Girls on Film: On-Screen Depictions of Queens in Warfare

By Catherine Capel

Queens have been brought to life on the screen for many decades, highlighting their turbulent and enigmatic reigns and portraying key themes analysed within queenship studies – reception of female power and rulership, succession crises, sexuality, and motherhood to name but a few. But warfare as an aspect of queenship has not been a focal point for representing these queens. Although there are references to the conflicts which occurred during their reigns, it is not a theme that forms their identity as a ruler. The depiction of queens participating in warfare in films and television series, however, is gaining ground in tandem with royal women gaining more recognition in military historiography.   

The two queens who will be featured in this post are Æthelflaed of Mercia (870-918) and Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi (1828-1858), both widowed queens who ruled after the deaths of their husbands.

Æthelflaed was the daughter of Alfred the Great and Ealhswith of Mercia, and the wife of Æthelred, Lord of Mercia (881-911). She played a key role in governing Mercia and succeeded her husband as ruler after his death in 911, after which she was known as Myrcna hlædige (Lady of the Mercians), a title which denoted her royal position and power. She proved an effective leader and commander as she defended her kingdom from Viking attack and built towns and fortresses in the territories under her control. She is portrayed by Millie Brady in The Last Kingdom television series, based on The Saxon Series by Bernard Cromwell.     

Statue of Æthelflaed outside Tamworth railway station by artist Luke Perry, https://www.tamworth.gov.uk/Aethelflaed-unveiled.

Lakshmibai was the wife of Gangadhar Rao Newalker, Maharaja of Jhansi. Initially, Lakshmibai was not involved in the Indian Rebellion which began in 1857 against the British, but at the Siege of Jhansi in 1858 she commanded her army to defend the fort until it fell to the British and she retreated. In Gwalior, Lakshmibai fought another battle against British forces but was fatally shot. An all-female regiment in the Indian Army known as the Rani of Jhansi Regiment (RJR) was named after Lakshmibai. In The Warrior Queen of Jhansi (2019) she is played by Devika Bhise, who also co-wrote the script.   

Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi, image taken from ‘Britannica’, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Lakshmi-Bai.

The detailing of military operations in The Last Kingdom, from the decision to launch a campaign to declarations of victory or peace, showcased the activities of military leaders and Æthelflaed’s capacity as a commander is evident. She is seen making strategic decisions deciding where to attack and make camp, understands the importance of troop numbers, and acts as a diplomat in securing peace. In a scene that resonates with the iconic speech delivered by Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I (1998), Æthelflaed addresses her men as they prepare to join her father at Winchester c.892. This scene depicts the recognition of those who followed her as a legitimate military leader.

Her presence on the battlefield as the lone early English woman amongst men speaks volumes about perceptions of Æthelfled’s role in shaping events of the period. A snide remark from her husband Æthelred about the forbidden nature of her involvement is disregarded by Æthelflaed. Since no other men express their displeasure at her actions as a military leader, it can be assumed that this was a tool to cast Æthelred as the weak ruler and show Æthelflaed as brave. When leading troops into battle, she is shown wearing chainmail and leather armour with her hair tied back, reflective of the prominent male leaders alongside whom she is fighting. This shows that she is exhibiting the same level of power and authority in a martial context as her fellow male characters. The fact that Æthelflaed is seen actively killing men and covered in blood is crucial to understanding how her representation in the show refutes stereotypes surrounding women’s involvement in warfare, a revisionist theme which is highlighted in recent historiography.    

The 2019 film The Warrior Queen of Jhansi focuses primarily on the Indian Rebellion in 1857, and in an early scene depicting her childhood it shows Lakshmibai being taught how to shoot a bow and arrow from atop a horse. This foreshadows the role her character plays in this film as a military leader and gives a nod to the physical education she is believed to have been given as a child.

Later, Lakshmibai is seen giving weapons training to a group of women, teaching them to fight with swords, bows and arrows, and spears. She is shown riding a horse shooting arrows, reproducing the scene mentioned above of her as a young girl. She is asked by her tutor, “Do you really think you can teach these women to fight like men?”, and her response “No. I will train them to fight better than men” demonstrates that her character recognises the strength and skill in women that is often overlooked.

Much like Æthelflaed in The Last Kingdom, Lakshmibai is seen in the film participating in many aspects associated with military leadership. She is in charge of rallying allies, she directs the siege against British forces, she gives orders to troops during hand-to-hand combat, she herself is fighting in battle and is seen killing men, she makes tactical and strategic decisions, and she orchestrates a retreat. In the last battle scene, she rides at the head of her army and leads her troops into battle dressed in armour. Lakshmibai is also represented similarly to Æthelflaed in that she also delivers a great speech to her army, motivating them to fight against the enemy and defend the fort.  

These two queens’ depictions in warfare in film and television reflects themes found in military and gender historiography, such as identifying the roles queens played and addressing attitudes towards women on the battlefield. This growing historiographical field challenges previous perceptions of queens, and women as a larger social distinction, as purely victims of war and grants them agency and visibility in a traditionally masculine arena. Both Æthelflaed and Lakshmibai are depicted fighting alongside male characters as two strong female leaders who execute martial power and authority, as royal women, in order to challenge stereotypes and increase the representation of queens in warfare on the screen.            

Recommended Reading

Tim Clarkson, Aethelflaed, 2018.

Bhawan Singh Rana, Rani of Jhansi, 2005.

Harleen Singh, The Rani of Jhansi: Gender, History and Fable in India, 2014.  

TeamQueensHist, ‘Rani of Jhansi’, QOTD, 2021.

Megan McLaughlin, “The Woman Warrior: Gender, Warfare and Society in Medieval Europe”, 1999.

James M. Blythe, “Women in the Military: scholastic Arguments and Medieval Images of Female Warriors”, 2001.

Cothran Boyd, Joan Judge, and Adrian Shubert ed., Women Warriors and National Heroes: Global Histories, 2020.

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