The Lioness of Brittany and her Black Fleet of Pirates
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 and her crew would slaughter the crew of the King’s ships, leaving two or three sailors alive, so that the message would get back to the King that the Lioness of Brittany had struck once again.
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.
Jeanne de Clisson had her ships painted black with red sails. Credit: LimKis/deviantart
By way of background, when the Duke of Brittany died with no male heir in 1341, both King Edward III of England and Phillip VI of France saw an opportunity. Brittany lay between their kingdoms and would provide either a useful foothold or buffer to invasion. This issue, combined with King Edward’s claim to French territories and to the crown itself, formed the basis of the Hundred Years War.
The Execution of Olivier and the Spark of Revenge
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 Black Fleet
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 ships of 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.
In her efforts to keep the English Channel completely free of French ships, she formed an alliance with the English, laundering supplies to their soldiers for battles. She continued her work as a pirate even after the death of her enemy, King Philip VI, in 1350.
Happily Ever After
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.
Jeanne’s revenge on Charles de Blois was never met; he lived on until 1364 when he died in battle. He was later canonized as a saint in the Roman Catholic church.
It should be noted that actual verifiable references relating to Jeanne’s life and exploits are limited, though they do exist. Historical records include a French judgement of late 1343 condemning Jeanne as a traitor and ordering the confiscation of her lands. In 1345, records from the English court indicate Edward granted her an income from lands he controlled in Brittany and she is mentioned in a truce drawn up between France and England in 1347 as a valuable English ally. There is also a 15th century manuscript, known as the Chronographia Regnum Francorum, which confirms some of the details of her life.
Nevertheless, it is almost certain that many tales about the Lioness of Brittany have been exaggerated over the years, such as accounts of Jeanne taking great delight in personally beheading French crew members with an axe, and other such legends. Whatever the precise facts, it is clear that Jeanne de Clisson was no defenceless ‘damsel in distress’, but a fierce and courageous woman who fought relentlessly to avenge her husband’s death.