On this date in 1343, a noble widow’s career in piracy got its start where such ventures more usually end: the scaffold.
Olivier III de Clisson, a powerful Breton noble nominally loyal to France, had been persuaded to ally with England’s Edward III in what nobody yet realized was the opening stage of the Hundred Years’ War.
Intriguing to advance a claim to the French throne, Edward knew right where to look. “Brittany was France’s Scotland, choleric, Celtic, stony, bred to opposition and resistance, and ready to use the English in its struggles against its overlord as the Scots used the French in theirs,” Barbara Tuchman wrote. And the Breton War of Succession was just the sort of pretext for meddling.
Clisson was one of the great lords of the region, and in the feudal era where liege relationships counted more than “nationality,” his alliance would swing a considerable network of retainers to the English cause.
He was hardly the only one, according to Jonathan Sumption’s The Hundred Years War:
The duchies of Brittany and Normandy seemed to [the French king Philip VI] to be seething with rebels, led by the very noblemen who had promised to serve him till his dying day. He was shocked and puzzled.
When Clisson’s (apparent) lord Philip VI got wind of the secret deal, he invited Olivier to a joust in Paris and had him arrested. Then, as knight follows day …
In the year of grace one thousand three hundred and forth-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. And then from there his corpses 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 [as a sign of his treason]. (Cited here.)
That’s chivalry for you.
The unexpected turn came while Clisson’s headless corpse was clanking away on the gibbet: his warlike, 40-something wife Jeanne de Clisson vowed vengeance, sold off the Clisson estates to buy a small fleet, and turned privateer, murderously ravaging French shipping along the Breton coast and reportedly personally beheading aristocrats she could get her hands on.
After more than a decade of avenging Olivier, the “Lioness of Brittany” retired triumphantly to England to remarry the sort of British toff whose preference ran towards strong women.
Her son, also named Olivier de Clisson, returned to fight in the Hundred Years War on the side of England … and eventually defected back to the French.
* Meaning, at the imposing tiered gallows of Montfaucon.