Butt-Kicking Princesses in History: Urraca of Zamora

I love a good sibling rivalry story. As one of five siblings myself (oldest sister of four girls and one boy) and the mother of three (I may have mentioned them once or twice), I know quite well the shrewd calculations and endless scheming, the simmering  cauldron of perceived slights and all-out wrongs, the endless record-keeping and pecking-order-awareness. It’s more complicated than Secret Santa day at the UN, I’ll tell you what.

Take the Infanta of Zamora, Urraca. First of all, look at this picture:

Notice the heavy lidded stare? Notice the sidelong glance? Notice the scheming slump? My daughters make that same face. Hell, I make that face, and I don’t even live with my siblings anymore.

Urraca was – as I am – one sibling in five, but was, unlike me, the heir to a kingdom. Lucky girl. I, on the other hand, will be heir to my dad’s ginormous dictionary and my mom’s ancient Cuisinart (though, I may have to thumb wrestle my sister for it) (she doesn’t know that I have THUMB ARMOR! With POISONED BARBS! And RAZOR WIRE! One, two, three, four, I declare a thumb war, HI-YA!).

Wait. What was I saying? Oh, right Urraca.

Anyway, Urraca’s father was Ferdinand the Great, the guy who conquered the heck out of the various principalities of Spain – held by both Christian and Islamic rulers – and crowned himself Emperor of Spain. This is not – to be clear – the same Ferdinand who kicked out Spain’s Muslims and Jews and, just for fun, whipped up a good old fashioned Inquisition, and ushered in one of Spain’s more unpleasant chapters. I mean, crowning oneself emperor is – let’s face it – a jerk move. But at least it’s not an Inquisition.

So, on his death bed, he divided up his empire, giving his three sons separate kingdoms, while his daughters were each given a walled city-state to call their very own. Ferdinand, having abandoned the trappings and riches of emperor-ness and wearing the simple clothes of a monk, challenged his children to play nice and to be fair and to love one another and God and Spain and then he died.

And then the wars started.

Really, we can blame brother Sancho – the eldest, who, rightfully so, thought that being the oldest meant that he was In Charge. As an eldest child myself, I can relate. He was, after all, king of Castille, the largest and most important of the three kingdoms. So he convinced his brother Alfonso to go to war with brother Garcia to nab Galicia, which Alfonso did willingly. Then, with extra money and arms at his disposal, Sancho went after Alfonso’s Leon, Elvira’s Toro and Urraca’s Zamora.

“NO FAIR,” Alfonso said, but Sancho wouldn’t listen, and now Alfonso was on the run.

Toro folded like a napkin, so Alfonso and Urraca combined forces. Alfonso tried to convince Urraca to come with him to Leon, but Urraca wouldn’t have it. “Have you seen this friggin’ castle?” Urraca said.

Sure, it’s looking a bit worse for wear now, but then it was impenetrable. Nothing that Alfonso would say could convince her. She had said her piece. She had counted to three. And she wasn’t moving. So Alfonso left for Toledo to regroup, and Urraca prepared for war.

Sancho, meanwhile, had teamed up with El Cid, (yes, that El Cid)

who convinced Sancho to go and pay his sister a visit, kiss her hand, and then wage all-out war. Which he did. Because why not?

It was unsuccessful, alas. Zamorra was too well-defended, and Urraca too shrewd a tactician. Unable to penetrate the walls, El Cid convinced Sancho to just wait the city out. Eventually, with her people starving, Urraca would cave. After all, El Cid argued. Ladies are delicate. And tender hearted. And they can’t stand to watch the men and women and children in their community suffer starvation or pain or bloody death. And that may be true. But Urraca was very good at convincing people to do things. And so the Nobleman Vellido rode out to meet Sancho. As Urraca had instructed him to do, he told Sancho that he was switching teams. And then, using trickery and cunning, got Sancho alone. I imagine the interchange went something like this:

VELLIDO: Boy, oh boy, Sancho, I sure am glad I switched sides. Your team rules!

SANCHO: I know, RIGHT? Welcome aboard.

VELLIDO: Hey. I have a GREAT idea! Let’s go over on the other side of that rocky knoll. Just the two of us. With no one else. We’ll watch the sunset and drink some wine and have lots of fun male bonding!

SANCHO: OMG! That’s totally the best idea EVAR!

VELLIDO: Awesome! I think I’ll bring this spear! For no particular reason!

And off they went.

Now, no one can prove that Urraca was behind this, of course. But it is widely believed that she was. Because she had a city to defend. And a snot-nosed brother to put in his place. And, as I said, she was very good at convincing people.

When Sancho was discovered, spear sticking out of his puny little body and hovering near death, he is said to have uttered these words:

“The traitor Vellido has killed me, and I die for my sins because I broke the oath I made to my father.” In which the rest of the world said, “WELL, DUH,” and then he died.

And let this be a lesson to all of us. If Sancho hadn’t made such a fuss, then the five siblings might have been content with their respective shares, and maybe later crises in Spain would have been averted. Or maybe not. While no one expects the Spanish Inquisition, perhaps the truths of human intolerance and the lust for power and the unbreakable code of sibling rivalry would have asserted itself no matter what. Perhaps the Inquisition was inevitable – just as any exercise of human horror, of man’s inhumanity to man.

Still, one may take some hope in the person of Urraca – who didn’t go after her brother’s share or her sister’s share, who didn’t make a mockery of her father’s plea to share and play nice. Instead, she simply stood up to a bully, and took him down. And rightfully so. There are too many bullies, and I expect the Middle Ages had far more than their fair share. Having dispatched with her brother, and the aftermath of nobles with too much time on their hands and too many weapons at their disposal and too much temper boiling behind their ears, she went back to ruling her small nation with some amount of fairness – and perhaps a little smug satisfaction as well.

She was a sibling after all. And no one does smug like siblings.

Butt-Kicking Princesses in History: Arachidamia of Sparta

Okay, I have to admit it: I am having MORE FUN THAN SHOULD BE ALLOWED researching these powerful princesses. I’m also becoming more and more deeply convinced that Disney – and even the Brothers Grimm and Andrew Lang and Perrault and Calvino and the rest of my beloved (and doubly beloved!) fairy tale compilers, whose words I treasured when I was a child and whose vision shapes the writer I am today – are pretty much full of crap. Because history is lousy with ladies whose ambitions, talents, schemes, vision, fortitude, and force-of-being have left deep and indelible grooves in the world around them.

Take Arachidamia, for example.

Now, despite the fact that the Greeks weren’t all that keen into things like women’s rights during ancient times, the Spartans were a bit different. A war-like, austere culture (spartan, if you will), both athleticism and battle-prowess were recognized as being both possible in the fairer sex, as well as admired.

 And to hear Plutarch tell of it, those ladies from Sparta were forces to be reckoned with.

Queen Arachidamia of Sparta was a woman of wealth and power and status. When King Pyrrhus, feeling his advanced age and the numb recognition that his long career of warmaking had landed him with empty coffers and more dead friends than he could count, decided to make one last foray into war with Sparta, Arachidamia smiled to herself, and began to get ready.

Now, at this point, Sparta was in the middle of a war with Crete, and while things were at this moment going their way, the King and most of the army were far away across the ocean, and impossible to reach in time. And the armies of Pyrrhus were…..extraordinary. Difficult to fight in the best of circumstances. The Spartan Senate, seeing the approach of the armies of Pyrrhus, knowing that they were out-manned and out-armed, made the wrenching decision to gather the women together and send them to Crete where they’d be safe. “Oh, no,” said Arachidamia. She gathered the women and approached the Senate. Arachidamia walked into the Senate chamber, according to Plutarch, “with a sword in her hand, in the name of them all, and asked if they expected the women to survive in the ruins of Sparta.” They would defend their homeland, the women snarled. And the men in the Senate felt their knees start to shake.

The matter was settled, so the Spartans – both men and women – began digging a huge trench, running parallel to Pyrrhus’s camp. And then the battle began.


Pyrrhus attacked with twenty thousand troops, and five thousand elephants. Have you ever seen an elephant at war? They fight like tanks. They leave a trail of destruction in their path. No matter, said the women of Sparta. And they fought like wolves.

Pyrrhus was astonished. This was supposed to be easy. He didn’t even want to engage in this war in the first place – and only did so at the behest of an old friend who held a grudge against Sparta for refusing to make him King. No one has ever made me King, but you don’t see me going to war about it, now do you?

Pyrrhus fled, ended up in Argos where he was struck by a falling statue while walking under a bridge and then beheaded. Serves him right.

History, strangely, is mute as to the fate of the fighting elephants. But, given that elephants typically live in matriarchal societies, unhindered by the bother of warmongering, I like to think that they gave up their warlike ways and retreated into the forest, munching on mulch for the rest of their days.


You know, it’s funny: in most of the descriptions that I’ve read about IRON HEARTED VIOLET, Violet is usually described as “an unconventional princess”, but I’m starting to think that such a descriptor is incorrect. There’s no such thing. Women and girls change history every day – and always have done so. Be they princess or soldier or scholar or artist or spy. Or preacher. Or writer. Or activist. Or friend. Sometimes, it just feels good to know that.