Jeanne de Clisson was born in Belleville-sur-Vie in the year 1300. Coming from a noble family, she is also known as Jeanne de Belleville or The Lioness of Brittany. Her life is a remarkable example of how women in the Middle Ages could perform tasks that defy stereotypes. Jeanne was active politically, issued legal proceedings against her husband (and won), tried to enable a prison break, successfully captured a number of castles, and fought as a maritime warrior or pirate for roughly thirteen years.
Jeanne’s early life
Jeanne was married at an early age, 12, to 19-year-old Geoffrey de Châteaubriant VIII a Breton noble. Aged 14 she bore Geoffrey a child, Geoffrey who became Count of Châteaubriant upon his fathers death in 1326. Jeanne and Geoffrey also had a daughter, Louise, who went on to inherit her father and brother’s estates.
Jeanne was only 16 years old when her husband died. As was quite usual for young noble widows, she remarried. Her marriage to Guy of Penthièvre was challenged by the House of Blois. They asked the bishops of Vannes and Rennes to consider the validity of the marriage. It resulted in a Papal annulment of Jeanne’s marriage to Guy, most probably granted for political reasons.
Marriage to Oliver de Clisson
Again, Jeanne remarried. This time she wed Olivier IV de Clisson, a union which would result in Jeanne becoming legendary. The couple were happy and enjoyed a prominent position in Breton society. With Jeanne’s inheritance of Châteaubriant and Oliver’s Clisson estates the couple held the rank of senior nobles in the south east of Brittany. As they exercised this level of control, the couple had four children, and another child for whom the parentage is not entirely clear is sometimes said to be theirs.
Legal action against her husband
Despite the couples happiness, Jeanne was determined to ensure that the rights of herself and her children were maintained. In what may appear unusual, she took her husband to court with regards earnings from Oliver’s estates as had been agreed in the marriage contract. The case was heard by King Philip VI and found in Jeanne’s favour, as witnesses of the marriage attested to such promises having been made. What is notable here is that there was no apparent surprise that a noblewoman might take this course of action, nor was there any attempt to brush it aside. Medieval noblewomen in France had rights and the confidence to enforce them.
War of Breton Succession
The War of Breton Succession was to transform Jeanne’s fortunes. Oliver, as a senior baron in the region, had to choose sides in the conflict. With close links to the House of Blois, he decided to join the forces of Charles of Blois, who was supported by the King of France and French forces. In 1342 the civil war saw English forces descend on the town of Vannes. Oliver Clisson was one of the commanders of the besieged town. Four times it endured sieges from the Montfort or English armies.
In early 1342, Vannes was overwhelmed by English forces. Oliver de Clisson was captured, along with other captains of the defending force. Instead of a ransom being placed on Clisson’s head, an exchange was proposed and accepted. Oliver de Clisson was subsequently freed, with Ralph de Stafford, 1st Earl of Stafford, being released by the French in return. It seemed a slightly unqual exchange, but not especially unusual compared to other exchanges of prisoners that took place later in the wars.
When the English and French signed the Truce of Malestroit in January 1343, a grand tournament was organised to celebrate the peace. Oliver de Clisson and 15 other Breton nobles were invited to the tournament. Whilst the men were on their way to the tournament they were arrested by French soldiers and taken to Paris. In the capital, the men were placed on trial for treason. Little evidence was presented in the trial, the suggestion seems to be that they were accused and then found guilty of having conspired with the English to enable the town of Vannes to fall.
Attempting to bribe prison guards
With her husband in a Parisian gaol, Jeanne sought to have him released. Not, it appears, through legal channels. A sergeant of the guard was arrested for his role in delaying Oliver’s execution. Jeanne, it was now alleged, had bribed the guard and was trying to cheat French justice. On March 12th 1343 the guard was released on parole by Parlement. The day after, they ordered Oliver de Clisson to write his account of what had happened. On the 14th. Oliver was transferred to a more secure prison. Jeanne too was now wanted by the French courts, on 19th March she was summoned to answer charges of having conspired to have ‘rebellions, disobediences and excesses against the king, public welfare and the king’s royal majesty’ [Quotation in Medieval Elite Women and the Exercise of Power, 1100–1400 ed Heather Tanner] . Jeanne was being accused of treason.
To this point in Jeanne’s life there is no evidence to suggest that she had done anything to promote rebellions or disobedience. That now changed. Her husband’s arrest had infuriated her. The summons to attend court on charges of a treasonable nature were ignored, leading to her being found in default in June of 1343. Then, in August 1343, Oliver de Clissons was publicly executed. His head was placed on a pike for all to see, and his body desecrated then dangled from a wall.
Jeanne quickly decided on her response to the execution of her husband. Much of the commonly told story is legend rather than proven fact, but the basic known facts are below.
Jeanne de Clisson’s Revenge
Jeanne took her children to see their father’s remains being displayed. Legend has it that she made them all swear that they would seek revenge for his unjust murder. What is known is that Jeanne was soon active in Brittany. The estates of Oliver and herself had been confiscated by the French crown, so the parts of their lands that had answered to France were no longer accessible to the Countess. She sold off her material wealth, her jewellery and suchlike to raise funds for the revenge that she had in mind.
Raising a band of 400 men, she attacked and captured several castles. In each one she and her raiding party butchered almost everybody. they left just one or two alive to tell the tale of what they had seen. Now allied with the Montfort cause, Jeanne continued raiding. The claimant to the Duchy had nominally granted Jeanne lands and the French soldiers there were targetted. Castles at Touffou and Château-Thébaud were annihilated. Soon, the French were in fear of Jeanne de Clissons and they began rallying forces to track her down and put an end to her destructive campaign.
The Lioness of Brittany: Jeanne de Clisson’s Naval Campaign
Jeanne preempted the French move against her. With her children and some followers Jeanne sailed to England. Once in England she made her way to meet with john of Montfort and King Edward III. Using her own funds and with assistance from the English, she bought and furnished three warships. These were painted black and given red sails. Jeanne de Clissons had decided to make best use of the knowledge that her followers had of the treacherous seas around the coast of Brittany. She was becoming a pirate.
Called the ‘Black Fleet’ by Jeanne’s enemies, the compact fighting force that she had assembled could slip out of estuaries into the bay of Biscay and attack French shipping. Warships against merchant ships was virtually no contest, Jeanne’s fleet was soon capturing vessels, killing all but one of the crew, taking any valuable cargo, then moving on. The sole survivors then told stories that spread the legend of Jeanne de Clissons, now becoming popularly known as the Lioness of Brittany.
Jeanne then transferred her attention away from the Bay of Biscay and into the English Channel. Here she could target French ships in smaller ports, hinder French trade and raid inland. When the English landed in large numbers in 1346 the Black Fleet aided Edward III’s men by acting as supply vessels and guarded the coast against French ships trying to outflank the English via the Sea.
Jeanne’s attacks on the French continued for some 13 years. Her campaigning ended when she married Sir Walter Bentley, a commander in Edward III’s armies who had served in Brittany. They married in 1356, both Jeanne and then Walter died in 1359.