The War of Breton Succession, which took place at the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War, is referred to by Klausmann, Meinzerin, and Kuhn as the “War of the Three Jeannes” due to the women at the center of the action: Jeanne de Montfort, Jeanne de Clisson, and Jeanne de Penthièvre. In particular, two of these Jeannes fought for their family’s right to the throne—by land and by sea. These women proved themselves to be extraordinary fighters who fiercely defended what they felt was theirs. Their lives and legends serve as a bridge, connecting the Viking women who came before them with the Barbary corsairs who followed them.
To fully understand these women, a brief history of the conflict is necessary. Brittany, a province on the west coast of present-day France, was its own state during the Middle Ages, ruled by a duke. Parts of Brittany were loyal to the English while other parts swore allegiance to the French, but the majority of Bretons considered themselves Bretons first and foremost. Their culture, unlike English and French culture, was uniquely and healthily dosed with Celtic and pagan traditions as well as the more modern Christian ones. They were loyal to the Duke of Brittany over the kings of England and France; they would not be united with France until 1532. In short, the duchy was important to the Bretons, and the fight to figure out who had a rightful claim was something over which they were willing to wage a war. Both England and France were invested in the outcome, given that the Breton duke usually made alliances with one country or the other. As the Hundred Years’ War started, both sides knew that Brittany could be a powerful ally in their struggle.
John III was Duke of Brittany in 1341 and died childless. Originally, he had named as his successor Jeanne (or Joan) de Penthièvre, his niece. Joan was married to a powerful nobleman, Charles de Blois, who was related to the French king, Philip VI. Unsurprisingly, the French backed Joan’s (and Charles’s) claim to the duchy. However, before John III died, he reconciled with his long-estranged stepfamily and named a new heir, his half brother John de Montfort. John was the English choice for the duchy. These two houses—House of Blois and House of Montfort—both felt that they had the right to the throne, and both were prepared to fight for it.
John de Montfort’s biggest asset in this fight was his wife, Jeanne de Montfort. She is also known as Joanna of Flanders, due to her Flemish parentage (her brother was the Count of Flanders). She married John de Montfort in 1329, and the couple had two children together. Much of what is known about her originates from medieval French author Jean Froissart, whose Chronicles are important texts in medieval history. He had only good things to say about Jeanne, claiming that she had “the courage of a man and the heart of a lion.” Other sources have said that her story may have inspired another famous Jeanne: Jeanne d’Arc.
Despite all of Froissart’s coverage, there are still gaps in history’s knowledge of Jeanne de Montfort. Froissart is happy to educate the reader on Montfort the soldier and warrior but is mum on the details of Montfort the woman. It is not certain, for example, what her relationship with her husband was like. Did she pursue the duchy so fervently out of love, or out of a desire for power? Although there is more historical documentation around de Montfort than there is for many of the other women pirates, there are still many things a reader might want to know. Froissart’s records, although sympathetic to de Montfort, do leave out many things that would enrich the story.
When the duchy came up for grabs in 1341, de Montfort and his wife knew that the French would most likely side with the House of Blois, given that the French king was a cousin of Charles de Blois. They therefore decided to get a jump on the competition and start ruling right away as if John were already the duke. The de Montforts went to Nantes, the Breton capital, and gained a fair amount of fans among the people of Brittany. It seems that if there had been a popular vote, the de Montforts would have had the duchy sewn up. However, it was a matter to be decided not by the people but by the Court of Peers in Paris.
John de Montfort was summoned to Paris to appear before King Philip. On his way, he traveled to England to pay homage to the English king, Edward III. Once de Montfort arrived in Paris, Philip was unimpressed with the argument that he was nearest of kin to the late Duke of Brittany and thus had the stronger claim. The French king called for the Peers to hear and judge both claims, and he forbade de Montfort from leaving Paris until after the hearing. John was no fool. He knew that there was little chance the Peers would vote for him and that if he stuck around, imprisonment or worse was likely, so he took off in the night and returned to Nantes and his wife.
And who was his rival, this Charles de Blois? Reports of his character are conflicting, with some of them declaring him a saint, while others paint him as a sadist and extremist. He was said to hear Mass several times a day, put pebbles in his shoes, and beat himself black and blue while praying. He was actually canonized as a saint, but his sainthood was revoked in the late 1300s and not restored until 1904. Despite his piety, he was known for his cruelty and brutality in battle. No matter his personal inclinations, his wife’s connection to the late duke and his own connections to the French throne made him a powerful contender for the duchy.
In September 1341 the Peers declared the House of Blois as the rightful heirs to the duchy, as John de Montfort had predicted they would. De Blois marched to Nantes and captured Montfort, imprisoning him in a tower at the Louvre in Paris. De Blois probably thought that with his rival in prison, his claim to the throne was secure and his troubles were over. What he had not counted on was his rival’s wife, who was not about to be put out of the fight just because her husband was in jail. No, Jeanne de Montfort would not back down from her family’s claim, even if she had to do all the fighting by herself.
One can imagine the scene when Jeanne received the report that her husband had been captured. How would she have received the news? Perhaps she felt shocked at first and needed a moment to let the information sink in. This was not a scenario the couple had planned for. What was going to happen now? Would de Blois come for her and her children? Jeanne would have been aware of de Blois’s reputation and could only imagine what awful fates he had planned for her and her young daughter and son.
Someone, either a friend and advisor or Jeanne herself, came up with the plan to claim the duchy in her son’s name. As long as her male child was alive, the House of Montfort still had a chance. Jeanne had to finish the fight her husband had started if she had any hope of seeing him again.
According to Pierce Butler, Jeanne gathered her remaining loyal friends and soldiers and showed them her little boy, named John after his father. She exhorted the crowd, “Ah! sirs, be not cast down because of my lord, whom we have lost: he was but one man. See here my little child, who shall be, by the grace of God, his restorer.” She promised them riches aplenty if they would remain with her. Jeanne took this show on the road, traveling from garrison to garrison and giving out cash and weapons wherever she went to ensure that everyone was happy, well paid, and above all, loyal to her family. After she had secured her troops, she took her family to the fortress of Hennebont. She would await de Blois’s attack from there.
It is Jeanne’s conduct during the siege of Hennebont, more than any other episode in her history, that endears her to readers. When de Blois and his men arrived, Jeanne herself donned protective gear and rode on horseback all over town, exhorting people to fight bravely with everything they had. She had a special command just for women—to tear up their skirts, pull up cobblestones from the streets, and chuck them at the attackers . . . and if they happened to have some spare pots of quicklime, pour that on them too. From a tall tower, she watched the enemy’s camp. When de Blois’s men had all ridden out into the fields to ready for the assault, leaving the camp empty except for a few young boys, she made her move. She herself rode out, along with about three hundred of her men, and set the whole camp on fire. Her attack destroyed much of the enemy’s provisions, as well as their living quarters. As de Blois’s men ran back from the fields, furious, Jeanne and her men snuck away to a nearby castle and sought shelter there until they could return home safely. This daring and effective plan by Jeanne earned her the nickname “La Flamme”—French for “the flame.”
Being taken by surprise by this upstart woman enraged de Blois, and he redoubled his efforts to take Hennebont, but his band of men continued to suffer heavy losses every time they engaged with de Montfort’s forces. It seems that, army for army, he was not going to capture this prospective duchess at Hennebont. He took a large portion of his men and set his sights on taking nearby Auray instead. The forces he left behind to torment Hennebont did a much better job than de Blois himself had done, and many of Jeanne’s advisors urged her to surrender. She refused, insisting that the English forces she had sent for long ago would finally arrive and rescue them. Some accounts claim she prayed to the lords of Brittany that they stand by her and send English help within three days. Once she declared that England was coming, she would not budge despite constant pressure, and she remained posted at the window looking out to sea. On the second day, she spotted the English ships and cried out, “I see the succors of England coming.” English forces had indeed come to offer backup, although they had been long delayed due to bad weather.
Despite Sir Walter Manny’s arrival and assistance, Jeanne and her troops were losing ground against de Blois and his men. They held onto Hennebont but lost Auray, Dinan, and other cities. She knew that she would not last much longer at this rate and she had to appeal to a higher power—the king of England, Edward III. She sailed to England to make her plea in person.
Eventually, Edward granted her request, and she sailed back toward home with a fleet of ships commanded by Robert d’Artois. Before they could make it back to Brittany, they were attacked by Sir Louis of Spain, who had joined forces with de Blois. Off the English coast, the two fleets fought a fierce naval battle. Reports claim that Jeanne had a small sword that she bravely wielded and fought the Spanish forces hand to hand. After an intense day of fighting, a massive storm came up and blew all the ships in various directions, effectively ending the battle. The French and Spanish ships wound up near the English Channel while Jeanne and her forces landed near Vannes, a once-friendly city that they were able to take back with a small effort. Whether fate, God, or Jeanne’s own superior sailing skills led the English ships to a safe harbor the world will never know. Somehow, Jeanne escaped a mighty naval battle after just one day of fighting and found herself not too far from home, which allowed her to safely return to Hennebont.
In 1345 Jeanne’s husband, John, escaped from the Louvre and obtained a fighting force of his own from Edward III. He returned to Brittany but was killed in battle. It is unknown whether husband and wife ever saw each other again before his death. Now, Jeanne was truly on her own in the fight for the duchy. She continued to fight for nearly twenty years until 1364, when Charles de Blois was killed in the Battle of Auray. Jeanne de Penthièvre was forced to sign away her claim to the duchy and content herself with being Countess of Penthièvre. With the House of Blois out of the way, young John of Montfort was finally awarded the duchy and named the rightful Duke of Brittany, a title that he held until his death and then passed on to his son.
Some accounts say that Jeanne did not get to enjoy her son’s reign, for which she had fought so long and hard. Several stories claim that Jeanne was mentally ill and confined in England to a castle with a caretaker, never to return to Brittany. She probably died in England around 1374. Some suggest that she was not in fact ill but simply a political prisoner of Edward III, who wanted to ensure that Brittany remained an English ally. Although mental illness can afflict anyone at any time of life, it does seem suspicious that a woman who led a successful military campaign for over twenty years and showed no previous signs of illness would suddenly succumb so dramatically that she would require constant care and confinement. It seems more likely that Edward, knowing what the woman was capable of, did not want to leave her (and Brittany’s) loyalty to England to chance. If that is true, Jeanne de Montfort’s story had a remarkably unhappy ending—betrayed by a man who used her for his own political ends under the guise of helping her. Hopefully she took comfort in the knowledge that at least her battle was not in vain. Even though she might not have returned to Brittany herself to see her son on the throne, she could die secure in the knowledge that the man she considered the rightful heir to the duchy, her son John, was ruling Brittany. Against impossible odds, this woman waged a war and came out on top. The Montforts remained in control of the duchy of Brittany until it ceased to exist when Brittany unified with France in 1547.
Despite her possibly ignominious end, Jeanne is fondly remembered in history. Philosopher David Hume called her “the most extraordinary woman of her age.” She is considered the poster child for the fighting woman of France—despite the fact that she fought against the French—and is, as previously mentioned, said to have been an inspiration to Joan of Arc. But was she a pirate? Well, she was definitely a warrior, which is a good start. She also fought battles at sea, including her infamous battle against Sir Louis of Spain, even going so far as to engage in sword combat during the battle. Her true piratical pedigree, however, comes from her “theft” of the duchy from the House of Blois, the official pick of Paris. With her cunning maneuver at Hennebont (which recalls the cleverness of Artemisia’s sacking of Latmus), she managed to steal the duchy from de Blois’s grasp, and that makes her a pirate—not a textbook example of a perfect pirate, to be sure, but clearly worthy to stand up among her sisters in the pirate pantheon.
Jeanne de Clisson was born Jeanne de Belleville in Belleville-sur-Vie, a castle and fortress on the western coast of France. Her parents were wealthy nobles, and she most likely enjoyed a bucolic childhood on the grounds of the castle, which she would eventually inherit. She was called “one of the most beautiful women of her day” by historian Richard Bentley. Her childhood did not last long, however, as she was married off at age twelve to a Breton nobleman. The couple had two children together before he died in 1326.
Jeanne remained a widow for four years before she took her second husband, Olivier de Clisson, a very wealthy nobleman with whom she had five children. By many accounts, the match was, if not exactly a love match, at least a successful mutual partnership. By age thirty, Jeanne had two husbands and seven children under her belt. What would she accomplish next?
When the War of Breton Succession came, Olivier chose to back his friend Charles de Blois in his claim to the duchy. It seems that he fought loyally for the House of Blois, but Charles de Blois became convinced that de Clisson was a traitor and had defected to the English side. Exactly why he believed this to be true is unclear. Some legends claim that when de Clisson was captured by the English at Vannes in 1342, the ransom demanded for his return was, to de Blois, suspiciously low. This led him to conclude that de Clisson had not fought as valiantly as he could have and was perhaps not as loyal to the House of Blois as he claimed to be. Other versions of the story say that de Clisson actually did switch sides, although these accounts are much rarer. In any case, de Blois was no longer certain that his old friend had his best interests at heart. This would not do. During a truce in the fighting in 1343, de Blois hatched a plan with the French king, Philip VI, to have him killed. Olivier and some other Breton lords were invited to France under the guise of a friendly tournament. When they arrived on French soil, however, de Clisson was arrested, carried off to Paris, and tried as a traitor to France. He was convicted and sentenced to death. After he was killed, his head was put on a pike and sent back to Brittany’s capital, Nantes, to be displayed as a warning to other would-be defectors from the French cause.
King Philip’s actions shocked the public. Olivier’s trial did not present any public evidence of his guilt; it only claimed that he had confessed to being a traitor. Furthermore, displaying of a corpse was usually done only when the criminal was common or lower class. People felt that King Philip had gone too far and possibly murdered an innocent man. And nobody was madder than de Clisson’s widow, Jeanne de Clisson.
When she found out that her husband had been tricked into going to France and then killed without cause, she sprang into action. If the French were no longer allies to her husband, then she would not support the French any longer. She severed all ties with the House of Blois and devoted her life to making the French pay for what they had done to her family. But first, some sources say, she took her sons to Nantes to see their father’s head.
To a modern reader it seems a bit puzzling, to say the least, that Jeanne would choose to expose her young sons to such violence. No doubt the boys were already devastated by the news of their father’s death; it seems redundant at best and cruel at worst to traumatize them further with the actual evidence of his murder. But Jeanne was not looking to shield her boys from pain. She knew now how hard and pitiless the world could be— even innocent men could be killed by kings. Jeanne chose to educate her boys on the harshness of life in order to light a fire of hate in them, twin fires to the one that now burned in her breast. In her world, there was no time for sorrow, only revenge.
After her trip to Nantes, Jeanne set about raising the money she would need to mount an army to terrorize the French. Much of her lands had been confiscated by King Philip due to her husband’s “crime.” She sold what she had left, including her jewels and furniture (and some accounts claim she sold her body as well) in order to outfit an army. Her goal was to kick the French out of Brittany completely. Stories of places she attacked are varied and lack detail, but nearly all accounts agree that whatever locations she did take, she took bloodily. She would massacre every occupant of a place save one or two, leaving them alive to report to France exactly who had committed the deed.
The path Jeanne chose after her husband’s murder seems almost unthinkable, but it may have been preferable to the alternatives before her. Whether they were rich or poor, most medieval women could not be said to have pleasant lives. They had two role models: Eve, the fallen woman, and the Virgin Mary (the original manifestation of the Madonna/whore dichotomy). Doubtless many women felt themselves somewhere in between the two icons. They did not have access to education. Life expectancy was not long. Ironically, many scholars claim that after the Black Death of the mid-fourteenth century, the status of medieval women briefly went up due to the dearth of people left alive. Surviving women could receive better wages due to better-paying jobs being available and thus delay marriage, increasing their chances of survival. Childbirth was a specter that haunted all married women. An estimated 20 percent of all women in the Middle Ages died in childbirth, 5 percent during the birth itself and another 15 percent due to complications after labor. Things that today are minor issues were often fatal during this era. The presence of midwives—one of the only trades open only to women—helped to make birth safer, but a dizzying variety of complications could kill an expectant mother. Jeanne had survived childbirth numerous times; she might have felt that she had cheated death and could therefore slay Frenchmen at will, sending them to death in her place.
With her husband gone, Jeanne would have had the option to enter a convent. Nuns’ lives were marginally easier than that of the average married woman. For one thing, there was some access to basic education in the convent. Nuns did not have to fear death in childbirth. They still participated in domestic labors, cooking and producing things for the convent in addition to the many hours spent studying and in prayer. Nuns could advance up the religious ranks—the only position with any upward mobility for women during the Middle Ages. The leader of a convent, an abbess, sometimes advised not just the nuns in her care but also the monks in an adjoining monastery. Other than being a queen, an abbess was probably the highest office a woman could obtain during the Middle Ages. But Jeanne was not interested in a sequestered religious lifestyle; she sought vengeance. And so to the sea she went, forging a new path.
Jeanne decided that she preferred naval fighting to land fighting. She was still going to make the French pay, but she would do so at sea. With her remaining cash, she sailed to England with two of her sons in order to assemble a small fleet of three ships. Where her other children were during this time is unknown. Some accounts say that on this journey, one of her sons died of exposure. She then allegedly sent the other surviving son to live in the English court with young John de Montfort, who would eventually become the new Duke of Brittany. These details about her sons are only occasionally present in Jeanne’s legend. Whether she had her sons with her or not, and regardless of how many of them survived the journey, Jeanne soon had her fleet of ships, which was called the Black Fleet. These ships Jeanne painted black, and she dyed the sails blood red. She was not interested in subtlety or subterfuge. She wanted the people who saw her coming to know what fate awaited them. Her victims would not be taken by surprise, as her husband had been.
Jeanne and her Black Fleet sailed up and down the English Channel, preying on any French ship she could get her hands on. Her plan was the same as it was on land: murder everyone except a messenger or two. Soon, legends of her brutality spread all over Europe, and the “Lioness of Brittany” became a feared pirate. Some accounts claim that she was officially a privateer for England, but the English would have had to overlook her personal penchant for beheading every French nobleman she captured, since that was not exactly privateer protocol. Nevertheless, she may have kept the English forces stocked with supplies during various battles with the French. Her service to the English seems to have been an afterthought, though—much less important to her than the destruction of the French forces. It’s unclear if she had any particular love for the House of Montfort, but her hatred of the House of Blois ran deep and was clearly to the de Montforts’ benefit.
King Philip VI’s death in 1350 did not put a dent in the Lioness’s pirating. She continued to wreak havoc on French ships in the English Channel for another six years. Sources estimate that Jeanne’s piratical career lasted for a total of thirteen years. Instead of seeing the war through and ensuring that her candidate won the duchy in the War of Breton Succession, she retired eight years before the conflict’s conclusion and married an English deputy of King Edward III.
This action of hers, and the historical coverage of this action, leaves many questions unanswered. Why did she choose to marry a third time? If she was so useful to the English forces, why didn’t she help them finish the war? How did she meet Sir Walter Bentley, her new husband? Perhaps this action proves that she was not truly in the fight to back de Montfort but instead simply to cause damage to de Blois and King Philip. But then why not retire at Philip’s death? Maybe she ran out of money to maintain her Black Fleet. Maybe the lonely widow fell passionately in love with the English lord. Maybe she just got tired of sailing. Maybe, after so many captures and beheadings, her lust for revenge was one day finally slaked. All that is certain is that she married Sir Walter and left her pirating days behind her. King Edward had bestowed on Sir Walter several castles and lands for his services to England. Some accounts claim that Sir Walter was given control of English territories and interests in Brittany. Stories differ on what properties were given to the Bentleys and when, but most legends agree that the couple eventually settled down back in France in Hennebont Castle, the very same castle that was such a pivotal part of Jeanne de Montfort’s story. Jeanne de Clisson died a few years later, sometime around 1359.