As a means of settling disputes, duels have been prevalent for thousands of years, pretty much since the beginning of time. From the time of Mahabharata and Iliad till today (inside/outside any bar) duels have remained an effective and popular instrument of settling scores.
We all know that most duels were fought by men. However, there were some “petticoat duels”.
One of the earliest of these recorded was between Diambra de Pettinella and Isabella de Carazzi in Naples in 1552, when the two couldn’t agree on which of them should win the heart of Fabio de Zeresola. While the outcome remains unknown, the battle between them was memorialized in the painting of Jose de Ribera, Duela de Mujeres (1636). Over the years, lady duels were fought between actresses challenging each other’s craft, society mavens over who should take precedence at an event, and two ladies, Madame Astie de Valsayre and “Miss Shelby”, even clashed over whether American or French doctors were superior.
In 1792 the Carlton House Magazine ran an article of two female petticoat duellists. The two participants were identified, in the magazine, as Lady Almeria Braddock and Mrs Elphinstone. The two ladies were taking tea when Mrs Elphinstone, after an exchange of ‘bloated compliments’ between them, said to Lady Almeria, “You have been a very beautiful woman.”
Lady Almeria: “Have been? What do you mean by ‘have been’?”
Mrs Elphinstone: “You have a very good autumn face, even now . . . The lilies and roses are somewhat faded. Forty years ago I am told a young fellow could hardly gaze on you with impunity.”
Lady Almeria: “This is not to be borne; . . . I must be under the necessity of calling you out . . . “
Mrs Elphinstone: “Name your weapons. Swords or pistols?”
Lady Almeria: “Both!”
The ladies met at Hyde Park and set to with pistols. Mrs Elphinstone proved the better shot, putting a bullet hole through Lady Almeria’s hat. Their seconds pleaded with them to end it there but Mrs Elphinstone refused to apologise and so hostilities resumed, this time with swords. Lady Almeria managed to inflict a wound on her opponent’s sword arm and honour was deemed to have been satisfied; both ladies quitted the field.
Perhaps the most famous “petticoat duel” of them all was fought topless.
It was the summer of 1892, when two Austrian noblewomen, the Princess Pauline Metternich and the Countess Anastasia Kiielmansegg, started a feud about floral arrangements for the Vienna Musical Theatrical Exhibition (the Princess was the Exhibition’s Honorary President and the Countess was the President of the Ladies’ Committee).
With neither women willing to concede, they travelled to the Vaduz on the Swiss frontier to duel it out. The medically-trained Baroness Lubinska was the referee. On her advice, the two duelists first stripped to the waist before the battle.
The Baroness had the ladies remove their clothing due to the possibility that small strips of cloth could be trapped in any sword wounds, and might thereby lead to the contraction of sepsis, something she’d seen happen before in the aftermath of duels.
As the fight was to begin, the few males that were present (all servants) were sent to stand far away with their backs to the battle. The fight itself was reportedly relatively short. Both ladies made a few thrusts and feints with their rapiers, resulting in Princess Pauline cutting Countess Anastasia’s nose. With first blood drawn, the Princess dropped her defenses. However, rather than cease fighting, the Countess stabbed the Princess in the arm.
At the sight of the blood, it is reported that both seconds fainted, and hearing the ladies’ cries, the chivalrous (or curious) footmen and coachmen supposedly attempted to rush to their “aid.”
Since the Princess drew first blood, most considered her the winner, although some felt that the glancing blow wasn’t as worthy of recognition as the Countess inflicting a deeper arm cut. Regardless, at the urging of their two seconds, shortly after both were injured the duel ended and the ladies made up.