Imagine you are standing on the deck of a French naval vessel that has just been attacked. Anything of worth has been looted, but that’s hardly the worst of it. Around you are the decapitated remains of the majority of your crew mates. The heads roll with rocking of the ship; the blood is seeping its way into the floorboards, down into the lower decks.
As three ships fade into the horizon, you can still make out their black hulls, and their blood-red flags.
She has spared your life. While she personally beheaded your fellow sailors, you have not suffered her wrath, but only for one reason:
You are alive to convey a message to your King, Phillip VI of France, from the commander of the Black Fleet.
The Lioness of Brittany has struck again.
Yes, there is a bit of creative license in the previous narrative; what isn’t imaginary is what Jean de Clisson, the Lioness of Brittany, did:
Some estimates had her Black Fleet attacking over one hundred French ships, and killing over 3,000 sailors. Asides from ships, any French bases in Breton (Brittany) were subject to attack. In the recorded raids, she always left a few survivors, people to pass on the tale.
Her motive is probably best summed up by the name of her Flag Ship:
Brittany, or Breton, was a much disputed territory. It featured in the Hundred Years’ War between England and France; a major interval in the war was marked by the Breton War of Succession, in which both England and France backed their own candidates for the throne of Brittany.
Jean de Clisson’s 3rd husband, Olivier de Clisson IV, was a wealthy Breton nobleman. During the War of Succession, he sided with the French candidate; while protecting the city of Vannes, he was captured by the British.
The British demanded a very low ransom, so low that it aroused the suspicion of the French King, Phillip VI.
After a truce was signed with the British, and the French candidate was enthroned in Brittany, Phillip invited Olivier, along with several other Breton nobles, to a tournament on French soil.
Olivier, apparently trusting both the truce and the King he had supported, gladly accepted.
Phillip, on the other hand, was ready to strike down a man he had personally condemned as a traitor.
Olivier would never see his wife or children again.
Imagine being young Olivier V, son of Jean de Clisson and Olivier IV.
Your mother has taken you and your brother from the family castle to the city of Nantes.
There, by one of the city gates, is your father’s head, on a stake.
The rest of his body was on public display in Paris.
When you grow up, your nickname will be “the Butcher”.
Cause and Effect…?
Jean De Clisson sold everything.
She bought a boat.
She bought men.
She took her young sons.
She took those who were loyal to the De Clisson family; to the memory of her betrayed husband.
The King had put him on display like a common criminal. There was no evidence, there was no trial.
Damn the King, Damn the French, and…
to Hell with Brittany.
And so the raids began.
She attacked bases. She attacked garrisons. She attacked ships.
And she always left survivors, one man to the tell the tale.
To remind King Phillip of what he had done.
To remind him that she would never forget, and would never forgive.
Jean went to the English King, who was much amused, and much impressed by the daring exploits of the renegade French pirate.
Due to the truce, he couldn’t authorize attacks on Brittany himself…
but surely the ship master wouldn’t notice three missing Warships, would he…
Jean had the hulls painted black, and the sails dyed red
Thus was born the Black Fleet.
For thirteen years, Jean De Clisson terrorized the French.
As previously stated, some estimates have the Lioness of Brittany plundering over one hundred French ships, and killing over 3,000 men, often personally decapitating them.
Of course, all good things…
After thirteen years, My Vengeance was at the bottom of the sea.
Jean and her two sons spent five days adrift.
Only one son, Olivier, would survive.
So would Jean.
They were rescued by supporters of the British contender to the Breton throne.
So what’s an ex-lady pirate to do?
Jean De Clisson married a highly decorated English officer in 1356.
She settled in Brittany, in an English controlled coastal town, and lived out the remainder of her years there.
Her son, Oliver V, would go on to have a life of political intrigue all of his own, but that’s another story.
And so, after 13 years of terror on the high seas, Jean De Clisson, the Lioness of Brittany, rode out into the proverbial sunset, leaving in her wake a hundred sunken ships, three thousand dead men, a flustered French King, and I like to imagine…
More than a handful of broken hearts.
Long Live the Lioness!