Women Scrapping with Swords and Pistols: Famous Female Duels
The use of private duels as a way of settling questions of honor spread through Europe from Italy in the end of the 15th century, though the institutional practice was much older. These encounters were governed by a strict code and elaborate procedure. They arose out of real, or imagined, slights and insults and sometimes the most trivial of disagreements could trigger them.
The practice became so widespread in France that in 1566 participation in a duel or trial by combat was made punishable by death. However, it made a comeback in the Revolutionary period and continued well into the 20th century, although by then duels were mostly fought for form’s sake. In England the practice was banned in 1819.
However common the practice may have been amongst aristocratic men, women generally used other means to decide their quarrels and disagreements. But history does record the odd “petticoat duel” when two ladies decided to settle it out with swords or pistols. There were many reasons, some trivial, which led to female duels: contemporary actresses challenged each other over which of them was the superior artiste; society ladies fought over their standing at a social event; and one woman even fought another after an unpleasant remark was made about her age. But most often the cause behind female dueling was jealousy over a man.
Women generally didn’t fight each other to the death, or to the pain, but usually just to drawing first blood. But there have been exceptions to this rule.
The Earliest Female Duel on Record
One of the earliest known duels between women was fought between two Neapolitan noblewomen - Diambra de Pettinella and Isabella de Carazzi - in 1552. An intriguing inversion of the medieval trope of shining knights in armor jousting for the hand of a fair damsel, it involved winning the affections of a man named Fabio de Zeresola.
Which of the two ladies emerged triumphant from the encounter and whether it actually won Fabio’s heart remains unknown. The duel was fascinating enough though to be remembered more than 80 years later in a painting by José de Ribera called Combate de Mujeres (1636).
The Petticoat Duel
One of the most famous female duels was fought in 1792 in London between Lady Almeria Braddock and Mrs. Elphinstone. Or was it?
The cause for this duel was a suggestion by Mrs. Elphinstone that Lady Almeria was much older than she claimed to be. “You have been a very beautiful woman…. You have a very good autumn face even now. Forty years ago I am told a young fellow could hardly gaze upon you with impunity.” This incensed Lady Almeria (who claimed she was 30) so much that she called Mrs. Elphinstone out.
They met in Hyde Park and first exchanged pistol shots, which resulted in nothing more than Lady Almeria’s hat having a hole blown through it. They then resumed fighting with swords, and this time Mrs. Elphinstone received a slight wound to her sword arm. Lady Almeria’s honor was satisfied and so they called it quits. Later, Mrs. Elphinstone wrote Lady Almeria a letter of apology.
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This is a pretty interesting tale, but it may be no more than that. The source was an article in the Carlton House Magazine and Lady Almeria Braddock appears to have been an invented character. No real person of the name existed, and Lady Almeria was likely based on actress George Anne Bellamy, who played the character of Almeria in one of her plays and was acquainted with a General Edward Braddock. The Petticoat Duel was probably no more than the figment of an inventive writer’s imagination.
‘The Petticoat Duelists’ depicted in a Carlton House magazine engraving in 1792. ( Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University )
A Patriotic Duel
But there are many equally interesting examples of duels fought by women whose veracity cannot be called into question. In 1886, a bizarre quarrel erupted between two lady doctors of different nationalities. Fiery French feminist and doctor Madame Marie-Rose Astie de Valsayre got into a heated exchange with fellow feminist and American doctor named Miss Shelby over the relative superiority of French and American female medics. In the course of the debate, Miss Shelby called Madame Astie de Valsayre an idiot. Unable to bear the insult, Madame Astie de Valsayre threw down the gauntlet to Miss Shelby.
Madame was the better fencer, being a passionate advocate of the sport for women and even running a fencing school herself. The outcome of the duel was foregone, even though she generously gave Miss Shelby 15 days to practice. Wounded in the shoulder by Madame, Miss Shelby was forced to concede French doctors were better than their American counterparts.
Madame Marie-Rose Astie de Valsayre in a duel with Miss Shelby. ( Poisonous Pens )
The Strangest Female Duel: Bare-breasted Women Battling over Flowers
Perhaps the strangest of all the petticoat duels recorded in history was one fought between two Austrian noblewomen in 1892 for an utterly frivolous reason. The disagreement between Princess Pauline Metternich and the Countess Anastasia Kiielmansegg was over a matter of floral arrangements for the Vienna Musical Theatrical Exhibition, of which the Princess was honorary president and the Countess president of the Ladies’ Committee. It turned serious enough for them to decide that only a duel could settle it.
Attended by seconds and the trained lady doctor Baroness Lubinska, the opponents travelled to Vaduz on the Swiss frontier for the engagement. Here, on the advice of the Baroness who warned them of the consequences of clothing getting trapped in a sword wound and turning it septic, the two ladies stripped to the waist. The only men present were servants, and they were asked to go far away and stand with their backs to the action.
Princess Pauline Metternich and the Countess Anastasia Kiielmansegg dueling. ( Miniatures & History )
However, with both the ladies drawing each other’s blood - the Princess with a cut to the Countess’s nose and the Countess stabbing the Princess in the arm - the seconds fainted at the sight. The cries of the ladies had the servants rushing to their aid, only to be beaten back by Baroness Lubinska with her umbrella, shouting, “Avert your eyes, you lustful wretches.”
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A Bitter Fight
Dueling also travelled to the Americas, and one of the last classic-style duels was fought between two society ladies in Mexico in 1900. Marta Duran was attending a ball with her lover Rafael Riquelme. Rafael had a roving eye and it alighted on Juana Luna. Juana began soaking up his admiration.
The two ladies got into an argument and decided to settle it with a duel. It was a vicious fight that didn’t end with first blood; it went on until Marta was severely injured and Juana managed to injure her sword arm as a consequence. Marta had no choice but to agree to give up Rafael.
But matters didn’t end there. Marta had to seek a surgeon’s attention. The matter reached the ears of the police and Juana and the seconds were arrested and imprisoned. It ended with both ladies relinquishing Rafael willingly.
Though not as common as male duels, a fair number of women seem to have resorted to the practice to settle personal quarrels and disagreements.
Top Image: Painting ‘Combate de Mujeres’ by José de Ribera showing a female duel. Source: Public Domain
By Sahir Pandey
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