Jeanne de Clisson: The Lioness of Brittany
The Noblewoman-turned-pirate who reigned terror upon the King of France
Powerful women. Only now, in this age of ever-greater equality, and freedom, do women stand a chance of achieving the same degree of power, and prestige as a man, right? Wrong.
History is full of powerful women, many falling into obscurity, the facts of their lives merging with legend.
Allow me to present to you, Jeanne de Clisson, the Lioness of Brittany. Noblewoman, wife, mother, pirate. Jeanne swore revenge against the French king after the execution of her husband. She raised a fleet of ships that terrorised the French and led a loyal army to sack many French strongholds for over a decade. And she did so alone, as a woman, in the 14th century.
Needless to say, she was pretty badass, right?
Jeanne de Belleville was born in 1300 in Belleville-sur-Vie into the French nobility. We know little of her early life. She married her first husband, Geoffrey de Châteaubriant VIII, at only 12 years old. He was seven years her senior. In fourteen years of marriage, they had two children. In 1326, Jeanne was widowed.
Two years later, in 1328, she married Guy of Penthièvre, though this marriage was short-lived, and annulled in 1330.
The same year, Jeanne married for the third time, and it was this third marriage — likely her happiest — that would lead to her infamy. Olivier de Clisson IV was a wealthy Breton nobleman, whose property included Château de Clisson, a manor house in Nantes, and lands at Blain. Jeanne too had inherited land in the province of Poitou, south of the Breton border, and these combined assets made them a true power couple of the 14th century.
Their marriage resulted in five children, including their son, Olivier V de Clisson, later known as ‘The Butcher’, due to his brutality in battle. Their eldest child, Isabeau, was born in 1325. At the time, Jeanne was still married to her first husband, and Olivier to his first wife, who died in 1329. We know little of their relationship, but it’s easy to note the timing of the annulment of her second marriage, in 1330, to the death of Olivier’s wife a year prior. It’s likely that their marriage was a rare love match.
The Hundred Years’ War
In 1328, Charles IV of France died childless, his closest heir being his nephew, the English King, Edward III. Yet, the French nobility rejected Edward’s claim to the throne, believing that a native Frenchman ought to rule. What followed was a bloody, long-lasting conflict across the channel for the French crown, that would come to be known as the Hundred Years’ War.
War of the Breton Succession
Parallel to this conflict was the War of the Breton Succession. In 1341, the Duke of Brittany, John III, died without an heir, plunging the country into further turmoil. Charles de Blois, husband of John III’s niece, Joanna, succeeded as Duke of Brittany, with the support of much of the French nobility. John III’s half-brother, John de Montfort, however, opposed Charles’ right as Duke. Montfort petitioned King Edward III of England for support, in exchange for supporting Edward’s claim to the French throne.
Choosing a Side
Amidst this complex backdrop of conflict, Jeanne and her husband supported Charles de Blois, as Duke of Brittany. But for reasons unknown, Charles de Blois was mistrustful of Olivier de Clisson, questioning his loyalty. This would lead to disastrous consequences.
Sources differ on the cause for this mistrust. There are some who claim that Olivier defected to join the English side.
Another story points to Olivier’s capture by the English, during the capture of the city of Vannes in 1342. Olivier de Clisson had been acting as military commander alongside Hervé VII de Léon, in defence of the city when it fell. What is strange, however, was the terms of Olivier’s release. He was released in exchange for Ralph de Stafford, 1st Earl of Stafford, a prisoner of the French, and for a suspiciously low ransom. Hervé VII de Léon, meanwhile, was never released. It is thought that the low ransom for Olivier’s freedom gave Charles de Blois reason to distrust him.
Due to Charles de Blois’ suspicion, in 1343, Olivier was captured, along with fifteen other Breton Lords, at a tournament, and taken to Paris to be tried in court.
On 2 August 1343, Olivier de Clisson was found guilty on several counts of treason and sentenced to be executed by beheading immediately.
Olivier’s trial shocked the nobility, due to the lack of known evidence of his guilt. His death was equally shocking, as the public desecrating/exposing a body was usually reserved for low-class criminals, rather than members of the nobility.
The death of her third husband was a turning point in Jeanne’s life, and it is fair to say, that she was never the same again. She took her two young sons to Nantes, to show them the head of their father, displayed on a pike at the Sauvetout gate. She did this with the intention of searing hatred in their hearts. In her fury, she swore her revenge against the French King, Phillip VI, and Charles de Blois. She considered her husband’s execution to be an act of cowardice and murder.
She sold the de Clisson estates, using the proceedings to raise an army of men, who had been loyal to her husband.
Leading this army, she attacked many French strongholds, including, allegedly, Château de Touffou; a garrison at Château-Thébaud; and a castle owned by Galois de la Heuse, an officer of Charles de Blois, during which her army massacred the entire garrison, except for a sole survivor. Her army rampaged along the Normandy coast, burning many villages to the ground.
In 1343, Jeanne was found guilty of treason, resulting in the confiscation of her remaining lands, though it seems she otherwise escaped the charge without punishment. That same year, King Edward III granted Jeanne income from English-owned lands in Brittany.
Soon, she turned her attention to piracy, building a fleet of ships. Painted coal-black, their sails dyed blood red, others dubbed the ships, ‘The Black Fleet’. It was also during this time that she earned her nickname; the Lioness, or Tigress, of Brittany.
Jeanne named her flagship ‘My Revenge’.
With the support of the English King, Jeanne’s fleet scoured the channel, attacking any French ship that she encountered, massacring entire crews, but for a few witnesses to carry a message of warning to the French King.
Jeanne continued her career of piracy in the English channel for another 13 years, until the sinking of her flagship in 1356. She, along with her two sons, was adrift at sea for five days, during which Jeanne rowed non-stop in search of rescue. Despite her best efforts, her son, Guillaume died of exposure. Jeanne and her surviving son were eventually rescued by supporters of John de Montfort, and taken to Morlaix.
Shortly after, Jeanne retired from piracy. It’s unknown whether she considered her husband avenged; while King Phillip VI had died in 1350, Charles de Blois would live for another eight years. Perhaps she grew weary of war, or perhaps the death of her son, Guillaume, led her to return to a quiet life.
That same year, Jeanne married Water Bentley, a military deputy of King Edward III. She spent her remaining years at the Castle of Hennebont, a port town on the Brittany coast, which was in the territory of her de Montfort allies. It is here that she died, in 1359.
Interestingly, Hennebont is renowned for a second French female noblewoman-turned-pirate, who resided in the town at the same time, and may have known Jeanne de Clisson. Her name was Jeanne la Flamme.
It is said that Jeanne de Clisson’s ghost still haunts Château de Clisson, her beloved third husband’s castle, to this day.