Jeanne de Clisson, The French Aristocrat Who Became A Pirate To Avenge The Murder Of The Love Of Her Life

Jeanne de Clisson, The French Aristocrat Who Became A Pirate To Avenge The Murder Of The Love Of Her Life

What would you be willing to do for love?

Once upon a time in the magical land of Brittany in Northern France, a beautiful young noblewoman was forced to marry a wealthy man at the age of twelve. As it happened at this time, this girl dreamed about finding the love of her life, settling in a huge and beautiful palace, having many kids, and living the life of luxuries she was used to since her birth. But as it was also common at the time, this was more a dream than a reality, and thus Jeanne-Louise de Belleville married Geoffrey de Châteaubriant in 1312. As it was expected of a woman her condition, she had two children with her husband, with whom she lived a normal luxurious life until his sudden death in 1323.

Soon, she fell in love and married a young aristocratic man, Olivier III de Clisson. The sun was finally shining on her life. They had five children and lived in a lovely chateau, but as you might imagine by now, this life wouldn't last forever. That bliss was shattered when Charles de Blois, an influential nobleman at the service of the King of France, called Olivier to join the royal army against the French rebel army helping the English regain Brittany. The situation of the region was more than complicated when the Duke died without an heir to succeed him, and thus both French and English monarchs claimed the land for their own. More than the mere interest over Brittany, many political issues were at stake. The land was a strategic point between both kingdoms, so the one who owned it would basically have an immense advantage over the other. This was the core of the famous Hundred Years' War that began in the fourteenth century. 

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So, back to our story, even when Olivier was willing to give his life for the cause he was assigned, Charles de Blois started suspecting him and decided to accuse him of treason with the King. As you can imagine, any sign of treason was automatically tracked, and thus Olivier was arrested and tried in Paris, where he was declared guilty and sentenced to death by beheading. He was executed in 1343, and his head was displayed on a pike to show others the doom of those who dared to betray their king. 

Now, at the time this wasn’t something unusual, and the wives and families of the executed would have to flee their homes and start over somewhere else. However, when Jeanne found out what had happened, she swore revenge to the King that had murdered a loyal subject and, more importantly, her beloved husband. She sold all her belongings and properties, and bought a set of ships painted in black and adorned with red flags that she named her “Black Fleet.” With a strong fleet, she had to gather a fearsome and loyal crew to follow her in her quest for revenge, something that happened really quickly, since there were many people who were against the French monarch. The Black Fleet became feared pirates who would attack pro-French vessels in the English Channel, especially those belonging to the royal navy and those with French nobles in it. Soon, the name of the “Lioness of Brittany” spread throughout both countries. The English cheered and applauded her mission, while the French feared this woman determined to destroy their fleets. 

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Legend has it, she would personally torture and behead her prisoners, leaving only one alive to go back to France and warn their navy of the doom they would face if they happened to meet with her menacing and merciless fleet. Her period of piracy lasted only thirteen years. In 1350, King Philip VI died, but she continued her revenge for six more years and in 1356 she decided to retire to England to lead a peaceful life. She met and married an English lieutenant, Sir Walter Bentley. The couple moved to a castle in Hennebont, France until her sudden and mysterious death in 1359. She could never get her revenge on Charles de Blois, the man who had called her beloved Olivier to war and sentenced him. He died five years after her, and was later canonized by the Catholic Church, while Jeanne’s name became a popular legend in France and England.

While most of her story is seen as a folktale, there’s evidence proving her existence and crucial moments of her life, like her birth, marriages, the trial and sentence of Olivier, and her death place. However, all the interesting and almost fantastical elements of the story are quite hard to prove, since the only records of her pirate years were spread through stories that lack of verifiable facts. Still, her story has survived and shows us that, even in a time when women weren’t destined to become the protagonists of amazing stories, there were many who challenged that thought. She is portrayed as a hurt woman willing to risk everything to fight against injustice, who didn’t care about the role she was expected to fulfill, and who showed all her courage and leadership skills to lead a fleet against one of the most powerful armies in the world.

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Images from Cutthroat Island (1995).