Noblewoman… mother… prostitute… widow… pirate. In the 14th century, Jeanne de Clisson – the “Lioness of Brittany” — was all these, and more.
Actually, no one really seems sure about the prostitute part. What is true beyond doubt is that the Lioness of Brittany was as vicious as any male pirate. The reasons for her rage, however, are perhaps a bit more compelling.
The Lioness of Brittany was born Jeanne-Louise de Belleville in 1300, to a noble family in Brittany (now a part of France). At the age of 12, she was married to a 19 year-old nobleman, Geoffrey de Châteubriant, with whom she had two children.
After Châteubriant died in 1326, Jeanne married Olivier III de Clisson, another Breton nobleman. Unusually for a noble couple of the time, Jeanne and Olivier were reportedly very much in love. Jeanne bore Olivier five children, including a son – Olivier IV Clisson — who would one day become High Constable of France.
The couple might have lived happily ever after, had not the Hundred Years War and the Breton War of Succession intervened. Though Brittany was historically English (and is still referred to sometimes as Little Britain), it owed its fealty to France.
Olivier initially did his duty. After a fight with one of the leaders in the Breton war, however, Olivier defected to the English. When the French king, Philip VI, learned of it, he invited Olivier to a tournament in Paris. As soon as Olivier arrived, the king had him tried and beheaded for treason. Clisson’s head was sent to Brittany, where it was publicly displayed on the end of a pike.
At this point the story gets a bit murky. Jeanne swore revenge against the king, that much is agreed. How she raised the money to exact her revenge, however, is a matter of debate.
Most sources agree that Jeanne sold off her few remaining lands that Philip VI hadn’t confiscated. Undisputedly, she moved to England and secured assistance from Edward III. Some sources claim that Jeanne sold her body to Breton nobleman to raise money before leaving for England. Like all legends, however, that of the Lioness of Brittany undoubtedly grew in the years following her exploits, and such tales may well be a fabrication.
However she raised the money, five months after the death of Clisson, Jeanne was in England. Her son Olivier and a daughter were with her. Jeanne bought three warships, which she had painted black and outfitted with red sails.
Jeanne and her “Black Fleet” took to the English Channel to hunt for French ships. When they captured one, they would slaughter almost the entire crew. Only two or three sailors would be left alive, so that they could tell King Philip that the Lioness of Brittany had struck again.
Jeanne’s fierce reputation comes, however, from her treatment of the French aristocrats she found on board the captured ships. Jeanne is said to have personally beheaded them with an axe, then pitched their lifeless bodies into the sea – payback for Philip’s beheading of her beloved husband.
Not even Philip’s death in 1350 was enough to stay Jeanne’s hand. Jeanne, it was said, terrorized the English Channel for 13 years – six of them after Philip died. The Black Fleet is even credited with helping the English win the Battle of Crécy in 1346, by keeping the Channel free of French ships. England’s victory at Crécy – achieved, in large part, to the use of the longbow by Welsh archers — is considered one of the most decisive in history.
After Jeanne retired from pirating in 1356, she moved to England and married Sir Walter Bentley, one of the English king’s lieutenants. Eventually, she returned to France, only to die there in 1359.
Jeanne’s ghost supposedly still hangs around the halls of the Château de Clisson, looking, perhaps, for French heads to chop off. But even if there’s no such thing as ghosts, the Lioness of Brittany still haunts our imaginations. Because a mind – or at least the head it is contained in — is a terrible thing to waste. Get it? To waste?
Ah… never mind.