Because I write about spies — some of them women — and because spies have a not-totally-unmerited reputation for violence, I decided to look into acts of violence and mayhem Regency women might have got up to.
Prior to considering this subject, I hadn't noticed all that many references to women duking it out or poking each other with fencing foils or shooting holes in each other with pistols at dawn in a formalized way.
I though maybe this was common sense on the women's part.
Researching further, however …
London's Central Criminal Court, the Old Bailey, is where perpetrators of Regency violence tended to end up. Here's some glimpses into the unfortunate and violent side of life in Regency London.
It's 1804. This is a man visiting a house of what he believes to be extremely hospitable women. Little does he know …
"I was walking in a street; I do not know the name of it; I was called by the signal of a young lady; she was standing before her door. … I went into the house with her, and the mistress of the house … said, if I would speak to the young lady, I had better go up stairs. After I had been up stairs, I came down again, and … I said to the ladies, if they would give me the change of a one-pound note, I would give them half a pound.
"Mrs. Beard … gave me a punch in the guts, a push, and a blow on the stomach; then they all fell on me at once, striking and beating me; the tallest woman, Ann Johnson, took me by the coat, and they all took me by the coat, and tore the part, where the pocket-book was, off; with that they all fell upon me … after they had beat me well, I sung out so badly, that they were obliged to open the two doors, and then they shoved me out in the dirt, all four of them." (Proceedings of the Old Bailey)
Which sounds like a lively time was had by all.
Or this, from a woman walking home in the evening. "I was coming from Bishopgate-street, I had a gown and umbrella with me; I was tyeing up my shoe at a corner of a street in Bishopsgate-street, there were three women came up to me, one seized me round my neck, another gave me a knock of the head and knocked me down, and the other took my bundle and ran away." (Proceedings of the Old Bailey)
And: "On the evening in question, I had been to Covent Garden Theatre; I was returning in company with Mrs. Hill. In the narrow part of Rathbone-place, I was suddenly without any provocation knocked down by the prisoner Paget, with her fist; she struck me on the face; while I was on the ground, I was severely kicked and bruised; I was stunned by the blow I received on my face; she took the shawl from my shoulders as I lay; I had it round my shoulders very close, and she pulled it to get it away; she did get it away at last." (Proceedings of the Old Bailey)
Ah, the good old days when women were nurturing and gentle creatures.
Besides this unfortunate tendency for mugging with violence, at least some small portion of the female population indulged in professional fisticuffs.
This match in 1723 was advertised: "There has not been such a battle for these twenty years past, and as these two heroines are as brave and as bold as the ancient Amazons, the spectators may expect abundance of diversion and satisfaction, from these female combatants."
The Morning Chronicle of March 24, 1807 reports: "There were several fights amongst the lower orders on Sunday morning near Hornsey Wood; but the one which afforded the most diversion, was between two women; the opponents were Betty Dyson, a vender of sprats, and Mary Mahony, a market-woman. These Amazons fought in regular order upwards of forty minutes, until they were both hideously disfigured by hard blows. Betty was once completely blind, but the lancet restored her sight; and Mary was at length obliged to resign to her the palm of victory. The contest was for five guineas."
When half-dressed females boxing got to be dull, sometimes they fought with swords. Cesar de Saussure wrote in 1725:
"I witnessed an extraordinary combat, two women being the champions. As soon as they appeared on the stage they made the spectators a profound reverence ; they then saluted each other and engaged in a lively and amusing conversation. They boasted that they had a great amount of courage, strength, and intrepidity. One of them regretted she was not born a man, else she would have made her fortune by her powers; the other declared she beat her husband every morning to keep her hand in, etc. Both these women were very scantily clothed, and wore little bodices and very short petticoats of white linen.
"One of these amazons was a stout Irishwoman, strong and lithe to look at, the other was a small Englishwoman, full of fire and very agile. The first was decked with blue ribbons on the head, waist, and right arm; the second wore red ribbons. Their weapons were a sort of two-handed sword, three or three and a half feet in length; the guard was covered, and the blade was about three inches wide and sharp only about half a foot of it was, but then that part cut like a razor.
"The spectators made numerous bets, and some peers who were there some very large wagers. On either side of the two amazons a man stood by, holding a long staff, ready to separate them should blood flow. After a time the combat became very animated, and was conducted with force and vigour with the broad side of the weapons, for points there were none.
"The Irishwoman presently received a great cut across her forehead, and that put a stop to the first part of the combat. The Englishwoman's backers threw her shillings and half-crowns and applauded her. During this time the wounded woman's forehead was sewn up, this being done on the stage; a plaster was applied to it, and she drank a good big glass of spirits to revive her courage, and the fight began again, each combatant holding a dagger in her left hand to ward off the blows. The Irishwoman was wounded a second time, and her adversary again received coins and plaudits from her admirers. … The surgeon sewed it up, but she was too badly hurt to fight any more, and it was time, for the combatants were dripping with perspiration, and the Irishwoman also with blood. A few coins were thrown to her to console her, but the victor made a good day's work out of the combat."
Brawls in brothels, mugging with violence, or public boxing and swordfights would have involved women of the lowest classes. In Romance, our heroine shoots pistols and fences. How wild is this idea? Did women of the respectable classes train and fight for sport, the way their brothers, husbands, and cousins did?
The Eighteenth Century Duchess of Queensbury, Catherine Hyde, was a notable fencer and trained at Angelo's School of Arms in London, the famous fencing studio. The print to the right, from 1816, is Rowlandson showing another woman fencer, Madame Collie of Rome, in white jacket and skirt.
So training with the foil would not have been outlandish and incredible. In 1815 a traveller to Geneva can say, "Neither is it rare for mothers to have their daughters instructed in fencing till they are ten or twelve years old, for the purpose of giving flexibility to their limbs." (The New Monthly Magazine, Volume 3)
In 1792 Lady Almeria Braddock and Mrs Elphinstone fought what was referred to in the press as the "petticoat duel".
"A certain Mrs Elphinstone paid a visit to Lady Almeria Braddock and was rude to her hostess. 'You have been a very beautiful woman,' declared Mrs Elphinstone in the somewhat unflattering past tense. 'You have a very good autumnal face even now, but you must acknowledge that the lilies and roses are somewhat faced. Forty years ago, I am told, a young fellow could hardly gaze upon you with impunity.'
"Lady Almeria, not surprisingly, was furious and demanded satisfaction in Hyde Park in central London. They began with pistols at ten yards, Mrs Elphinsonte putting a bullet through Lady Almeria's hat. They then set to with swords, and Mrs Elphinstone was lightly injured. Lady Almeria declared herself satisfied, Mrs Elphinsonte agreed, and both women curtsied to each other before departing the field." (James Landale The Last Duel)
Here's another one. Aristocrats behaving badly, as it were.
In France, in 1721, the Comtesse de Polignac and the Marquise de Nesle, both lovers of the Duc de Richelieu, indulged in a most undignified scrap in the gardens at Versailles.
"Lady de Nesle, losing all control of herself, had sprung like a tigress upon her rival, and attempted to tear a diamond necklace from the Countess's neck. Failing in this, however, she snatched the blush roses from their nest in the snowy bosom, and flung them in the face of her rival. … In a moment jewels and flowers and ribbons and laces strewed the floor, and there is no telling to what extent the extraordinary exhibition would have gone had not the enraged amazons been separated by the Marquis de Malbuisson and Mademoiselle Nathalie de Condacet.
"Out of this grew the duel, the Countess of Polignac being the challenging party. The ladies met at six in the morning, in July, 1721, and fired one shot at each other without effect. Their seconds (the Marquis de Malbuisson and the Comte de Penthievre for Polignac and M. de Remusac and Vicomte D'Allagne for de Nesle) then rushed in to prevent further hostilities; the fair demons, however, would not be appeased, but called for a change of pistols, and again blazed away—this second time with satisfactory effect, for the Marchioness fell dangerously wounded by a bullet in her left side, while the Countess was just quietly touched in an ear." (The Field of Honor, Benjamin Truman)
Whenever I hear, 'history is dull', I always wonder what these folks have been reading.
So, what's your most memorable fighting moment — as spectator or participant?