If I asked you to name a lady pirate, you might mention Mary Reed or Anne Bonay. And while they get their fair share of attention, my favorite pirate (or Privateer in this case) lived long before the golden age of Piracy.
Jeanne de Clisson was a notorious privateer for the English during the hundred years war. Ironically, she started out a noble lady loyal to France. That is, until the French king betrayed her family.
Jeanne was born during the 100 years war. A war commonly known because it actually lasted 116 years.
For greater context, think of the Hundred Years’ War as a very active phase of a much bigger conflict between France and England that stretched from the Norman conquest in 1066 to the Entant Cordiale (a treaty that ceased hostilities) in 1904.
Shakespeare’s Henriad Tetraology was set during the Hundred Years’ War. This was also the time that Joan of Arc was active. There were people who were born, grew up, grew old and died in a constant state of warfare. Can you imagine what that must have shaped a person?
Jeanne de Clisson was born in Brittany, a little bump of land that exists on the French side of the English Channel. The English and French both wanted the land for themselves to serve as a buffer against the other country.
Jeanne was married at twelve and had two children before outliving her husband (a situation unusual in the Middle Ages, unless one happens to be living through the 100 Years War, apparently). She married again, but that marriage was annulled by the pope.
Her third marriage was apparently a charm, as she and her husband Oliver de Clisson IV loved each other. But Jeanne’s happiness was not to last.
During a struggle for control of Brittany called the Breton War of Succession, Oliver was called on to defend the city of Vannes. The city was defeated and Oliver was the only noble ransomed, and for a sum low enough to raise a few eyebrows – including that of France’s king Philip VI.
Philip asked Oliver to come to France. When Oliver did, he was promptly arrested, accused of being a traitor, tried and executed by beheading and then drawn and quartered. Then his body was sent to various parts of France to display as a warning.
To the noble class, this was a shocking act. During Oliver’s trial, no evidence of his guilt was presented. After he’d been executed, his body had been put on display like a common criminal.
Imagine Jeanne’s anger. Her beloved Oliver had been loyal to Philip. And that loyalty had been rewarded with treachery.
She took her two young sons to see their father’s head on display. Perhaps because she planned to involve them in her revenge. Perhaps because she wanted them to understand.
Then she sold her lands, bought three ships and painted them black with red sails. For the next 13 years she raided French ships and attacked Norman villages all along the French coast. Even after Philip’s death, Jeanne continued her raids.
Her revenge took on a very personal nature. She took no captives. Instead releasing one or two people to tell the tale of her deeds and killing everyone else. It is said she personally beheaded any French noble she happened to capture, and tossed their bodies into the ocean.
This earned her the nickname “The Lioness of Brittany.”
During one French retaliation, her flagship was sunk, leaving her and her sons Guillaume and Oliver adrift for 5 days before they were rescued. During this time, Guillaume sickened and died from exposure.
Eventually, Jeanne married one of English King Edward III’s lieutenants. She retired to the Brittany coast to live out her remaining days in peace.
Ironically, her children would become intertwined with the French nobility she fought so hard against.
Her daughter Isabeau would become the mother to a future Marshal of France.
Her son Oliver would become a constable of France. Perhaps some evidence of the way Jeanne’s life of revenge shaped Oliver can be found in his nickname: “the Butcher.”
As a side note: The material came to my attention through Rejected Princesses. You should really go there and read about a lot of awesome women who History doesn’t give enough credit to.