weren’t all saints (in fact some were downright evil), but they all fought their own battles. Beware Lara Croft and Katniss Everdeen. These real-life villains and heroines might just take you…

Some say the main figure in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus is a representation of Caterina (www.uffizi.com)

Caterina Sforza:  The Tigress of Forli – a legendary red-haired beauty with a love of hunting – experimented with alchemy and sent poisoned letters to the pope. When her enemies threatened to murder her children if she did not surrender her fortress, Caterina stood on the battlements and said, “Go ahead and kill them.” Then, she lifted her skirt, exposed her genitals, and yelled: “I have the mold to make more!”

Felice as seen in Raphael's Mass at Bolsena in the Vatican
Felice as seen in Raphael’s Mass at Bolsena in the Vatican

Felice della Rovere:  Given the boy’s version of her name at birth (Instead of the female Felicia or Felicita), this illegitimate daughter of Pope Julius II lived up to her masculine moniker: she helped negotiate peace with the French, brokered a deal between warring Roman families, and at age 26, bought her own castle with her own money—making her one of the only married women of her time to be a property-owner in her own right.

Portrait commemorating Queen Elizabeth I’s defeat of Spanish Armada (located in Woburn Abbey)

Queen Elizabeth I:  Never marrying, Elizabeth ruled England and Ireland on her own for over forty years. She cursed like a sailor (something she picked up from her father, King Henry VIII –  or perhaps from her mother, Anne Boleyn), but when she spoke to her soldiers during their legendary defeat of the Spanish Armada, she kept her language clean: “Let tyrants fear,” she told them. “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king!”

Queen Amina

Amina, Queen of Zazzau (now Zaria in north central Nigeria):  This fierce warrior queen built Zazzau into a powerful trade center. She refused to take a husband for fear of diluting her power, but after each victory, did take a lover from the conquered people — and promptly killed him the next morning so she wouldn’t become too attached.

Portrait by Titian now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna
By Titian. Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna

Isabella d’Este:  The Marchesa of Mantua was a ferocious collector of art (she was not above unscrupulous means to get her hands on pretty things) and one of the most educated nobles on the peninsula. While her husband was away (often schtupping Isabella’s sister-in-law Lucrezia Borgia), Isabella ruled Mantua and personally convinced King Louis XII of France to leave her city alone during his bloody invasion of Italy.

by Unknown artist, oil on panel, late 16th century (circa 1533-1536)
by Unknown artist, oil on panel, late 16th century (circa 1533-1536)

Anne Boleyn:  King Henry VIII of England broke with the Catholic Church to divorce his long-time wife Katherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn (wife number 2 of 6) – his mistress who refused to bed him until he made her his Queen. Love her or hate her, that’s pretty hard core – even if she couldn’t save her own neck from charges of treachery and witchcraft, when her husband wanted to be rid of her to marry another (Jane Seymour).

Photo of Queen Nzinga of AngolaQueen Anna Nzinga:  When the Portuguese slave trade invaded her homeland, Queen Nzinga resisted. During her negotiations for peace, a Portuguese representative offered her a mat on the floor, instead of a chair, as a sign of her inferiority. So, she ordered one of her servants to the ground, and she sat on his back, raising her to equal footing with any man at the table.

Painting attributed to Gerard David
Painting attributed to Gerard David

Isabella I Castile: As co-ruler of Spain (with her husband Ferdinand II Aragon), Isabella politically unified her country – but she was also responsible for the Spanish Inquisition and the exile, torture, and murder of thousands. Arguably one of the most ruthless and villainous leaders of all time, Isabella led her own armies to war – and did not spare her children. They rode with her on military campaigns. She didn’t even pause her war plans to go into labor.

Portrait by Francois Clouet
Portrait by Francois Clouet

Catherine de Medici: The Queen of France, regent ruler, and influential mother of three French kings, Catherine fought to keep her family – and her sons – in power. Without her advice, her Valois sons might not have remained on the throne. Her struggle for power had deadly effect: Catherine was arguably the mastermind behind the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, which killed thousands in Paris and kicked off the French Wars of Religion.

Portrait by Antonis Mor

Queen Mary I of England: When her half-brother Edward disinherited  her before he died, Mary did not slink away – she formed an army, deposed Jane Grey, and marched triumphantly into London to become the first Queen to rule England in her own right. Then, she restored Catholicism in England (her father, King Henry VIII had left the Church to divorce Mary’s Catholic mother, Katherine of Aragon) and then had hundreds of Protestants burned at the stake – giving her the nickname “Bloody Mary.”


This isn’t even close to a complete list. I didn’t have room to list every hard core woman of the Renaissance. But this seemed like a good place to start.