21 Feb 2024
by Cat Stiles

Print of Duel_c2_Gravure d’apres Alexandre-Auguste Robineau, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons_crop.jpg
An illustration of one of Chevalière D’Éon's famous fencing matches. This took place on 9th April 1787 at Carlton House with the Prince of Wales among the spectators. (Gravure d’après Alexandre-Auguste Robineau, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The knight in a royal dress

Hidden away in a cabinet at the Royal Armouries is a sword gifted by the Chevalière D’Éon, a French soldier who, although assigned male at birth, spent decades living openly as a woman. The panels alongside the sword give little information about her life, misgendering her with the masculine ‘Chevalier’ despite her inscription on the blade using the feminine form. The hidden story of her life and identity – both as a trans woman and as a woman who challenged social expectations - was a favourite of many of the Forgotten Battles volunteers.

Sword with golden hilt

Chevalière d'Eon's sword - inscribed 'Donne par la Chevalïere d’Eon à son ancïen Ami Geo: Keate Esquïre. 1777'. translated as 'Given by the knightess of Eon to her old friend George Keate Esquire 1777' (© Royal Armouries).

D'Éon was recruited to the Secret du Roi (King’s secret service) in 1756 (aged 28) and dispatched to Russia. It was here where she perhaps first experimented with her gender at the Empress Elizabeth’s famed ‘Metamorphosis Balls’ where attendees were expected to dress as another gender.

After fighting in the 7 Years War, she began living openly as a woman in England where she performed in public fencing displays wearing a corset and dress and was known for her ability to win duels even with the restrictions imposed by female clothing. The Chevalière’s identity as a woman seemed widely accepted: The Leeds Intelligencer published a story in May 1771 that stated categorically that she was a woman, and she was praised by Mary Wollstonecraft – a pioneer of feminist writing - as ‘a shining example of female fortitude’.

She returned to France in 1777 and was given a grant from the King for a new wardrobe of women’s clothes, commissioned by Marie Antoinette. But the Chevalière never let her identity as a woman detract from her military skill, displaying her medal on her dresses to remind the court that she was still a knight.

An engraving of the Chevalière in later life with lace headdress and the Cross of St Louis – a medal awarded for bravery in battle and services as a spy. (CC - Wellcome Images)

She died in London in May 1810, when, sadly, her body was subjected to an investigation to ascertain her genital presentation. Crowds of people pressed into her apartments to view her corpse, and a drawing was produced as proof of her ‘real sex’.

The Chevalière’s story is remarkable, but it is one of many throughout history that have often been overlooked, especially those that do not fit into a binary understanding of what constitues trans history. In telling her story, we hope to encourage greater exploration of trans stories hidden in museum collections.

The macho king

In my contribution to the exhibition, I explore the way masculinity was performed at the Tudor court through the armour worn by Henry VIII at the Field of the Cloth of Gold (1520), an elaborate 18-day summit between François I of France and Henry VIII. Henry had long been keen to be seen as the more masculine of the two kings and had asked the Venetian Ambassador Giustinian in 1515 (after François’ accession) whether the King of France’s legs could compare with his own ‘good calf’. This was a chance for him to put this comparison to the test and appear the greater man.

Henry had commissioned new armour for the tournament which featured the large codpiece we associate with Henry’s image. Codpieces were worn from the 15th century, reaching their peak for size and decoration during Henry’s reign. Henry himself was known to wear prominent codpieces to – quite literally - emphasise his manhood. Unfortunately for his fashion sense, the French changed the specifications late in the preparations, so the tonlet armour was hurriedly assembled. ‘Tonlet’ refers to the armoured skirt around the waist of the armour which protects the lower body, meaning Henry was no longer going to be sporting a prominent codpiece in the lists.

Full suit of armour with helmet and hooped metal skirt. Stood upright with gauntleted hand grasping the hilt of a huge sword pointing to the floor.
Henry's alternative outfit (armour) to underline his majesty and power. Created for and worn only once - at the Field of Cloth of Gold tournament. It would have been gilded with gold and the metal treated to appear peacock blue in colour. (© Royal Armouries)

Henry’s masculine image-making had also fallen short when he forgot his promise not to shave until he met François on the field. Beards were key signifiers of manhood, representing not just maleness but also authority, maturity, and potency. To quote William Shakespeare (writing a few decades later), ‘he that hath no beard [was] less than a man’. In my film, I explore the notion of putting on armour or growing a beard as a conscious performance of gender by drawing a parallel between modern drag and Henry’s exaggerated masculine iconography.

Person looking in a mirror to paint a beard on their smooth face.
In Cat's new film drag artist Billy Butch is Henry VIII, here painting on a beard ready to be the most macho king at the Field of Cloth of Gold. (© Royal Armouries)

The armoured queen

Even Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I, performed masculinity – essential to her desire to be seen as a proper monarch in a society which considered a woman wielding authority over men to be an abomination in contradiction of God’s ordained natural order. The most famous line of the speech she is said to have given to the troops at Tilbury has her refuting her female exterior in favour of an internal identity defined by masculine authority: ‘I know I have the weak and feeble body of a woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too’.

Woman with curly hair being filmed wrapping black fabric around her chest.
A scene from the filming of Cat's new work for the exhibition. Inspired by Elizabeth I's speech about having the heart of a king - actress India is seen binding her chest. (© Royal Armouries)

Elizabeth’s relationship with her gender was complicated. She certainly presented herself as a woman, but also upheld patriarchal ideas that women were inferior to men, distancing herself from her womanhood when politically advantageous. In the film, I have used this line to accompany footage of Elizabeth binding her chest and putting on armour, not to imply that she was necessarily trans or non-binary, but to explore this rejection of her female body in favour of an interiority which feels male. 

Find out more

  • Forgotten Battles: Gender in the Armouries features an object trail exploring hidden stories of gender through 10 objects in the collection, as well as an exhibition of creative responses. Both are free at the Royal Armouries in Leeds until November 2024. 
  • For more on trans histories, Cat recommends: Before We Were Trans: A New History of Gender by our Project Lead, Dr Kit Heyam!
  • For more related to Henry’s masculine presentation, Cat recommends: Will Fisher, Materialising Gender in Early Modern English Literature and Culture and Eleanor Rycroft, Facial Hair and the Performance of Early Modern Masculinity.