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The Most Fearsome Female Pirate You've Never Heard of

Pirates have become something so heavily fictionalized and stereotyped in popular culture that it’s easy to forget pirates were a very real part of history. The image of pirates that persists in modern culture comes from what is called “The Golden Age of Piracy,” which took place during the 17th and 18th centuries. During this time, piracy was momentous in the United Kingdom, the Caribbean, West Africa, and countries around the Indian Ocean. We commonly associate pirates with eye patches, peg legs, parrots, skulls and crossbones, and buried treasure, among other things that are based more in the cultural imagination than in historical reality. These ideas are reinforced by literature, film, and video games like Treasure Island, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, respectively.

A skull and bones sits in a forest, grey scaleEven historical pirates have become a thing of legend in pop culture. Names like “Blackbeard,” “Calico Jack,” and “Black Bart,” were given to real life men who all had a menacing presence in their respective waters. But there were women who engaged in piracy, too. Anne Bonny and Mary Read may be the most famous female pirates in history, but there is one whose story never fails to astound me, and that is Jeanne de Clisson, “The Lioness of Brittany.”

Historical fact and fiction are often woven so seamlessly together that it is difficult to pry them apart, so I will lay what is most commonly known here. Jeanne de Clisson was, perhaps surprisingly (considering the path she eventually went down), part of the French nobility in the early 1300s. She was married to Olivier de Clisson IV, who was a wealthy nobleman. He was the military commander of Vannes, alongside Hervé VII de Léon, when the city was captured by the English. Olivier de Clisson was subsequently accused of failing to defend the city properly and being a traitor. He was executed by beheading.

pile of euro coinsThe execution of her husband incensed Jeanne de Clisson, who vowed to exact vengeance on King Philip VI of France. de Clisson became allied with the English and built up a small but loyal army, who attacked various French castles and garrisons by land. When she took up piracy, however, she became a figure worthy of legend. de Clisson created her infamous “Black Fleet”— three warships painted completely black and fixed with red sails— something straight out of a pirate fantasy novel. The fleet’s flagship was appropriately named My Revenge.

The story goes that de Clisson and the Black Fleet frequented the English Channel and would hunt down and attack French vessels. She would slaughter almost all of the ships’ crews, leaving just a couple alive to report back to King Philip VI. If there were any nobles aboard the ships, it is said that de Clisson would behead them personally, with an axe.

de Clisson was never caught by the French. After some thirteen years, she retired from piracy, married English military deputy Walter Brentley, and settled in a castle on the Brittany coast. During her time as a pirate, her presence in the English Channel haunted the French, and she saw her revenge through time and time again.