“Red Sonya from Rogatino – that’s all we know. Marches and fights like a man – God knows why. Swears she’s sister to Roxelana, the Soldan’s favorite. If the Tatars who grabbed Roxelana that night had got Sonya, by Saint Piotr! Suleyman would have had a handful! Let her alone, sir brother; she’s a wildcat. Come and have a tankard of ale.”
— Robert E. Howard, “The Shadow of the Vulture”
While Gottfried von Kalmbach engaged in adventures (and misadventures) from Hungary to Italy, the woman he was to meet at the siege of Vienna had been characteristically active herself. Red Sonya was born in Rogatino, or Rohatyn, a town in the western Ukraine. (It may derive from the Slavic word “rogatyna,” a heavy, broad-headed spear.)
The region was then known as Ruthenia and lay under the influence of Poland-Lithuania. If indeed she was a sister of the Sultan’s favorite Roxelana, she must have been born in the early sixteenth century. Estimates of Roxelana’s birth date vary from 1502 to 1506. I assume Sonya told the truth, and whether older or younger than her sister, was born in 1504 – the same year as that other red-haired sword woman of REH’s, Agnes de Chastillon of La Fere in Normandy.
Ruthenia was plagued by slave raids carried out by the Crimean Tatars. Their khanate was an Ottoman vassal state, and one of its greatest slave trading depots. They raided constantly, on a huge scale, into Ruthenia and Russia. The descent upon Rogatino that saw Sonya’s sister captured was merely one case. I estimate that it took place in 1521, when Sonya was seventeen. If correct, that would mean that both Sonya in the east and Agnes de la Fere in Normandy experienced a violent turning point in their lives at the same age – Agnes when she rebelled against a forced marriage, killed her detestable bridegroom and fled, Sonya when her sister was captured and her town burned.
(Gottfried von Kalmbach was twenty-three at the time, by my estimate. He had been a Knight of St. John since his teens, and become a seasoned fighting man on land and sea. The siege of Rhodes was one year away.)
Sonya and Roxelana’s father was apparently an orthodox priest, though little is known of the childhood of either. The red-haired sister must have been wild and aggressive from an early age, to judge by her later career. Possibly she learned to ride, and use a saber and lance, from a servant in her father’s house who had once been a soldier. He may even have been an aged and retired Cossack. In a region so subject to raiding by Tatars – not to mention Cossacks – the skills were all too likely to be needed.
Sonya’s dislike of her sister, which she was to express vehemently on the walls of Vienna, probably dated from those days also. It doesn’t seem likely that she would want to blow Roxelana to Hades with a cannon merely because she had risen to become the Sultan’s favorite. She, like Sonya, may have shown her essential qualities young, and in later life, as Haseki Sultan, she caused Suleiman to believe his son Mustafa wanted to usurp his throne, resulting in Mustafa’s execution, because she wanted her own son to succeed. She also caused the Sultan’s trusted vizier Ibrahim, whom he loved as a brother, to be executed on false charges, even though Suleiman had sworn to Ibrahim he would never award him a bowstring. Roxelana’s name for ruthless treachery is not mere mythic vilification. She covered those traits with charm and vivacity; her Turkish name was Khurrem, the Laughing One or the Joyous. Perhaps, as a girl, she was never more joyous than when causing painful trouble for Sonya.
Following the Tatar attack on Rogatino, I feel sure that Sonya turned wilder than ever and rode with the Zaporozhian Cossacks. They had emerged in the fifteenth century as bandits, runaway serfs, deserting soldiers and other outlaws formed their own communities in the wild places. They became known by the Polish word kozaki – free men. Details can be found in my series, “If Wishes Were Horses” Parts 5(A) and 5(B), “Scalplock and Sabre” and “The Wolf-Brothers.” REH was fascinated by the Cossacks; it seems hardly thinkable that Sonya never made one of their fellowship. Such a brawling macho bunch would have required very tough tests of a woman, even if she had been recommended by the (hypothetical) old Cossack who taught her to ride and wield a sword in the first place. Sonya must have passed them, however.
The Zaporozhian Sech, on the lower Dneiper, lay in a debatable region between Poland-Lithuania and Muscovy. The free and violent life appealed to Sonya; so did the Cossacks’ frequent battles with the Crimean Tatars, whom they plundered as the Tatars plundered others. Sonya had a debt to collect from them. She pursued it, riding as hard and cutting as deep as any of the male Cossacks. As a landsknecht said to Gottfried years later, “Cut – slash – death to you, dog-soul! There’s her way.”
The Polish-Lithuanian state (then a Grand Duchy) saw possibilities in these fierce horsemen, who had formed a disciplined, united community in spite of their anarchic beginnings. A state council of 1524 gave official consideration to the idea of recruiting Cossack companies for border service. Nothing came of it because the nobles and magnates were unwilling to vote the funds for putting it into effect. Red Sonya, then, had been with the Cossacks three years, and this blogger believes she had become the adopted daughter of a hetman. When he was killed fighting, some who disapproved of a woman riding and fighting among them talked louder, and one bawcock who considered himself quite a lad tried to ravage her. Outweighed by a good three stone, Sonya still killed him, and perhaps, like Valeria in “Red Nails,” hurled his severed head out of sight. The Cossack chiefs still banished her from the Sech. Alternately weeping and grinding her teeth, Sonya rode for the horizon. She took the amazing stunt horsemanship and endurance of the Cossack life with her.
It would be interesting to know when and how she learned that her abducted sister had been selected for the Sultan’s harem and become his favorite. “Roxelana” means simply “the Russian girl” and was probably not her original name, any more than “Khurrem” – The Laughing One. I’ve read that she had been Alexandra Anastasia Lisowska before the Tatars seized her. Perhaps Sonya learned that somehow. One also wonders if Roxelana ever knew that her sister was the warrior girl Red Sonya, the woman who along with Gottfried von Kalmbach sent her husband defiance and Mikhal Oglu’s head.
The year 1524 saw Gottfried riding east into Lithuania, and later into Russia. Oddly enough, Sonya chose the same time to travel west. She wanted to see Italy, and did; the 1521-26 phase of the Italian Wars was in full swing, and Sonya, typically, soon plunged into the action. Essentially it was France against the German Empire and Spain (ruled by the same monarch), with the soil of Italy as their battlefield. The French lost Milan in 1521 and were beaten again at Bicocca in 1522. Not being French, German or Spanish, Sonya felt free to fight on any side she pleased, and went to Milan, which – now that the French had been kicked out – was ruled again by Duke Francesco Sforza. Sonya drew the attention of Milan’s court with dramatic demonstrations of Cossack horsemanship and fighting tricks. She hoped to become the Duke’s cavalry leader, with her experience against the Tatars, if she could overcome the taken-for-granted bias against female captains of war. An uphill struggle, but Sonya was never daunted by an uphill struggle.
Then the unexpected impinged on Sonya’s fate. Charles Duke of Bourbon, former Constable of France, had broken with King Francis the year before and gone over to the Imperial side. He had been swindled out of his inheritance and titles; King Francis I’s mother, Louise of Savoy, who hated Charles, had tried to have him murdered. (REH’s story “Blades for France,” featuring Dark Agnes, gives an account of the events.) Her tool had been the king’s mistress, Frances de Foix. Frances had been wholly unwilling, but dared not defy Louise. Now she gained knowledge of a new plan on the vindictive Louise’s part to have Charles of Bourbon killed. This time there was no need for complex, hidden machinations like working through bands of bravos and pirate crews. Charles was considered a traitor to France. It could be argued with some validity that Louise and his ungrateful king had driven him to it, but Charles nevertheless had no standing in France any longer, and Louise could send assassins after him without fear of political consequences.
They could not reach Charles at once. He had invaded Provence at the head of an Imperial army, but was driven back towards Italy, and King Francis pursued him, personally leading a French host. His mistress de Foix, as she had in 1521, decided to take action to prevent Charles’s murder, for Charles loved her and she had a distinctly soft spot for him; she was the king’s mistress by secret order of Louise. She needed to conceal her actions from her dreaded puppet master, but Louise was too concerned just then for her son’s fate to watch Frances closely. Louise knew that Germans allied with the English were advancing against Francis from the north, and begged him to return, writing, “Our good angel has abandoned us. Your horoscope foretells disaster!”
Charles of Bourbon arrived in Milan in 1525. So, unknown to him but well known to Frances de Foix, had Louise’s paid assassins, ranking high in their homicidal trade. So did Frances herself, under an assumed name, pretending to be a rich young abbess on pilgrimage. Meanwhile, Red Sonya had caused a stir in the city by fighting a duel with a young noble who had decided to put her in her place, and soundly beaten him. Frances naturally assumed this was Agnes de Chastillon; how many red-haired mistresses of the blade could there be in Western Europe? And Agnes had been bound for Italy with Etienne Villiers when Frances met them.
She discovered her mistake, but prevailed on Sonya to aid her, for a price, and Sonya struck the bargain. Complex skullduggery and crossed blades in the night ensued, but in the end, Sonya finished the assassins. The landsknecht who told Gottfried, “Cut – slash – death to you, dog-soul! There’s her way,” did not misinform him. As for Frances, she said in a daze, handing over Sonya’s fee, “Mon Dieu, I did not think there could be another like Agnes,” to which Sonya shot back, “By the blessed saints, I had not thought there could be another like me!”
I don’t think they ever did actually meet. It was probably as well. Two of a kind might not have agreed.
King Francis met the disaster his stars had foretold. Defeated and wounded at the Battle of Pavia, he was held prisoner in Spain until January 1526, the conditions for his release amounting to the dismemberment of his kingdom. He signed the Treaty of Madrid at last, but repudiated it once free. He had, however, contracted both syphilis and a head abscess. Neither his health nor his personality, or his mental acuteness, were the same afterwards.
Sonya decided she had had enough of Italy. She realized she would never be anything but a curiosity at the Milanese court, like a dwarf or a Brazilian dancer, and belike at any other Italian court also. Then, Italy was extremely Catholic, and Sonya was Russian Orthodox so far as she had strong religious leanings. She preferred not to risk interrogation for heresy. She decamped to the north – first Switzerland, then France, then England, which she had to leave in haste, though the part of her legend which avers she attracted the lustful notice of Henry VIII and did not want to become his mistress is doubtless just that, legend. It’s much more likely that she killed someone. She escaped from England by way of York, on a Dutch trading ship bound for the Baltic, and went ashore in Gdansk. After that she travelled south through Poland-Lithuania. Probably she was involved in the private fights of feuding nobles and other upheavals along the way. She was neither at the Battle of Mohacs nor the sack of Rome, but she knew as well as anybody that the Grand Turk would not stop with Mohacs and that Vienna would be next. Sonya gathered about her a heterogeneous force of Poles, Moravians, Bohemians and Styrians, hardened fighters and expert horsemen all, half a thousand strong, and offered her services to the Archduke of Austria.
Perhaps it was then she discovered that the Sultan’s new favorite was none other than her sister.
Ferdinand also knew what was coming. He accepted her irregular band. Until the Ottomans actually marched against Vienna, their main work was scouting and reconnaissance far into conquered Hungary. They performed it well. Then, as the dreaded Akinji outriders came ahead of the main Turkish host, Sonya and her rogues took their places behind the walls of Vienna to await the onslaught.
Gottfried von Kalmbach appeared not long after, with Mikhal Oglu the Vulture hot on his trail, hunting his head for the Turkish Sultan.
Inshallah . . .
Images by Stephen Fabian, Donato Giancola and Others.
Read Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine, Part Ten, Part Eleven