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Jeanne de Clisson, the Lioness of Brittany, and Her Black Fleet

It is an undeniable fact that when thinking about medieval female warriors, the first figure that comes to mind is Jeanne d’Arc; but she was by no means the only woman in the Middle Ages who decided to wield a sword. Many historians refer to the War of Breton Succession as the “War of the Two Jeannes” due to the role played by the two women that fought in each side of the war: Jeanne de Montfort, also known as Joanna of Flanders, who was supported by the English; and Jeanne the Penthièvre, niece to John III, duke of Brittany, who was supported by the French. However, not many remember that there was a third Jeanne that took part in the conflict: Jeanne de Clisson, the Lioness of Brittany.

A painting of Jeanne in a mock 15th century style, part of a composition by Elsa Millet.

Before diving into the complexity of Jeanne de Clisson’s life and the legend created around her, a brief account of the War of Breton Succession is necessary. In the 14th century, Brittany was a province on the west coast of present-day France and it was ruled by a duke. The Bretons had a very strong sense of nationalism, and even though their loyalty was divided between the King of England and the King of France, they were first and foremost loyal to the Duke of Brittany. When the Duke John III of Brittany died in 1341 without heirs, the succession became a conflict that lasted until 1365. The two main contenders for the throne were the late duke’s half-brother, John de Monfort, husband to Jeanne de Monfort and backed by Edward III of England; and Charles de Blois, married to Jeanne de Penthièvre, niece of the late duke and supported by Philip VI of France. This conflict culminated in the Hundred Years' War.

Jeanne de Clisson was born as Jeanne de Belleville to a wealthy noble family in 1300 in Belleville-sur-Vie, on the western coast of France. She was called “one of the most beautiful women of her day” (Duncombe, 2017, p. 75) and married nineteen-year-old Geoffrey de Châteaubriant when she was only twelve. The couple had two children together before he died in 1326. Four years later, Jeanne married Olivier de Clisson, a very wealthy nobleman with whom she had five more children. Their marriage may not have been out of love, but it became clear that they respected and cared for each other.

Dual Coat of Arms of Jeanne de Clisson, Belleville (left) and de Clisson (right).

When the War of Breton Succession started, Olivier chose to back his childhood friend Charles de Blois. It is not clear to historians what exactly transpired between the two friends, but Charles de Blois became convinced that de Clisson was a traitor who supported the English claim to the duchy. As author Laura Sook Duncombe relates in her book Pirate Women, after capturing de Clisson, the English asked for a suspiciously low ransom, which lead de Blois to believe that something amiss was going on. Charles de Blois decided to concoct a plan with Philip VI, King of France, to have de Clisson killed.

As the story goes, the French king invited Olivier and his followers to his lands with the pretense of celebrating a tournament. As soon as they arrived, they were arrested and tried as traitors to France. Olivier was convicted and sentenced to death, his head was later put on a pike and sent back to Brittany’s capital, Nantes, as a warning for those who were tempted to aid the English. The king’s action shocked the public as there was not enough evidence to prove de Clisson’s treason and the display of a corpse was a practice for low-class criminals. The public was mostly convinced that the king had killed an innocent man.

Execution of Olivier IV de Clisson.

When Jeanne de Clisson found out about the fate of her husband, she wasted no time and sprung into action. She cut all of her ties with the de Blois family and took her children to Nantes to see the severed head of their father. She wanted revenge and her children would follow her. The king had confiscated most of her lands due to her husband's treason, therefore, she proceeded to sell everything she had (jewels, clothes, furniture) to raise money for her cause: she wanted the French out of Brittany. Her war began on land, and it was a bloody one. According to the legend, she was known for leaving only one or two survivors to tell the tale, France had to know that it was her who killed their people.

Soon enough, she turned her fight from land to the sea. With the money she had left, she bought three ships and continued her fight against the French. The change in scenarios did not alter her methods, she was just as bloody and violent at sea as she was on land. She was now known as the Lioness of Brittany and her fleet was the Black Fleet. According to the legends, she painted the ships black and dyed the sails red, for people to see her coming and know the fate that awaited them. She sailed up and down the English Channel attacking every French ship on sight, and she became a feared pirate all over Europe. Her actions clearly benefited the de Monfort’s claim on Brittany, consequently, many argued that she was not a pirate but an unofficial privateer for the English (Duncombe, 2017, p. 80).

Jeanne de Belleville by Bob Venables.

Even though King Philip VI of France died in 1350, Jeanne de Clisson continued wreaking havoc on French ships for another six years. After an estimated thirteen year career as a pirate, or privateer, she decided to end her fight and married into the English court of Edward III. The reasoning behind this decision is a mystery. Was her thirst for revenge finally satiated? How did she meet her new husband if she was always fighting at sea? Many questions are left unanswered. The only information historians have of her last years is that she died five years after her marriage, sometime around 1359.

If there was ever a time in history where women could easily reach a position of power, the Middle Ages was definitely not the one; their behaviour and role in society were dictated by biblical texts, which clearly stated their inferiority towards men (Bovey, 2015). At that time, women were faced with only two options: marry (usually in their early teens), or take the veil and become a nun. There were, however, some women that through sheer force of will managed to create their own space in society and leave enough of a mark in history to be remembered centuries after their death. The three Jeannes: de Monfort, de Penthièvre and de Clisson, are just some examples.

Jeanne de Clisson was a mother, a wife, and a powerful warrior. She fought for thirteen years and ensured that Brittany could keep the duchy away from French control. She played a significant role in the War of Breton Succession decimating the French troops and their resources. Centuries after her death, legends of her violence and ruthlessness in battle are still alive. The Lioness of Brittany, and her Black Fleet, are one of the most famous pirates to ever exist in European waters, even to this day.


Image References


Mar 21, 2023

I don't know why you think her English husband Walter was a mystery. He was the English main commander in Brittany. Half of Brittany was under his control. She supported his campaign with her ships. Also bit of speculation here but 59 was a good age to live to at the time and where they settled down, Hennebont was a port town in the English controlled part of Brittany. It was also one of the first towns in Brittany to experience the black death, a Plague that usually entered new countries through ports. The Black death arrived in Hennebont at exactly that time.


Mar 21, 2023

Sigh Brittany was not a province of France, it was sovereign at that stage. It was however in the French sphere of influence and most important families on both sides of the border had intermarriage, hence the confusion around who they were loyal to. Brittany only became part of France in the 15th century, under a treaty known as 2 nations 1 crown.

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Isabel Panadero

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