Lately, I’ve been writing about women whose stories are told only because of a little important event in their lives, and there really isn’t much information about other parts for most of them. Louise Julie de Mailly and Nell Gwyn were both known mainly for being royal mistresses, while Jeanne de la Motte is remembered for stealing a diamond necklace. Today’s Jeanne, Jeanne de Clisson, the Lioness of Brittany, is remembered for being a literal pirate.
Jeanne de Belleville was born in the year 1300, in the village of Belleville-sur-Vie. Her parents, Maurice Montagiu and Létice de Parthenay, were French nobles. Jeanne’s father died when she was just three years old. Jeanne’s childhood probably wasn’t that bad since she was still the daughter of nobility, but that also meant that she was going to be married off sooner or later.
It was actually sooner in Jeanne’s case. She was married to the nineteen-year-old Geoffrey de Chateaubriant when she was only twelve years old. Yes, they married off their children really early in medieval times, but they didn’t actually send them off to live together and have kids. In this case, though, Jeanne did have to go live with her husband. Jeanne had two children, a son and a daughter, while she was still in her early teens.
Their marriage went on normally for the next decade and a half, until when Jeanne’s husband died in 1326. Jeanne needed to protect her children and also needed some money to, you know, live and stuff, and in 14th-century Europe, that all came with a husband. So, just a few years after her first husband died, Jeanne married Guy de Penthièvre.
That was one of history’s worst marriages. The de Blois family really wanted Guy to marry Marie de Blois, a niece of Philip IV of France, and they somehow managed to get Jeanne and Guy’s marriage annulled in 1330. Just a year later, Guy dropped dead.
So, Jeanne was free to remarry now, so she married Oliver IV de Clisson, not even a year after her second marriage was annulled. The marriage probably didn’t happen for alliance reasons, and Oliver wasn’t a weird old man either, so it was probably a love match. Their marriage went on amazingly as long as it lasted, and they had five children. Jeanne also had an illegitimate daughter named Isabeau (she was born very soon after Jeanne married Oliver, so Isabeau was probably illegitimate), but that wasn’t really a huge deal for some reason.
But there was a little something that started that we call the Hundred Years’ War. Basically, Edward III of England claimed that he was the rightful heir to the French throne since his mother, Isabella of France, was the daughter of a previous king (and his wife, Joan of Navarre). Then there was also a little conflict in Brittany that Oliver and Jeanne got caught up in that England and France also decided to get involved in.
The Duke of Brittany, John III, then kicked the bucket, and nobody was really sure who should be his heir. The options were mainly the duke’s half-brother, John de Montfort, and Guy’s (remember him?) daughter from another marriage, Jeanne de Penthièvre.
Guy had been a brother of the duke, older than John de Montfort, and the duke had also not wanted John de Montfort to succeed him, so the French supported Jeanne de Penthièvre’s claim. And because they liked war and hated France, the English decided to support John de Montfort. Jeanne de Penthièvre married Charles of Blois, and the French supported Charles. Jeanne de Clisson and Oliver also supported Charles, so they’ve officially gotten involved.
This whole thing came to be known as the Breton War of Succession. Interestingly, it’s also known as The War of the Two Jeannes, since the wives of Charles de Blois and John de Montfort, Jeanne de Penthièvre and Joanna of Flanders, were very much involved in the conflict.
The king of France had John de Montfort imprisoned, then the English had his wife, Joanna of Flanders, imprisoned because they wanted Brittany for themselves, and they didn’t need his wife getting involved. The English then laid siege to the town of Vannes, and when the city eventually fell, Oliver, who was defending it, was captured.
Oliver was eventually freed, but for a very low ransom. That made Charles de Blois a bit suspicious, and he came to the conclusion that Oliver must not have defended the city right because he was actually fighting for the English, so his ransom was so low. Oliver didn’t know that Charles de Blois was that suspicious, so he just ran home to his family, hugged his wife and children, and they got to be happy for a little while.
Oliver was invited to a tournament where they would celebrate England and France’s new truce. Oliver went, but at the tournament, he and a couple of other nobles were arrested. He was then beheaded. Oliver’s body was displayed in a gibbet in Paris, and his head was sent to be displayed in Nantes. That normally didn’t happen to nobles, so Charles de Blois must have really hated Oliver.
Jeanne was devastated, so she did what only Jeanne could do. Jeanne took her children to Nantes and made them get a good look at their father’s rotting head while telling them that the people responsible for this were the King of France and Charles de Blois.
Jeanne, who had always truly loved Oliver, sold her and her husband’s lands and everything she didn’t absolutely need. Jeanne was going to war. Much like Boudica, she raised an army of many other French people who had liked Oliver and people who were unhappy with the executions of the other nobles who’d been captured at the tournament.
Jeanne’s first target was the Château de Touffou, one of Charles de Blois’s strongholds. One version of this story is that Jeanne was allowed in since she was Oliver’s wife, and the army defending the castle hadn’t heard of Oliver’s execution yet, so they were completely surprised that Jeanne had an army, and that the army was against them. They were even more surprised when she just attacked and killed everyone except a few people so that those people would spread the word about Jeanne’s attack.
Like Boudica, Jeanne went through France and got many people to join her army until it was huge. The French King got word that a bunch of his nobles were joining her army and that Jeanne had successfully attacked the Château de Touffou, he freaked out and declared that Jeanne was a traitor. People didn’t want to be a traitor, so people stopped joining her and some even left her, and Jeanne hightailed it to England.
Jeanne took her children with her, but her youngest son, Guillaume, died on the way. After arriving in England, she teamed up with King Edward III, and he helped her become a pirate. Edward even gave Jeanne some money from the lands England controlled in Brittany.
Now that she had enough money and some resources from the English, Jeanne bought a few ships, and her fleet was called “The Black Fleet”. This was also around when Jeanne got her nickname, The Lioness of Brittany. She named her flagship “My Revenge” and set off to ruin France.
For the next few years, starting from when she was around forty years old, Jeanne’s Black Fleet would attack French ships, murder everyone on them, except for a few people whom they’d spare so they could tell the story of Jeanne’s attack. Jeanne would even help English soldiers in France during the Hundred Years’ War. In England and France’s truce in 1347, Jeanne is even mentioned as an English ally.
Jeanne’s pirating didn’t last forever, though. For thirteen years, Jeanne ran around decimating the French, continuing even after the death of the King of France who had Oliver executed. Jeanne eventually left her pirating career. She went to England and married a knight named Sir Walter Bentley. They married in 1356 and went to live in a castle in Brittany. Jeanne died there in 1359, around the age of fifty-nine.
Jeanne’s son, also named Oliver, became known as “The Butcher” because of how many people he killed on the battlefield. Oliver ended up seeing the end of the Breton War of Succession. John Montfort’s son laid siege to the city of Auray, and Charles de Blois, the man who’d executed Jeanne’s husband so long ago, died in battle. Oliver lost an eye, and John Montfort’s son ended up becoming Duke of Brittany. The rest of Oliver’s life is pretty interesting, and he ended up becoming Constable of France. He died in 1401 at the age of 71 and was a very rich man at the time of his death.
It’s said that Jeanne’s ghost haunts the Château de Clisson, where she and her husband, Oliver IV, had spent many happy years together before his execution.