Today’s fearsome lady pirate, Jeanne de Clisson, was born Jeanne-Louise de Belleville, Dame de Montaiga in the year 1300. She became known as the Lioness of Brittany, and for good reason, if the legend is to be believed.
As a 12-year-old, she married Geoffrey de Châteaubriant and had a couple of kids, but he died just 7 years into the marriage. In 1330, she remarried the even more impressively named Olivier III de Clisson. It seems they were very happy together; they had five kids as proof. They were rich, he owned a castle, a manor house and some land.
To explain what happens next, I will need to give a quick history lesson. Many apologies:
The Hundred Year War was starting to kick off around this time, following the death of the Duke of Brittany, who had not managed to leave a male heir. Both Edward III of England and Phillip VI of France wished to own Brittany for themselves. It would make a very useful buffer/foothold in times of aggression between the two disgruntled neighbours.
There were already two claimants competing for the fair land of Brittany – Phillip was backing Jeanne de Penthievre, and Edward was supporting Jean de Monfort – queue battle.
The reason why I explained this is because Jeanne de Clisson, our budding Lioness of Brittany’s husband, Olivier III de Clisson, was backing Jean de Monfort, which to some seemed a treasonous act. Although Olivier joined Charles de Blois’ forces to help defend Brittany from the English in 1342, his surrender of Vannes looked like a turncoat maneuver to the French.
This drama ended in 1343 when Olivier was tried for treason by Philip VI, alongside a dozen or so other French noblemen. He was found guilty, and hung. His head was then chopped off and displayed on a post for the world to see.
This act was seen by many at the time as rather despicable, and viewed as a dishonourable act.
When Jeanne heard the news, she was rightly and unsurprisingly upset. She took her two sons, got together a band of loyal men and got on with some massacring. One of her most famous rampages was the massacre of the garrison of Chateau Thébaut.
It soon became too dangerous on land for Jeanne, so she took her sons and went to sea. Unfortunately, her boat became grounded and they were left floating in a small life boat. By the time the boat had reached shore, the youngest of her children had died.
By this stage, Jean de Clisson had sold off many of her assets and, as the fable goes, sold her body off to the highest bidder too – she needed to raise funds and favours. Jean de Clisson used her booty (of both sorts… allegedly) to buy three warships.
She had the trio of ships painted black and adorned with red sails; henceforth, they were known as the “Black Fleet.”
She exclusively and mercilessly attacked French ships, slaughtering their occupants, leaving just two or three sailors alive to tell the dreadful tale to the King upon their return.
The Lioness of Brittany had a passion for hunting down ships which she knew had members of the mobility aboard. She made sure to personally behead them. She was popular with the English because, not only did she clear the English Channel of French ships, she also helped the English move supplies through to their troops on French shores.
Jeanne eventually retired. Legend has it that she was piratical for some 13 years, although, historians say it may have only been as long as a few months. Over the years, the story has been intertwined with fable and fiction, so the exact nature of her activities will never truly be known.
However, a truce between the English and French mentions that Jeanne was a useful English ally; so, she was, at the very least, a masterful political lobbyist and a force to be reckoned with.
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