People will do strange things for love, but very few of us turn to piracy for anything but profit. Jeanne de Belleville did it for love and revenge, and to this day haunts the castle she shared with her great love. This is her story.
Born in 1300, Jeanne de Belleville was married for the first time at the age of twelve, and left a widow with two sons at twenty-six. In 1330, she took a second husband, Olivier III de Clisson, whose family holdings centered around the city of Nantes in the Loire Valley. This marriage was a love match, producing five children.
She lost Olivier in 1343.
That longest of all European conflicts, the so-called Hundred Years War, had begun in 1337 when King Philippe VI of France confiscated lands held by Edward III of England, through his family connections to Eleanor of Aquitaine. In 1343, Philippe turned on the powerful Olivier de Clisson after the latter made a poor showing (so believed the king) in holding the city of Vannes against the English invaders. Arrested in the course of a tournament and tried in a kangaroo court on a charge of treason, Olivier was convicted and beheaded, his lands around Clisson Castle confiscated, and his wife and children left in dire circumstances.
Jeanne did not retire to mourn in genteel poverty. Instead, she unleashed her grief and wrath in a way few other women would have: she sold what remained of Olivier’s estates, bought three ships, and turned pirate.
Her lone targets were ships owned by the king and by members of the French nobility who had cravenly convicted and murdered her husband at the king’s behest. Her ships were, at her orders, painted black and flew sails dyed red. Her crews, as merciless under her orders as she was herself, would kill entire crews, leaving only one or two alive to carry news to the king that she had struck again. She took great pleasure, it is said, in killing members of the French aristocracy with her own hand, should they be luckless enough to be aboard a ship she targeted.
For her ferocity, she eventually acquired the nickname The Lioness of Brittany. During the thirteen years she practiced piracy, she never once was defeated in battle. Even after the death of her mortal enemy, Philippe VI, in 1350, she continued her depredations.
By 1356, however, she was fifty-six years old, her sons (one of them the famed one-eyed Olivier IV de Clisson, a great warrior of the later years of the Hundred Years War) were grown, Philippe VI was dead, and his son and successor had been captured by the English and was being held for ransom in London. She was tired, and she sold her ships, disbanded her ruthless crews (all of them rich men, thanks to the treasures they had taken over the years), and married an English captain of Edward III’s named Walter Bentley, with whom she moved to England.
It would seem that this marriage was an unhappy one, for she returned to France not long after. She could not return to Clisson Castle, which had after Olivier’s death been given to a favored courtier of Philippe’s; she made a home for herself at Hennebont, where she died in 1359.
After her death, though, she seems to have returned to the castle where she and her beloved Olivier had made their home.
The halls and battlements of Clisson Castle are haunted, it’s said, by a woman who appears as a gray shadow. Sometimes she is seen on the battlements, looking down the River Loire toward the sea, as if waiting for a rich royal ship to appear. Other times, she has been seen inside the castle, and at those times she has an aura of all but unbearable sorrow, as if she still mourns her lost Olivier after these many centuries.
For more information:
and in Robert Jackson, GREAT MYSTERIES: GHOSTS (Smithmark Publishers, 1992).
Jackson’s book misidentifies Olivier III de Clisson as his father and King Philippe VI of France as his great-uncle, Philippe IV (le Bon) of The Templar’s Curse fame, and dates everything thirty years earlier than the events actually happened, but otherwise tells a quite thrilling tale about the Lioness of Brittany and what she did for love.