Britomart is the central character
of Book 3 of Edmund Spenser
's The Faerie Queene
. She is what's known as a martial maid
... in other words, a woman who dresses in armor
and goes around kicking ass
. Though she is armed with an enchanted spear
that never misses its mark, Britomart's main weapons
are her general toughness and dedication. Perhaps the best description of her character comes from Book 3, Canto 1:
For she was full of amiable grace,
And manly terrour mixed therewithall,
That as the one stird vp affections bace,
So th'other did mens rash desires apall,
And hold them backe, that would in errour fall;
As he, that hath espide a vermeill Rose,
To which sharpe thornes and breres the way forstall,
Dare not for dread his hardy hand expose,
But wishing it far off, his idle wish doth lose.
Each of the six books of The Faerie Queene centers on a different virtue, and the focus of Book 3 is chastity. As the hero of the book, Britomart embodies chastity in its purest form. Like all six Spenserian heroes, she begins the book as only a shallow embodiment of this virtue, almost a parody--she is chaste, yes, but only because she doesn't know any better. Throughout the course of the book, she encounters various allegories of absent or imperfect chastity: promiscuous Malecasta; Florimell, who is chaste because she runs from men; Marinell, who is chaste because he fears love; Belphoebe, who is chaste because she has no contact with the world; Scudamour and Amoret, who are faithful to each other in such an overdeveloped and codependent way that they fuse into a hermaphrodite. Through her exposure to these miscarriages of chastity, Britomart comes to a greater understanding of her own virtue, and becomes truly the Knight of Chastity.
It's important to note that Spenser meant something slightly different by "chastity" than we might expect. For him, chastity meant constancy more than continence--devotion to the loved one, rather than complete abjuration of the pleasures of the flesh. This is the sense of chastity which Britomart embodies (and the reason why Florimell, Marinell, and Belphoebe are not the knights of Chastity, and she is).
Britomart illustrates her Spenserian chastity by spending Book 3 searching for her true love, whom she has seen in the magic mirror of her father, King Ryence. He is a knight named Artegall, and will be the focus of Book 5 (Justice). When she sees him in the mirror, however, Britomart knows nothing about him except that they must eventually be together. Despite a seduction attempt by Malecasta (who reportedly thinks she is a boy, but probably doesn't really care), and despite her later companionship with Amoret, whom she chivalrously rescues (providing fodder to many feminist Spenserians, who gleefully publish article after article on their latent lesbianism), Britomart remains faithful in mind and body to this lover whom she has not met.