7 Duels Between Women

iStock.com/ultramarinfoto
iStock.com/ultramarinfoto

Women and duels are often linked in the public imagination, but not because the ladies participated. The woman is usually relegated to the reason two gentlemen felt the need to wield their pistols at dawn in defense of her putative honor. In fact, most duels were fought over real or imagined slights to the parties themselves, not their lady friends, and gentlewomen were more than capable of demanding satisfaction for their own beefs. Some of those clashes were nothing short of epic.

1. ISABELLA DE CARAZZI VS. DIAMBRA DE POTTINELLA // MAY 25, 1552

Weapon(s) of Choice: Lances, maces, and swords

Isabella de Carazzi and Diambra de Pottinella were Neapolitan noblewomen and good friends until a man came between them. He was a handsome gentleman named Fabio de Zeresola who was very popular among the ladies of 16th century Naples. Isabella and Diambra had no idea he was seeing both of them until all three of them attended the same society wedding. Fabio cast a single glance at Isabella, a glance so ardent and penetrating that Diambra, who was next to Isabella at the time, immediately realized something was going on between them.

A short conversation later all was out in the open, and Isabella had cast the die when she insisted that Fabio loved her more and therefore, by the law of love, he belonged to her. Diambra claimed he loved her more and that Isabella was a liar. She was willing to die on that point, Diambra said, and so challenged her now-former friend to meet her six days hence in a field and to pick the weapons. Isabella chose full war gear: swords, lances, maces, shields, and armor-clad horses.

On the day of the duel, everyone who was anyone at the Naples court, including the Spanish viceroy, was present to witness this extraordinary event. Isabella arrived clad in blue wearing a helmet with a diamond in the crest, her horse's velvet mantle matching her clothes. Diambra wore green, the crest on her helmet a serpent of gold. Each lady took up her lance, and when the war trumpet blew, they charged each other with such ferocity that spectators could only marvel at their courage.

After the initial lance clash the women took up the maces, raining blows upon each other's shields. Isabella lost half her shield from a mace hit so powerful her horse stumbled and fell. Diambra dismounted her destrier and loudly demanded that Isabella surrender and admit Fabio de Zeresola was hers by right. Isabella took up her sword and charged Diambra, knocking her to the ground and cutting the straps of her helmet. Then she conceded that Diambra was the victor and to her belonged the spoils.

The news of this remarkable encounter spread like wildfire through the courts of Europe and the story was told for generations. Around a century later, Spanish artist Jusepe de Ribera painted it like a scene from ancient history or mythology.

2. THE COMTESSE DE POLIGNAC VS. THE MARQUISE DE NESLE // CA. 1719

Portrait of the Duke of Richelieu by Jean-Marc Nattier, 1732. // The History Blog 

Weapon(s) of Choice: Pistols

The Comtesse de Polignac had many lovers over the years, but for one of them she conceived such a mad passion that she challenged her replacement to one of the first duels fought with pistols. The casus belli was Armand de Vignerot du Plessis, 3rd Duke of Richelieu, great-grand-nephew of the dominant 17th century statesman and fictional foil of the Three Musketeers, Cardinal Richelieu. The duke's reputation as a ladies' man and manipulator of women was so well-established that Choderlos de Laclos was said to have based the character of Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses on him. When he left Madame de Polignac for the Marquise de Nesle, he completely cut her off, refusing to even speak to her and driving her to ever-increasing heights of jealous frenzy.

When she could take it no more, Madame de Polignac challenged Madame de Nesle to a duel by letter. The chosen weapon was the pistol. The belligerents met in the Bois de Boulogne, saluted each other and fired their weapons. Madame de Nesle fell, her chest red with blood. Polignac, believing it a fatal blow, headed back toward her carriage, but not before hitting her enemy with a so-there line: "I will teach you the consequences of robbing a woman like me of her lover. If I had the perfidious creature in my power I would tear out her heart as I have blown out her brains."

Madame de Nesle's brains were fine. The shot had missed her chest and only grazed her shoulder. When she came to, she exulted that it had all been worth it because now that she had proved her love, the duke would be all hers. Naturally, the Duke of Richelieu immediately dumped the Marquise as a stage-five clinger and moved on to Charlotte Aglaé d'Orléans, daughter of the Regent of France.

3. PRINCESS SOPHIA AUGUSTA FREDERIKA OF ANHALT-ZERBST-DORNBURG VS. PRINCESS CHRISTIANE ANNA OF ANHALT-KÖTHEN // JUNE 1743

Grand Duchess Catherine two years after her first duel by L.Caravaque, 1745, Gatchina Museum. // The History Blog

Weapon(s) of Choice: Swords

Sophia and Christiane were German princesses, second cousins, and still teenagers when they developed a beef that could only be quashed by blood. The insult that drove them to lock swords in Sophia's bedroom when she was 14 and Christiane 17 has been lost to history, and the outcome of the challenge is unknown other than that both parties survived.

It must have been a formative experience for young Sophia. A year later, she converted to the Russian Orthodox religion and was betrothed to the future Peter III of Russia. Her new name was Catherine, and when she ascended the throne of all the Russians, she would be known as Catherine the Great. As ruler, her attitude toward dueling was markedly more tolerant than Peter the Great's had been. He made it a hanging offense, but she reformed the law, making the penalty for dueling a loss of social status. When it came to women's duels, she was even more tolerant: In 1765, she is said to have acted as second in eight different duels. Catherine insisted they only be fought until first blood, however; she disapproved of her court ladies killing each other.

4. OLGA ZAVAROVA VS. EKATERINA POLESOVA // JUNE 1829

Weapon(s) of Choice: Sabers

Olga Zavarova and Ekaterina Polesova were wealthy property owners and neighbors with a long history of neighborly disagreements. One of those disagreements escalated to the point where they decided to have it out once and for all and see who was left standing. Armed with their husbands' cavalry sabers, Olga and Ekaterina met in a birch grove. Their daughters, both 14, were present, and their daughters' governesses acted as seconds.

As per the protocol of the Code Duello, the seconds asked the combatants to reconcile. Not only did they refuse, but they were so riled up they threatened the governesses with violence for trying to stop them.

The duel was short and brutal. Olga took a blow to the head and died on the spot, but not before she stuck Ekaterina in the stomach. In the way of most gut wounds at the time, it too was fatal, but it took Ekaterina a long, painful day to die from it.

5. ALEXANDRA ZAVAROVA VS. ANNA POLESOVA // JUNE 1834

Weapon(s) of Choice: Sabers

Five years after the deaths of Olga and Ekaterina, those girls who had witnessed the violent deaths of their mothers picked up where their mothers had left off. Alexandra and Anna met in the same place, the birch grove, and had the same seconds, their own governesses. This time there was a clear victor: Alexandra Zavarova slew Anna Polesova and redeemed her dead mother's honor.

6. MADAME MARIE-ROSE ASTIÉ DE VALSAYRE VS. MISS SHELBY // MARCH 1886

Artist's rendition of Astié de Valsayre vs. Miss Shelby, Illustrated Police News, 10/04/1886. // The History Blog 

Weapon(s) of Choice: Swords

Madame Marie-Rose Astié de Valsayre was notorious in France for her vocal advocacy of feminist causes, which included women being allowed to wear trousers, get the vote, and have equal access to all professions as well as equal pay. She was also a doctor, inspired to learn the profession after serving as a nurse during the Franco-Prussian War (1870), an author—and an accomplished fencer. She founded a fencing club for women which dovetailed neatly into another favorite cause of hers: encouraging mothers to breast-feed their own children rather than employing wet nurses. The sport, she noted, is great for the pecs and thus great for nursing moms.

The American Miss Shelby was a doctor too, and it was a discussion over the comparative merits of French and American women doctors that sparked the animosity between them. Each considered their compatriots superior and things got heated. Miss Shelby may or may not have called Madame de Valsayre an idiot. Whatever the precise nature of the provocation, Astié gave Miss Shelby the classic glove slap to the face and a duel with swords ensued. They faced off in Belgium on the battlefield of Waterloo. In the second pass, Astié de Valsayre lightly wounded Miss Shelby on the arm, drawing first blood. Astié de Valsayre was declared the winner and the honor of France was restored.

There were no hard feelings. Astié gave Miss Shelby a shoutout as her "loyal adversary" a month later when she wrote to Catherine Booth, co-founder of the Salvation Army, informing her that unless she took her "pernicious doctrines" back home to England, Astié would be forced to demand satisfaction at arms. Mrs. Booth, then 57 years old and a pacifist who was against shedding blood even in self-defense, refused to respond to the provocation.

7. PRINCESS PAULINE METTERNICH VS. THE COUNTESS KIELMANNSEGG // AUGUST 1892

Princess Pauline Metternich, portrait by Edgar Degas, ca. 1865. // The History Blog

Weapon(s) of Choice: Rapiers

This is arguably the epitome of duels between high society women of the Victorian period. Princess Pauline Metternich was the granddaughter of statesman and Napoleonic-era giant Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich and the wife of his son Prince Richard von Metternich. (Yup, she married her uncle, her mother's half-brother.) A trendsetter, patron of the arts, and fixture of society in Paris and Vienna in the second half of the 19th century, Princess Pauline was of course involved in many charitable organizations. It was in her capacity as Honorary President of the Vienna Musical and Theatrical Exhibition that she quarreled with the Countess Kilmannsegg, wife of the Statthalter of Lower Austria and President of the Ladies Committee of the Vienna Musical and Theatrical Exhibition, apparently over the flower arrangements for the exhibition.

Whatever was said about those flowers could not be unsaid, and the Princess, then 56 years old, challenged the Countess to settle their dispute by blood. The two adversaries and their seconds, Princess Schwarzenberg and Countess Kinsky, traveled to Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein, and took to the field of honor. Presiding over the encounter was Baroness Lubinska who, unusually for women of the time, was a medical doctor—and a Listerite one at that. Her modern understanding of infection proved pivotal. Having seen many superficial battle wounds turn septic and fatal because fragments of dirty clothes were driven into them, the Baroness insisted both parties remove all clothing above the waist.

So the Princess Metternich and Countess Kilmannsegg, both topless, took up their swords to fight until first blood. After a few exchanges, the Princess received a small cut to the nose and the Countess was cut on the arm practically at the same time. The seconds called the duel and Princess Metternich was declared the winner.

None of the contemporary news stories mention the topless thing, but the combination of ladies, swords, and bare breasts was already an established subject for risqué postcards in the late 19th century. The tale of the Vaduz duel—with its all-female, all-aristocratic participants—made them even more fashionable. Ladies fighting with their tops off featured in sticky postcards, stereoscopic views, and nickelodeons. Here are some ladies stabbing it out to the death in a filmed scene from the 1898 Drury Lane stage play Women and Wine.

New Book Provides an Intimate Look at the Handwriting of Freud, Marie Antoinette, and Other Historical Figures

TASCHEN
TASCHEN

Handwriting analysts would have a field day with TASCHEN's latest book. Titled The Magic of Handwriting, the 464-page tome offers a rare glimpse into the intimate lives and correspondences of some of the most well-known names in history.

In modern times, handwriting is a dying art, which makes it all the more meaningful to see nearly 900 years' worth of writing preserved in vivid detail in the book. A letter penned a year before the French Revolution shows Marie Antoinette’s neat signature written in small letters. In contrast, French writer Marcel Proust’s handwritten manuscripts were frantically scrawled on whatever scraps of paper he could find. Charlie Chaplin sometimes included a sketch of his signature hat and cane while signing autographs, and Sitting Bull, the Hunkpapa Lakota leader who was known for his courage in battle, dotted his i’s with what look like hearts or v's.

A signed picture of Sitting Bull
TASCHEN

A letter signed by Marie Antoinette
A letter signed by Marie Antoinette
TASCHEN

A manuscript handwritten by Marcel Proust
Marcel Proust's writing
TASCHEN

These artifacts come from the collection of Pedro Corrêa do Lago, a Brazilian art historian and curator who has acquired thousands of handwritten letters, manuscripts, autographed photos, and musical compositions over the years. The book features over 100 items from his collection, which also went on display last year at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City.

In addition to displaying different styles of handwriting, the book also highlights little-known facts about historical figures and insight into their personality. There’s a handwritten invoice from Sigmund Freud, who charged one client 2000 schillings (nearly $500 in 1934, or roughly $9400 today) for 20 hours of psychoanalysis. When his patient tried to negotiate a lower price, Freud reportedly replied, “I am still forced to make a living. I cannot do more than five hours of analysis daily; and I do not know how much longer I shall work at it.”

An invoice signed by Sigmund Freud
An invoice signed by Sigmund Freud
TASCHEN

Ernest Hemingway’s snark is on full display in a “Who’s Who” questionnaire he filled out for the publishing firm Scribner’s in 1930. Under the career section, he merely replied “yes." Under "hobbies," he listed skiing, fishing, shooting, and drinking.

For more stories like these, order a copy of The Magic of Handwriting from TASCHEN’s website or Amazon.

A cover of the book 'The Magic of Handwriting'
TASCHEN

15 Fascinating Facts About Victoria

Courtesy of ©ITVStudios2017 for MASTERPIECE
Courtesy of ©ITVStudios2017 for MASTERPIECE

While The Crown may nab the bigger headlines, Victoria—the Masterpiece series that similarly follows a young-and-not-quite-ready royal’s ascension to England’s throne—beat Netflix’s pricey TV series to the air by more than two months. Though it was originally intended as a one-off miniseries, the show—about the early days of Queen Victoria’s reign—just kicked off its third season. To celebrate, we've gathered up some behind-the-scenes facts about the gorgeous, Buckingham Palace-set period piece.

1. Jenna Coleman left Doctor Who to take the lead in Victoria.

In 2015, Jenna Coleman surprised Whovians everywhere when she announced that she was leaving Doctor Who after three years on the series, where she served as a companion to both the Eleventh (Matt Smith) and Twelfth (Peter Capaldi) Doctors. Almost as soon as her departure from Doctor Who was confirmed, her casting as the lead in Victoria was announced. Not long after Coleman made her debut as Queen Victoria, her former Doctor Who co-star, Matt Smith, began his two-year stint as Prince Philip on The Crown.

2. Game of Thrones’s Emilia Clarke was among the actresses rumored to be vying for the lead role.

Victoria was originally meant to air as a single eight-part miniseries (its popularity is what led to a second season … and then a third). Because the time commitment wasn’t so intense, a number of well-known actors’ names were being tossed around as potential stars for the project. Among them? Game of Thrones’s Emilia Clarke and Downton Abbey’s Lily James.

3. Coleman was given access to Queen Victoria’s personal diaries.

Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria in 'Victoria'
Courtesy of © ITV plc (ITV Global Entertainment Ltd)

In order to better help her get into the mindset of her character, Coleman was given access to Victoria’s private diaries. “I’ve read so many biographies, but I’m always looking for certain details which give me access to her character and her psychology,” Coleman told Vulture in 2017. “Her diaries are so methodological in a lot of ways. You can find out what she ate for breakfast and what time she did this and what time she rose and what time she did everything. The detail is crazy.”

4. Queen Victoria was an avid sketcher, which was enormously helpful to Coleman.

In addition to writing down even the most mundane details of her day, Victoria was an avid sketcher. Gaining access to the Queen's doodles gave Coleman an even deeper insight into Victoria's mind. “She sketched and had done watercolors since she was about five or six years old,” Coleman told Vulture. “You can see what she used to draw and what interested her from a really young age, and that probably gave me the best sense of her psyche. It’s been totally untouched. Nobody has been able to distort her views with her own eyes and her hands. It’s unfiltered in every way so they’re really, really interesting.” (You can see some of those sketches for yourself here.)

5. Queen Victoria and Lord Melbourne's relationship was complicated.

Rufus Sewell as Lord Melbourne in 'Victoria'
Courtesy of ITV Plc for MASTERPIECE

Victoria’s relationship with Lord Melbourne (played by Rufus Sewell) is one of the series’ most dynamic and touching. And while it plays out as somewhat of one-sided love affair in season one, the truth wasn’t quite as romantic. Though she was sometimes referred to as “Mrs. Melbourne” in a mocking manner because of the prime minister's influence over the young queen, their relationship was more like a parental one.

“What’s so wonderful about Lord M and Victoria’s relationship is that it was the prime minister and the queen. It was dear friends,” Coleman told Vulture. “She was 18; he was technically 56 at the time. They made each other laugh. They were like father and daughter in many, many ways. You really can’t quite put a label on it, other than it’s two people who really connect and charm each other through mutual likes and interests. They had a really profound love, but what that love technically was is unclear … I think he was the first person who didn’t try to manipulate her and didn’t try to control her. He really gave her a voice so the trust between them was genuine and two-way. They went through a lot together. He was the person who guided her and shaped her and trained her for the first couple of years on the throne."

6. Keeping the child actors entertained can be a challenge.

Over the course of their marriage, Victoria and Albert had nine children together. So as the series has gone on, the number of babies and children on set has grown. Writing for Marie Claire, series creator Daisy Goodwin admitted that keeping the youngsters entertained can require some creative solutions:

"One of the tricks we use is to dress their mothers up as nursemaids to keep them right at their side—but sometimes the kids just won’t play ball. In one episode, Victoria comes home after a trip to Scotland and rushes in all excited to see the children, but they didn’t even turn round to look at her. A bag of sweets later, we got them at least to look up when their 'Mother' walked in."

7. Coleman likes playing a pregnant Queen best.

Queen Victoria famously loathed being pregnant, which we witness in the series. She “absolutely hated it,” Coleman told Town & Country. “She called it ‘being caught’ … [E]very time she gave birth to a child, it took her out of being able to be Queen. Each time that happened, she was being more and more and more removed. And she’s an impatient person; she doesn’t like being told to lie down. She just wanted to do her job. She had this exhilaration and love for her independence, I suppose. And she hated breastfeeding; she thought it was for cows, not for humans. So a lot of the things that came with her being a mother, she found pretty vile, I think."

Coleman feels quite differently about Victoria’s pregnancies—or at least about playing a pregnant Queen. “I think I enjoy playing her most when she’s pregnant because one, I don’t have to wear a corset, but then two, I get to kind of waddle around, and I feel like she can just be foul-tempered and rude,” Coleman said. “I relish playing her when she’s like that because she doesn’t really care what anybody thinks, in a way. She does when it comes to the public and her people, but ultimately, you get free reign to play Victoria irritable and in a bad mood, and I really love playing her when she’s like that."

8. The child actors have “no respect” for Victoria, according to Coleman.

JENNA COLEMAN as Victoria and TOM HUGHES as Albert in 'Victoria'
GARETH GATTRELL/ITV Plc for MASTERPIECE

When asked about what it’s like working with a handful of kids on a regular basis, Coleman described it as both “absolutely crazy” and “hilarious.” Especially because the children are too young to understand what it means to stay in character. “Imagine toddlers, and you put them on set, and you kind of just have to get what you can,” Coleman said of shooting with her onscreen kids. “It's unpredictable, and incredibly funny because kids do say the funniest things, and they say the funniest things during takes. They ask Queen Victoria for some Doritos. It just becomes chaos, and I just absolutely get the giggles. They should release some footage of what really happens when the kids come to set. There’s no respect to Victoria. They completely rule me."

9. Buckingham Palace is actually an old airplane hangar.

Much of the series takes place at Buckingham Palace, and the show’s production team has done an amazing job of recreating the splendor of the property and what it would have looked like during Victoria’s reign. The location of their set, however, is not quite so glamorous. “The set where we film the Buckingham Palace scenes is in an old aircraft hangar, and is home to all kinds of wildlife,” according to Goodwin. “We had to stop shooting a very tender scene between Victoria and Albert because an owl kept flying through the frame, attracted by the jewels in Victoria’s hair."

10. Lighting all those candles is no easy task.

Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837, at about the same time that candlelight was being replaced with gas light in some of London’s most stately properties. While the switch to gas lighting has its own storyline in the series (there are rats involved), there were still a lot of candles to be lit on the set—about 300 in total. According to Goodwin, the process of lighting all those candles took an hour each time they shot.

11. The dog that plays Dash is no stranger to playing Dash.

Dash, Queen Victoria's prized dog, in 'Victoria'
Courtesy of ©ITVStudios2017 for MASTERPIECE

The adorable Cavalier King Charles Spaniel that plays the Queen’s most trusted BFF Dash has some experience with the role. “The dog who played Dash is actually called Tory, and she made her screen debut playing the same role in the film Young Victoria starring Emily Blunt,” Goodwin wrote for Marie Claire.

12. A bird played an unanticipated role in Victoria and Albert’s proposal scene.

Much like Victoria herself, some viewers were surprised to learn that when a Queen decides it’s time to tie the knot, she must be the one who proposes. Making the scene in which Victoria proposes to Albert even more awkward and difficult was the fact that an uninvited bird kept interrupting the production.

"The proposal, on paper it looked like a great scene but to film it was a nightmare,” Tom Hughes, who plays Prince Albert, admitted at a screening of the episode. “[It took] about 50 [takes] because there was a stray bird upstairs in the roof. Every time I got to the point where I say, ‘I have to kiss you first’, [the bird] thought that it was the most hilarious line it had ever heard. It was making a variety of all different noises, so that was the tough scene to film."

13. Prince Albert could be the next James Bond.

At this point, there are a handful of actors who have been rumored to be “the next James Bond,” and Hughes is one of them. The actor reportedly caught the attention of James Bond producer Barbara Broccoli after playing an MI5 operative in 2014 BBC miniseries The Game. When asked about his thoughts on taking on the iconic 007 role, Hughes responded: “Would I like to be James Bond? There’s not many people who wouldn’t want to be James Bond.” Though he made it clear that he had not been approached about the role, he stated that “I’d love them to ask."

14. The Duchess of Buccleuch was not so outspoken in real life.

In season two, the legendary Diana Rigg (who played Emma Peel in The Avengers TV series back in the day, and Game of Thrones’s Olenna Tyrell more recently) joined the cast of Victoria as the Duchess of Buccleuch, one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting. Though audiences love the character for her outspokenness, the real-life Duchess—who served as the Queen’s Mistress of the Robes from 1841 to 1846—was not quite so frank. “The real Duchess of Buccleuch was younger and not quite as cantankerous as Diana Rigg’s portrayal,” Goodwin said. “[But] when you’ve got Diana Rigg, you go with that!"

15. Albert’s imminent death is coming, and it’s a bit of dark cloud.

Jenna Coleman and Tom Hughes in 'Victoria'
Courtesy of Gareth Gatrell/ITV Plc for MASTERPIECE

Prince Albert died in 1861 at the age of 42. While the official cause of death was typhoid fever, modern scholars believe that he may have been suffering from Crohn’s disease or abdominal cancer. Knowing that Victoria and Albert’s time is limited is a fact that the cast can’t ignore. When asked whether knowing how this story ends ever affects her performance or how she approaches the character, Coleman admitted that it does. “I think everyone knows it’s coming, and it’s really interesting because Tom [Hughes] and I look a bit older in this series, and we’re so many children in,” she told Town & Country. "You kind of have that creeping feeling, but we still have an amazing part of the story to tell."

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