During the 14th Century, the Hundred Years War was keeping most of Europe busy. However, a lady from the province of Brittany, France, felt that, due to an injustice, she had the right to seek revenge against her King and countrymen. Jeanne de Clisson, the 'Lioness of Brittany' and fearsome pirate queen, stalked the English Channel for French ships from 1343 - 1356.
The daughter of Maurice IV of Belleville-Montaigu and Létice de Parthenay, Jeanne-Louise de Belleville (Dame de Montaigu) was born in 1300. At the age of 12, she was married to 19-year-old Geoffrey de Châteaubriant. The union produced two children, Louise and Geoffrey, but in 1326 the marriage ended with the death of de Châteaubriant. Jeanne then took the hand of Olivier III de Clisson in 1330. This union was an especially close one - Olivier and Jeanne were of an age and seemingly content, as they had five children together: Maurice, Guillaume, Olivier, Isabeau (d1343) and Jeanne. Olivier was also a wealthy nobleman, holding a castle at Clisson, a house in Nantes and lands at Blain, so in 1342 he joined Charles de Blois in defending Brittany against the English claimants - and the forces of English sympathiser John de Montfort1.
The Spark of Revenge
During the ensuing campaign, Olivier came under suspicion and criticism from Charles de Blois for failing to hold Vannes against the English forces, and so Clisson defected to the English side. In the summer, 1343, while he was attending a tourney2 in French territory, Olivier was arrested and taken to Paris for trial. Fifteen of his peers, including his friend Charles de Blois, found him guilty of treason and on the 2 August, 1343, he was executed by beheading at Les Halles, on the orders of King Philip VI. 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 revenge on the King and, in particular, Charles de Blois. She sold off the remnants of the Clisson lands to raise money - whereupon she bought three warships, and the aid of many of the lords and people of Brittany to ensure their independence.
The Black Fleet
The ships that Jeanne purchased were painted all black on her command, and the sails dyed red. The 'Black Fleet' took to the waters and began hunting down and destroying the ships of King Philip VI, and were merciless with the crews. But Jeanne would always leave two or three of Philip's sailors alive, so that the message would get back to the King that the 'Lioness of Brittany' had struck once again. Jeanne and her fleet also assisted in keeping the English Channel free of French warships, and it is very likely that as a privateer she had a hand in keeping supplies available to the English forces for the Battle of Crécy in 1346. When King Philip VI died in 1350, it was not the end to Jeanne's revenge. She continued to wreak havoc among French shipping, and it was reported that she took particular joy in hunting down and capturing the ships of French noblemen, as long as they were aboard. She would then personally behead the aristocrats with an axe, tossing their lifeless bodies overboard.
A Safe Harbour
In 1356, after 13 years of piracy, Jeanne took refuge in England and married Sir Walter Bentley, a lieutenant to the English King Edward III during the fighting against one Charles de Blois. She later returned to France, but resided in Hennebont as Blain was closed to her and the lands given to Louis de Poitiers after Olivier III's execution. Her son Olivier later returned to Brittany and fought in the War of Breton Succession. Jeanne is said to have died in 1359, but her ghost, a grey figure, may still haunt the halls of Clisson Castle in Brittany.
1 Whose wife, Jeanne de Montfort, also took to the sea to combat the French alongside the English Navy. Nicknamed 'The Flame' due to stories about her carrying a flaming sword into battle, she is sometimes confused with the Lioness of Brittany.
2 An excursion.