3 – The Female Mercenary Pirate of the Hundred Years War
At the outset of the Hundred Years War, the French were terrorized by a bloodthirsty female mercenary and pirate who had a private vendetta against France. She was Jeanne de Clisson (1300 – 1359), also known as the Lioness of Brittany. After the French accused her husband of treason and executed him, de Clisson went on the warpath. She hired herself out to the English and turned pirate, preying upon French shipping in the English Channel, torturing and executing every French nobleman she came across.
De Clisson was a Breton noblewoman from a prominent family. After two marriages, one which ended with her husband’s death and the other with an annulment, she married a wealthy Breton named Olivier Clisson in 1330. In 1342, Clisson was military commander of a town that was captured by the English, and he was taken prisoner. He was released soon thereafter in a prisoner exchange – the only Frenchman to be freed. Between that and an unusually low ransom requested by the English, Clisson was accused of treason. He was tried and convicted by a court of French nobles, and beheaded in 1343.
Jeanne de Clisson took her young sons to see their father’s head mounted on a spike, and vowed revenge. She sold her estates, and used the proceeds to raise a private force with which she began attacking the French. They did not take her seriously at first. 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.
A determined French counterattack forced her to flee to England, where she accepted English backing to continue her war as a mercenary. 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. De Clisson soon gained a reputation for savagery, massacring nearly all who fell into her hands. French aristocrats in particular were in for a rough time if they were found aboard any ship captured by the mercenary pirate. There was good money to be made ransoming them, as the was custom of the day, but de Clisson wanted their lives, not their money. So she tortured her aristocratic captives, then personally beheaded them with an ax, before tossing their corpses overboard.
De Clisson continued her murderous rampage against the French wherever she could find them, for thirteen years, before her bloodlust was finally sated. Eventually, in 1356, she gave up the life of a mercenary pirate, 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.