10 of History's Most Fascinating Female Pirates

Jeanne de Clisson. Famille Bretet

Jeanne de Clisson, the Lioness of Brittany

Jeanne de Clisson (1300 – 1359), also known as the Lioness of Brittany, was one of France’s most prominent female pirates. After the French accused her husband of being an English spy and executed him as such, the widow Clisson went on the warpath. She turned pirate and preyed on French shipping in the English Channel, torturing and executing every French nobleman she came across.

She was a Breton noblewoman who was born in the town of Belleville-sur-Vie into a prominent family, which had ruled the area for centuries. She was married at age 12, and bore her husband two children before he died in 1326. She remarried in 1328, but that marriage was annulled two years later, so she remarried once more, this time to a wealthy Breton named Olivier Clisson.

In 1342, during the Hundred Years War, Jeanne’s husband was military commander of a town that was captured by the English, and he was taken prisoner. They released him soon thereafter in a prisoner exchange – the only Frenchman to be released. Between that and an unusually low ransom requested by the English, Olivier Clisson’s French compatriots suspected him of treason. He was tried and convicted by a court of French aristocrats, and beheaded in 1343.

Jeanne viewed her husband’s execution as a cowardly murder, took her young sons to see their father’s head mounted on a spike, and vowed revenge. She sold her estates, used the proceeds to raise a force of armed followers, and switching her loyalties to the English, began attacking the French. She was not taken seriously at first, but then she attacked and captured a French castle, and massacred its entire garrison, except for one man whom she let live to tell the tale. She was taken seriously from then on.

Realizing that her forces were too small to withstand a determined French counterattack, Jeanne retreated across the Channel to England. There, she bought and outfitted three warships, and as a signal of her intent, painted them black and dyed their sails red. Then she led her black fleet into the English Channel, to fall upon French shipping.

Jeanne de Clisson and her pirate fleet soon gained a reputation for savagery, as they massacred nearly all who fell into their hands, except for a few survivors spared so they could spread the tale. French nobles in particular were in serious trouble if they were discovered aboard any ship captured by Jeanne. Although there was serious money to be made ransoming them, as the was custom of the day, Jeanne wanted none of that. Instead, she tormented the nobles, then personally chopped off their heads with an ax, before tossing their corpses overboard.

She continued her murderous rampage against the French wherever she could find them, for thirteen years, before her bloodlust was finally sated. Eventually, in 1356, Jeanne Clisson gave up the life of piracy, and retired to her estates in Brittany. She remarried for a fourth time, and settled into a castle on Brittany’s southern coast, where she died peacefully in 1359.