Jeanne de Clisson
In the midst of the Hundred Years War between England and France, just the name ‘The Lioness of Brittany’ was enough to strike fear into the hearts of French sailors. And for good reason. Jeanne de Clisson was every bit as ruthless as any male pirate, though her background could not have been more different to the average outlaw.
Jeanne – or, to give the lady her full title, Jeanne Louise de Belleville, de Clisson, Dame de Montaigu – was born in 1300 to a noble family in Brittany, northern France. As was the custom for the aristocratic youth of the time, she was married off aged just 12. The youthful union produced two children and lasted for 14 years until the death of her nobleman husband. A short-lived second marriage followed and then Jeanne got married for a third time to a wealthy Breton trader by the name of Olivier de Clisson.
By all accounts, theirs was a happy partnership, with the couple welcoming five children into the world. However, history got in the way of true romance. The early 1300s saw the crowns of France and England at war, with Brittany caught in the middle of the bloody conflict. Olivier sided with the French against the English, but that didn’t stop rumors emerging that he had switched to the other side. Learning of such rumors, King Philip VI ordered Olivier to be tried for treason. After a sham of a trial, he was beheaded. What’s more, his body and head were sent to different parts of France to be publicly displayed, a shame usually reserved for common criminals rather than members of the nobility. Jeanne was not only grief-stricken but humiliated and angry. She vowed to have her revenge.
And how better to get back at King Philip of France than to sell all her land and build her own mini-army? At first, she and her loyal men attacked French soldiers in Brittany, but this soon got too risky, so she took to the seas. Here, in the English Channel, flying under black sails and black flags, her small fleet would attack any French ship they came across. When they captured a vessel, all the crew were butchered, with the exception of one or two men, who were sent back to France to spread the word that the ‘Lioness of Brittany’ had struck again.
For some 13 years, Jeanne fought the French, first as an independent pirate and then in alliance with the English. She even continued after her nemesis Philip VI died, and only gave up the pirating life to marry an English noble and settle down. While some might say she got her revenge, the Lioness of Brittany never did manage to get hold of the man who started the rumors against her beloved Olivier.