originally published May 10, 2013
The traditional picture of a pirate tends to be a grizzled, foul-smelling slab of stubbly, scowly grit. Many people imagine the unkempt, wild-haired deck-swabbers who served under Johnny Depp in that series of movies about the Disney ride. But – Keira Knightley aside – you won’t usually see the image of a vicious, battle-worn, iron-knuckled woman pop into a lot of heads. But they existed.
And believe me, those they crossed never forgot about it.
I did a quick search for pop culture female pirates, and found a brief and uninteresting list, including a couple from video games and what one person described as an impressively high-budget porno. But we’re not here for lesbian sex-pirates, we’re talking about the real thing today. People like Jeanne de Clisson.
Jeanne did not set out to become a feminist pioneer, or a Bluebeardesque cut-throat marauder. She was born into an affluent French family in 1300, with the title ‘Dame de Montaigu’ hanging off her name. She was married at twelve years old, which was common back then, as the specter of death often came a-calling when people were in their thirties. Her first husband passed away, then Jeanne married Olivier III de Clisson. They had five children together, and by all accounts they were as tight as a couple could be.
Though Olivier had earned a few battle scars defending Brittany from the English, the French authorities – in particular, that dick Charles de Blois, who had fought at Olivier’s side – began to suspect Olivier’s loyalty because he wasn’t able to successfully defend Vannes from those same forces. Rumor was that Olivier had defected to the English side in the heat of the moment. On August 2, 1343, King Philip VI took Charles de Blois’s advice and forcibly removed Olivier’s head from his body, placing it on a pole, Game Of Thrones-style.
So there sat poor Jeanne. Forty-three years old, twice a widow, with seven children looking to her for direction (she had spurted out a couple with her first husband). The love of her life had just been branded a traitor and executed, which couldn’t have done wonders for her standing in the community. She probably had enough land and on-hand cash that she could have settled into a quiet, lengthy mourning period. But screw that – this was the heart her own heart had been beating for lo’ these last couple decades. The very reason her blood squirted from vein to vein in her body – her very raison d’etre, as the French say. Jeanne was devastated, and not of a mind to let this go.
So she swore her revenge.
France’s King Philip VI was at the top of her list, as was Charles de Blois. She sold off her land, and even rented the use of her nether regions among the local noblemen in order to raise money. Hey, don’t judge her. Jeanne needed cash and she knew what the market was willing to pay for.
Her scrimping and screwing netted Jeanne three mighty warships. She had also spread the word around the Brittany elite that her intention was to secure independence for the area. She gathered a posse and set out to sea, ready to mess shit up for King Philip and his court.
Now, a female pirate in the 14th century needed a little extra kick to strike fear into the hearts of the masses. So Jeanne ordered her three warships painted black, with the sails dyed a blood-chilling red. Her little trio of vessels was dubbed ‘The Black Fleet’, and it immediately set about its one mission: destroying the crap out of any sea vessel who happened to be loyal to Philip VI. They would torture and kill the crew of every ship they captured, always careful to leave two or three breathing. Jeanne wanted word to travel back to the King that the Lioness of Brittany had struck again.
At this point, there was no doubt of Jeanne’s loyalty to King Edward III of England. Any French warship that wandered into the English Channel was taking a chance – if Jeanne spotted one, her fleet would wipe it out. In 1346, the Battle of Crecy took place in northern France, and Jeanne used her ships to make sure the English forces were kept topped up with supplies.
The Hundred Years’ War was in its infancy at this point, and every little victory the English could score with Jeanne’s help was crucial in keeping them in the fight.
King Philip VI died in 1850. The guy’s wife had been one of the third of France’s population who had succumbed to the Black Death, and Philip had remarried, choosing the woman to whom his son was engaged as his new bride. Not a lot of people mourned when Philip keeled over, to put it mildly. Least of all, Jeanne de Clisson.
Jeanne’s quest for revenge did not die along with King Philip. Maybe it was because Charles de Blois was still out there, living it up as the Duke of Brittany. Maybe Jeanne had truly become aligned with the English cause. Who knows? Maybe she just dug the kick-ass life of piracy.
The Lioness of Brittany kept up the good fight, doing her damnedest to knock down any shipping vessel bound for French shores, and building her reputation as a fearsome force in the English Channel. If her Black Fleet happened to catch a nobleman, Jeanne took a particular delight in beheading him and tossing his body into the water.
Jeanne de Clisson fought as a pirate for thirteen years. When her career ended, it was not by the swinging blade of a Frenchman’s sword, nor was it through the French authorities finally catching up with her fleet. Jeanne retired in 1356, and happily settled into a quiet life in Hennebont, France. She married Sir Walter Brentley, who had been King Edward III’s lieutenant during a campaign against Charles de Blois.
Jeanne’s sworn revenge on de Blois was never carried out; Charles lived on until 1364 when he died in battle. He was canonized as a saint in the Roman Catholic church. This was nullified by Pope Gregory XI a little later on, but he was still beatified. Jeanne may have hated the guy, but he ended up as one of the good guys, according to the church.
Her son, Olivier Jr., lost an eye at the Battle of Auray in 1364, and earned the nickname ‘The Butcher’ for being such a bad-ass soldier. By the way, the Battle of Auray was also where Charles de Blois was killed, so perhaps the romantic in us can picture Charles’ death coming at Olivier Jr.’s hands. Five years after Jeanne herself had passed away, her son may have finally finished her quest for sweet, sweet revenge.
Now that’s worthy of a movie.