Women Wearing Armor in Historical Movies – Fact & Fiction

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I’ve been noodling around on the idea of this post for three years (according to our Word Press history) because it’s such a common trope in frock flicks, and I wanted to put some good, solid research into it. But fuckit, because THIS:

The Spanish Princess, Season 2 (2020)

The Spanish Princess, Season 2 (2020), comes along with FUCKING MATERNITY ARMOR for Catherine of Aragon. This is wrong on so many levels that I had to just dive into this post right ASA-the-fuck-P. I’ll include as much historical research as I can muster whilst being disgusted and outraged by the bullshit!

 

A Bit About Historical Armor

First, let’s start with a very basic overview of historical armor. I’m not an expert, but I’ve seen some stuff and apparently more stuff than some film productions. Many movie and TV shows focus on plate armor, which was most popularly used in European warfare from around the 14th through 16th centuries. Chain mail was used before this, but also during and after.

Essentially, plate armor is the type of protection made from solid pieces of metal that are shaped to fit parts of the body, such as a breastplate and arm and leg coverings.

Royal Armouries - Composite armour (1440-80)

Full suit of armor, c. 1440-80, via Royal Armouries

Royal Armouries - Breastplate (1510)

Breastplate from 1510, via Royal Armouries.

Chain mail is the type of armor that’s made from rings of metal linked together to form a fabric-like garment, often a shirt.

Royal Armouries - Mail shirt (1430)

Chain mail shirt from 1430 via, Royal Armouries

There are also helmets, leather armor, layers of padded/quilted garments that are worn with metal armor, etc., etc. It’s a whole category of clothing unto itself, of course!

Monty Python - it's only a flesh wound

What any particular person in a battle wore for protection depended on the exact time period, geographic area, and, importantly,  what they could afford. Consider that a metal helmet/chain mail shirt combo would be less expensive for a foot soldier than a full suit of armor that a knight or noblemen might afford.

 

What About Women on the Battlefield?

We’ve mentioned anachronistic feminism before and why it bugs us. We watch women in historical movies and TV shows to see something about the reality of women’s lives in times past, and the majority of those women were not soldiers or leading armies.

Lion in Winter - Hush, dear. Mother's fighting

Now, women have been involved in battles and war forever, that is a historical fact! But because they were the exception, not the rule, they didn’t have specially made, custom outfits to do so. Even in the 21st century, or at least until 2012 according to Stars and Stripes, women in the U.S. Army wore “combat uniforms designed with the male body in mind.” So women in “girl armor” onscreen for a medieval or renaissance battle stretches credulity. We’re not reviewing Game of Thrones here, folks.

Game of Thrones Cersi

That said, there were women in the 14th through 16th centuries who participated in battles. Could they have worn armor? Maybe, but extremely doubtful it would look like what the movie and TV depictions might have it.

Here’s a pretty practical point via Tor.com:

“Let’s begin by stating the simple purpose of plate armor — to deflect blows from weaponry. Assuming that you are avoiding the blow of a sword, your armor should be designed so that the blade glances off your body, away from your chest. If your armor is breast-shaped, you are in fact increasing the likelihood that a blade blow will slide inward, toward the center of your chest, the very place you are trying to keep safe.”

That’s the most obvious reason why, historical or modern, plate armor shouldn’t be designed to highlight the boobs especially for a female form. Duh!

Kate Upton in Game of War ad

 

 

A Note on Mythological and Allegorical Imagery

If you’ve googled the topic, maybe you’ve found some genuine medieval and renaissance images of women wearing armor. Cool, huh? Must mean that’s what happened, there were totally women wearing full plate armor in battle in the 14th century ‘n stuff?

Queen Tomyris - c. 1455 - by Andrea del Castagno via Wikimedia Commons

Queen Tomyris, c. 1455, by Andrea del Castagno via Wikimedia Commons

Yeah, no. What you’re probably seeing is mythological, allegorical, or legendary artwork. Meaning, it’s still fantasy, but it’s just ye olde-timey fantasy.

Xena Warrior Princess

For example, the writings of Christine de Pizan (1364–1430) often include artwork depicting the Amazons from Greek and Roman mythology. Also, the Italian writer Boccaccio complied a book of stories about legendary female figures, and the French illustrations for it show lots of armor-clad women, but they’re fictional or from times more ancient than the book’s author or illustrator.

Penthesilea, queen of the Amazons, from Des cleres et nobles femmes art by Master of Boethius, early 1400s

Penthesilea, queen of the Amazons, from Des cleres et nobles femmes, art by Master of Boethius, early 1400s, via British Library

Hypsicratea from Des cleres et nobles femmes, art by Master of Boethius, early 1400s

Hypsicratea from Des cleres et nobles femmes, art by Master of Boethius, early 1400s, via British Library

Minerva from in miscellaneous illumination, mid-1400s, via Bodleian Library

Minerva from a miscellaneous illumination, mid-1400s, via Bodleian Library

Setting the mythical aside, let’s examine some more realistic historical scenarios.

 

Women in Battle – Probably Without Armor

Plenty of female rulers, without help of men, sent their people into war, but we can’t tell if they wore armor to do so. It’s not always clear if these queens and noblewomen were literally on the battlefield, leading the charge. There’s a dearth of contemporary pictorial or written evidence that they were wielding swords ‘n stuff. Legends grew up about these “warrior women” after their lifetimes, and that seems to be what movies and TV shows rely upon instead of looking at primary sources.

The Last Kingdom

Empress Matilda, also called Maude, (1102–1167) is sometimes considered England’s first ruling queen, although her reign was disputed. As the daughter of King Henry I, she tried to take the kingdom by force during a succession crisis which kicked off a civil war. There isn’t much to suggest she wore armor into battle, and this is a bit too early for full plate armor anyway.

Empress Mathilda in the Gospels of Henry the Lion, c. 1175-1188, via Wikimedia Commons

Empress Mathilda in the Gospels of Henry the Lion, c. 1175-1188, via Wikimedia Commons

She shows up The Pillars of the Earth (2010), a fictional story set in the 12th century, and does wear some chain mail. That part seems reasonable if you buy that she’s charging around with her army.

Alison Pill in The Pillars of the Earth (2010)

Alison Pill in The Pillars of the Earth (2010)

But the gold lame is just ludicrous!

Alison Pill in The Pillars of the Earth (2010)

Alison Pill in The Pillars of the Earth (2010)

If we didn’t have maternity armor to discuss, that would be the most egregious thing in this post! OK, then.

Another medieval “warrior” queen is Isabella of France (1295–1358) who led an army to depose her husband, Edward II of England, in 1326, and put their son on the throne as Edward III. She was super in-charge, especially compared to her kinda wishy-washy king, but I can’t find contemporary descriptions of her wearing armor.

The Chronicles of Jean Froissart shows Isabella at the Siege of Bristol — she’s the one wearing a crown. Jean Froissart (1337-1410) was a historian at the court of Edward III, so while he may not have seen this battle, he was writing his chronicle for the son and daughter of the subject. These illuminations are as close to contemporary as I could find.

Isabella of France - Chronicles of Jean Froissart (1337-1410)

Isabella of France in Les Croniques que Jean Froissart (1337-1410) via Bibliotheque Nationale de France

This history was popular and other versions were created in later years. The French historian and solidier Jean de Wavrin (c. 1400–1474) wrote his Chroniques d’Angleterre around 1445. Nearly 120 years after the event, Isabella is depicted in armor over a gown, beside her lover / general Roger Mortimer, Earl of March. Questionable clothing, I say!

Isabella of France in Chroniques d'Angleterre, c. 1445, via Bibliotheque Nationale de France

Isabella of France in Chroniques d’Angleterre, c. 1445, via Bibliotheque Nationale de France

Isabella doesn’t show up too often onscreen. She’s “Princess Isabelle” in Braveheart (1995), played by Sophie Marceau, but that’s for a fictional romance, as she would have been 9-years-old during the whole William Wallace action. The miniseries World Without End (2012), the sequel to Pillars of the Earth, includes Queen Isabella at battle, flanked by her son Edward and her lover Roger Mortimer.

Aure Atika in World Without End (2012)

Aure Atika in World Without End (2012)

Wearing a bit of chain mail is probably the most she’d have done in period, IMO, so this looks fine.

Moving forward in time and towards more heavy-armor eras, how about Shakespeare’s she-wolf of the history plays, Margaret of Anjou? She was a key antagonist in the Wars of the Roses and “led” an army into battle, specifically the Second Battle of St. Albans on February, 17, 1461, and the Battle of Tewkesbury on May 4, 1471. According to contemporary accounts, Margaret stayed at a nearby abbey during the Tewkesbury fighting, and there’s nothing to indicate she was on the field at St. Albans either. So, despite Shakespeare’s characterization, I think it’s unlikely she’d be wearing armor.

In The Hollow Crown, Queen Margaret starts out in medieval woman’s garb, but when the war starts up, she dons full armor.

The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses (2016)

Sophie Okonedo in The Hollow Crown: Henry VI (2016)

2016 The Hollow Crown- The Wars of the Roses

Sophie Okonedo in The Hollow Crown: Henry VI (2016)

It looks great on TV, makes all of Shakespeare’s points, and Sophie Okonedo is awesome in the part, but the costume is not all that historically accurate.

Philippa fucking Gregory had her take on Margaret of Anjou in The White Queen (2013), where likewise, she wears women’s clothing but puts on armor to fight. Here, it’s leather armor. No idea why because the noblemen are in metal plate armor and chain mail. I guess this is the TV show’s version of “girl armor,” ugh.

The White Queen (2013) - Margaret Anjou

Veerle Baetens in The White Queen (2013)

The White Queen (2013) - Margaret Anjou

Veerle Baetens in The White Queen (2013)

One seriously bad-ass historical woman was Caterina Sforza. She was nicknamed La Tigre — The Tigress — for her defense of Forlì in 1499, as well as for her occupation of Castel Sant’Angelo in 1484. This Italian noblewoman took charge of multiple dangerous situations over the course of her lifetime. Her primary tactics were to occupy her domain, outlast a siege, and execute those who opposed her afterwards.

Lorenzo di Credi, "Portrait of Caterina Sforza," Pinacoteca Civica di Forlì

Caterina Sforza, c. 1481-1483, by Lorenzo di Credi, Pinacoteca Civica di Forlì

All the portraits of her from her lifetime are in women’s clothes or allegorically still feminine, and I can’t find anything about her in armor. But that hasn’t stopped TV! Both Showtime’s The Borgias (2011–2013) and the Borgia: Faith and Fear (2011–2014) series included some of Caterina Sforza’s story, with her in armor. She played a bigger part in the Showtime series and was only shown in armor a few times. In the other series, she’s just in two episodes when Cesare Borgia finally captures her.

The Borgias (2011–2013) - Caterina Sforza

Gina McKee in The Borgias (2011–2013)

Borgias: Faith & Fear (2011–2014) - Caterina Sforza

Valentina Cervi in Borgias: Faith & Fear (2013)

Now for some reason, frock flick makers decided to throw armor on even more women rulers simply because, IDK, they were strong women? Ugh, it’s a trope! These next two are pix that inspired my original idea for this post since they’re such head-scratchers.

Of historical characters who get the short shrift onscreen, Mary Tudor, Mary I of England (1516–1558), is right up there. The eldest legitimate child of Henry VIII had a complicated, bitter life. She didn’t gain the throne until she was 37, she only ruled for 5 years, she had a terrible long-distance marriage and a bunch of false pregnancies, and she died.

Mary I, 1554, portrait by Antonis Mor, via Wikimedia Commons

Mary I, 1554, portrait by Antonis Mor, via Wikimedia Commons

Yet here we go in The Virgin Queen (2006), adding costume nonsense to Mary’s already sad story. From what I remember of the scene, Mary wears this breastplate while accusing Elizabeth of conspiring against her. She’s not even doing the horseback-leading-the-troops thing. Because it didn’t happen, and while she may well have argued with Elizabeth, it’d have been silly to put on armor to do so!

The Virgin Queen (2006) - Mary Tudor

Joanne Whalley in The Virgin Queen (2006)

It’s boob armor too. SMH.

Now, let’s take a look at Mary of Guise. She was the mother of Mary Queen of Scots and served as regent of Scotland while MQoS was a child, having been sent to France for safety. Because Scotland was kind of a sketchy place for a baby girl Catholic queen, especially once the Protestant Reformation took hold. Mary of Guise was intelligent and determined, and she did have French troops at her disposal to fend off the Protestant Scots lords. She was even described as having “hart of a man of warre” by Nicholas Throckmorton, the English ambassador in France. But none of this is proof that she led an army and wore plate armor.

1537 - Mary of Guise, attributed to Corneille de Lyon. via Wikimedia Commons

Mary of Guise, 1537, attributed to Corneille de Lyon, via Wikimedia Commons

Yet in Elizabeth (1998), there’s a whole stupid, historically inaccurate side-plot about Mary of Guise, and to make matters worse, she’s in armor.

Fanny Ardant in Elizabeth (1998)

Fanny Ardant in Elizabeth (1998)

Yeah, nothing about that costume is particularly fabulous for the 1550s. sad trombone

But wait, her daughter gets some unnecessary onscreen armor too! Mary Queen of Scots had a tumultuous reign once she returned to Scotland as an adult, and it ended in an attempted battle. Most screen versions show her final marriage as the result of some romance with the rebel lord Bothwell, who conspired to kill her husband Darnley. The truth is far more likely that she was abducted, raped, and coerced by Bothwell into his rebellion.

Mary, Queen of Scots, by unknown artist, circa 1560, National Portrait Gallery.

Mary, Queen of Scots, c. 1560, by unknown artist, National Portrait Gallery

She accompanied the army Bothwell raised at Carberry Hill on June 15, 1576, but because she had been abducted, she was wearing borrowed clothes, according to Antonia Fraser’s seminal biography Mary Queen of Scots (1969): “a short red petticoat, a muffler, a velvet hat, and sleeves tied with bows, such as the women of Edinburgh wore.” No mention of armor, it’s just not thing!

But first the ’70s biopic puts her in a breastplate, and the most recent flick has its own shitty version of the costume.

Mary, Queen of Scots (1971)

Vanessa Redgrave in Mary, Queen of Scots (1971)

MQoS (2019) - armor

Saoirse Ronan in Mary Queen of Scots (2019)

Stop the madness!

Reign - MQoS - sword

 

 

Women in Battle – Dressed as Men

The historical record has a lots of examples of women who wore men’s clothing and participated in battles. There were, of course, a wide range of reasons why a woman would do this — from wanting adventure to believing in a religious or political cause to being transgendered and identifying as male and many combinations of reasons that we’ll never know.

Appearance-wise, these women’s armor would look identical to men’s. Either no-one thought they were women in the heat of battle, or if bystanders could tell or knew the soldier was a woman, the description would be of a “woman in man’s clothing” or a masculine female. So if these folks are portrayed onscreen, their costumes should just be typical male historical armor.

Yifei Liu in Mulan (2020)

Mulan (2020) is one such story of a woman disguising herself as a man to go to war. This is a legendary tale, but you can see in the live-action movie how the main character is trying to blend in and not appear female.

Not every woman wore men’s clothes in battle to hide her identity though. In “Women in the Military: Scholastic Arguments and Medieval Images of Female Warriors” by James M. Blythe, a Byzantine historian Nicetas Choniates (1150–1213) is quoted as describing female Crusaders thusly:

“Females were numbered among them, riding horseback in the manner of men, not on coverlets sidesaddle but unashamedly astride, and bearing lances and weapons as men do; dressed in masculine garb, they conveyed a wholly martial appearance, more mannish than the Amazons.”

There, the observers know the fighters are women, but also see that they’re dressed in men’s clothes and make a point about their masculine appearance. But the Crusades are a bit before plate armor was popular.

Black Panther - Dora Milaje

Of course, everyone’s favorite woman in battle dressed as a man must be Joan of Arc (1412–1431). Costume-wise, she should be wearing male armor because that’s what she could scrounge up. It’s widely reported that she borrowed men’s clothing and armor the whole time she was on her mission to meet King Charles VII of France and lead his army. And cross-dressing was added to the charges against her that she was executed for.

The only contemporary image of Joan of Arc is a doodle dated May 10, 1429, and drawn by Clément de Fauquembergue, but he never actually saw her. He shows Joan carrying a sword and not wearing obvious armor.

Joan of Arc - 1429

Joan of Arc, 1429, via Wikimedia Commons

Written and illustrated around 1484, Les Vigiles de Charles VII shows many episodes from Joan of Arc’s life, and in them, she’s wearing some or full armor.

Joan of Arc at the the siege of Paris, in The Vigils of Charles VII, 1484, via Bibliotheque Nationale de France

Joan of Arc at the the siege of Paris, in Les Vigiles de Charles VII, 1484, via Bibliotheque Nationale de France

Capture of Joan of Arc, in The Vigils of Charles VII, 1484, via Bibliotheque Nationale de France

Capture of Joan of Arc, in Les Vigiles de Charles VII, 1484, via Bibliotheque Nationale de France

How do films and TV measure up? Not too bad, actually! Joan gets standard male armor and she’s not particularly feminized in the screen adaptions I’ve seen. I do think her armor should look more borrowed and less well-fitted and shiny, if I were to nitpick.

joan of arc on film

Ingrid Bergman in Joan of Arc (1948)

The ’40s film was Bergman’s passion project and had a decent budget. That was long before “gritty realism” though.

joan of arc on film

Milla Jovovich in The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999)

joan of arc on film

Milla Jovovich in The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999)

The ’90s film got more gritty in terms of Joan’s costume.

The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses (2016)

Laura Morgan in The Hollow Crown: Henry VI, Part 1 (2016)

Joan of Arc is briefly part of Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses cycle, and the costuming is fine.

Joan of Arc (Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure)

Jane Wiedlin in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)

Hey, why not! I love Ms. Of Arc played by my favorite Go-Go. Her costume looks like a knit sweater topped by a cardboard collar, which it probably is.

 

 

Women in Battle – Wearing Armor as Women

This is the category that frock flicks love to portray but seems most elusive in history: self-identified women who participated in battle or led an army while wearing some form of armor.

Mariah Carey

The most obvious example is Queen Elizabeth I. While she didn’t join a battle, she did wear some armor to address her troops before they fought the Spanish Armada. In The Life of Elizabeth I by Alison Weir (1998), Elizabeth is described arriving at the field of Tilbury on August 8, 1588:

“The Queen appeared in the guise of ‘some Amazonian empress’ in a white velvet dress with a shining silver cuirass, and preceded by a page carrying her silver helmet on a white cushion and the Earl of Ormonde bearing the sword of state.”

Note that the cuirass (or breastplate) is the only item of armor she’s wearing, she’s wearing it with a dress, and the helmet and sword are carried by others. The next morning, Elizabeth gave her famous speech with the line “I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king.” That day, she’s described as:

“‘most bravely mounted on a most stately steed,’ and dressed as ‘an armed Pallas’ with her silver breastplate and a small silver and gold leader’s truncheon in her hand”

“Pallas” refers to Athena, the Greek goddess associated with both wisdom and war. This entire episode was stage-managed by her courtier Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, for maximum pageantry and spectacle.

This Tilbury speech moment is often included in movies and TV shows about QEI, but with varying degrees of historical accuracy. From best to worst costume, in my estimation are:

Elizabeth I (2005) - Helen Mirren - Tilbury

Helen Mirren in Elizabeth I (2005)

Helen Mirren in Elizabeth I (2005)

Helen Mirren in Elizabeth I (2005)

Dame Helen’s look gets my top marks because she has a shiny silver breastplate that looks the same shape as a man’s would. No “girl armor” here. This is worn over a pale-ish gown, with a typical ruff and hat of the period.

The Virgin Queen (2005) - Tilbury

Anne-Marie Duff in The Virgin Queen (2005)

Anne-Marie Duff in The Virgin Queen (2005)

Anne-Marie Duff in The Virgin Queen (2005)

Released the same year by the BBC (and thus a bit lower budget than HBO’s Elizabeth), The Virgin Queen has the most complete version of the Tilbury speech. The queen wears a correct white gown and silver breastplate, but I give it a tiny demerit because in the large images, it kind of looks like there’s a shadow of bust cup shaping to that cuirass that’s slightly disguised by the red sash. The armored gloves are an unnecessary touch.

Fire Over England (1937) - Flora Robson - stripe gown w/armor

Flora Robson in Fire Over England (1937)

Fire Over England (1937) - Flora Robson - stripe gown - Vivien Leigh

Flora Robson in Fire Over England (1937)

Probably the first depiction of the Tilbury speech on film is shortened, but the queen in Fire Over England is wearing a standard masculine breastplate over her gown with a 1580s ruff, hat, and gloves. I like that she’s shown wearing the gown without the breastplate in another scene, and it really looks like she just borrowed the thing for the speech.

Glenda Jackson as Queen Elizabeth I

Glenda Jackson in Elizabeth R (1971)

Glenda Jackson - Elizabeth R (1971) - Tilbury

Glenda Jackson in Elizabeth R (1971)

As much as it pains me to admit this, my beloved Elizabeth R doesn’t have the most historically accurate costume for the Tilbury speech. But at least it’s by omission! The queen merely wears an armored gorget, not a breastplate, though she does carry a shiny stick that’s kind of like the “gold leader’s truncheon.” Her outfit is a perfectly lovely 1580s wheel-farthingale outfit, but it’s not white either.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

Now here’s your full-on fantasy version of Queen Elizabeth at Tilbury! Oh it’s beautiful cinema, that’s for sure. But Cate Blanchett seems to be channeling her Lord of the Rings and Robin Hood roles with that long, romantic hairstyle. Plus, she’s wearing a full head-to-toe suit of armor, which was just not QEI’s thing. Sorry, no!

Queen Elizabeth II - eyebrows

 

Catherine of Aragon in Maternity Armor?

I guess the folks behind The Spanish Princess didn’t dig any farther than Wikipedia because they bought into a myth about Catherine riding into battle, pregnant and in full armor. Thus, this monstrosity:

The Spanish Princess, Season 2 (2020)

MY EYES!!!!!! Not only does she wear this nonsense, it’s supposed to stir up the troops — instead of horrifying them, because why would you want your pregnant queen anywhere near the battlefield?

Co-showrunner Matthew Graham says in Elle: “We write her a real Henry V at Agincourt.” eyeroll Sure, Henry V was a great military leader, but he left the kingdom with a baby son and feuding uncles that led to the Wars of the Roses because the succession to the crown was disputed! Catherine and especially Henry VIII knew that the Tudor dynasty was fragile, and Henry wanted sons to secure his legacy.

I'm the best Henry V!

OK, is there any truth about Catherine of Aragon going to war? Well, Catherine was appointed Governor of the Realm and Captain General in 1513 by Henry VIII while he was off fighting in France. And during that time, England dealt with an attempted Scottish invasion. Catherine was hands-on in the sense that she worked directly with the Privy Council and ordered several key preparations for the battle. Here’s where some armor fiction may have come from.

A blog post from the UK’s National Archives explains the situation and cites several entries in the Chamber Book Payments from early September 1513. Specifically: “Item, to Owen Holand upon a warrant for the conveying of 1500 almain rivets northward.” This is from Queen Catherine and she’s ordering up a bunch of armor, called “almain rivets,” plus weaponry from the Tower of London. That month, she attempted to accompany this shipment north, towards the Scottish border, as these documents in the National Archives describe.

So she went to the battle WITH armor. Not WEARING it.

She was taking 1,500 pieces of armor TO THE BATTLE, for, y’know, the soldiers.

Merida - eyes

A photo of the warrant she signed on September 8 “authorising the delivery of Tower armour to her servant Owen Holand for her journey to Warwick” is shown on that blog page.

British History Online has an archive of letters from Henry VIII’s reign, to / from / directly concerning the King, and you can read the early September 1513 ones here. Catherine writes to Wolsey on September 2, from Richmond, presumably Richmond Palace, which today would be in the greater London area. On the 8th, still in Richmond, she writes to arrange for the royal standards, banners, trumpet banners, etc.

Something about the timeline of those letters doesn’t add up because September 9th is the Battle of Flodden where the English triumph and the Scots King James IV is killed. Catherine ordered a bunch of armor, weapons, and royal banners just a few days before the battle!

Now, it’s about 350 miles between Richmond-Upon-Thames and Flodden in Scotland (and over 250 miles between Warwick and Flodden, Warwick being where Catherine was delivering armor specifically), and let’s just say they didn’t have Amazon Prime back in 1513. Hauling thousands of pieces of battle gear across country in less than 8 days would have been a heroic feat, not to mention getting a queen and her retinue there. Sounds like Catherine had a good idea but poor execution, and I highly doubt she had time for stirring speeches either. And, of course, nowhere is it documented that she wore armor.

Finally, on September 16, 1513, Catherine writes to Henry, telling him of the Battle of Flodden, and she opens the letter with:

“My Lord Howard hath sent me a letter open to your Grace, within one of mine, by the which you shall see at length the great Victory that our Lord hath sent your subjects in your absence”

She refers to Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, who led the battle for the English, and she’s retelling Howard’s story of the battle to Henry. Because she wasn’t there. She’s got it second-hand. So let’s put this idea of Catherine of Aragon leading the battle to rest, m’kay? There just isn’t sufficient historical documentation for it.

Besides, look at the crazy armor Henry VIII did keep — if maternity armor was around, surely someone would have kept that oddity too?!?

Royal Armouries - The Horned Helmet (1512)

The Horned Helmet (1512), presented to King Henry VIII by the Emperor Maximilian I in 1514 and made by Konrad Seusenhofer, via Royal Armouries

Lest you think I’ve missed a feminine armor oddity, nope, that “armor dress” floating around Google and Pinterest is a historical fake

armor dress is fake

This was a 2003 project by two designers, Esther Geremus and Birgit Hutter, on display at the Styrian Armoury, and the “armor” is made of plastic!

 

 

Will you be watching The Spanish Princess for that maternity armor?

37 Responses

  1. Constance

    I could not watch the Spanish Princess for more than 1/2 of an episode and this post confirms my feelings…yuk. I even managed to get some sort of cheap enjoyment from the White Queen/Princess some years back but this one, no. Nothing.

    Reply
  2. Elyse

    Wasn’t there a reference to Mary I wearing a (presumably male) breastplate and having a sword near her in the palace? I wonder if I’m conflating history and myth… it had something to do with her level of paranoia regarding rebellion as there had recently been one in Elizabeth’s name. So, not worn publicly, but more out of spiraling mental health.

    Reply
    • Roxana

      Various people who had not seen Mary personally described her as behaving like a madwoman, attacking the absent Philip’s portraits, wearing a cuirass and keeping all but a handful of ladies at distance for fear of assassination. There is no good reason to believe these exaggerated reports. Mary was certainly depressed and distressed by Philip’s continued absence but she wasn’t raving and the paranoia seems to have been pure fantasy.

      Reply
  3. Shashwat

    The girl armour thing is so stupid because,it is an armour,not a corset supposed to fit your form.A breastplate without a cuirass is an invitation to weapons to mince your body.The outcome would look better in a gory *orn?gorn not a fantasy period drama.
    Since Mulan was mentioned,Disney’s shitty attempt to sell it as “culturally appropriate”while it is yet another Hollywood fantasy of Chinese war drama,I don’t know what they were thinking when Mulan literally throws away the armour before heading to the war.Bonus loose hair.Like,is she suicidal?Too much confidence in Hollywood chi?What about the tradition of family belongings?Does Mulan have PTSD and is trying to end her life?
    The pregnancy armour looks like something discarded from Maleficent concept design.I still can’t believe someone came up with something so stupid.It deserves a memetic mutation on the lines of Braveheart’s freedom gif.

    Reply
    • HerImperialMaj

      Mulan’s hair in that scene drives me even crazier than her lack of armour. The movie made a point of avoiding the inaccuracy of the cartoon by not cutting her hair, since ancient Chinese men kept their hair as long as women. So then why is that supposed to be her “embracing her femininity” by leaving it loose and flowing? The length isn’t a giveaway, and it’s not like flowing beach waves was any more a look for ancient Chinese women than men.

      Reply
  4. spanielpatter14

    The Spanish Princess’ second season looks like it will be even worse than the first. Former Prince-now-King Henry is a pale boyish young person with absolutely none of the charisma and energy exuded by the historical original; Catherine and Henry have no chemistry (or maybe it’s the writing). And yes, Catherine would never have risked her pregnancy, given the lack of a male heir, to lead an army into battle wearing maternity armor (of all things!).

    I’m only watching the season to find out what happens to Oviedo (who is seriously hot) and his wife Lina; hoping they get to have long and happy lives between battle-carnage.

    Reply
  5. mmcquown

    Rivets are small pins that hold armour together. Almain means German, from the French Allemagne. The correct term is :mail:” from the French “Maille,” meaning links. “Chainmail is a redundancy. Elizabeth might well have worn a back-and-breast because there were a lot of them around. While it takes months to make a full suit of plate, with each piece worked to fit a specific wearer, by the 17th century there was a fair amount of pieces made en masse, because armour was becoming less effective against firearms and abandoned as excess weight. There were still some units, like the Polish winged hussars that wore them, and even into the 19th century, some cavalry outfits wore a back-and-breast, some even reducing it to the frontal cuirass only, held on by straps in the back. In the earlier periods, mail was easier to make, and could fit pretty much sny body, and all of it would have had padded garments underneath. If you poke around on the net, you will find many discussions of women’s armour by people who know lots about armour ;

    Reply
    • Arthur McClench

      The first rule of mediaeval fight club ….

      Mail armour : [i]maille[/i] – French for ‘mesh’

      Reply
  6. Addie

    Empress Matilda/Maude is an interesting case, because although she was deeply entrenched in the Anarchy’s military strategies (until she turned them over to her son because the war was taking decades and she could be hanging out in Normandy instead), she mostly left the literal leading of the troops to her half-brother Robert of Gloucester. He wouldn’t have been the real power behind her cause, but Stephen did put a lot of focus on him. At one point, Matilda was in a castle under siege but Stephen gave it up because camping outside the castle when Robert was leading raids nearby was an easy way to get trapped between a rock and a hard place.
    I believe he also released her after capture at one point because Normans didn’t count noblewomen as part of physical warfare. (Not that women didn’t get caught in the crosshairs- there’s a lot of complaints of women in abbeys being abducted and forcibly married, but that wasn’t just a wartime thing. I believe that that happened to one of Matilda’s 14-26 half-siblings. No joke, Henry I got busy). But it’s not like Matilda was uninvolved in the campaign at most facets (diplomacy, supplies, getting troops and allies, planning territorial strikes) just because she didn’t literally wield a sword. Figuring out how to pay a mercenary army when you’ve been at war for 10 years is no small feat.

    That maternity armor is made of cringe.

    Reply
    • Damnitz

      Great comment. I didn’t knew her before I started reading “Brother Cadfael”. Interesting period and interesting characters.

      Reply
    • Natasha Rubin

      I love this comment and think the fact that we so often get Lady in Armor instead of roles like Matilda’s being portrayed realistically is because of a very narrow definition of badassery. You put a woman in armor and it looks immediately, visually badass, sure. But a woman developing military strategies and making important decisions is badass no matter what she’s wearing. These shows and movies need more faith that their audience will get it even if there’s no armor.

      Reply
    • Roxana

      Matilda’s cousin and namesake, Stephen’s queen, was by all accounts an able general, planning, organizing commanding but certainly not fighting. She told her officers what she wanted done then watched them do it from a safe distance.

      Reply
  7. Kathleen Julie Norvell

    I have worn some armor, including a mail shirt (to my knees and I am 5’9″) that weighed 25 lbs. Wearing a padded jack under that would add a few pounds more. A full suit of metal armor weighs about half the wearer’s body weight, so figure that into the equation. A breastplate is feasible, but uncomfortable. I’ve got and have worn a leather buff coat. It’s not heavy, but IS stiff. I can buy Joan of Arc in armor, but as for the others, maybe bits and bobs here and there, but full plate, hell no.

    We know that there were female warriors who were buried with their armor, but I don’t have information on the weight of that.

    Reply
    • Miriam Griffiths

      As an aside, the vast majority of reproduction armour, particularly 14th C and later armour, is significantly heavier than its historical counterparts. This is for a variety of reasons, including modern historical combat safety rules (see e.g. Battle of the Nations’ 2+mm plate steel) and the fact that modern repro armour is made starting with plates of a given thickness that are bent into shape rather than the historical method of starting with a lump of metal and coaxing it into the correct shape. The latter method allows the armourer to vary the thickness (and a good armourer would do so, reinforcing particular parts either because they were more likely to be hit or because the armour’s shape meant force would be deflected into that area). The former, whilst vastly quicker, results in uniform thickness throughout the item and thus increased weight.

      For more accurate representation of weights, see originals. The Wallace Collection in the UK is particularly good.

      Reply
  8. Saraquill

    The Bikini Armor Battle Damage Tumblr often rails against sexy, not-at-all-protective female armor in comic books, video games and so forth. Every so often they dip into historical armor, SCA and other reenactors as examples of how to do things right.

    Reply
  9. Lily Lotus Rose

    No, I haven’t watched The Spanish Princess. Cate Blanchett looked so beautiful in Elizabeth, even if the outfit pure fantasy, it’s just gorgeous. Helen Mirren and Fanny Ardant are so beautiful in real life, but those costumes didn’t flatter them at all. I’d totally forgotten about Milla Jovovich’s doofus haircut in The Messenger. Plus, it was totally awesome to include Joan of Arc from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Party on!

    Reply
  10. Nzie

    I am here for this! Yes, so much of this is just goofy. And I have passed the essay on feminist portrayals of women’s lives to several people because it is 100% on; I think we can learn and discuss so much more (about the past and the present) by showing the reality of women’s lives as they were.

    Am I surprised that Helen Mirren remains queen? Nope. :-) And of course Joan of Arc makes sense, although as a commander she wouldn’t have been personally fighting most likely. But it’s a big leap from “some women commanded armies” to “pregnancy armor.” Can they just admit they don’t actually like history and make these things fantastical? Nothing can make pregnancy armor or breast plates actually fitted to breasts reasonable, but all the other stuff is fine in a story that doesn’t use real persons and settings.

    Reply
  11. Al Don

    After rolling my eyes through the trailer for this show, I thought, “Frock Flicks is going to have a field day with that, haha.” Your point she was not at the battle seems correct; everything I read indicated she was 150 miles from the battle when it happened and took no part in the tactics or fighting. The task fell to the able veteran Thomas Howard, who was lavished with praise by Henry VIII.

    In the trailer, Catherine even says, “England is a land of women and children in our army’s absence.” (You can even see an unarmoured commoner woman charging the field at Flodden.) No, it wasn’t. The English, not being ignorant of their own history and basic logistics, were well aware of the ever-looming threat of a Scottish incursion while an English army invades France. In fact, they maintained an army of the north for this very reason. Thomas Howard was appointed Lieutenant-General of his army a year before the battle even happened. The English had between 23-26,000 soldiers; that’s nothing to sneeze at. The Scots padded their numbers with untrained levies so their numerical advantage was not as dangerous as it may seem on paper.

    As if Philippa Gregory’s name wasn’t a warning enough, the hamming acting and that… damn accent convince me it was wise to skip this one.

    Reply
  12. LisaS

    It’s the “cold shoulder” maille shirt in the promo poster that kills me. I mean, how easy would it be to slip a sword or other edged weapon under the mail and sever an Axillary Artery?

    Reply
  13. SarahV

    Yes, yes, the daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand was in all respects a badass, and yes her mother was in fact a titaness of military leadership but the very idea that Catherine would GO TO WAR PREGNANT when she is very much aware that her part to play in the Anglo-Spanish alliance is to cement it by having heirs not to play general..?!?!!!? AURGH…..

    more ranting and raving.

    Reply
  14. Suzy Q

    I can’t find it back, but I once read an article that a lot of medieval illustrations of women in armour serve the same purpose as these movies do now: not as a form of history, but as a form of fetish. There’s a reason that “bad ass babe on the battlefield” is such a stubborn trope: even though not accurate, there’s an audience for it (and I have to admit, though I know it’s bad feminism, since I was a little girl, I’ve always loved the idea of girls as soldiers or pirates. And maybe it isn’t even such a bad role model. If boys can have their GI Joe fantasies without battle realism and PTSD, can we girls keep a princess in armour? Please? :))

    Reply
  15. Orian Hutton

    I have never been able to struggle past a full episode of any of the fantasy versions of history that have appeared so frequently in recent years. If it is based on a Philippa Gregory book I don’t even start. Why in Tudor times, when women had such flattened fronts, would there even be a suggestion of breasts!? And that pregnancy armour would have made the queen look almost naked in that era. But the real point is that chain mail and armour are f-ing heavy!

    Reply
  16. Damnitz

    Queen Maragaret looks really strange in “The Hollow Crown” (I don’t know her Performance).

    The whole armor of “The Spanish Princess” is hillarious and therefore at least original. You have to think of a 16th century armorer who get the order to make armor for a pregnancy belly. Every normal People will know, that the belly of a pregnant women is changing … and how long the armorer would need to produce the armor to learn, that it actually doesn’t fit the queen. Would he commit suicide?
    We know that it was of the greatest importance that the armor was produced for the Knight who would wear it – especially when he was rich enough…

    The armour in Jean d’Arc-films would be a topic for a posting in it’s own right. There are so many attempts to make shiny or proper authentic armor for the character over the decades. Although nominated for costumes (Emmy) the armor in “Joan of Arc” (1999 – the miniseries) are looking somehow cheap and especially for Joan (Sobieski) too heavy. Most representatives of the costumers have a problem to make proper armour. Especially the protection of the head with chain mail is often looking rediculous.

    But armor is just looking too well (even if you can’t effort proper armor) that the producers can’t resist any chance to include armor on screen.

    I would Support your selection and even say that Helen Mirren’s armor in “Elizabeth” is looking the most plausible armor on women in the whole posting.
    It just makes no sense to me, why anybody should have produced something so expensive like armor for a female person which is only coming along observing the troops for a moment and in most cases didn’t take part in the actual fighting (except Joan of Arc for example).

    It’s obvious that women even if they were “in command” didn’t needed armor at all if they commanded for example a siege or the defense of her own castle (which was even more common during the absence of the husband/father …). You can command the troops sitting in your pallas or keep and don’t have to run around on the wall. Organizing the Food and weaponry of the defenders was important too.

    Great posting and nice drive into the topic!

    Reply
  17. Charity

    I feel like one of the biographers for KoA mentioned that she appeared in battle armor to give a speech to her troops, but I’m too lazy to go look it up this early in the morning. She was indeed nowhere near the battlefield — Surrey had the Scots wiped out in a matter of hours. Sir Thomas Lovell had the next army, behind his, in case the Scots broke through their lines. KoA led the third army, positioned to defend the midlands. But King James never made it that far. I get them wanting to be “cool” and have her in battle in TSP but it’s just another reason for me to hate on it. :P

    Great post!

    Reply
  18. MoHub

    “This Helmet, I Suppose, from Princess Ida, Gilbert and Sullivan

    This helmet, I suppose
    Was meant to ward off blows
    It’s very hot
    And weighs a lot
    As many a guardsman knows
    As many a guardsman knows
    As many a guardsman knows
    As many a guardsman knows
    So off
    So off that helmet goes

    [SOLDIERS AND GIRLS]
    Yes, yes, yes!
    So off that helmet goes

    [ARAC]
    This tight-fitting cuirass
    Is but a useless mass
    It’s made of steel
    And weighs a deal
    This tight-fitting cuirass
    Is but a useless mass
    A man is but an ass
    Who fights in a cuirass
    So off
    So off goes that cuirass

    [SOLDIERS AND GIRLS]
    Yes, yes, yes
    So off goes that cuirass

    [ARAC]
    These brassets, truth to tell
    May look uncommon well
    But in a fight
    They’re much too tight
    They’re like a lobster shell
    They’re like a lobster shell

    [SOLDIERS AND GIRLS]
    Yes, yes, yes
    They’re like a lobster shell

    [ARAC]
    These things I treat the same
    I quite forget their name
    They turn one’s legs
    To cribbage pegs
    Their aid I thus disclaim
    Their aid I thus disclaim
    Though I forget their name
    Though I forget their name
    Their name
    Their aid I thus disclaim

    [ALL]
    Yes, yes, yes
    Their aid we/they thus disclaim

    Reply
  19. Andrew.

    In one of those rather good children’s history books from Europe, (How They Lived in Castle of the Middle Ages by Philippe Brochard), there is a copy of an illumination from 1460 of a town under siege. In the foreground is a woman wearing a kirtled-up gown and a broad-brimmed helmet bringing water jugs to the besieging, (male), archers. (Yes, a period depiction of water-bearing). Unfortunately the only reference the book supplies is that it is from the Arsenal Library of Paris, (part of the BnF). No MS. number. Also, I do not recognize the particular manuscript it is from. If it is desired, I can scan the image and email it to Trystan.

    Reply
  20. Andy

    The Spanish Princess is getting a second season featuring absolutely bat-shit pregnancy armour?
    Awesome, I needed something to laugh at.

    Reply
  21. Stephanie

    The moment I saw that pregnancy armor in the trailer for Spanish Princess, I couldn’t wait for the Frock Flicks treatment!

    Reply
  22. Sissi

    She’s wearing WHAT??? Does she have a different stomach plate for every… two inches her stomach grows? When the order went in for maternity armour did they just guess the shape of Catherine’s stomach? Honey if you want the armoured vibes just wear a gorget but honestly, NOBODY should want a heavily pregnant woman near a battlefield. Not to be too presumptuous about the ideas of the time but I’m pretty sure the public would rather the queen be like, at home. Making sure she gives birth to a healthy kid. Not wearing full armour with the troops.

    Reply
  23. Aleko

    Lord, people are so hung up on the Female Warrior thing! A few years ago an author called Meg Clothier wrote a biographical novel, ‘The Girl King’, about one of my absolute conquering heroines, Tamar the 12th-13th-century King of Georgia. Like Maria Theresia in Hungary, she was the first female to ascend the throne of her country, and to make quite clear who was boss she took the title ‘King’. (Actually Tamar called herself in full ‘King of Kings and Queen of Queens’, thus leaving no loopholes for anyone to claim any authority over her.) Clothier made quite clear that although Tamar planned and carried through many successful campaigns she never went into battle himself. But that didn’t stop her publishers, Arrow, from putting her into full (Western European) 15th-century plate armour on the cover: https://i.gr-assets.com/images/S/compressed.photo.goodreads.com/books/1394314524l/21362055.jpg

    Very few of the medieval accounts of women fighting on the battlefield are trustworthy. In a society where women don’t fight in battle, “Their women dress and fight as men!” is one of the classic ‘othering’ statements; like accusations of cannibalism, it’s a way of asserting that these people are totally, shockingly, Not Like Us.

    What ladies in medieval Europe did very often do, was defend their (or their husband’s) castle or city from a siege. This was so normal it was pretty much part of the noble lady’s job description. Of course she’d have a captain to organise the troops of her household and lead them in action, who could no doubt advise her on any technical details, but she was the person in charge. She would pretty much have had to go up on the battlements often to see the progress of the siege for herself, and also no doubt just to let her soldiers see her face and say some encouraging words. Standing on the battlements during a siege was stupidly dangerous unless you wore some armour – there would be archers, crossbowmen and so on well within range – so she would surely have donned a helmet of some sort and a mail or cuirass (depending on the date) just in case.

    Not, however, anything like what Kate Mara got to wear in ‘Ironclad’: https://jonathanenglishfilms.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Ironclad-Kate-4.jpg
    She played the wife of the Castellan of Rochester, and as soon as King John turns up to besiege the castle she puts on this off-the-shoulder metal-studded clobber. Which presumably is intended as armour, but looks like pure fetish p*rn.

    Reply
    • A

      I imagine that in a castle or town under siege, everyone, regardless of age and gender, might have to lend a hand. Soldiers were the most important, but there would always be things to fetch, fires to put out, supplies to bring, hurried repairs to make, and in dire situations extra pair of hands to throw stuff down on enemies. There are records of women playing notable parts – usually by mobilising the defenders, maybe helping with the cannons, etc. Possibly civilians (of both genders) might grab a helmet or some other protective bit, if they found any lying about, to protect themselves.

      By the way, seeing as the main goal of armour is protecting various vital parts of the body, that off-the-shoulder whatever it is is failing spectacularly. Hardly any protection of arms (that you might want to have functional in a battle situation) and no protection whatsoever for the neck, where you probably would not want to be stabbed or slashed. Doesn’t look overly sturdy over the chest and stomach either, not to mention the likelihood of anyone going fighting with long flowing hair.

      The truth is, as I have read somewhere, that women could not be soldiers on regular basis because they were needed to sustain the population. Childbirth and life in general were dangerous enough and infant mortality rate was high. If you added to that some significant number of young women going off and getting killed or seriously maimed, you would be out of people in no time. Also, a middle-aged retired soldier, even missing some less-essential limbs, can still father some children, which you can’t say about a middle-aged soldieress. Just as you wouldn’t want a pregnant queen in the vicinity of battlefield, you wouldn’t want too many women of childbearing age there either.

      I’m not saying that women weren’t involved in wars. It’s just that usually they were involved on the peripheries of it, or involuntarily. Or were victims.

      Reply
      • Roxana

        Inescapable biological reality is a bitch. You’re exactly right. But give the ancients and medieval folk some credit they fully realized the risk involved in child birth and often equated it to the risk of battle for men.

        Reply
  24. HerImperialMaj

    I find it quite depressing that in a show about Katherine of Aragon, the only ways they could think to make her interesting were:

    Make her Xena, Warrior Princess; OR
    Make her Anne Boleyn

    The real KoA was absolutely formidable, and a stone-cold badass, but she was neither of the above.

    It’s just really clear that they made this show because they’re ticking another Philippa Fucking Gregory off the list, and not because they like KoA at all.

    Reply
  25. Roxana

    You could write a script about a young widowed queen forced to risk her pregnant body in battle to defend her young son’s throne in some fantasy novel but it never happened in Real History.

    Elizabeth I’s silver cuirass was costuming, not armor. Her soldiers were thrilled by her determination but the idea of their queen actually fighting beside them would have horrified them.
    Warrior Queens occasionally donned armor for effect and sometimes wore a few pieces when close to but not taking part in the fighting. Planning, directing and inspiring was their job. Not actually leading the troops into the shock of battle. For that matter even male generals tended to hold back from the actual fighting so they could see and direct the battle. They were indeed on the field, and likely to be attacked but they were also surrounded by bodyguards whose job it was to keep the general from being distracted by rude strangers.

    Reply

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