1706: The Pretty Dragoon

1706 illustration of Kit Cavanagh

The Story of Christiana Davis,
“The British Amazon”

In 1739 Christiana Davis, an outpensioner of Chelsea College, died, and was interred with military honours in the pensioners’ burying-ground. She was the daughter of a soldier in the Inniskilling Regiment, now the 6th Dragoons, who, disguising her sex, enlisted in the 2nd Dragoons, so well known as the Scots Greys. Her adventures were published, about the time of her death, in a pamphlet, of which a copy may be seen in the British Museum….

This wonderful woman was born in Dublin in 1667, where her father was known and highly respected as a brewer and maltster….Christiana married a man named Richard Walsh, whom she first began to woo by the aid of a female friend. He made her an excellent husband, and she lived with him very happily until he was enticed on board a vessel full of pressed men and recruits, and compelled to enlist into Lord Orrery’s regiment of foot, now 1st Royals. His distressed wife had one child, and was then on the eve of giving birth to another. As soon as she could leave her baby, she sent the elder child to her mother, put the infant out to nurse, and put in force a wild strange scheme whereby she hoped to discover and rejoin her lost partner. She cut her hair short, put on her husband’s clothes, and, knowing that Ensign Lawrence was beating up for recruits at the Golden Last, tendered herself as a volunteer, and, under the name of Christopher Walsh, was enlisted into a regiment commanded by the Marquis de Pisare. Under that officer she joined the Grand Army, and fought at the battle of Landen, where she was wounded in the ankle. Describing the effect of her first battle, she said: “When I heard the cannon play, and the small shot rattle about me, they at first threw me into a sort of panic, having not been used to such rough music.” Before her wound was healed she was, with others, taken prisoner by the French, who made overtures to her to fight under the French colours, as others of her country were fighting. She refused, and, after nine days’ captivity, was exchanged, and returned to her regiment. While a prisoner she recognised amongst the French officers one of her cousins, Captain Cavenaugh.

One of the “diverting” incidents of her career about that time was that of a burgher’s daughter falling in love with her. This caused jealousy in the breast of a rival, a sergeant of her regiment, and ended tragically enough in a duel, she resenting an insult he had given to the young lady, and the sergeant being, as was supposed, mortally wounded. For this offence Christiana was imprisoned until the father of the insulted lady, using his private influence, succeeded in obtaining her release, arrears of pay, and her discharge. To escape the entanglement of this love affair, she professed herself too fond and proud to make the young lady the wife of a common soldier, saying she had as much honour as a general, and when she had won a commission she would return to claim her bride.

She afterwards joined the 2nd Scots Greys, then Lord Hay’s Dragoons, and in 1695 was present at the siege of Namur. After the peace of Ryswick the regiment was reduced, and she received her discharge. Making her way to Dublin, she found that none of her friends recognised her, and, being unable to support, did not claim, her children, or make herself known. On the rebreaking out of the war she reenlisted in her old dragoon corps, and fought at Nimequen, at the siege of Venloo, and at Liege. In the second attack at Schellenberg she was shot in the hip, but the ball was never extracted. While she was in hospital her sex was more than once in great danger of discovery. After the battle of Blenheim, being appointed guard over some prisoners, for the first time since her departure from Dublin, she saw her husband—making love to a Dutchwoman! She found he was serving in Orkney’s regiment, and made herself known to him, reproaching him with faithlessness, but freely forgiving him, and telling his comrades that she was his brother. On the termination of the war she gave him a piece of gold, and, declining to resume her character as a woman and a wife, bade him adieu.

An odd incident in her career was her being compelled to pay for the support of an infant of which she was pronounced the father!

In Holland more than one girl fell in love with “the pretty dragoon,” as her comrades called her.

At last, at the battle of Ramillies, and just at its close, her skull being fractured by a ball, her sex was discovered. She was trepanned, and in ten weeks had recovered ; but she was not allowed to reassume her male costume. Lord John Hay promised that she should never want. Brigadier Preston bought her a handsome silk gown. She was induced to receive her husband back; the marriage ceremony was reenacted; and all the officers of her regiment were present at a very merry frolicsome wedding-feast, every man present laughingly giving a kiss to the martial bride, and the old practice of throwing the stocking’ was not omitted. She followed the regiment as sutler, and acted occasionally as spy; and at the siege of Ath she snatched the piece of a fallen soldier, and killed an enemy who was in the very act of firing at her, at the same time receiving a musket-shot from the town, which split her lower lip, damaged her teeth, and knocked her down, but without doing more serious mischief. Her husband ran to her, thinking she was dead, when she spat out into her hand a tooth and the ball! In Ghent her husband again met the Dutchwoman he had before been making love to, and so moved his terrible wife’s jealousy and passion that she cut off her rival’s nose in the alehouse where she found them together. For this offence her husband, not herself, received punishment She was so useful that her services could not be spared! At the siege of Ghent she wanted to accompany her husband as one of the forlorn hope, but Colonel Hamilton refused her permission. Despite that, she contrived to meet her husband on the road, and gave him a bottle of brandy. He was killed at the battle of Malplaquet; and she, finding his body being stripped, drove off the robber, and was passionately weeping over his corpse when Captain Ross saw her, and was so tender and fervent in his expressions of sympathy that it became a joke afterwards to call her Madame Ross.

She conveyed her husband’s remains from the battlefield across a mare, herself dug a grave for them, and, maddened by grief, would have cast herself into it had she not been prevented.

A curious anecdote is related of a dog then in her possession. This animal, so long as they were within reach of the grave, would remain upon it; but on her approach would retreat, and assume a place in the rear of the regiment which she had occupied to be near her husband.

Eleven weeks after the death of her husband she married a grenadier named Hugh Jones, who was severely wounded at the siege of St. Venant, when, to cover him from the cold, she stripped herself to her stays. His comrades bore him to the trench, and, after lingering about ten weeks, he died. She was then enciente; and, after the peace, Queen Anne promised her a pension, and said if her baby should prove a boy and grow up, she would give him a commission: it proved, however, to be a girl, greatly to the warlike mother’s disappointment. Her third and last husband was again a soldier, named Davis, who had served in the 1st Regiment of Foot, and at the date of his marriage was in the Welsh Fusiliers. The Queen gave “Moll Davis” a pension of a shilling a day; but, after her Majesty’s death, the Lord Treasurer Oxford reduced it to five-pence, which Mr. Craigs induced the King to increase to the original sum. She lived for some time in the Willow Walk, Tothil (or “Tuttle”) Fields, Westminster, where she kept a little pie-house and tavern, from the profits of which she bought her husband’s discharge, nursed him through a severe illness when she was herself suffering from a complication of serious and painful disorders, and died, from a cold taken while waiting upon him at night, on July 7th, 1739. We read that she marched in the grand funeral procession of the Duke of Marlborough, with, as she said, “a heavy heart and streaming eyes.”

—A. H. Wall,  London Society, May 1884.

Image: “1706 illustration of Kit Cavanagh” from Wikipedia.

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