From Heroine to Harridan

As I’ve worked on the subject of women warriors over the last year, a few things have surprised me. One of the surprises was the important role played by women in sieges. Historically, women who fought to defend their city walls were the most common type of women warrior, outnumbering many times over the combined forces of queens, commanders, women who fought disguised as men and women who fought undisguised alongside men in the times and places that allowed that sort of thing., It was always seen as a last ditch measure* and it was always assumed to be temporary. For the most part, women fought in anonymous groups remembered only in the collective. But here and there an individual heroine caught the public imagination.  Here’s the story of one of them.

During the Dutch revolt against Spain (1558-1648),* Kenau Simonsdochter Hasselaar (1526-1588), a forty-something widow who was a shipbuilder and owned a timber yard, became a national heroine for her role in the siege of Haarlem, one of the longest and most bitterly fought conflicts within a long and bitterly fought war.

In early 1572, the Spanish king Philip II*** appointed a new viceroy for the Spanish Netherlands, the Duke of Alba, and instructed him to suppress the Calvinist insurrection that was spreading through the Low Countries under the leadership of Prince William of Orange, known as William the Silent.****The Duke sent his son, Frederick of Toledo, and an army of 30,000 men on a a punitive expedition against the Dutch towns that had declared allegiance to William.

Toledo’s army reached Haarlem in December. The city had weak defensive walls and a garrison of some three thousand troops, most of them German mercenaries. Toledo was confident that the city would surrender, given that the Spanish army had left devastation behind it: cities burned to the ground that their citizen’s slaughter. Instead, Haarlem stood its ground. Citizens fought alongside the soldiers, men and women alike. Kenau organized a division of some three hundred women, who fought alongside the men on the ramparts.

Both sides suffered heavy losses through February and March, but the city was able to hold out because William of Orange kept the city supplied by sending skaters and sledges with provisions across the frozen Haarlemermeer, the huge inland lake that separated Haarlem from Amsterdam*****. The turning point in the siege came in the spring, when the Haarlemmermeer was no longer frozen solid and Spanish galleons were able to cut off the city’s supply line. The starving citizens of Haarlem surrendered on July 12 on the condition that the city would not be pillaged. The city was not sacked, but the citizens were massacred all the same.The German and English members of the garrison were dismissed. The remaining soldiers, along with one thousand leading citizens, were executed. Kenau and the women she led were not on the list of those the Spanish considered “war criminals.” Some historians argue that the absence of women on the list of executed citizens refutes the story of their involvement. Letters and diaries of the German mercenaries make it clear that the women of Haarlam fought beside them, both in the “feminine” style of pouring boiling oil over the walls and hand-to-hand combat.

Kenau came to personify the Haarlem defense. Her name entered the common language, at first denoting a spirited woman; it has degenerated over the centuries from its original positive meaning. Today it translates as tartar, battle-ax, or, most tellingly, virago–a word which has also tarnished over time. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, virago originally meant “A man-like, vigorous, and heroic woman; a female warrior; an amazon.” Today, my thesaurus gives the following synonyms for virago: bitch, shrew, vixen, termagant, fury, witch, bedam, she-wolf, she-devil, spitfire, fishwife, scold and battle-ax. There is more than one way to make a woman warrior disappear from history.

*Sometimes literally. Women dug trenches or helped repair battlements during sieges.
*Also known as the Eighty Years War and the Dutch War of Independence, the Dutch revolt was a complicated mess of religion (Protestant vs. Catholic), nationalism, and trade rights. Needless to say, it was ugly.
***You probably know him as the absentee husband of Mary Tudor of England, and the force behind the Spanish Armada.
****The great-grandfather of the William of Orange who became king of England in the Glorious Revolution. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the players without a program.
*****Don’t bother checking your map. It was drained in the nineteenth century and is now a soggy municipality.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.