History's Most Bizarre Duel Was Fought Between A Topless Princess And A Topless Countess

The history of dueling is full of shocking moments, like the time the vice president shot and killed the Secretary of the Treasury - that was, of course, the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. But no duel was more shocking than the topless duel between fought a princess and a countess. It was called the first emancipated duel because not only were both duelers women, their seconds and the doctor on hand to tend their wounds were also women. 

Female sword duels were uncommon, even by the late 19th century when the topless duel was fought. In the 1892 duel, both women were Austrian noblewomen of the highest ranks. Princess Pauline von Metternich and Countess Anastasia Kielmannsegg met with swords to settle a dispute over flower arrangements. And they fought topless for a very good reason.

The noblewomen fought according to all the rules of the Code Duello, and both women agreed to abide by the outcome. After all, the duel was not just about flower arrangements, it was also part of the women's rights movement. The duel proved that women could do anything men could do - and they could even do it topless.

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  • The Princess And The Countess Fought To Maintain Proper Etiquette
    Photo: Franz Xavier Winterhalter / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Princess And The Countess Fought To Maintain Proper Etiquette

    A beautiful princess charged with organizing a musical and theatrical exhibition. A countess who served as the exhibition's President of the Ladies' Committee. It sounds like something out of a whirlwind Victorian novel, where witty jokes and perfect manners will save the day. But the story of the dueling princess and countess is even wilder than fiction.

    The fighters were both noblewomen, renown for their class and taste. Princess Pauline von Metternich and Countess Anastasia Kielmannsegg were such strong proponents of correct etiquette that they were willing to shed blood to maintain proper decorum. And in the summer of 1892, the women drew swords and fought history's first all-female duel. And they did it topless.

  • The Duel Was All Women, With No Men Involved
    Photo: Illustrated American Pub. Co. / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Duel Was All Women, With No Men Involved

    The duel between Princess Pauline and Countess Anastasia is known as the "emancipated duel." That's because the duel was not only fought between two women, but the women also had female seconds and a completely female medical staff to tend to their wounds. To stick with the noble theme, the seconds were Princess Schwarzenberg and Countess Kinsky, and the presiding doctor was Baroness Lubinska, who had a degree in medicine. 

    Dueling had always been connected with honor - which meant masculine honor. Sometimes men fought duels over women's honor, if a sister or wife was dishonored, but even that was closely linked with male authority. It was shocking for a duel to feature only women. In fact, news of the duel quickly spread across Europe, with the Pall Mall Gazette running a story with the headline "Report of a Duel Between Two Ladies." 

  • The Duel Was A Refined Affair, Not A Common Street Brawl
    Photo: Wellcome Images / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-4.0

    The Duel Was A Refined Affair, Not A Common Street Brawl

    The topless duel was a refined affair. Princess Pauline von Metternich had a reputation across Europe for her fashionable taste and elite friends. She was best friends with Empress Eugenie, France's last reigning empress. And Princess Pauline was also famous for her fashion sense. She grew tired of the enormous crinoline dresses popular in the 1860s and helped change the trend by wearing a fitted dress with a train. Pauline also helped make the German composer Richard Wagner famous, got haute couture off the ground, and was known to smoke cigars.

    Everything Princess Pauline did was chic - and so was her duel. This wasn't a common street brawl fought between two women trying to rip out each other's hair. The duel was a refined affair, fought without anger or intense passion. And both women agreed to abide by the outcome. The story even made it all the way around the world, where the Los Angeles Times reported, “It was a real fight, and both were wounded – no hair pulling or plain scratching, but a duel with rapiers.”

  • The Duel Was Fought Over Flower Arrangements
    Photo: Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Duel Was Fought Over Flower Arrangements

    Duels were considered serious affairs, but the cause was not always serious. In 1892, both Princess Pauline and Countess Anastasia held positions on the board of the Vienna Musical and Theatrical Exhibition. And they apparently disagreed on the exhibition - the duel was reportedly over flower arrangements. But the story is more All About Eve than catfight.

    By the 1890s, Princess Pauline was in her 50s, and Countess Anastasia was the new up-and-coming woman on the Vienna social scene. According to a British women's magazine, Countess Anastasia was an ambitious young woman, "young enough to be the daughter of her rival [Princess Pauline]." And while Princess Pauline was in mourning over the death of her husband, Countess Anastasia "has come more to the front than ever and has been most indefatigable" - or, in modern language, Anastasia was stealing Pauline's position. No wonder the women came to blows. 

  • The Noblewomen Chose To Fight With Rapiers, Europe's Oldest Dueling Sword

    The weapon of choice for the topless duel was a rapier. Rapiers were not battle weapons - in fact, the blade's sides were almost edgeless, because rapiers were intended for quick stabs. As weapons expert John Clements says, "Rapiers are generally thin, light, fast, and well-balanced thrusting swords intended for unarmored single-combat." The style of blade became popular in the 1500s, when Europe's courtiers carried rapiers in case they needed to duel or deal with a back alley challenge. And in fact, the style went hand-in-hand with the rise of dueling.

    The noblewomen apparently thought they were perfect for a duel to first blood, where the point was to draw blood rather than cause significant harm.

  • The Duel Was Fought Topless – For A Good Reason

    The duel between Princess Pauline and Countess Anastasia was fought topless. While it might seem like a strange choice for the women fighting the first emancipated duel to take off their tops, the women did it for a good reason.

    As they were preparing to duel, another noblewoman, Baroness Lubinska, suggested that the women remove their tops. The baroness had a medical degree from a university in Poland, and she had first-hand experience with the dangers of infection. The princess and the countess did not intend to fight to the death - they chose to fight to first blood instead - so the baroness suggested removing their tops for safety. If the rapiers pushed a piece of dirty cloth into the wound, it could easily become infected, but if the blade only touched bare skin, the women would be safer.

    On the baroness's orders, the princess and the countess ordered their male servants to leave and then stripped to the waist to fight.