The Other Sword Woman — Part One

“You are all woman; yet your attire strangely becomes you. A pistol in your girdle, too. You remind me of a woman I once knew. She marched and fought like a man, and died of a pistol ball on the field of battle. She was dark where you are fair, but there is something similar in the set of your chin, in your carriage – nay, I know not.”

— Robert E. Howard, “Sword Woman”

So the mercenary captain Guiscard de Clisson says to Agnes de Chastillon at their first meeting. We receive little more information about the woman to whom he refers, except her name and birthplace – Black Margot of Avignon. De Clisson speaks of her with high admiration.

Coming from a redoubtable leader of Free Companies that would mean something. We can suppose that Black Margot was indeed someone out of the common. Her name and Agnes’ seem like a sort of fissioning of the historical Scots lady, Black Agnes Randolph, who held Dunbar Castle against English attack throughout the first half of 1338. Her husband was away with the Scottish army, and although the English commander, the Earl of Salisbury, was a fine soldier, he couldn’t get anywhere against Agnes. Her spirit and determination inspired the castle garrison and kept it fighting. With siege catapults constantly pounding the ramparts, Agnes and her ladies, in their finest gowns, strolled scornfully along the battlements as though promenading to church, and when dust and grit from the bombardment dirtied them, they flicked it away with their handkerchiefs to taunt the English. Salisbury is credited with having said ruefully,

“Came I early, came I late,
I found Agnes at the gate.”

During the siege, the English captured – it’s said – Agnes’ brother, the Earl of Moray, and brought him before the castle with a rope around his neck. They threatened to hang him if Agnes did not surrender. She answered, “Hang him, then, and I’ll inherit the earldom.” If she actually said that, it was merely a smartass way of calling their bluff, as she wasn’t next in line for the earldom anyway. Her brother may have been irked by her lack of sweet sisterly anguish, but at least he survived. The English didn’t carry out their threat.

Black Margot became a legend, and I’ve little doubt that Robert E. Howard had read about her.

The story in which Margot of Avignon is mentioned, “Sword Woman,” takes place in 1521 from the internal evidence. The Emperor is “gathering his accursed Lanzknechts to sweep de Lautrec out of Milan,” says de Clisson to Agnes. Black Margot probably died a generation before that. De Clisson may have met her as a lad just beginning his martial career, and been forty when he saw Agnes at the Tavern of the Red Boar. Then 1475 would be a believable working date for Margot’s birth.

Two years earlier, a boy called Pierre Terrail de Bayard had been born. He would go down in the legends of romance as the Chevalier Bayard, “without fear and without reproach”. Margot would encounter him and fight in some of the same major battles as he.

Her birthplace, anyhow, was definitely Avignon. REH informs us so. This city of south-western France had been the capital of the exiled Popes between 1309 and 1377, a time sardonically called the “Babylonian captivity” of the papacy. Avignon was still a papal possession, governed by papal legates, down to the late eighteenth century when the French Revolution began.

The Italians of the papal court had consistently despised the locale. Petrarch, in the 14th century, described it as a place where the winter mistral blew bitterly, and “a sewer where all the muck of the universe collects”. Perhaps he was referring to moral muck. While the Popes lived there, criminals and rebels from other territories found sure asylum, plague often broke out, and Avignon abounded in grog-shops and whorehouses. The papal legates (who were governing at the time of Margot’s birth) seem to have made few social improvements.

Avignon, though, was more than a place the Popes had once called home and where the mistral wind drove people mad. A school of painting influenced by Flemish art flourished at Avignon in the 15th century, when Black Margot was born. Walls built by the Popes surrounded the town, with ramparts, projecting turrets and formidable gates. The palace of the popes with its eight strong towers rose above the city on its rocky vantage. The famous bridge of Avignon crossed the Rhone in Margot’s day, as it had since Saint Benezet and his followers had thrown its arches across the river three hundred years before her birth; the first attempt to succeed in the teeth of the swift, treacherous river currents. The folk song “Sur le Pont d’Avignon” celebrates the structure. Avignon, too, lies about twenty-five miles north of Arles, with its honey-colored stone, Roman ruins (the great aqueduct and theatre) and its important merchant port. The Rhone delta embraces the eerie, romantic wilderness of the Camargue, with its trackless marshes and lagoons, home to vast flocks of flamingoes, egrets and other birds, wild white horses and feral cattle.

It’s pretty certain that Margot would have been a younger contemporary of at least one REH character – de Montour of Normandy, who was attacked by a werewolf “In the Forest of Villefere” and appeared on the west coast of Africa many years later, at the bizarre castle of Dom Vincente da Lusto, still under a demonic curse. The errand that brought de Montour to the unlucky forest and his meeting with Carolus le Loup (a forebear of the bandit Le Loup in “Red Shadows”?) was, as he said himself, to warn the Duke of Burgundy about a treaty the King of France had made with the English. That would have been the Treaty of Picquigny, in 1475, when Margot was born. This blogger supposes that de Montour was then twenty-three, and concerned to warn Charles the Bold because he was the Duke’s illegitimate half-brother – one among many.In 1476, when Margot was a crying black-haired baby, Vlad the Impaler died in battle and Cesare Borgia was born. In 1480, Cesare’s sister Lucrezia came into the world. De Montour arrived in Avignon that year, still under the curse of the werewolf, his life a horror. At the full moon, possessed by the demon again, he went on a murderous rampage. Margot’s parents were among his victims. Orphaned, she had a hard life thereafter, as we can suppose.

Guiscard de Clisson, who would become a famous mercenary captain, was born in 481. Two years later, King Louis XI of France, known as “the Universal Spider”, died in August. Charles VIII mounted the throne at the age of twelve, described as “feeble in body and intellect”. Louis had constantly pushed and schemed to increase royal power to the point of absolute rule, and now that he was gone, the nobles pushed back, seeking to regain all they had lost, no matter the cost to the kingdom. Charles’s elder sister Anne and her husband, Pierre de Bourbon, lord of Beaujeu, sought to save the realm by dominating it; not the first quest for power from the very highest motives.

Over the Channel, an act of the English parliament declared Edward and Richard (the princes in the tower) illegitimate. Neither was on record as having been seen again after the summer of that year, 1483. In 1485 Henry Tudor invaded England. Richard III was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field, according to Shakespeare crying, “My kingdom for a horse!” and the Tudor age began.

In France the “Mad War” broke out, a coalition of nobles against the monarchy. Black Margot was ten years old. She went to follow the armies and survive as best she could with Berthe, a washerwoman and camp follower who became her foster mother. Ignorant and drunken, Berthe was nevertheless kinder to Margot than some would have been, and more than once protected the girl with swings of her heavy fists. It didn’t take long for Margot to learn how to dodge, run and use a knife for those occasions when Berthe snored inebriated and couldn’t defend her.

The Battle of Saint-Aubin-du-Courmier took place on the 28th of July, 1488. It ends the “Mad War” with a decisive Royalist victory. Sadly for Margot, Berthe was killed during it by a cannon ball. Now thirteen, she mourned and buried her foster mother, then decided to become a soldier. She disguised herself as a boy. Lean and tall, she was convincing in the role, and adroit with dagger or spear. Over the next three years she would learn to use a light double-edged arming-sword with deadly skill also.

In 1490, Duke Charles I of Savoy died. Until then, Pierre de Bayard had been serving as a page in his household. Now Bayard took service as a man-at-arms with the Seigneur de Ligny, one of the French king’s favorites.

In 1491, Margot of Avignon turned sixteen. She could no longer feasibly disguise herself as a boy, and so she abandoned the role, but while openly owning her sex, she still marched and fought in men’s garb. She favored edged weapons, particularly her light, sharp, narrow sword with its excellent temper. While acquainted with matchlock muskets, which existed by her time, she found them clumsy and slow, neither of which described her. As for handguns, the ones being made then were matchlocks too … wheel-locks at best. Margot could throw a knife or thrust with her sword while most men were still aiming a pistol. Because her parents had been rent in pieces by a werewolf, she thoroughly believed in, and felt a horror of, the creatures; she carried a silver dagger from the time she was able to afford it, in case of an encounter.

1491 was also the year in which King Charles of France, under the influence of Etienne de Vesc, became enthusiastic for a military adventure into northern Italy. He had a remote claim to the Kingdom of Naples and wished to pursue it. As a mercenary, Margot was pleased to hear of a possible war in the offing, and she knew there was plenty of loot in the south.

King Charles had just married Anne of Brittany, even though she was already married – by proxy – to the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I. She was fourteen and Charles had long been betrothed to another, Margaret of Austria. Naturally the betrothal had to be cancelled, but Charles did not send Margaret home at once; he kept her in France, hoping to marry her in a way that would be advantageous to him. Partly for this reason, perhaps, he didn’t start his Italian war until 1494.

Margot, impulsively, had gone to Italy in 1491. She spent the next three years in Milan – where Leonardo da Vinci was working under the patronage of Milan’s duke, Ludovico Sforza – and Florence, just as Lorenzo de Medici (the Magnificent) died. His son Piero the Unfortunate succeeded him, and the fiery Dominican Savonarola inflamed the city with his preaching. Margot found sufficient work as a female bravo in both cities, and learned the truth of that tongue-in-cheek Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” Sometimes she was flush, sometimes broke. Then came 1494, at which time Margot was nineteen, and the beginnings of the French-Italian wars.

Art credit: Dark Agnes de Chastillon by John Watkiss

Read Part Two