Hildegard of Bingen, born in the 11th century, is one of the most important female figures in history. Her visions, writings, and direct communications with God makes her also one of the most mysterious and empowered women of all time.
Since the early 20th century, with feminism and women’s studies on the rise, Hildegard of Bingen has also seen a new popularity. Although considered a saint by many early popes of the Catholic Church, in October of 2012, Pope Benedict XVI gave her the title of Doctor of the Church, a title of the highest esteem for theologians. She is the fourth woman of 35 saints given the title by the Roman Catholic church. She is also recognized as a saint in several Anglican churches, such as the Church of England.
Five Reasons why this dynamic, prolific, and profoundly spiritual person is an empowered woman of mystery and history.
#1 Her Visions
In her writings, Hildegard claims she had her first vision at the age of 3. She referred to it as “The Shade of the Living Light.” By the age of 5, she claims she understood the visions to be a gift from God, one that could not be explained to others. At 42 years of age, Hildegard claimed she received a message from God telling her to write down the visions that continued to come to her. Thus, she embarked on her first theological book entitled “Scivias” or “Know the Ways.”
#2 Her Feminism
Living at a time where the role of women pertained strictly to the household, or in the service of men, would prove difficult for an outspoken woman. Even for an outspoken man, when it came to the church. But Hildegard spoke her mind, and spoke it often. She built two monasteries, embarked on preaching tours, and authorized herself as a theologian through her writings. All things women rarely attempted in her day. She is quoted to say, “Woman may be made from man, but no man can be made without a woman.” This can be interpreted as a belief in equality—at the very least in the spiritual sense.
#3 Her medicine
In addition to her other exceptional qualities, Hildegard was also known as a healer. As a child, she lived enclosed in the Benedictine monastery with an older woman named Jutta, also a visionary. According to records, Hildegard learned many of her skills like reading, writing, gardening, and tending to the sick from Jutta. Later, when she ran her own monastery, she headed the monastery’s herbal garden and infirmary. She learned to diagnose and treat disease with both physical and holistic methods centered on “spiritual healing.”
#4 Her Secret Alphabet
Hildegard created her own alphabet for the language she devised called the Lingua Ignota. A modified form of Latin, the Lignua Ignota contained many made-up, fused, and abridged words. Hildegard also made up words for her lyrics. She wrote over 70 musical compositions, each with its own poetic text. Scholars believe she created the secret alphabet and language to increase solidarity with her nuns.
#5 Her Gift of Music
Hildegard regarded song as the highest form of prayer. She may have learned to play the ten-stringed psaltery, a box shaped instrument that is plucked with the fingers, as a child under the tutelage of Volmar, a Disibod monk, who frequented the monastery. Along with over 70 musical compositions, Hildegard also wrote and composed Ordo Virtutum, a liturgical drama set to music. Much of her lyrics reflect her reverence for the Virgin Mary and the Saints.
A person born with Hildegard’s talents, skills, and spiritual communion with God and is rare. Some could even say, a mystery. To be noted for those talents, spiritual gifts, and high intellect as a woman was almost impossible in her day and age. The fact that the highest office of the Catholic church recognized this devoted mystic’s message and life’s work proves that she truly was a woman empowered–empowered by her beliefs, her truth, and her faith.
What did a woman in history do when she had no control over her life? If strong and empowered, she rebelled. Sometimes in a big way, and sometimes as a detriment to herself. One such woman was Elisabeth, Empress of Austria.
Born, Her Royal Highness Duchess Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie, in Munich, Bavaria 1837, Elisabeth grew up in the Bavarian countryside far from court life, riding horses and pursuing country sports. Her parents, Duke Maximilian Joseph and Princess Ludovika of Bavaria, saw little merit in rules for their four children. This liberal upbringing set the stage for Elisabeth’s constant quest for individualism in her adulthood. One that proved more and more difficult as she grew older.
And it started with marriage. Indulgent with their children’s freedom in childhood, the Duke and Princess of Bavaria could no longer defy the rules of royal life when their children became young adults. The Duke and his wife made arrangements with the Duke’s sister, Princess Sophie of Austria, for their eldest daughter, Helene, and Princess Sophie’s son, Franz Joseph, to wed. Fifteen-year-old Elisabeth accompanied her older sister and their mother to Austria to meet their cousin and his mother. However, Helene did not catch the young Emperor’s fancy, but Elisabeth did. Franz defied his mother and insisted he marry Elisabeth. Their betrothal was announced five days later.
Within the year, Elisabeth gave birth to the couple’s first child, Sophie. The Archduchess immediately whisked the child away from Elisabeth and put her in the control of her own nannies. The same followed suit with the next child, Gisela. The Archduchess never missed an opportunity to chide Elisabeth for not producing a son.
Eager to get away from her mother-in-law, Elisabeth implored her husband to let her and the two girls accompany him on a trip to Hungary in 1857. During the visit, both of the girls became ill with diarrhea. Gisela recovered quickly, but two-year-old Sophie succumbed to the illness, later diagnosed as Typhus. The death of little Sophie sank Elisabeth into a depression which would reoccur and haunt her for the rest of her life.
Heart-broken, Elisabeth began a cycle of fasting, sometimes for days on end. She shunned her responsibilities at court, spent much of her time outdoors riding her horses, and also developed some disturbing phobias and obsessions. Her marriage, not a panacea to her troubles, started to show signs of stress.
Known as a great beauty, Elisabeth took much pride in her looks. Her appearance, one of the few things she had control over, became her primary obsession. Known for her elegant height of 5’8”, and her tiny waist, measuring 19 inches in diameter, Elisabeth went to dangerous extremes to control her weight. She eventually whittled her waist down to 16 inches. She weighed herself daily, and if the scales tipped above 110 lbs., the next several days called for a strict fast.
In addition to extreme dieting, Elisabeth also developed a rigorous and disciplined exercise routine. She had gymnasiums built in every castle where the royal family resided. She had mats and balance beams and mirrors installed in her bedchamber so she could practice on them each day. She rode her horses often, sometimes three to five hours at a time. Despite the toll on her health, in 1858, Elisabeth finally bore a son and heir, much to everyone’s relief.
Liberal and forward thinking, Elisabeth’s interest in politics grew. Having fallen in love with the Hungarian people during her visit there in 1857, she firmly placed herself on the Hungarian side in Austro-Hungarian negotiations. At one point, she demanded that her husband name Gyula Andrassy, a liberal Hungarian statesman, (and rumored to be her lover) Premier of Hungary or she would leave him. The emperor complied and Elisabeth stayed in an increasingly unhappy marriage.
In 1867, The Austro-Hungarian Compromise resulted in Andrassy becoming Prime Minister of Hungary, and Franz Joseph and Elisabeth, King and Queen of Hungary. The couple was gifted with a palace in Godollo, and set up a country residence there where Elisabeth built a riding school.
Elisabeth much preferred Hungary to Austria and rarely went back to Vienna. In 1868, she gave birth to another daughter, Archduchess Marie Valerie. Determined to raise this child herself, she openly rebelled against her mother-in-law. Soon after, Archduchess Sophie died, forever losing the power to control her son, his wife and their children. But, too much damage had been done, and Elisabeth had no desire to be a doting wife. She took up a life of traveling, leaving her husband and children at home.
More sadness befell the estranged couple years later when their only son and heir, Rudolf, was found dead with his 17-year-old mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera, in a supposed murder suicide pact. The death of Rudolf caused a lasting rift between Elisabeth and Franz, Hungary, and Austria. The line of succession now passed to Franz Joseph’s brother, leaving Hungary out of the picture.
In perpetual mourning, the Empress Elisabeth continued her travels. When her health prevented her from riding, she made her servants endure long hikes and walks with her. At fifty, she took up fencing with the same intensity as she had other sports. She also threw herself into writing, became an inspired poet, and wrote nearly five hundred pages of verse. She despised court life and would often travel in disguise, without her entourage, to avoid being recognized. Unfortunately, this decision ultimately led to her death.
In 1898, Elisabeth and her lady-in-waiting left a hotel on the shore of Lake Geneva on foot to catch a steamship for Montreux. Wanting to avoid recognition, she ordered her servants to travel ahead by train. Luigi Lucheni, an Italian anarchist, happened to be in town to kill the Duc D’Orleans. Failing to find him, Lucheni learned that a woman traveling under the name “Countess of Hohenembs” had exited the hotel. Determined to kill a sovereign, Lucheni stabbed her under the breast with a hand-made needle file.
Defying the rules to the end, but beloved by her people, Empress Elisabeth of Austria became an historical icon. Her limited, though significant, influence on Austro-Hungarian politics temporarily soothed a troubled empire. Although unable to completely escape the binds of royal life, she will always be remembered as a liberal non-conformist who valued freedom and the rights of the individual above anything else.
Much of the history of Boudica, the warrior Queen of the Iceni, is shrouded in mystery. The Iceni were an ancient Celtic tribe or kingdom that lay on the eastern shores of England. Sources agree that Boudica was born in AD 25 to a royal family. They also agree that she rose to power and she was named Queen after the death of her husband, Prasutagus. She was probably 18-25 years old at the time. She is most known for her military cunning and prowess as she felled Londinium (now called London) and Verulamium (now called St. Albans) in AD 60 or 61. It is estimated that 70,000 to 80,000 Romans and British were killed by her armies.
Two primary sources have recorded the events of her life. Tacitus, the most important Roman historian of the time, had access to Boudica’s uprising in Britain as his father-in-law, a military tribunal, served there for three years. Cassius Dio, another Roman historian and statesman, also wrote about the life and great battle of Queen Boudica. Cassius Dio published more than 70 volumes of history on Ancient Rome, however, he was born almost 100 years after Boudica’s crusade. The two stories of Boudica have some similarities, but also differ, giving mystery and some ambiguity about the life and times of this empowered woman.
Mystery #1 Her name.
The warrior Queen has been known by many versions of her name, including Boadicea, the Latin version, and Buddug the Welsh interpretation. Raphael Holinshed, an English Chronicler in the 1500’s, referred to her as Voadicia, and English Poet of the 1500’s, Edmund Spenser, calls her Bunduca from a Jacobean play called Bonduca.
Boudica’s history had been long forgotten until the Victorian era, when her story became popular again. It was then determined that her name comes from the Celtic word “victorious” and that the correct spelling is Boudica. It was said that Queen Victoria of the 19th and 20th century was named after the warrior Queen, thus her rise in popular culture once again.
Mystery #2 Her appearance and dress.
Cassius Dio described Boudica as a tall and imposing woman with tawny (reddish brown) hair that hung to her hips, a “piercing gaze and a harsh voice.” Other reports say her hair was fair, or blond, and hung to her knees. Cassius Dio records that she wore a multi-colored tunic and a heavy cloak fastened with a bronze brooch—typical dress of a wealthy Celtic woman. He also claims she wore a gold torque around her neck. The torque, a metal band of twisted gold strands, worn as a choker, was the symbol of an ancient Celtic warrior chieftain. The torque symbolized a warrior’s readiness to shed blood for the good of his people—and was never worn by women. If this is true, it just goes to show how fierce and empowered this woman appeared to her people.
Mystery #3 Her reason for sacking London.
Tacitus claims that when Boudica’s husband Prasutagus, died, he left his kingdom to his daughters in order to retain Iceni independence from Rome. However, under Roman law when a chief or king died, the estate was left to the emperor. When the Roman procurator, Decianus Catus arrived at Prasutagus’ court to take inventory, Boudica strongly objected and the procurator had her flogged and her daughter’s raped. In revenge, she then set out to destroy the Romans in Britain.
Cassius Dio claims that at Prasutagus’ death resulted in the confiscation of monies and goods from the rich Britons. Also, any loans they had received—many were forced to take out loans from the Romans—were now due.
Mystery #4 Her religion.
Boudica may have been a druid. Before she set out to lead her troops into battle, it is said that the warrior Queen evoked the British goddess of victory, Andraste. She then released a hare from the folds of her cloak and determined by which direction the hare ran, either on the side of the Romans or the side of the Britons, which army would win. When the hare ran in the direction of the Britons, the people cheered. Boudica then raised her hand to heaven and praised Andraste. A demonstration like this gives historians reason to believe she may have had some druidic training.
Mystery #5 Her death.
Boudica, in a fearsome looking chariot with her daughters by her side, led her troops into battle. Tacitus claims she gave a short speech claiming she did not wish to fight as a rich aristocrat who lost everything to the Romans, but as an ordinary person avenging her lost freedom, her battered body, and her raped children. She, as a woman, was resolved to win or die.
She first sacked Camulodunum (Colchester), a Roman colony. When she reached Londinium, she killed everyone who crossed her path–men, women and children. Noble Roman women were stripped and strung up. Their breasts were cut off and sewn to their mouths. Then they were impaled on sharp skewers running lengthwise through their bodies. Boudica then went on to Verulamium, slaughtering more people. The Roman General, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, regrouped his forces and met Boudica head on somewhere in the West Midlands and eventually proved victorious.
According to Tacitus, Boudica poisoned herself to avoid capture, torture, and death at the hands of the Romans, but Cassius Dio claims she later fell ill and died, and was given a glorious funeral.
Given that Dio wrote Boudica’s history almost a century after the battle, it can be said that he read Tacitus and decided to change the story.
Either way, one thing is clear; Boudica was a ferocious leader who set out to avenge her family and her people from the burden of Roman occupation.
Fashion icon, military leader, murderer. Few women can lay claim to all three titles, but Cleopatra was no ordinary woman. Born in 30 B.C.E., Cleopatra, who ruled Egypt for 21 of her 39 years, was a woman of great beauty and style. She was also a fierce leader who craved power and control. Among many other bold actions to maintain that power and control, Cleopatra optimized her social status, femininity and charm, personally led a fleet of ships into battle and helped to organize war efforts, and took part in the death of three of her rival siblings.
Having no Egyptian blood running through her veins, Cleopatra VII Theos Philopator, was born into the Greek Ptolemaic family who ruled Egypt from the time of Alexander the Great’s death in 323 B.C.E.
The second daughter of Ptolemy and possibly Cleopatra V Tryphaena or Cleopatra VI Trypaena, (either woman could have been Ptolemy’s sister or cousin, it is not known for sure), the young Cleopatra showed much promise as an intellect and future leader. She studied science, literature, philosophy, and became fluent in 9 languages, including Egyptian, which the rest of her family refused to speak.
While Cleopatra had the makings of a great and cherished leader, her father did not. Having allowed centralized power and corruption to flourish, Ptolemy lost control of his dynasty and fled to Rome with the young Cleopatra in tow. Cleopatra VI Tryphaena took control of Egypt, but died soon after, some say from poison administered by Cleopatra’s older sister Berenice IV, who then assumed the crown. With Roman support, Ptolemy and young Cleopatra returned to Egypt in 55 B.C.E. and Ptolemy had Berenice imprisoned and later executed.
Soon after their return, Ptolemy died and wrote in his will that Cleopatra and her 10-year-old brother, Ptolemy XIII, would share the crown. The two married, as was common in Egyptian royal culture, and ruled together. Not wanting to share the regency with a boy 8 years her junior, and desirous of complete control, Cleopatra took the reins. She had Ptolemy’s name eradicated from official documents and had her face alone printed on Egyptian currency.
The Gabiniani, powerful roman troops and named the guardians of the young Ptolemy, opposed Cleopatra’s willfulness and lust for power and ran her out of Egypt. She fled to Syria with her only remaining sister, Arsinoe.
While in exile, Cleopatra’s young brother made his own mistakes, the most grievous by far, angering the most powerful man in Rome, Julius Caesar, by ordering the execution of Pompey, a military and political leader of the Roman Republic. While Pompey was Caesar’s political enemy, he was also his son-in-law, husband to Caesar’s only legitimate daughter who had died in childbirth. Furious, Caesar seized the Egyptian capital and made himself arbiter between the rival claims of Ptolemy and Cleopatra.
Using Ptolemy’s fatal mistake to her advantage, Cleopatra set out to gain favor with Caesar. She had herself smuggled into Caesar’s palace rolled up in a carpet, dressed in her royal finery. Enchanted with her brashness, beauty, and brains, Caesar fell in love that night. An affair developed and nine months after that fated meeting, Cleopatra had a son whom she named Caesarion Ptolemy.
Soon after the love affair started, Cleopatra’s brother, Ptolemy XIII, drowned in the Nile, some say at Caesar’s hand with the encouragement of his beautiful mistress. Caesar then named Cleopatra’s youngest brother, Ptolemy XIV, Pharaoh of Egypt, and Cleopatra as co-ruler, and the siblings married. Caesar then set sail for Rome.
Four years later, Cleopatra took her young son with her to Rome where she and Caesar rekindled their relationship, much to the grievance of the Roman people. Their loyalty lay with Caesar’s wife, Calpurnia, and they were outraged at Caesar’s blatant flaunting of his relationship with the Egyptian temptress. He even went so far as to house Cleopatra in one of his country villas just outside Rome, and also had a golden statue of her, portrayed as Isis, erected in the temple of Venus Genetrix.
After the assissination of Caesar in 44 B.C.E., Cleopatra returned to Egypt to claim her title as Pharaoh. After her return, young Ptolemy XIV died, many say poisoned by his older sister. Cleopatra was known to concoct poisons and perfumes as a hobby. After her brother/husband’s funeral, she named her son as co-regent.
At the height of her power and beauty, Cleopatra’s popularity with the Egyptians was paramount for several reasons. Like all fashion icons she wore exotic hairstyles, jewelry, and clothing; she was the first of her family to speak her countryman’s language, Egyptian; and she believed herself to be the embodiment of the reincarnated Egyptian goddess, Isis. Because of her engaging personality and style, Egyptian women made themselves up and dressed like her. According to the historian Joann Fletcher, “so many Roman women adopted the ‘Cleopatra look’ that their statuary has often been mistaken for Cleopatra herself.”
Rich, powerful, intelligent, and beautiful, Cleopatra was in her prime when Mark Antony, a triumvir who ruled Rome after the death of Caesar, summoned her to Tarsus to incur her support of his planned war against the Parthians. In her typical diva fashion, Cleopatra made an entrance designed to impress. For the voyage she designed a golden barge adorned with purple sails and silver oars. Dressed as Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, Cleopatra set sail for Tarsus determined to win over the Roman trimivir, who also considered himself the embodiment of a god; the god Dionysus.
As she had hoped, Mark Antony fell for her, and Cleopatra had yet another powerful Roman leader hopelessly devoted to her. So devoted that at her urgent suggestion, Mark Antony ordered the execution of Arsinoe, Cleopatra’s younger sister, whom as the last sibling left, Cleopatra feared would attempt to take the throne. The murder took place on the steps of the sacred Temple of Artemis, a scandalous act against the temple sanctuary and thus, the Roman people. Already not in favor with Rome because of her relationship with Julius Caesar, Cleopatra further scandalized the city when she convinced Mark Antony to marry her in an Egyptian ceremony while still married to Octavia Minor, sister to his fellow triumvir, Octavian.
With the relationship between Octavian and Mark Antony on the brink of disaster even before Cleopatra, tensions continued to rise and in 33 B.C.E. Octavian waged war against Egypt and in doing so, Cleopatra. Two years later, the conflict climaxed with the battle of Actium. Cleopatra led the charge, alongside Antony’s fleet, with dozens of Egyptian warships, but the lovers’ forces were no match to Octavian’s army. Cleopatra and Mark Antony fled back to Egypt.
Their respite was not to last, and in 30 B.C.E. Octavian invaded Egypt. There are several stories surrounding the death of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, but the most popular is when Octavian invaded, Mark Antony believed he had captured and killed Cleopatra, so attempted to take his own life by falling on his sword. When his friends learned that Cleopatra was hiding out in her mausoleum, the rushed Antony, still alive, to her where he died in her arms.
With Octavian’s rise in Roman power, Cleopatra feared she would meet a public death much as her sister Arsinoe did, so committed suicide in her mausoleum with two of her women attendants as witnesses. The most recounted story is that she had a venomous snake, the Egyptian asp, smuggled into her sanctuary and enticed it to bite her arm. Other stories claim she used an ointment, or drank wine laced with poison of her own making.
Like many of history’s empowered women, Cleopatra lived her life on the edge making bold, sometimes unpopular but always provoking decisions, taking monumental risks and enforcing change. She lived her life at top speed, she rarely looked back, and she never settled for defeat.
With all of London’s elite flocking to share time with Mrs. Langtry, she made some famous and influential friends. One of the closest in her circle was the flamboyant and eccentric Irish poet and play-write Oscar Wilde, who deemed her the “New Helen.” He said of her, “Yes, it was for such ladies that Troy was destroyed, and well might Troy be destroyed for such a woman.” He also said, “I would have rather discovered Lillie Langtry than America.”
She was also close to the American artist James Whistler and the French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt. Her popularity was so unprecedented that it became known as “The Langtry Phenomenon.”Lillie’s most enduring and influential relationship was one she shared with Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, (“Bertie”) the eldest son of Queen Victoria, later known as King Edward VII. Bertie, married to Princess Alexandra of Denmark, and father of their six children, had taken several mistresses — all beauties of the London social set. When the Prince heard Mrs. Langtry would attend a dinner party given by his friend Sir Allen Young, he made sure to instruct the host to have Mrs. Langtry seated next to him. Her husband was to be seated at the other end of the table. From the moment he met her, the Prince made it clear that if he attended any event, Mrs. Langtry must be invited.
The love affair began. The Prince was so enamored of Lillie that he flaunted their relationship in public and even presented her to his mother, Queen Victoria. He soon went so far as to buy a plot of land at Bournemouth’s East Cliff and told her to design a home to serve as their private “love nest.” Lillie took on the project with great enthusiasm. She added many touches that advertised their fondness for one another. One of the most interesting was a statement prominently displayed over the fireplace mantel that read, “They say what they say? Let them say.”
The Prince and Mrs. Langtry entertained friends at “The Red House” often, and upon the guest’s arrival they would be welcomed with the greeting, “and yours my friends,” meaning the home was theirs too. The house is still standing and has become The Langtry Manor Hotel. It is a favorite venue for weddings.
Princess Alexandra accepted her husband’s “friendship” with Lillie graciously. Such was Lillie’s charm and likability that the two women became friends. Later, after the Prince, then King Edward VII, passed away, Alexandra reportedly returned all the love letters Lillie had sent him.
As all things eventually come to an end, the relationship between Lillie and the Prince cooled when during a masquerade ball, Lillie came dressed in the same costume as the Prince. After the Prince chastised Lillie for showing a lack of decorum and respect, she poured ice down his back in front of all the guests. Needless to say, she not only fell out of favor with the Prince, but with all of London society.
Things at home were also in a state of disrepair. Edward Langtry, Lillie’s husband, had trouble keeping up with his socially demanding wife, and spent less and less time fishing and sailing and more and more time drinking. He was also falling into a financial hole with his spending on yachts and Lillie spending on her lifestyle. The relationship and their finances were in shambles.
On the verge of bankruptcy, Lillie realized she needed work and turned to a great love of hers, the theater. Her friends, including Sarah Bernhardt and Oscar Wilde, encouraged her to try her charms on the stage. Although not incredibly talented, Lillie’s outgoing attitude, intelligence and sparkling wit made people love her once again. Her acting career blossomed, and she gained more popularity than ever. A great lover of theater himself, the Prince again became enchanted with Lillie and came to many of her performances. It was clear he had forgiven her. Until his death in 1910, they remained great friends.
In 1879 Lillie began an affair with Prince Louis of Battenburg, the nephew of the Prince of Wales. At the same time, she also embarked on a relationship with Arthur Clarence Jones, a childhood friend from Jersey. In 1880, she became pregnant. The only known fact of the paternity of the child was that it was not Langtry’s husband. She insisted the child was Prince Louis’. Many others believed the father was Arthur Jones. When Louis confessed to his family his relationship with Mrs. Langtry and the birth of their child, he was assigned to one of Her Majesty’s warships. Bertie, still fond of Lillie, gave her some money, and she moved to Paris with Arthur Jones. In 1881 she gave birth to a daughter, Jeanne Marie. Lillie’s mother raised the girl and she would be known in public as Lillie’s niece. Jeanne Marie did not learn the truth about her parentage until her wedding day in 1902. The news put a strain on Lillie and Jeanne Marie’s relationship that would last the rest of Lillie’s life.
In 1881 Lillie announced that her theater company was to tour the United States. When she arrived in New York, hundreds of soon-to-be fans who had heard of the English beauty greeted her. Her first performance was a total sellout, and she donated much of the proceeds to charity, further endearing her to the American audience. Disaster struck when the theater burned to the ground. The only thing that remained standing was a sign depicting Lillie’s name. Undaunted, Lillie viewed the mishap as a foretelling of better things to come. She moved her company to another theater and continued to play to full houses and drew attention wherever she went. Having fallen in love with America, she repeated her tours to the U. S. several times.
Lillie always had many ardent suitors at home and abroad. One of her most prominent American suitors was Freddie Gephard, a wealthy New York industrialist who showered her with gifts, including a private railway car he named ”Lalee.” Lillie used the private railcar to travel across America on her theater tours. Gephard was also a horse breeder and well known on the racing circuit. Lillie’s early love of horses prompted her to breed thoroughbreds. She purchased a 6,500 acre ranch in Lake Country, California, next door to Freddie Gephard’s ranch.
Another American admirer, Judge Roy Bean of Texas, had fallen in love with one Lillie’s many pictures. In honor of her he renamed his bar/courthouse “The Jersey Lilly Saloon.” Bean never met Lillie, but had a town named for her, Langtry, Texas. By the time she could visit the town, Bean had passed away.
During her stay in America Lillie endorsed many American products and set up several companies, including a winery. Lillie had become a millionaire in her own right. But, disaster reared its ugly head again. While being transported across country, fourteen of Lillie’s race horses were killed after the train derailed.
After picking up the pieces again and having toured America for six years, Lillie longed to return to England. It was during this time she took up with George Alexander Baird, a millionaire, amateur jockey and pugilist. She also purchased more race horses and wanted them to compete, but the Jockey Club in London forbade women owners. Never one to be told “no”, Lillie registered as “Mr. Jersey.” Her horse Merman won the Cesarewitch and Ascot Gold Cup, the Goodwood Cup and the Jockey Club Cup. Her relationship with Baird ended when he died in 1893.
After many years of asking Edward for a divorce and his constant refusals, Lillie became an American citizen and could finally secure a divorce. A few years later, Edward, destitute and a hopeless alcoholic, was committed to an insane asylum and died.
In 1899, Lillie finally settled down and married Hugo de Bathe, a wealthy race horse owner fifteen years her junior. Upon the death of his father, Hugo inherited a baronetcy and Lillie became Lady de Bathe. Now middle aged, Lillie’s fame had not diminished. She still dressed in the latest fashions and was still in demand for portraits and photographs. She was the lessee and manager of London’s Imperial Theater and acted in plays well into her seventies. She starred in one U.S. film called The Crossways. She owned and raced horses and owned thousands of acres in property. In her golden years, Lilly lived in Monaco at her cliff top Villa named “Le Lys” where she became a prize winning gardener.
From the boisterous tomboy of Jersey, Lillie Langtry became a historical icon. Her beauty was only surpassed by her superior wit and intelligence, charm and graciousness. From the moment she entered London society both men and women, from royalty to commoners, admired and idolized Lillie for half a century. She was loved abroad just as much. The Jersey Lilly was a woman before her time and was unstoppable in her quest for a full, exciting and fulfilling life.
In honor of the occasion, I will be reposting some of my previous articles about women who’ve helped pave the way for empowered women everywhere. Here is a two part article I published in June of 2012 about Lillie Langtry, also known as The Jersey Lilly–a social climbing powerhouse who rocked Victorian England. Her popularity was so immense it became termed, “The Langtry Phenomenon.”
Considered the most beautiful woman in England, Royal Mistress to the Prince of Wales, paramour of the Earl of Shrewsbury and Prince Louis of Battenberg, Lillie Langtry, a Victorian beauty, caused a commotion wherever she went. She became a controversial figure who challenged Victorian society’s attitude toward women and paved the way for future women entrepreneurs all over the world.
Born in 1853 on the island of Jersey, located off the Normandy coast of France, Emilie Charlotte Le Bretton, affectionately called Lillie, grew up with six brothers. Her father was the Reverend William Corbet le Breton, the Dean of Jersey, and her mother, Emilie Davis, a woman noted for her beauty.
Lillie inherited her mother’s good looks and had many suitors on the island. One asked Lillie’s father for her hand, but the Reverend turned him down as Lillie was only fifteen years old. She paid the suitors no mind preferring to roughhouse with her boisterous brothers, join in their pranks, and ride horses bareback on the beaches and throughout the countryside of Jersey. Her father also insisted that she have the same educational opportunities as the boys and she proved to be an ardent and talented student.
When it became known that her father, the religious authority on the island, was a habitual philanderer, Lillie decided it was time to leave Jersey and wanted to sail to the continent and live in London. Her reprieve came in 1874 when at twenty years old she married Edward Langtry, a wealthy landowner, yachtsman, and angler. He took her from the island to his home in Southampton. Having escaped Jersey and her family’s troubles Lillie expected marriage to open up a whole new world for her. But, married life and her new husband proved to be disappointments. Edward often left Lillie alone in their grand house with no one for company except servants, to go on his sailing and fishing excursions.
Despondent and unhappy Lillie contracted Typhoid Fever. Her doctor, her soul source of company for weeks, soon became besotted with his beautiful patient. She confided in him that she wanted above anything else to move to London. When Edward returned from his adventures the doctor insisted that the couple move to London or else risk Lillie’s good health.
After the move Lillie received word from her family that her younger brother Reggie was killed in a riding accident. She went home to comfort her mother and when she returned to London she wore a simple, black, form-fitting dress for all occasions – even soirees and balls — in honor of her favorite brother. The simplicity of her attire only enhanced her beauty.
Lillie and Edward were invited to a reception given by her father’s friend and fellow Jerseyman, the 7th Viscount Ranelagh, in Lownes Square. Many of the guests became enchanted with the Jersey beauty who stood out in contrast to the glittering and tailored ladies of London’s elite in her simple, black gown. Frank Miles, an up and coming young artist and guest, was so taken with her he immediately took out his sketch pad and made a line drawing of her right there at the party. Drawings of beautiful society women were printed on postcards and sold to the public. Miles’ postcard was an instant best seller and out-sold all the other postcards of society beauties. Thrilled with the success of the postcards, Miles begged Lillie to honor him with a formal sitting. The resulting portrait was immensely popular and purchased by England’s Prince Leopold.
Lillie had arrived.
Soon, other artists were clamoring for her to sit for portraits. Sir John Everett Millais’ depiction of her became her most famous. Dressed in her usual black gown with a white lace collar Langtry held a Guernsey Lilly, as no lilies from Jersey were attainable. Millais named the portrait, A Jersey Lilly. The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy and caused quite a stir. After the exhibition Lilly was always referred to as “The Jersey Lilly.”
The ethereal beauty, Olive Thomas, is the inspiration for one of the secondary characters in my novel, Grace in the Wings, a Daphne du Maurier unpublished contest winner. The novel is the first book in a mystery series that is currently being shopped by my agent for purchase.
Sophia Michelle is the older sister of my protagonist, Grace Michelle. Orphaned at 15, Sophia vowed that she and Grace would always have a roof over their heads, never go hungry and never live in an orphanage. She relied on the only asset she possessed at the time, her captivating beauty. She spent many nights “out” but always provided for her sister until she was discovered by the famous show-man, Florenz Ziegfeld, who took the girls under his wing and made Sophia a star. When Sophia is murdered, Grace is devastated and sets out to discover who killer her sister.
Olive Thomas was born Olivia R. Duffy, October 20, 1894, to a working class Irish American family in Pennsylvania. At 15 years of age she was forced to leave school to help support the family. At 16 she married Bernard Krush Thomas. The marriage lasted two years. After her divorce she moved to New York City, lived with a family member, and worked in a Harlem department store. In 1914, she won “The Most Beautiful Girl in New York City” contest and landed on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.
Having caught the public’s attention, and the eye of the famous Florenz Ziegfeld, Olive was hired to perform in his wildly popular Ziegfeld Follies. It wasn’t long before Olive had star billing in the Midnight Frolic, a show at one of Ziegfeld’s favored venues, the Roof Top Theater of the New Amsterdam Hotel. The Frolic catered primarily to well-known male patrons. The girls’ costumes, often just a few strategically arranged balloons, allowed amusement for the gentlemen who would pop the balloons with their cigars. The beauty of Olive Thomas became legendary and she was pursued by a number of wealthy men. She is said to have had “lovely violet-blue eyes, fringed with dark lashes that seemed darker because of the translucent pallor of her skin.”
Known for her beauty, Olive was also known for her wild ways. That free spiritedness became more pronounced when she became involved with Jack Pickford of the famous Pickford family. Alcohol and cocaine became part of her partying repertoire and it proved to be reckless. She had three automobile accidents in one year. After that, she hired a chauffeur.
Screenwriter Frances Marion later remarked, “…I had seen her often at the Pickford home, for she was engaged to Mary’s brother, Jack. Two innocent-looking children, they were the gayest, wildest brats who ever stirred the stardust on Broadway. Both were talented, but they were much more interested in playing the roulette of life than in concentrating on their careers.”
The marriage to Pickford caused much trouble for both parties. For Jack, his high-brow famous family did not approve of Olive’s work in the Frolics, and for Olive, her employer Florenz Ziegfeld accused Jack of taking her away from his entertainment dynasty. There were rumors that Flo and Olive were also romantically involved.
The relationship with Pickford could even have been said to contribute to her sudden death in 1920. After a long night of dancing, drinking, and drugs, Olive and Jack went back to their hotel room. Suddenly, from the bathroom, Jack heard Olive scream, “Oh God!” According to Jack’s account, Olive had accidentally drank from a bottle of something marked “poison”. After a trip to the hospital and having her stomach pumped three times to no avail, Olive Thomas died. The autopsy stated that she died of a mixture of mercury bichloride and alcohol. Mercury bichloride was the prescribed tonic for Jack’s persistant and cronic syphyllis.
Olive Thomas had a short, but successful career. She worked for the Ziegfeld Follies and Midnight Frolic and she starred in over twenty motion pictures. She was also one of the first actresses to be termed “a flapper,” along with Clara Bow, Louise Brooks and Joan Crawford.
One of the best things about being in a book club, aside from the wine and good conversation, is reading books you may not have picked up yourself, or books you didn’t even known about. I am fortunate enough to be in a book club with some of the brightest women I know who are all very well read and have brought some outstanding reads to share. The last book we read was Circling the Sun, by Paula McLain, about Beryl Markham. I was a bit surprised that I hadn’t yet heard of the book, or of Beryl Markham, because she is exactly the type of empowered woman I like to read (and write) about.
Circling the Sun is historical fiction based on the life of Beryl Markham, a British woman who grew up in Africa in the early 1900’s, became the first woman race-horse trainer in Kenya, and also the first woman pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west. She also wrote a memoir about her aviation adventures called West with the Night. Pretty amazing, right? Surprisingly, this fascinating woman’s history lived in obscurity until her rediscovery in the early 1980’s.
In 1905, Beryl’s father Charles Clutterbuck, a prominent race horse trainer in England, moved four-year-old Beryl, her older brother Dickie, and her mother Agnes to colonial British East Africa. There he purchased a farm in Njoro, near Kenya, to breed and train race horses. Beryl’s mother had difficulty adjusting to their new life and shortly after arriving in Africa, took the couple’s son and returned to England, leaving Beryl with her father. As an adult, Beryl often made it clear that she’d never really forgiven her mother for the abandonment, but also spoke of taking immense pleasure in growing up in the freedom of the wild African landscape, with the children of the village of Njoro as playmates.
Following in her father’s footsteps, Beryl had a knack for working with horses, and became the first licensed female racehorse trainer in Kenya at the age of 19. Her success at the track, as well as her determination, grit, and beauty led to Beryl’s renown among Africa’s bohemian and eccentric European social circle, known as the Happy Valley Set. Beryl married three times and had a son named Gervase with her second husband, Mansfield Markham, who moved Beryl to London before their son was born. When the couple’s marriage began to deteriorate, Beryl longed to return to Africa, but Markham would not let her take the young Gervase because of serious health issues.
In addition to two other marriages, Beryl had numerous affairs, including an openly public affair in 1929 with Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, son of George V. She also became enmeshed in a love triangle between her friend, the Danish writer Karen Blixen, and famous big game hunter and pilot Denys Finch Hatton. Blixen, who lived in Kenya to manage her family’s coffee farm outside of Nairobi, would later become famous for her novel Out of Africa, which she wrote under the penname Isak Dinesen.
During her affair with Hatton, Beryl became infatuated with flying and began taking flying lessons with British pilot Tom Campbell Black. After Denys was killed piloting his own plane, Beryl sought solace in her flying lessons and also in her flight instructor, starting a long term affair with Campbell Black which ultimately led to her divorce from Mansfield Markham.
For a short period of time, Beryl worked as a bush pilot for safari companies, spotting game animals from the air and signaling their locations to the parties on the ground. Never satisfied with mediocrity, Beryl decided to set a flying record of traveling solo non-stop from Europe to New York. No one had ever succeeded the westward flight, and many died trying. She set off from Abingdon, England in September of 1936. Twenty hours into her flight, her plane’s fuel tanks froze causing her to make a crash landing in Nova Scotia, Canada. She had fallen short of her goal, but she became the first woman and first person to make it from England to North America non-stop from east to west.
In 1942 Beryl publisher her memoir, West of the Night, an autobiographical account of her many adventures on the ground and in the air. The book did not sell well and quickly went out of print. In 1982, George Gutekunst, a restauranteur, stumbled upon a collection of Ernest Hemingway’s letters, one of which mentioned Beryl Markham’s memoir, and Beryl herself, in interesting terms. “But this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers … it really is a bloody wonderful book.” This backhanded compliment so struck Gutekunst that he read the book. Enamored with it, he championed it to a California publishing house, North Point Press, and the book was re-issued in 1983. Beryl, at age 83, still resided in Africa, and quite impressively, still worked training race horses. The re-issue of West with the Night became an instant best-seller and allowed for Beryl, who lived in near-poverty conditions, to retire and enjoy a little fame. She died three years later.
If you haven’t yet picked up Circling the Sun, or West with the Night, I highly recommend them. Better yet, if you aren’t in a book club, these two books are a great way to start. Get some friends together, have some good wine, good food, and good conversation about a woman who lived life just as she wanted.
My father traveled a lot for business when I was a child. This created a great deal of anxiety for me as I feared the plane would go down and I would never see him again. To ease my angst, he always told me he would bring me something from his trip. It worked because instead of worrying about my father, I had something else to think about. Of course I prayed every night he was gone that he would come home safe and sound, but I would go to sleep with positive thoughts on what he would bring me when he returned. To my delight, it was usually a book. One of my favorites was Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. This may have started my life-long passion and love of horses and writing, something that I am sure my father did not intend, but that he and my mother ended up wholly supporting during my youth and beyond.
I was so young when I read the book that some of the lessons it provided were forgotten. We also moved several times during my growing up years and my copy of it must have gotten lost along the way. It wasn’t until I started researching books about horses that I happened upon Black Beauty again. I’ve just ordered a new copy and look forward to scouring it from cover to cover.
Here are some interesting facts about Anna Sewell and her book:
Anna Sewell spent six years writing the book. It was published in 1877 when she was 57 years old, 5 months before her death.
It was her first and last book.
It was an instant best-seller and has to date sold 50 million copies.
A signed first edition sold for $18,133 in 2015. The copy she signed for her mother sold in 2006 for $50,693.
Anna’s mother Mary Wright Sewell was a best-selling author.
Anna and her family were Quakers and believed in kindness to animals.
Black Beauty was the very first novel ever published written in an animal’s point of view.
It was based on her childhood horse, Bess. The Sewell’s considered Bess one of the family—not a very common philosophy in those days.
Anna’s ankles were injured in an accident at age 14 and she never regained full use of her legs again. She spent much of her time in a horse-drawn carriage where she thought about the plight of the working horse.
The book was never intended for children, but for adults to reconsider the treatment of horses.
Sewell’s description of the “check rein” or “bearing rein” caused its demise in Victorian England. The “check” or “bearing” rein is a rein extending from the bridle to the harness of a driving cart that is used to pull the horse’s head up and back. In Victorian times it was fashionable to have this rein pulled tight, causing an unnatural backward bend in the horses’ neck, making it difficult to pull correctly and even to breathe. This caused detrimental effects to the horse and many had to be retired early or actually died from the effects. There are varying opinions on the use of “check reins” still today. Natural horsemanship adheres to the idea of a horse being able to move “naturally” without any bodily limiting devices.
The social practices regarding the use of horses in Black Beauty also inspired legislation in many states of the U.S. during the Victorian period that would condemn abusive practices towards animals.
The novel has been compared to Uncle Tom’s Cabin in its influence on social outrage and protest action in society.
It has inspired many other books concerning animal cruelty.
We live in a time when in order to be a successful author, one must be incredibly prolific. Anna Sewell never had the opportunity to be prolific, but Black Beauty, her one and only novel, did the job. More than just a story about a horse in Victorian England, the novel is about treating all of God’s creatures with kindness, empathy and respect. A theme we can all relate to and want to read about.
I rarely worry about my dad going down in a plane anymore. Time and age have added other, different concerns for both of us, but my dad still gives me books. And rarely a birthday or Christmas goes by without me giving him one in return. It is something we have always shared. If you haven’t come up with a new year’s resolution yet, maybe you should consider giving loved ones a good book on gift giving occasions or just because. Maybe one of the classics like Black Beauty.
There is something very endearing about women in history who defied social norms and stepped outside of the boundaries the world imposed on them to fight for their causes, their faith, their family, or their beliefs.
Belle Boyd is one such woman. This month in history, on December 1, 1863 Belle Boyd, Confederate spy, was released from prison in Washington, D.C. She was only 19 years old.
I am always scouring the internet for interesting stories about empowered women in history. Belle’s story caught my eye because I also write about a confederate spy in my novel, Dead Eye Dame—the fictionalization of Annie Oakley as an amateur sleuth (now being marketed by my agent for publication.) My spy is not as crafty and endearing as Belle, nor is he female, but he shares the same rebellious and cause-driven nature.
Belle’s story begins in 1844 in Bunker Hill, VA (now West Virginia) where she was born to Benjamin Boyd, a tobacco farmer and shopkeeper, and his wife Mary Boyd. In 1855 the family moved to nearby Martinsburg. The oldest of 8 children, Belle seemed to come out of the womb a rebel. At the age of 10, Belle defied her social status—and the law—by teaching Eliza Corsey, one of her family’s slaves, to read and write. Belle and Eliza had become fast friends growing up together, and Belle wanted Eliza to enjoy some of the rights denied to her because of her color. She later states in her memoire Belle Boyd, in Camp and Prison, published 1865, “Slavery, like all other imperfect forms of society, will have its day, but the time for its final extinction in the Confederate States of America has not yet arrived.”
Always quick witted and bright beyond her years, at age 11, it is reputed that Belle, in rebellion to being denied attendance at one of her parent’s parties because of her age, rode her horse into the family’s living room during the party. She is said to have stated, “my horse is old enough, isn’t he?”
At 12 years old, Belle’s parents sent her to the esteemed Mount Washington Female College of Baltimore. After graduating at 16, Belle enjoyed a life of dancing and parties as a debutant in Washington, D.C. This must have been when she honed her skills as a flirt and expert communicator. After a season, she returned to her life and family in Martinsburg.
Martinsburg was a town supported by the Union cause, but Belle’s family were true southerners and devoted to the Confederacy. Her 45-year old father enlisted in the Virginia Infantry under Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Belle and her mother supported the cause by sewing clothing and raising funds for the Confederate soldiers.
In July, 1861, Union soldiers captured Martinsburg, invading homes and businesses. When a group of drunken Union soldiers tried to hang a Union flag over the entrance to the Boyd’s family home, Mary, Belle’s mother, intervened. When one of the soldiers accosted Mary, Belle grabbed a Colt pocket pistol and shot him dead. Thus began her career as a “rebel spy” at the tender age of 17.
Realizing her feminine power, and having mastered the art of flirting, Belle knew that she could fly under the radar of suspicion and through family connections began gathering information from Union soldiers. With the help of Eliza, Belle would send the information to the Confederate side. When one of her letters was intercepted, Belle was arrested, but managed to get off with a warning for a crime that was usually punishable by death.
Undaunted, Belle ramped up her support for the South by becoming a messenger for Confederal generals P.G.T. Beauregard and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Belle used her feminine wiles to steal weapons from Union camps and smuggle precious quinine, a medicine used for malaria, across the Potomac River to secessionist towns in Maryland. One of her most significant missions was to obtain crucial information that would allow Stonewall Jackson’s forces to recapture the town of Front Royal.
In society, Belle became known as the sort of girl a boy wouldn’t want to take home to mother. She worked at seducing both Confederate and Union officers and was considered the lowest form of “camp follower” around. Not a beautiful woman, Belle had a confidence that made her looks secondary to her charms. She also had no qualms about impersonating Confederate soldiers to further garner information from Union officers.
Whether dressed as a man or a woman, Belle never wavered from her devotion to the Southern cause and that transparency became a part of her persona. It was only a matter of time before Union officials saw Belle as a potential threat. Shortly after her contribution to the recapture of Front Royal, Belle was again arrested and sent to Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C. where she spent a month in prison, and then subsequently spent another five months in prison after yet another arrest. After several more arrests, Belle met and married one of her Union captors, an officer named Samuel Hardinge. The two were married and had a daughter. Although unable to completely convert Hardinge to the Southern cause, he did serve time in prison for giving aid to Belle.
Belle eventually made her way to England where she wrote her memoir and launched a career as an actress. Several years later, Belle returned to the United States and married twice more, had four more children, became estranged from her oldest daughter, and spent time in a mental institution. She died in 1900, during a performance on stage in Wisconsin.
Although Belle’s life did not end on a happy note, in her later years she learned that her efforts had not been in vain. Women all across the South had taken to impersonating her, claiming to be Belle Boyd, the “Siren of the Shenandoah” or the “Cleopatra of the Secession.” She had become a symbol of feminine empowerment and an inspiration to future generations.
National Women’s History Museum https://www.nwhm.org/education-resources/biography/biographies/belleboyd/
“The ‘Siren of the Shenandoah'” by Karen Abbot, New York Times, May 23, 2012 http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/05/23/the-siren-of-the-shenendoah/?-r=0