Jeanne de Clisson was a feared Breton pirate in the 14th century, who specialised in hunting down and destroying any French ships she could find.
She didn’t start out as a pirate, she started out as a gently born noblewoman. She was born in 1300, and her first marriage was uneventful; she married a nobleman (Geoffrey de Châteaubriant) and had two children. When he died, she married again, this time to Olivier de Clisson, who was a very important Breton noble. They had five children together, four of whom lived to adulthood, and by all accounts a very happy marriage.
Brittany at the time was a very independent Duchy – not quite as independent as Scotland from England, perhaps more like Wales.
There was a disputed succession to the Duchy of Brittany, and in the manner of great powers through the ages, the English and the French used Brittany as a convenient proxy so that they didn’t have to fight each other directly. It was also handy because they could sign peace treaties but still support different sides in the local Breton wars of succession.
Olivier de Clisson didn’t support Charles de Blois (who was on the French side) enthusiastically enough, and so he was executed in 1343 by the very suspicious French King.
So Jeanne de Clisson set out systematically to make sure she did everything possible to tear down the French influence in Brittany. She sold her remaining lands, and used the funds to buy warships, which she painted black, with red sails. With the support of many other Bretons (who didn’t much like the French, at the best of times) she hunted down and destroyed as much of the French navy as she could find. She was merciless, and was reported to carry out executions herself (particularly of the nobility) but she always left a few crew members alive to spread the word about what she was doing. She earned herself the title Lioness of Brittany, and was very famous, in her time.
She kept the English channel largely free of French warships which greatly assisted John de Montfort, the English aspirant to the Duchy of Brittany, and Edward III of England in the first years of the one hundred years war.
After 13 years of this, she eventually retired to England, where she married an English nobleman.
She certainly seems to have succeeded in her aims. She revenged her husband, and made life very difficult for the French Kings, and for Charles de Blois, who ended up losing his fight for the Duchy of Brittany. And she did it in her own way, and under her own control. I can’t say that she sounds the nicest person I have ever written about, but in 14th century Europe, you didn’t get what you wanted by being nice.
This is part of a serious of notable women from where we are as we travel the world. I’d love suggestions for future subjects – our itinerary is here.