Jeanne de Clisson was the embodiment of one of the Furies of Greek mythology. A 14th century noblewoman born in the northern French province of Brittany, she is remembered today for her 13-year long career as a pirate. Historian Richard Bently called her ‘one of the most beautiful women of her day’ and her exploits saw her become a popular French folk legend. As the Lioness of Brittany, Jeanne swore revenge against the French for the execution of her husband.
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Born in the 1300s, Jeanne-Louise de Belleville, Dame de Montaigu was the daughter of the wealthy and influential nobleman Maurice IV of Belleville-Montaigu and Létice de Parthenay in Bretton. As often happened in the families of the nobility in the Middle Ages, at the age of 12 Jeanne married her first husband, Geoffrey de Châteaubriant, the 19-year old heir to one of the key defensive estates in the region. Together the couple had two children Louise, who inherited the de Belleville estate and Geoffrey who would inherit the de Châteaubriant estate.
If you want to learn more about marriage in the Middle Ages make sure to read our upcoming Historic Housewife on the subject.
In 1323, her husband died and she remained a widow for 4 years until she met widower Olivier de Clisson, and unlike her first marriage, their marriage appeared to be born out of genuine affection. The couple had 5 children together- Maurice, Guillaume, Olivier, Isabeau and Jeanne. Jeanne had now given birth to 7 children at a time when an estimated 20% of women died in childbirth (5% during and 15% from later complications), proving that she was one tough lady.
While the couple was happy, tragedy was on the way. The Breton War of Succession would tear her family apart. For context, when the Duke of Brittany died with no male heir in 1341, both King Edward III of England and Phillip VI of France saw an opportunity. Brittany lay between their kingdoms and would provide either kingdom with a useful foothold or buffer to invasion. The Duke of Brittany, John III had named his niece, Jeanne de Penthièvre, as his successor. She was married to Charles de Bloris the cousin of French King Philip VI. However, shortly before his death, John III had reconciled with his long estranged step-family and named his half-brother John de Monfort his new heir. Both sides felt they should take the throne and both were willing to fight for it. The unrest caused through this issue along with the combined tensions over King Edward’s claim to French territories and to the crown itself, formed the basis of the Hundred Years War.
So how did this hurt Jeanne’s family? Oliver was a friend of Charles de Blois, and Charles called upon Oliver to help him defend his claim against for English. Unfortunately, de Blois began to suspect that his friend was a traitor. Oliver had been captured by the English and the ransom demanded for his release was suspiciously low leading rumours of his defection to the English cause, and King Phillip VI and de Blois began to form a plan to capture those they felt were traitors. During the tournament to celebrate the truce between the warring kingdoms, Oliver and 14 or 15 other Breton lords, who were either supporters of John or those considered to have not fought valiantly enough, were taken prisoner and their lands were confiscated.
In August 1343, without the public trial his rank should have given him, Oliver was beheaded. His head was sent to Nantes, and his body was put in a gibbet in Paris. Jeanne, either because she didn’t believe her husband a traitor or at the manner of his death became enraged and vowed revenge not only against Charles de Blois but the King of France as well, and some accounts state that she even took two of her sons to Nantes to show them what the French King had done to their father.
Although she had been a woman of means, she needed to raise money if she was going to raise an army. With her lands confiscated by the crown some accounts declare that she turned to prostitution to help raise the money she needed, while others agree that she sold all the land and belongings she had left, bolstering her purse by gathering a group of supporters from the followers of Oliver and the other executed nobles. Together they then paid a visit to the castle of Galois de la Heuse. Galois was a loyal supporter of Charles de Blois, but news of Oliver’s execution had not reached him. Galois welcomed Jeanne in, and then she and her men turned on him. They slaughtered almost the entire garrison, leaving only a few survivors to pass on the story. By the time de Blois and his army arrived, Jeanne’s forces had melted away into the night, taking with them everything of value from the castle.
After the destruction of Galois’s castle, Jeanne realised that her small force would have little chance of making an impact in the battlefields of Brittany, she would need to choose a different way to get her revenge. She retreated across the channel with her sons Olivier and Guillaume to seek refuge in England. Some accounts tell us that Guillaume died on the trip across and when she reached England she sent Oliver to court with the son of John de Monfrot. While we can speculate what happened in court, we do know that in the same year her husband was executed and her lands confiscated, she was granted an income by the English court.
Jeanne finally had her fleet. She had the boats painted black and dyed their sails red to intimidate her enemy. The distinctive look of the boats earned them the title “The Black Fleet.” Jeanne’s fleet patrolled the English Channel for French ships, especially those owned by the French King and members of the French nobility. News of the arrival of “Lioness of Brittany” quickly spread across Europe. Jeanne offered no mercy to the captured French nobility but she intentionally released one or two prisoners to spread the story of her revenge but according to some reports, Jeanne personally decapitated all high valued prisoners with an axe, before tossing their bodies into the sea.
For 13 years, the Lioness terrorised the northern French coast, sinking supply ships and other vessels owned by the King of France, even continuing with the same intensity after King Philip VI died in 1350. Many historians believe that she had allied herself with the English. Early forms of privateering began during the Middle Ages, with pirates working “officially”. Privateering required a licence or a letter of marque bestowed by an entity such as a king. It meant that they could attack the merchant ships of enemy kingdom’s as long as they brought back some of the treasure, and this method of attacking hostile kingdoms was favoured by Elizabeth I. As well as possibly being a pirate to hire it has been said that she may also have aided the English in their campaign against the French in 1346, which resulted in the English victory at Crecy as 1347 truce documents between England and France name her as an ally.
In 1356, after 13 years of piracy, Jeanne de Clisson retired and went to live in England. There she married for the third time, a lieutenant to the English King Edward III, Sir Walter Bentley, who had helped the English in their fight against Charles de Blois. Toward the end of her life, she returned to France and lived in Hennebont castle under the protection of the house of Montfort. until the end of her life in 1359 before she could see the final defeat of the French in 1364.
Jeanne may have died, but her family legacy would live on. Her son Olivier, who had been raised in the English court, went to war in Brittany against Charles de Blois in the Battle of Auray. Here de Blois would finally meet his end, Olivier lost an eye and gained the name “the Butcher”, like his mother he took no prisoners. With the blood feud over, Olivier eventually reconciled with France, became Constable of France in 1380 (a title that meant that he was the premier noble in the kingdom, second only to the King in authority and power.) When he died, Olivier was reputedly the richest man in France, and Francis I (who took the throne in 1515) was a descendant of his. In fact, from then until the 1848 Revolution finally put an end to kings in France, the blood of the Lioness of Brittany and her beloved Olivier de Clisson flowed in the veins of every French king and that would be her greatest victory.
Verifiable references relating to Jeanne’s life and exploits are limited, though they do exist. Examples include the French judgement of late 1343 condemning Jeanne as a traitor and ordering the confiscation of her lands. In 1345, records from the English court indicate Edward granted her an income from lands he controlled in Brittany and she is also mentioned in a truce drawn up between France and England in 1347 as a valuable English ally. While poetic, it is almost certain that tales about the Lioness taking excessive delight in personally beheading French crew members with an axe have been exaggerated over the years. Jeanne’s story grips the imagination, from a noblewoman to an avenging fury, she wasn’t going to allow what she saw as injustice to go unanswered.