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The Pirate Queen Who Avenged Her Husband’s Death on the High Seas

After the King of France beheaded a nobleman on questionable charges, his devastated widow transformed into “the Lioness of Brittany” and spent the next decade exacting her revenge.

The Pirate Queen Who Avenged Her Husband’s Death on the High Seas

When Olivier IV de Clisson was convicted of betraying France by spying for England, his punishment was swift and severe: Off with his head. But the stern-faced King Philippe VI felt execution alone was not sufficient to get his message across. So he ordered Olivier’s decapitated head to be sent from Paris and placed atop a gate in Nantes, near the disgraced nobleman’s home.

The execution was the coda to a contentious episode during the War of the Breton Succession. When the heirless Duke of Brittany died in 1341, both the French and English had laid claim to his lands in northwestern France. Olivier, a wealthy Frenchman with pale white skin and long brown hair, was entrusted with protecting France’s honor and leading the army as a commander. But when the key city of Vannes fell into the hands of the English, Olivier was accused of not fighting valiantly enough for the French.

An illustration by French poet and historian Jean Froissart depicts the arrest of Olivier de Clisson. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

The two sides ultimately signed a peace treaty and Olivier traveled to Paris, believing the treaty would put these past allegations behind him. However, when he reached the capital, King Philippe had him arrested, thrown in prison and convicted of treason.

Sending a nobleman like Olivier to the guillotine was highly unorthodox. Some sources report that Olivier confessed, yet there is no way to confirm that he truly did, or that he did so in a clear state of mind, as he may have been tortured, and fair and ethical trials were hardly a common practice at the time.

King Philippe, for his part, surely hoped his gruesome order would dissuade any other would-be traitors in his midst.

He could not have been more wrong.

Around 20 miles from where Olivier’s head was placed, his widow, Jeanne, was seething. She and their children were holed up in her husband’s expansive castle, the Château de Clisson, overlooking the beautiful Sèvre Nantaise river. Eight centuries later, the question of whether Olivier truly betrayed France is not easily answered. But one thing is starkly clear: Jeanne, after learning of her beloved husband’s execution, had a new sworn enemy — the French king. And to say she was intent on exacting her revenge would be an understatement of historic proportions.

Jeanne de Clisson, also known as Jeanne de Belleville, attracted scandal long before the execution of her husband. She was born in 1300 to a noble family in the Gâtine Vendéenne area, south of Brittany in what is now western France. Her family was among the most powerful in the region. University of Massachusetts Lowell history professor Katrin E. Sjursen wrote in the anthology Medieval Elite Women and the Exercise of Power, 1100–1400 that “Belleville lands were quite extensive, stretching across southern Brittany and the northern Poitou, virtually controlling access to the sea.”

Not much is known about Jeanne’s early years, but given that she was the daughter of a prominent nobleman, she was likely accustomed to some level of luxury. According to novels and some portraits, Jeanne had fair skin, a status symbol at the time, and brown or reddish-brown hair.

In 1312, at the young age of 12, she married her first husband, Geoffrey de Châteaubriant VIII, a nobleman. As if welcoming children at 14 and 16 years old was not challenging enough, Jeanne became a widow at the age of 26 when Geoffrey died. Unmarried women in 14th-century France, even those of noble standing, had close to no power. To ensure the safety and well-being of her young children, Jeanne would have to remarry.

Two years later, Jeanne wed Guy de Penthièvre, the son of a powerful Breton Duke. However, Guy’s family immediately opposed the union, using their power in the Catholic Church to separate the couple. Not much is known about the relationship between Jeanne and Guy. Perhaps Guy had true feelings for Jeanne, and his family’s attempts to separate them was an act of meddling in-laws. Regardless, in February 1330, Jeanne became a single mother again when Pope John XXII annulled their marriage.

Jeanne managed to marry again less than a year later, this time to Olivier de Clisson IV. The couple had four children, three that survived past infancy: Olivier V, Guillaume and Jeanne. But against the backdrop of what could have been an extremely cushy life, the War of the Breton Succession was brewing — one of many disputes that would set off a century of conflict between France and England, the so-called Hundred Years’ War.

Brittany, sequestered by the English Channel on the left and French Normandy to the right, is nearly the size of Switzerland. Inhabited by Celtic tribes centuries earlier, the region is home to some of the world’s oldest architecture and its own language. At the time, control over Brittany was just one of many sources of conflict between France and England, and many Bretons had switched allegiances back and forth between the two great powers. Olivier and Jeanne had both declared their support for the French Duke of Brittany, Charles de Blois, in the fight against his English counterpart, yet Olivier’s lackluster performance at Vannes sealed his fate.

An illustration by French geographer Guillaume Fillastre depicts the capture of Vannes. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

After her husband’s arrest, Jeanne started to show her true allegiance, not to her country, but to her Olivier. Sjursen wrote that “Jeanne bribed a royal sergeant to inform Olivier of a sentence of execution and to hamper said execution.” Jeanne’s plan did not work, and the sergeant was arrested.

The French royalty began to suspect that Jeanne was not a proper woman of noble heritage. The Parliament summoned Jeanne to Paris to face trial for her own traitorous actions. But she had other plans.

Rather than report to Paris to face her punishment, Jeanne leapt into action. She sold her jewelry, furniture and other belongings to raise money to fund a small army. (Sources differ on whether Olivier’s land was immediately confiscated upon his conviction, or if Jeanne sold that too.) The couple had plenty of powerful friends throughout Brittany, and when Jeanne set out on her mission, many of those who had fought for the English during the Breton War rallied behind her.

French journalist and playwright Auguste Lefranc wrote in the 1898 book Olivier de Clisson, Connétable de France that after Olivier’s execution, Jeanne gathered 400 men who supported the English claim to the Breton crown to launch an attack on a castle belonging to a supporter of Charles de Blois, the French Duke of Brittany — also the very man who had accused her husband of treason.

De Blois’s supporters opened the gates to the castle to let Jeanne in, if not misjudging her intentions then vastly underestimating how determined she was to carry them out. Jeanne fought right alongside her soldiers, who stormed the castle and slaughtered almost everyone inside.

“The blood of all the other keepers or inhabitants of the castle was mercilessly shed, like a first expiatory sacrifice offered in memory of Olivier de Clisson,” Lefranc wrote. The French captain was the only one to escape Jeanne’s wrath, thus establishing a new modus operandi for the vengeful widow: When attacking, she liked to leave one enemy alive to tell the tale.

Next, Jeanne headed for the seas. With the remaining money she had saved from selling her belongings — as well as the moral and perhaps financial support of the English king — Jeanne prepared three warships, black boats topped with red sails. Her flagship vessel was christened Ma Revanche, or “My Revenge.

Jeanne’s seaborne revenge mission was a family affair. Her two sons with Olivier, 7-year-old Olivier and 5-year-old Guillaume, joined her at sea. Instead of living in a beautiful castle in the bucolic countryside, they were now pirates on the English Channel, avenging their father’s memory. (Jeanne did leave her young daughter and namesake behind.)

In the Channel, Jeanne and her men attacked any weaker French warships and French merchant vessels they encountered. According to Lefranc, Jeanne “mercilessly put to death all the French who fell into her hands.” Soon nicknamed the Lioness of Brittany for her vicious determination, it is said that Jeanne killed everyone on board those ships except for one person, leaving them to report back to the king. (While the main points of Jeanne’s story are clear, it is difficult to tell whether details such as this are fact or embellished by legend.)

Two years into her redemption plot, Jeanne’s luck ran out. In 1345 her flagship, upon which she lived full-time with her two young sons, was attacked by vessels controlled by the king of France. Their lives on the line, Jeanne and her two sons (along with three servants) escaped the assault by jumping into a rowboat.

While they dodged the king’s navy, Jeanne and her sons drifted through the violent waves of the Channel for six days on this rowboat, without any food or clean water. Her son Guillaume, now 7 years old, died in the rough conditions. Jeanne and Olivier V were ultimately rescued by allies.

Even though King Philippe had banished Jeanne from France, his support was tepid enough in her part of the world that she was able to return to Morlaix, a small commune along the English Channel in Brittany, where the locals were still loyal to the English. There, young Olivier became close with John IV, the British-backed Duke of Brittany, who had also lost his father at a young age. Lefranc wrote in Olivier de Clisson that the two boys “were taken together to the English court, where [King] Edward III treated them with great consideration and generosity.”

With young Olivier safe, Jeanne returned to the English Channel, ready to continue making life as hard as possible for her nemesis King Philippe. Just a year after the loss of her younger son, Jeanne used her ships to supply English forces during the Battle of Crécy in northern France.

Then, for the next 10 years, Jeanne continued to cruise the Channel, destroying ships owned by the French crown, French nobility, French merchants and anybody else with a connection to King Philippe.

In 1356, when Jeanne was well into her 50s, she retired from her yearslong mission of wrecking French ships and murdering those on board. Even though she was past her childbearing years, Jeanne decided to get married again, this time to an Englishman named Walter Bentley, a loyal soldier to King Edward III.

The English king rewarded Jeanne’s longtime loyalty immensely. He granted her money to replace what she would have inherited had she not been branded a French traitor, and Bentley was appointed as an English royal lieutenant in France. Thus, despite having been officially banished from France and spent more than a decade terrorizing the king, Jeanne had amassed enough power to retire comfortably and peacefully in her own homeland.

Jeanne passed away in 1359, at the age of 59, from unknown causes. For someone who had given birth six or seven times without the aid of modern medicine, lived through the bubonic plague, and launched a career as a merciless pirate, she certainly lived a very long life.

Her son Olivier V continued valiantly supporting the English for many years, and he did not lose sight of his mother’s lust for revenge. Nicknamed “the Butcher” by his own allies, Olivier helped devise a plan that would separate Charles de Blois, the very man who had accused his father of treason, from the rest of the French army. In a daring attack that would surely have made the Lioness of Brittany proud, pro-English Breton soldiers surrounded and murdered de Blois on September 29, 1364.

Later, like many others before him in the region, Olivier continued the time-honored tradition of swapping sides when it was in his best interest. After a battlefield failure in 1370, he met with the French King Charles V and switched his allegiance to the French. He went on to seize back three English-held cities for France — murdering any English soldier who stood in his way. Olivier passed away in 1407, at the age of 71.

Jeanne, for her part, has reportedly not rested peacefully since her death. Her Château de Clisson still towers over the Sèvre Nantaise river, and visitors have reported seeing Jeanne’s restless ghost haunting the castle.

Château de Clisson towering over the Sèvre Nantaise river. (Photo courtesy Daniel Jolivet, Flickr)