The Revenge of Pirate Jeanne de Clisson, The Lioness of Brittany
In the midst of the Hundred Years War between England and France, an enraged French noblewoman turned pirate named Jeanne de Clisson took to the sea with a fleet of warships. She mercilessly hunted down the ships of King Phillip VI to avenge her husband’s death. For her ferocity, she eventually became known as the Lioness of Brittany.
Jeanne and her crew were ruthless in their goal and would slaughter almost all of the crew of the King’s ships, leaving just two or three sailors alive, so that the message would get back to the King that the Lioness of Brittany had struck once again.
A painting by Elsa Millet depicting Jeanne de Clisson, also known as Jeanne de Belleville. (amandakespohl)
Who was Jeanne de Clisson?
Jeanne de Clisson was born into an affluent French family in 1300 and spent most of her life as a noblewoman. She was married off to a wealthy man, Geoffrey de Châteaubriant at the age of 12 and had two children. Sometime after his death, Jeanne remarried, this time to Olivier de Clisson, who was an important Breton noble that spent years in service defending Brittany against the English.
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By way of background, 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 a useful foothold or buffer to invasion. This issue, combined with King Edward’s claim to French territories and to the crown itself, formed the basis of the Hundred Years War.
Countess Jeanne. (Public Domain)
The Execution of Olivier Awakens the Lioness of Brittany
Although Olivier had served the French in defending Brittany from the English, the French authorities – in particular, Charles de Blois, who had once fought at Olivier’s side – began to doubt Olivier’s loyalty. Rumors spread that Olivier had defected to the English side.
Thus, King Phillip VI took Charles de Blois’s advice and had Olivier captured and tried with treason. On August 2, 1343, he was executed by beheading at Les Halles. Olivier's head was then sent to Nantes and displayed on a pole outside the castle of Bouffay.
Jeanne, enraged and bewildered over her husband's execution, swore vengeance against both the King and Charles de Blois.
Execution of Olivier IV de Clisson. Painting attributed to Loyset Liédet, Flemish illuminator (v.1420-v.1483) in the "Chronicles of Lord Jehan Froissart. (Public Domain)
The Black Fleet Rises
The first thing Jeanne de Clisson did was to sell off the lands she still owned and raise a small force of loyal men with whom she attacked pro-French forces in Brittany. When her situation became too dangerous on land, she purchased three warships and took to the seas.
She had her ships painted black and dyed their sails red to intimidate her enemy, earning the title “The Black Fleet.” The ships of the Black Fleet patrolled the English Channel for French ships, especially those owned by King Phillip and members of the French nobility. Her crews, as merciless under her orders as she was herself, would kill almost everyone in the enemy’s crews, leaving only one or two alive to carry news to the king that she had struck again. This earned Jeanne the epithet, “The Lioness of Brittany” - reviled as a monster by some, praised as a heroine by others.
In her efforts to keep the English Channel completely free of French ships, she formed an alliance with the English, laundering supplies to their soldiers for battles. She continued her work as a pirate even after the death of her enemy, King Phillip VI, in 1350.
A Rarity for Pirates – Jeanne Ends Her Story ‘Happily Ever After’
Jeanne de Clisson fought as a pirate for 13 years. When her quest for revenge ended, it was not through losing a battle, nor was it through the French authorities finally catching up with her and taking their revenge on her.
In fact, Jeanne’s story comes to a close as she found love with an English noble named Sir Walter Brentley. He had been King Edward III’s lieutenant during a campaign against Charles de Blois. She married Sir Walter in 1356 and settled into a quiet life in the Castle of Hennebont in France, which was a territory of her Montfort allies, and later died there of an unknown cause.
Jeanne found love with an English nobleman named Sir Walter Brentley. (Alchetron)
But Jeanne’s story didn’t end perfectly, from her perspective, because she never managed to take revenge on Charles de Blois for his role in Olivier’s death. He lived until 1364, when he died in battle. He was later canonized as a saint in the Roman Catholic church.
Historical Evidence for Jeanne de Clisson’s Life
It should be noted that actual verifiable references relating to Jeanne’s life and exploits are limited, though they do exist. Historical records include a 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 mentioned in a truce drawn up between France and England in 1347 as a valuable English ally.
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There is also a 15th century manuscript, known as the Chronographia Regnum Francorum, which confirms some of the details of Jeanne de Clisson’s life.
Nevertheless, it is almost certain that many tales about the Lioness of Brittany have been exaggerated over the years, such as accounts of Jeanne taking excessive delight in personally beheading French crew members with an axe, and other such legends.
Whatever the precise facts, it is clear that Jeanne de Clisson was no defenseless ‘damsel in distress,’ but a fierce and courageous woman who fought relentlessly to avenge her husband’s death.
Top Image: Representative image of the pirate Jean de Clisson, the Lioness of Brittany. Source: ratpack223 /Adobe Stock