Jeanne de Clisson was a 14th century Bretton noblewoman who is today mostly remembered for her 13 year long career as a pirate and privateer in the waters of English Channel.
In the midst of the Hundred Years War between England and France, an enraged French woman named Jeanne de Clisson took to the sea with a fleet of warships, where she mercilessly hunted down ships of King Philip VI to avenge her husband’s death. For her ferocity, she eventually acquired the name The Lioness of Brittany.
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. Some time 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.
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. Rumours spread that Olivier had defected to the English side. King Philip 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.
The first thing Jeanne de Clisson did was to sell off the lands that remained to her 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 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 entire 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.
Jeanne de Clisson fought as a pirate for thirteen 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. Jeanne found love in English noble Sir Walter Brentley, who 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 in unknown circumstances.