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Brittany’s Women Pirates

With its extensive coastline and key position alongside major trade routes, Brittany has long enjoyed a close relationship with the sea. However, it was not just the region’s fishermen and traders that commanded the waves; generations of Bretons long constituted the backbone of the French Royal Navy, playing a leading role in the colonisation of New France and the West Indies. Some of these Breton mariners have left an indelible mark on history while others are perhaps more famous for their misdeeds.

Breton pirates or privateers – there are legal differences between the two terms but the paths from one state to the other were well sailed in the murky waters of diplomatic niceties – such as Jean de Coatanlem, Duguay-Trouin and Robert Surcouf amassed great prestige and wealth from their buccaneering exploits on the high seas. Other Breton pirates are perhaps not as well known today as they once were and the adventures of two particularly remarkable women are well worth retelling here; stretching as they do from one of the bloodiest conflicts of Medieval Europe to the golden age of the pirates of the Caribbean.

women pirates - de Belleville - Dieuleveult

An element of the Hundred Years’ War, the Breton War of Succession (1341–1364) saw the House of Montfort, supported by the King of England, battle against the House of Blois, supported by the King of France, for the right to rule Brittany. The chief claimants were Jean de Montfort, half-brother of the last Duke of Brittany, and his niece, Joanna de Penthièvre, who was married to Charles de Blois, the French king’s nephew. After a protracted conflict, de Montfort emerged victorious after winning the decisive battle of Auray in 1364.

However, one of the war’s early battles took place under 14km (10 miles) away in the city of Vannes. Having declared for de Montfort within weeks of his brother’s death, control of the city changed hands through four devastating sieges in 1342. During the final siege, the Breton commander of the de Blois garrison, Olivier de Clisson, was captured. He was subsequently exchanged for the English Earl of Stafford and a relatively modest ransom which was seized upon by the de Blois camp as indicative of de Clisson having intrigued with the besiegers.

Execution of Olivier de Clisson - Jeanne de Belleville - women pirates

Towards the middle of the following year, de Clisson and a dozen other Breton nobles were invited to attend a grand tournament in Paris; here they were promptly seized and imprisoned. De Clisson was accused of ‘several treasons and other crimes perpetrated against the king and the crown of France’ and summarily executed. To add insult to injury, his body was publicly humiliated; his corpse hung from a gibbet in Paris and his head displayed on a pike in the city of Nantes – outrages usually reserved for low-born criminals.

The treachery of the King of France, Philippe VI, consumed de Clisson’s widow, Jeanne de Belleville, who swore revenge. Selling her estates before they could be confiscated by the French king, she raised a small army and began attacking French forces in the Breton Marches; her wrath first falling on Château Thébaud whose occupants, including women and children, she slaughtered, leaving just two men alive to tell of the stronghold’s fate. The forces of France pursued her vigorously, forcing her to flee into Brittany and after a brief sojourn in the north-west of the region, to eventually re-group with Bretons in England.

Jeanne de Belleville - de Clisson - pirate lady

Finding land attacks impractical, she acquired and outfitted three ships; painted deathly black, flying blood red sails, and would personally lead her ‘Black Fleet’ from her flagship, My Revenge. Her fleet scoured the waters of the Channel and the north coast of France in search of targets; all French vessels whether warships or traders, were fair game but de Belleville did not play fair. She became renowned for her ruthlessness; killing entire crews and beheading nobles and anyone linked to the exercise of French authority, sometimes she was even said to have wielded the axe herself.

It seems she always left at least one survivor who was charged to tell the French king of her revenge. Her exploits clearly affected French maritime trade along its northern coast and it is said that, at times, she even sacked coastal settlements although there is no real evidence to support the latter charge. At the request of King Philippe VI, Pope Clement VI unsuccessfully petitioned England’s King Edward III to put an end to the actions of this “Breton Tigress”. 

de Belleville - woman pirate - Breton

Some authors claim that de Belleville’s violent vengeance spanned some 13 years and that she continued to attack French shipping after the death of King Philippe IV in August 1350. However, this is unlikely for two reasons. Firstly, in late 1344, her flagship was wrecked after a battle with a French warship and in 1348 she married one of King Edward III’s military commanders, Sir Walter Bentley. Bentley had served in Brittany since 1342 and famously staged a night-time raid on the French forces besieging Vannes that year.

In September 1350, Bentley was appointed Governor or King’s Lieutenant in Brittany. During his tenure he forbade pillage and to help prevent the potential attraction to it, he secured increases to his soldiers’ pay – both unusual actions for a Medieval leader. An active commander, he lifted the sieges of Ploërmel and Fougeres in 1351 and took the war into France, raiding along the Loire valley and later led an outnumbered Anglo-Breton force to a bloody victory in the battle of Mauron where he was severely injured in August 1352.

Battle of Auray - Jeanne de Belleville - women pirates

It was not just the forces of the French king that Bentley battled against; he and his wife had to deal with the machinations of Ralph of Cahors, the King’s Lieutenant in the adjoining province of Poitou, who had wrested control of de Belleville’s estates from France and now considered them his own. In 1349, the King of England ordered that the estates be returned to Bentley but after he was replaced as Governor in April 1353 he was instructed to transfer his wife’s estates as part of a treaty with the new Duke of Brittany. This Bentley refused to do and he was consequently imprisoned in the Tower of London while the King considered his case; eventually finding in his favour.

The Bentleys enjoyed great estates in Brittany and settled in the castle at Hennebont, west of Vannes. The Duke of Brittany seems to have borne no grudges against this medieval power couple because in January 1357, he granted them the Barony of La Roche-Moisan. Sir Walter died in December 1359, followed just weeks later by his wife; a rather comfortable end for a pirate whose actions had once earned her the sobriquet: ‘Lioness of the Sea’.

Women pirates

Born into a minor noble family in central Brittany in August 1661, Anne Dieuleveult is another of the very few reputed female pirates. It is not known how she came to end up in the Caribbean; some have suggested that she was taken there from the north coast town of Morlaix by the man she subsequently married, while others believe that she was one of the contingent of Filles de Roi or ‘Daughters of the King’ – mainly impoverished young women who were provided with paid passage to New France in order to marry settlers and increase the population of the colonies. 

Dieuleveult is thought to have arrived on the island of Tortuga, off the northwest coast of Hispaniola, sometime before 1680. This was a settlement that owed its very existence to pirates and privateers who had, time and again, wrested it from Spanish over-lordship over the previous fifty years. From being a hideaway to careen ships, replenish fresh water supplies and hunt for game, the island was now home to a motley assortment of multilingual and multinational pirates, privateers, hunters, planters, traders, indentured servants and African slaves.

Anne Dieuleveult - woman pirate

The island gave birth to the word buccaneer as we now understand it and was an important base for pirates and privateers, being the home of the notorious confederation of buccaneers knows as the ‘Brethren of the Coast’. The majority of the island’s buccaneers were men from France, England and the Netherlands but there were also sizeable numbers of escaped slaves in their ranks. Life in 17th century Tortuga was not for the fainthearted; deaths from disease and violence were commonplace and women, particularly those of European descent, were very scarce.

We do not know how Dieuleveult fared in her early years in the colony but she married another Breton, the former buccaneer Pierre Lelong in 1684. Lelong seems to have given up his career in piracy when he and a dozen adventurers settled Cap François (now Cap-Haitien), on the north coast of Hispaniola, in 1670, subsequently establishing successful plantations. (His settlement flourished and later became the capital of the colony of Saint Domingue which in the 18th century was the world’s leading producer of sugar cane and an important hub in the slave trade.) In July 1690, just six years into the marriage, Lelong was killed in a brawl and Dieuleveult soon married another buccaneer, Joseph Chérel. The couple survived the capture and plunder of Cap Francois by Spanish forces in January 1691 but Chérel died during a brawl a few years later, leaving Dieuleveult a wealthy widow with two children to raise.

Laurens de Graff - Dieuleveult - woman pirate

Legend tells that she made quite an impression on the man who would become her next husband; notorious former Dutch pirate, Laurens de Graff. It was said that de Graff insulted Dieuleveult who promptly challenged him to a duel of honour; de Graff unsheathed his sword only to find himself facing a cocked pistol whereupon he remembered his chivalry and declared that he could not fight a woman. He was apparently so impressed that he made an immediate proposal of marriage. We will never know what truth lies in this tale but we do know that the couple married in July 1693.

De Graff was described by no less a judge than Henry Morgan as “a great and mischievous pirate” and seems to have enjoyed a long and lucrative career on the Spanish Main, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. References to his exploits span over two decades: in March 1672 he was one of the leading figures in a pirate raid on Campeche in Mexico, taking the town and a merchant ship loaded with over 120,000 silver pesos. De Graff was known to often change his flag ship by upgrading to a stronger captured vessel and by 1679 commanded 200 men aboard his 28-gun frigate, Tigre. This he surpassed in 1682 with the bloody capture of the 240-ton Spanish Armada de Barlovento frigate, Princesa, along with the payroll for the Spanish garrisons on Hispaniola and Puerto Rico; over 120,000 silver pesos.

de Graaf - Dieuleveult - woman pirate

The following year, de Graaf, now in possession of a privateering licence from the Governor of Saint Domingue, joined forces with two other privateers for an attack on the Mexican port of Veracruz; the combined party amounted to five large ships and eight smaller vessels with over 1,300 men. The town fell to the pirates after just thirty minutes and was plundered over the following days. Many of the townsfolk were tortured to reveal their treasures and a sizeable ransom was demanded for the freedom of the town’s 6,000 inhabitants.

A few months later, de Graaf led another joint enterprise preying on coastal traffic around the busy Colombian port of Cartagena. The Spanish Governor sent out three heavily armed ships to see off the pirate flotilla but the pirates chose to fight rather than flee and their audacity and superior seamanship saw them prevail in a bloody four hour long battle. De Graff now transferred his flag to the newly captured, 40-gun vessel, San Francisco.

Laurens de Graff - Dieuleveult - woman pirate

In July 1685, de Graaf joined his forces with another veteran pirate to create a flotilla of ten ships, six sloops and over a dozen smaller craft for a raid on the Mexican port of Campeche. After a protracted battle, including seeing off two Spanish relief columns that arrived five days after the initial assault, the town was taken but the spoils were disappointing. Over the next two months, troops of pirates ravaged the surrounding countryside in search of plunder while a hefty ransom was demanded for the town and its inhabitants but this time the Spanish Governor refused to pay. In their frustration, the pirates set the town ablaze and threatened their hostages. Met with another refusal to accede their demands, the pirates began their executions but de Graaf halted the slaughter before the death toll reached double figures. A strong Spanish squadron was despatched to bring de Graff to justice and after hunting for over six weeks finally tracked him down in the Gulf of Mexico. Despite being outmanned and outgunned, de Graff managed to outmanoeuvre and outshoot his pursuers in a battle that lasted all day.

Having become a French subject in 1685, de Graaf seems to have moved away from outright piracy to mixing privateering with an official position on the Governor of Saint Domingue’s staff and the outbreak of the Nine Years War in May 1689 found him serving at Cap François. This is likely the time that he first met Dieuleveult. In December 1689, de Graff began a five month blockade of the northern cost of Jamaica, capturing many English ships and plundering plantations along that coast. 

de Graff - Dieuleveult - woman pirates

At the end of June 1694, de Graff, with the dual role of buccaneer chief and King’s Lieutenant, was appointed Second in Command of a fleet of 22 ships, including naval warships and 3,200 men assigned for the invasion of Jamaica. At the end of the following month, he commanded the landing party of 1,500 men who overran the 250 men defending Carlisle Bay and plundered the area.

In retaliation, a joint Anglo-Spanish force crossed into French Saint Domingue towards the end of May 1695 and quickly brushed aside de Groff’s defenders, capturing Cap Francois and plundering the town and its surrounding plantations. In June, Port-de-Paix was blockaded and the town fell the following month; amongst the captives taken were Dieuleveult and her children. The invaders did not press their advantage and take the colony; international cooperation disintegrated over petty quarrels about the division of the spoils.

Laurens de Graff - Dieuleveult - woman pirates

De Graff now seems to disappear from the records and is not noted in the musters of the massive French invasion force that captured Cartagena in April 1697. Perhaps there were questions about his role in the defence of Cap Francois or the terms of ransom for his wife forbade action against her Spanish captors? Dieuleveult and her children were released in 1698 and returned to Saint Domingue. Upon the death of de Graaf in May 1704, his wife inherited a sizeable estate and successful sugar plantation and died at home in January 1710.

There are stories that claim Dieuleveult accompanied de Graaf on his buccaneering raids, fighting by his side and sharing command of his ship. Some elaborations even go so far as to say that she took part in the invasion of Jamaica in 1694 and that she took command of de Graaf’s flagship after he was killed during an attack on a Spanish ship, fiercely leading the crew in an ultimately unsuccessful fight. Alas, these stories are likely fictional; by the time of their marriage, de Graaf was no longer a buccaneer but an officer of the Crown and an independently wealthy one at that.

It is unclear when or where Dieuleveult died and perhaps that is just as it should be. Sometimes, remarkable lives lead to forgotten ends and what better way to end a pirate story than with the mist of a little mystery?

Published by Bon Repos Gites

Enjoying life in Kalon Breizh - the Heart of Brittany.

201 thoughts on “Brittany’s Women Pirates

    1. Thank you so much Luisa, I am pleased that you enjoyed it! 🙂
      Given the old superstitions regarding women aboard ships, there are a few confirmed women pirates – they must have had extremely powerful personalities to have their men forget their superstitions and follow them so wholeheartedly!

      Liked by 6 people

    2. Hebrews 4:12
      For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
      Contact us for prayer and deliverance


      1. Greetings! I appreciate your desire to get your message across but perhaps a quick blog post would serve your needs better than posting the same Biblical quote eleven times in the comments here? Perhaps even an exegesis on Hebrews 5:11? Best wishes.

        Liked by 2 people

    1. I am pleased that you thought so! Thank you! 🙂 Yes, I agree, there is definitely potential in their stores but enough for a decent movie rather than a comedic send-up of pirates in petticoats! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha, it is funny that you say that as I discovered that it is almost impossible to find a picture of a female pirate that does not portray them as some kind of sexy lady! I wonder just how sexy a woman wielding an axe at your throat really is though? 😉

      Liked by 4 people

      1. the greatest weapon of women is the naivety of men. It worked and continues to this day. I think they ruled more by guile than by brute force 😁

        Liked by 4 people

  1. Ahhh, the good old days, when men were men and women were merciless. I knew there was a reason I did not like sailing the seas. Great post on a ruthless time. Thanks for sharing. Allan

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Finally women’s rights came to the pirate’s world! I’ve never heard of female pirates before, but I guess there had to have been some. They must have been tough women though. Great stories! Maggie

    Liked by 3 people

    1. No, she seems to have dropped from the history books but she certainly existed and for many years was remembered as active there. Even if her exploits were exaggerated, making a home and bringing up children in that environment would have been no mean feat!

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you! I am pleased that you liked it! Sorting the wheat from the chaff is always difficult with the notorious such as pirates and bandits. Even the contemporary accounts are inflated with as much propaganda as folklore! Whatever the truth of the matter, these were clearly remarkable women!


    1. Thank you!! I am glad you liked it! 🙂 There are a few confirmed female pirates but, just like the men, their tales are surrounded by a lot of exaggerated claims which keep getting repeated. As if being a pirate that dies in their bed wasn’t remarkable enough!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Very well researched as usual! I’ve read a lot about pirates including female pirates (some great YouTube videos out there). The pirate life is very romanticized. The reality isn’t so pretty, such as the real reason they wear jewelry.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you! I am pleased that you liked it! 🙂 I often hear of good stuff on YouTube but have never gotten round to having a real look there. Maybe I should.
      Agreed, the romanticisation of pirates was began even in a time when real pirates were plundering the seas and the process has continued down the centuries. If you think about it, it is a strange bunch of people to have such a special regard for!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes. I’ve watched some videos about the female pirates you described. Not craving a pirate’s life – health problems from a lack of fresh food after being at sea for days. Those pirates you wrote about are an interesting part of our history!

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much for saying so!! Thanks for taking the time to read it! 🙂 It is funny though, that whenever I think of pirates, it is always Long John Silver or even Jack Sparrow that comes immediately to mind rather than some ruthless thief and cutthroat!


    1. Many thanks for saying so! I am happy that you enjoyed the read! 🙂 Bonny and Read are likely more well known because they featured in what was probably the seminal work on pirates (Johnson’s General History of the Most Notorious Pirates) and, to be fair, they do have great stories! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  4. First time hearing Brittany’s Women Pirates 🙏👌 so awesome post and photos !!
    The women pirates are so powerful and cruel also !! Thank you so much for sharing !!
    Very interesting that once upon a time happened in the world 🙏🥺 grace wishes 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  5. It is hard to imagine conducting a naval battle in a ship that is being tossed about like a cork at times! People back then were clearly made of stern stuff. Planet earth was a very interesting place but then it always has been, I guess. One thing is obvious, though: you didn’t want to piss off a strong woman! Great pictures of those sea battles. I feel quite seasick!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Agreed. I have no doubt that many vessels were well made but trying to wage a battle on the open seas would have been a challenge! As would escaping one if the wind suddenly died away! 😉


  6. I know that story??? The one where invited to tournament – captured and heads on stakes ?? But I watch a lot of documentaries ?? It’s gotta be that! I have watched documentaries of France’s history – because of your catacombs and a couple of your queens 😘

    Very interesting.

    Damn Jeanne was a little barbaric and brutal with her revengefulness 😮

    Whoa 😮 I have seen documentaries on the Tower of London 😳 yikes

    I have been to Tortola!!!! I have a Tortola magnet ❤️ it does look like a old treasure map 🗺️ … interesting to know it’s history … it’s a lot of shopping now lol

    I wouldn’t say that it was a forgotten end… because there is not an end if it is unclear … you don’t truly know… and you still speak his name so his spirit lives on – I do agree pretty awesome pirate story though!! 👏👏

    I am descendent of Grace O’Malley 😉😘 an Irish pirate woman 🏴‍☠️ ☘️😊💚

    Powerful by land and by sea 😉🫶

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It seems to have been a fairly common ruse back then to invite your enemies under the cloak of friendship and then promptly despatch them! 😦

      Ha, yes Jeanne does not seem the type of lady that you would want to cross – even by the standards of the time! I guess she was lucky enough to have found love twice and that must have been quite a remarkable thing in itself in an age when women often had no choice in who they would wed.

      You have been to Tortola? Wow! Funny you should say that its all shopping now haha as I still have these romantic notions of a tropical wilderness and gold coins surfacing in the sand! 😉

      Really? That’s pretty cool. No one famous or infamous lurking in my family tree 😦 So, does that make you a proper Lady or do the titles only flow through the male line?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, I am probably lucky to live now – I am not head on stake ruthless lol

        Yeah even in todays age is quite the feat lol … love stinks lol 😘

        Yes I have been to Tortola – is beautiful but a lot of shopping 🛍️ – you would probably find that in the areas that are local – not the tourist areas – I was in the tourist areas lol … although I do not think gold coins surface in the sand lol

        Well she was an Irish pirate queen… so not sure how proper lol … I’ve heard she had quite the tongue lol … marched to the beat of her own drum 😘❤️ … and in a man’s world – commanded it 🫶

        Doesn’t really make me anything other than a descendent – blood line

        But I am proper Lady in my own right 😘

        Ha!! Through the male line – that’s not a thing anymore – even within royalty of Europe

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Haha, that she was and her descendants seem to have gathered more titles than Bonaparte! 😉 It was only relatively recently that her home passed out of the family. Shame really to have lasted so long and to then get split. Way of the world, I guess.
        And, of course, you are a proper lady! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I am pleased that you liked it! Yes, Duguay and Surcouf still have streets and statues in Saint-Malo don’t they? de Coatanlem is maybe less well known as he was before the so-called ‘golden age’? His manoir was for sale for a time – sadly out of my reach! 😉

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yes, Colin. They have statues and street names in Saint-Malo. Women had an important role too. I’m so glad you dedicated your article to them. We should have fone a fund raiser fir that Manoir! 😉 Next time! 🤣😂

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Another impressive write. mind blowing stories and pictures in support. Glad to make the acquaintance of the Tigress and Dieuleveut, the pirates! It’s the first time. I read about women pirates. I am baffled! Fiction or Nonfiction, you are such a great writer!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you Holly – much appreciated! 🙂
      Agreed. We do and I am certain they are out there but we hear so few of their stories! Hopefully we will not have to wait centuries before learning so much more of them!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Great topic, and wonderful post! The opening painting is amazing, with the ships on fire! It’s amazing that all we hear about is Joan of Arc but never any of these lady pirates. I guess because their “mission” wasn’t as “upstanding” as Joan’s, lol. But really, the woman who was avenging Philippe VI’s betrayal sounds like a great story. Sans the slaughter of women and children, of course. But then…I guess she wouldn’t be a pirate, otherwise, right? haha

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much! I am happy that you enjoyed their stories! 🙂
      Agreed! I have no idea why their stories are not better known. Brittany’s male pirates were national heroes and still have streets named after them! I wonder if de Belleville was lost to history because of politics – her son aligned himself very closely to the French throne and maybe his mother’s history sat uncomfortably with that?

      Liked by 1 person

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