Jeanne Louise de Belleville, de Clisson
A red shield with a white lion rampant
Dual coat of arms of the de Belleville and de Clisson families with the motto: Pour ce que il me plest ("For what pleases me")
Belleville-sur-Vie, Kingdom of France
Hennebont, Duchy of Brittany
NationalityBorn French, married Breton
Other namesJeanne de Belleville
ChildrenGeoffrey IX de Châteaubriant, Louise de Châteaubriant, Isabeau de Clisson, Maurice de Clisson, Olivier V de Clisson, Guillaume de Clisson and Jeanne de Clisson, Stepson: Jean de Clisson
Piratical career
NicknameLioness of Brittany
AllegianceFirst allegiance: Party of Blois:
Kingdom of France Second allegiance: Party of Montfort:
Kingdom of England
Years activec. 1343 – c. 1356
CommandsBlack Fleet; My Revenge

Jeanne de Clisson (1300–1359), also known as Jeanne de Belleville and the Lioness of Brittany, was a French/Breton noblewoman who became a privateer to avenge her husband after he was executed for treason by King Philip VI of France. She crossed the English Channel targeting French ships and often slaughtering their crew. It was her practice to leave at least one sailor alive to carry her message of vengeance.

Early life

Jeanne Louise de Belleville, de Clisson, Dame de Montaigu, was born in 1300 in Belleville-sur-Vie (Bellville on the river Vie) in the Vendée. She was a daughter of nobleman Maurice IV Montaigu of Belleville and Palluau (1263–1304) and Létice de Parthenay of Parthenay (1276–?) in the Gâtine Vendéenne on the French side of the border with the Duchy of Brittany.

As a seigneur family in the Bas-Poitou area, the de Montaigu family would have had direct or indirect business in winemaking, salt farming, and the merchant movements of these goods to and from markets as far as the Iberian Peninsula and up towards England. This would have included contacts with merchant shipping along the river Vie and along the coast of Poitou and Brittany with an island stronghold at Yeu.[1][2]

Jeanne's father died when she was four years old and there are no known records indicating that her mother remarried. It also appears she was born from her father's second marriage, as some records suggest he was previously married to Sibille of Châteaubriant. This alliance had apparently produced a son, Maurice V Montaigu. In 1320(?), on the death of her half-brother Maurice V, Jeanne inherited the seigneury of Montaigu and that of Belleville, as he had no heirs.[3]

First marriage

In 1312, Jeanne married her first husband, 19-year-old Geoffrey de Châteaubriant VIII (died 1326),[4] a Breton nobleman, who himself was already a widower to Alix de Thouars. They had two children:

Second marriage

In 1328, Jeanne married Guy de Penthièvre of the House of Penthièvre, widower of Joan of Avaugour and second son of the Duke of Brittany. Jeanne may have done this to protect her underage children.

The union was short-lived, as relatives of the ducal family – in particular, from the de Blois faction – laid a complaint with the bishops of Vannes and Rennes to protect their heritage, and an investigation was conducted on 10 February 1330, resulting in the marriage being annulled by Pope John XXII.[7]

Guy then married into the de Blois faction to Marie de Blois, who was also a niece of Philip VI of France. Guy, however, unexpectedly died on 26 March 1331, and his heritage passed to his daughter Jeanne of Penthièvre.[citation needed]

Marriage to Olivier IV de Clisson

In 1330, Jeanne married Olivier IV de Clisson, a wealthy Breton who held a castle at Clisson, a manor house in Nantes, and lands at Blain. Olivier was initially married to Blanche de Bouville (died 1329). Olivier had a son, Jean, with this first marriage, who would go on to inherit his mother's lands as the Lord of Milly, near Paris.

Château de Clisson

Jeanne, a recent widow herself of the Lord of Châteaubriant, controlled areas in Poitou just south of the Breton border from Beauvoir-sur-Mer in the west to Châteaumur in the southeast of Clisson. In the marriage contract, there is evidence of Jeanne ensuring the inheritances of her children from her previous marriage were legally secured. Combining these assets made Jeanne and Olivier the seigneurial power (senior Lord of an area)[8] in the border region of Brittany. Jeanne and Olivier eventually had five children:

Map of the Clisson and Belleville estates in Brittany and France

Jeanne at one point took Olivier to court with regard to access to remuneration from his estates as had been agreed upon in the marriage contract. This case was heard by King Philip VI, who found in her favour, as witnesses confirmed such promises had occurred. It appears this issue was resolved amicably.[9][10]

Breton War of Succession

During the Breton War of Succession, the de Clissons sided with the French choice for the vacant Breton ducal crown, Charles de Blois, against the English preference, John de Montfort. The extended de Clisson family was not in full agreement in this matter, and Olivier IV's brother, Amaury de Clisson, embraced the de Montfort party whilst his other brother, Garnier de Clisson, had defended Brest against the de Montforts.

In January 1342, the de Clisson castle of Blain was chosen as headquarters by Robert Bertrand, the French King's Lieutenant sent to aid Charles de Blois.

In 1342, the English, after four attempts, captured the city of Vannes. Jeanne's husband Olivier and Hervé VII de Léon, the military commanders defending this city, were captured. Olivier was the only one released after an exchange for Ralph de Stafford, 1st Earl of Stafford (a prisoner of the French), and a surprisingly low sum was demanded. This led Olivier to be subsequently suspected of not having defended the city to his fullest and to be accused by Charles de Blois of being a traitor.

Tournament and trial

On 19 January 1343, the Truce of Malestroit was signed between England and France. Under the perceived safe conditions of this truce, Olivier and fifteen other Breton and Norman lords were invited to a tournament on French soil, where he was subsequently arrested, taken to Paris and tried by his peers.

Failed rescue attempt

Jeanne tried in vain to have Olivier set free. She seems to have tried to bribe a King's sergeant.[11] Jeanne was therefore summoned to answer charges of rebellion, disobedience, and excesses against the King.

Jeanne managed to evade arrest as she was being protected by Jean de Clisson (Olivier's eldest son from his first marriage, at the time the Lord of Milly, a castle about 55 km east of Paris) and accompanied by Guilaume Bérard, Jeanne's squire and valet, Guionnet de Fay, and Guillaume Denart.[12] Jean himself took refuge in Brittany after this and died soon after.[13] Jeanne ignored the summons and was found guilty in absentia in June 1343.[14]


On 2 August 1343, Olivier IV was executed by beheading at Les Halles.

In the year of our Grace one thousand three hundred and forty-three, on Saturday, the second day of August, Olivier, Lord of Clisson, knight, prisoner in the Chatelet of Paris for several treasons and other crimes perpetrated by him against the king and the crown of France, and for alliances that he made with the king of England, enemy of the king and kingdom of France, as the said Olivier ... has confessed, was by judgement of the king given at Orleans drawn from the Chatelet of Paris to Les Halles ... and there on a scaffold had his head cut off. From there, his corpse was drawn to the gibbet of Paris and there hanged on the highest level, and his head was sent to Nantes in Brittany to be put on a lance over the Sauvetout gate [fr] as a warning to others.[15]

This execution shocked the nobility, as the evidence of guilt was not publicly demonstrated and the process of desecrating/exposing a body was reserved mainly for low-class criminals. The execution was judged harshly by Jean Froissart and his contemporaries.[16]

Execution of Olivier IV de Clisson. Painting attributed to Loyset Liédet, Flemish illuminator (v. 1420 – v. 1483) in the Chronicles of Lord Jehan Froissart.

Evading arrest

On 26 August 1343, for her attempted bribery of the King's sergeant, Jeanne was also charged with the crime of lèse-majesté and subsequently sentenced to banishment, with confiscation of her property.[12]

Head on the pike

Jeanne took her two young sons, Olivier and Guillaume, from Clisson to Nantes, to show them the head of their father displayed at the Sauvetout gate.

Remnants of the Sauvetout Gate in Nantes. In its heyday, the gate would have been similar in design to that of the St Michaels gate in Guérande.

Jeanne, enraged by her husband's execution, swore retribution against King Philip VI and Charles de Blois. She considered their actions a cowardly murder.[17]

Piracy and later life

After Olivier's execution, Jeanne sold the de Clisson estates, raised a force of about 400 loyal men, and started attacking French forces in Brittany.[17] Jeanne is said to have attacked:

Black Fleet

Jeanne is said to have converted three merchant ships for war.[18][19] These may have also been painted black and their sails dyed red according to some references.[17][18] Some versions of the story state that the English King and Breton sympathizers assisted her in this. Her flagship was apparently also named My Revenge.

The main sailing ships available in Brittany at that time were of the cog type (a flat-bottomed cargo ship with high sides and distinctive straight-angled stem and stern post). The most visible giveaway that a ship was no longer just meant for cargo was if it had a forecastle or aftercastle constructed on it. Not all of these were permanent in structure and were not integrated into the hull.[20][21]

The ships of this Black Fleet are said to have initially attacked shipping in the Bay of Biscay, probably from the island fortress of Yeu, but eventually moved into the English Channel hunting down French commerce ships, whereupon her force would kill entire crews, leaving only a few witnesses to transmit the news to the French King.[17] This earned Jeanne the moniker "The Lioness of Brittany".[17][19] The type of warfare is termed commerce raiding and is similar to guerrilla warfare on land. Its main intent is to destroy or disrupt the logistics of an enemy on the open seas by attacking merchant shipping rather than engaging actual combatants. A few ships together would be used together in the employment of a swarming tactic. The crews would be equipped with grappling equipment for closing in and weapons such as crossbows, swords, and daggers.[20][22]

The Gironde estuary, the Breton coast near Saint Mathieu, the Charente estuary, and the islands of Oléron, Re, and Aix were known to be especially dangerous since confined waters made it easier for ships to be outmaneuvered and surprised. The Pointe du Raz was an especially good spot to conduct piracy since these waters were dotted with numerous small, often uninhabited islands which were ideal for ambushes.[20] Local tradition on the island of Yeu is that Jeanne may have used her family castle on that island for the initial attacks. Jeanne is also said to have attacked coastal villages in Normandy and have put several to sword and fire.

Jeanne is sometimes cited as a privateer of the English, which would have meant she operated under certain legal protections and obligations. No letter patent or royal letter of protection is known to exist, however. In 1346, during the Crécy campaign in northern France, Jeanne used her ships to supply the English forces.

The French eventually managed to engage her fleet and sink her flagship. Jeanne and her two sons were adrift for five days; her son Guillaume died of exposure. Jeanne and Olivier were finally rescued and taken to Morlaix by Montfort supporters. Jeanne continued her piracy in the channel for another 13 years.[19][23]

Both sides employed pirates and operated with royal permission to prey on each other's shipping.[24][25]

Fourth marriage

In the 1350s, Jeanne married for a fourth time to Walter Bentley,[26] one of King Edward III's military deputies during the campaign. Bentley had been appointed Edward's lieutenant in Brittany in September 1350. In 1351, he lifted the sieges of Ploërmel and Fougeres and on 4 August 1352, Bentley won the Battle of Mauron and was rewarded for his services with "the lands and castles" of Beauvoir-sur-mer, of Ampant, of Barre, Blaye, Châteauneuf, Ville Maine, the island of Chauvet, and from the islands of Noirmoutier and Bouin.[27] [28]

Estate disputes

Raoul de Caours,[29] Edward III's Lieutenant in the neighbouring province of Poitou, had wrested control of several of Jeanne's properties from the French. In 1349, Edward III ordered that the estates be returned to Bentley, but this changed when Edward III changed allegiances and started negotiating with the new Duke of Brittany, Charles.

As part of a treaty with Charles, Duke of Brittany, Edward III ordered Bentley to surrender Jeanne's remaining castles in Brittany.[30] Bentley refused and traveled to England to plead their case. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London while his case was heard. Eventually he was released and allowed to return.[31][32] At this point the war had come to a halt as both nations were exhausted, one of the main factors being the spread of the Black Plague which had decimated at least 20 percent of the population.

By January 1357, Walter and Jeanne were granted the barony of La Roche-Moisan as compensation. [30]


Jeanne finally settled at the Castle of Hennebont, a port town on the Brittany coast, which was in the territory of her de Montfort allies. Walter died in December 1359 and Jeanne a few weeks later.

Local tradition

The sea castle of Ile d'Yeu

The lords of Belleville also owned the island of Yeu, as part of their maritime trade. Jeanne had inherited Yeu from her deceased brother and had the old wooden fort demolished and replaced with a stone fortress. This was used to minimise pirate raids. When she eventually married Olivier, he added to the design. This was eventually one of her properties seized by the French Crown. Local tradition speaks of the "red men" or English Soldiers who came to rescue Jeanne at one stage when she had become entrapped by the French.[33]

Île d'Yeu – Vieux château

Historical evidence

Verifiable references relating to Jeanne's exploits exist. These include:


The Belleville lands were part of a lawsuit when her daughter Louise from her first marriage attempted to prohibit the King from redistributing the family's lands following their confiscation and another lawsuit from Louise's widower who also attempt to prevent this.[36]

In 1868, French-Breton writer Émile Pehant's novel Jeanne de Belleville was published in France. Written at the height of the French romantic movement, Pehant's novel shares many details with the legend attached to Jeanne.[37]

On 24 September 1999, the City Council of Nantes named a street in honour of Jeanne: "A route beginning in the Embellie street is to be named: Rue Jeanne la Corsaire, wife of Olivier de Clisson, 1300–1359."[citation needed]

See also


  1. ^ Heebøll-Holm, Thomas, K. Ports, piracy, and maritime war: piracy in the English Channel and the Atlantic, c. 1280 – c. 1330 / by Thomas K. Heebøll-Holm. ISBN 978-90-04-23570-0
  2. ^ Hajdu, R. "Family and Feudal Ties in Poitou, 1100–1300", The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Summer, 1977), pp. 117–139 (23 pages) The MIT Press
  3. ^
  4. ^ Sumption, The Hundred Years War, 55 and Charles Goude, Histoire de Chateaubriant. Baronnie, Ville & Paroisse (rennes: Oberthur et fils, 1870) 33
  5. ^ Buffé, Marcel (1983). Châteaubriant, une cité dans l'histoire – De la préhistoire à nos jours. Éditions Cid. p. 15.
  6. ^ Ville de Châteaubriant (ed.). "Castelbus". Archived from the original on 2012-12-28. Retrieved 2013-02-18.
  7. ^ On 10 February 1330, in Avignon, at the request of Guy de Bretagne, Pope Jean XXII appointed the bishops of Rennes and Vannes to investigate the alleged marriage which was allegedly contracted in 1328 by Jeanne de Belleville, widow of the Lord of Chateaubriant, and Guy de Bretagne, seigneur de Penthievre (Mollat, G., op cit, pj, no II pp. 49–50. See also Jean XXII (1316–1334) Lettres secretes et curiales relating to France, by Coulon, A. and Clemencet, S.) If Jeanne could not deny Guy's words. Guy could remarry (Mollat, G. op. Cit., p. 47) A little later, on 30 April 1330, Jeanne de Belleville, widow of Geoffroy de Chateaubriant, asked the Holy See for a dispensation to marry Olivier de Clisson (Mollat, G. op cit, p. 47 after Vatican Register, no 95, Lettres commune 81. See John XXII (1316–1334). Joint letters analyzed according to the so-called Avignon or Vatican registers, by Mollat, G. 1921–1947)
  8. ^ Morvan 71 Footnote 29, chapter 2
  9. ^ "Jeanne de Clisson, the Lioness of Brittany – the Hundred Years War".
  10. ^ The said lord, by his oath given before us, would answer us whether these things were true. He replied and recorded by his oath that the said proprieties and gifts were true and who wanted to hold and accomplish them in good faith, and by what communion has usually engendered dissension and intrigue, the said lord, delivered and assigned from now on the said lady for the said third party. Historical Archives of Poitou, 13:110
  11. ^ On 12 March 1343, it was decided that Pierre Nicolas, the King's sergeant, detained at the Chatelet in Paris for having at the request of the Lady of Bellville, the Sire de Clisson hampered the execution, would be extended until further notice. His statement was made in front of Robert Mulet and were in the hands of master Guillaume de Dol. He was only, for the moment, suspended from his office. (Arche. Nat. X2A4, no 4097 G. Journa: Acts of the Parliament of Paris, Criminal Parliament. Reign of Philippe 6 de Valois. Analytical inventory of registers X2A to 5, by Brigitte Labat-Poussin, Monique Langlois and Yvonne Lanhers, Paris , 1987, p. 177)
  12. ^ a b Cazelles, R. Political society and the crisis of royalty under Philippe VI Valois, Paris, 1958
  13. ^ "Milly :: David Reverchon :: Quand l'outil devient jouet, alors le travail devient un jeu".
  14. ^ French Arch-Nat. Reg. X 2 a 4; f. 209 v°
  15. ^ The Law of Treason and Treason Trials in Later Medieval France (Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought: Third Series). 18 December 2003.
  16. ^ "The Online Froissart". Archived from the original on 1 December 2017. Retrieved 28 October 2016.
  17. ^ a b c d e Duncombe, Laura (2017). Pirate Women: The Princesses, Prostitutes, and Privateers Who Ruled the Seven Seas. Chicago Review Press. ISBN 978-1613736043 – via Google Books.
  18. ^ a b Vencel, Wendy (1 January 2018). "Women at the Helm: Rewriting Maritime History through Female Pirate Identity and Agency". Undergraduate Honors Thesis Collection.
  19. ^ a b c Vázquez, Germán (2004). Mujeres Piratas. EDAF. ISBN 978-8496107267 – via Google Books.
  20. ^ a b c Thomas K. Heebøll-Holm, Ports, "Piracy and Maritime War: Piracy in the English Channel and the Atlantic, c. 1280–c. 1330", Medieval Law and its Practice volume 15, Brill Publishers, 2013
  21. ^ Hutchinson, G. Pivotal points in the transmission of medieval shipbuilding technology, Archaeonautica, 1998, pp. 185–190
  22. ^ Cassard, Jean-Christophe, Les Bretons et la mer as Moyen Age (Rennes, 1998) p. 152
  23. ^ Cassard, Jean-Christophe, Les marins Bretons a Bordeaux au debut du XIV siècle, Annales de Bretagne et des Pays del’Ouest, vol 86 (1979), 379–397
  24. ^ Alvarez, S. Ships and Fleets in Anglo-French Warfare, 1337–1360, 2014
  25. ^ Runyan, T.J. Naval Power and Maritime Technology during the Hundred Years War, Cambridge University Press, Edited by Hattendorf, J.B., Unger, R.W. 2013
  26. ^ Jones, Michael C.E, "Les capitaines Anglo-Bretons" 365–369 and "Edward the 3rd, Captains in Brittany" in between France and England: Politics, Power and Society in Late Medieval Brittany, Brulington VT, Ashgate 2003, 100
  27. ^ "Battle of Mauron, 14 August 1352 (Brittany)".
  28. ^ Letters patent of Edward III King of England dated 1349, Jeanne, Dame de Belleville et de Clisson was restored to possession of the estates which had been confiscated by Philippe de Valois, King of France
  29. ^ Jones, Michael, C.E. "Les capitaines Anglo-Bretons" 365-369 and "Edward the 3rd, Captains in Brittany" in between France and England: Politics, Power and Society in Late Medieval Brittany, Brulington VT, Ashgate 2003, 100
  30. ^ a b Wagner 2006, p. 51.
  31. ^ Some New Documents illustrating the early Years of the Hundred Years War (1353–1356) By Dr Freiedrich Bock, John Rylands Library
  32. ^ Arthur de La Borderie, Le Quémenet-Héboi and the seigneuries of La Roche-Moisan, Fiefs-de-Léon and Pontcallec. Revue de Bretagne et de Vendée, Tome X, 1861, pp. 372–387
  33. ^ Maurice Esseul, The castle of the island of Yeu, Fromentine, 1980.[ISBN missing]
  34. ^ Wagner, J. A. (2006). Encyclopedia of the Hundred Years War. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-32736-X. OCLC 65205034.
  35. ^ Régis Rech. "Chronographia regum Francorum". Encyclopedia of the Medieval Chronicle. Edited by Graeme Dunphy. Brill Online, 2014. 30 October 2014
  36. ^ de Broussillon, A.B., de Farcy, P, Vallee, E. La maison de Laval, 1020–1605, etude historique accompagnee du cartulaire de Laval et de Vitr, Tome II (Paris: A. Pacard et fils, 1895) pp. 252–253
  37. ^ Penhant, Emille. Jeanne De Belleville, 1868, Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2009, ISBN 978-1104253738

Further reading