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Archive for the tag “revenge”

A lady with claws

The other day, I was at the dentist. I detest going to the dentist, no matter how much I like the actual dentist. My dentist is a charming man who entertains me with anecdotes from Paris while he drills. Doesn’t help much, but at least he tries. Anyway: the single upside with going to the dentist is that the waiting room has a very varied selection of magazines. So while I was waiting I came upon an article about the Lioness from Brittany. The article made me smile and remember a very enthusiastic history teacher when I was in fifth grade. Mrs Miller was a big fan of spicing up her lessons with plenty of human interest, and the story of the Lioness from Brittany (or La Tigresse Bretonne, as Mrs Miller always called her, seeing as Mrs Miller was French which led to a somewhat alternative take on The Hundred Years’ War in general and Henry V in particular) comes with a huge dollop of drama. You haven’t heard of this feline lady? Not to worry, as I feel she deserves some airtime here on my blog—after all, I have a thing about strong women who flaunt convention and carve their own path through life.

Today’s protagonist was born around 1300 in France, more specifically in the Vendeé to the wealthy nobleman Maurice Montaigu de Belleville and his wife, Letice. The baby was christened Jeanne and at the tender age of twelve she was married to Geoffrey de Chateaubriant who was all of nineteen. Two years later, she gave birth to her first child, a son, to be followed by a daughter some years later. If she gave birth to more children, these must have died young as there is no record of them. So far, her life had been nothing out of the ordinary. Nor was the death of her husband in 1326 an unusual event. People died all the time back then. Come to think of it, they still do. Anyway: Jeanne was not destined to remain a widow for long. Already in 1328 she remarried, but a year later that marriage was declared null and void by the pope, maybe because by then Jeanne had met the love of her life, Olivier de Clisson.

Now, there is some evidence indicating Jeanne and Olivier went years back. In fact, some say Jeanne gave birth to a daughter fathered by Olivier already in 1325, when she was still married to hubby nr 1. Rather unlikely, IMO—a child born to a married woman was automatically assumed to be her husband’s child. For a baby to be recorded as being fathered by another man, the mother would have had to come forward and admit to adultery. Seems like a stupid thing to do for a medieval lady.

Clisson by Cyril5555 800px-Vue_château_et_pont_Clisson

Clisson – photo by Cyril555, licensed under Creative Commons

Anyway: in 1330, Jeanne wed Olivier de Clisson, a well-off Breton who swept her off to live happily ever after with him at his castle in Clisson. Soon enough, Jeanne gave birth to a son. And another. And another. First son died young, but as some sort of compensation Jeanne and Olivier also had a daughter. All in all, the Clissons were happy with each other. Thing is, the times were complicated politically – and that is putting it mildly.

In 1337, King Edward III of England officially claimed the French crown, this based on the fact that he was the grandson of Philippe IV. Obviously, this did not go down well with the crowned French king, Philippe VI, who was the nephew of Philippe IV, son to the rather impressive Charles of Valois. Now, at the time there were some regions which we would call French that were pretty much independent. One such region was Brittany, which was of strategic importance in a war between England and France as it offered a lot of coastline for English ships to safely land English knights, men-at-arms and archers.

The situation in Brittany was somewhat messy: The previous duke of Brittany, Arthur, had married twice. In his first marriage, he had three sons, one of whom was named John and was recognised as his heir. In his second marriage he had yet another son, also called John but known to history as John de Montfort as he inherited the title of count of Montfort through his mother. One wonders why the same father would name two sons John, but maybe he had a special fondness for this particular name.

When Arthur died, his eldest John inherited as John III. This John detested his half-siblings and expended a lot of energy on trying to get them branded as bastards. Didn’t work. As John III had no children of his own, his younger brother was his obvious heir. This John III didn’t like, so instead he chose his niece, yet another Jeanne as his designated heir. This Jeanne was married to a certain Charles de Blois who was delighted at the notion of becoming Duke of Brittany.

clisson john_entering_nantes

John de Montfort entering Nantes

In 1341, John III died – after changing his mind and naming his half-brother as heir. Too late. Charles de Blois claimed the dukedom on behalf of his wife. John de Montfort was not about to give up his patrimony without a fight, and soon enough he had Edward III in his court, while Charles de Blois had the support of Philippe VI of France. The stage, as they say, was set for a very long and very bloody conflict…

The local nobility took sides. Olivier de Clisson seems to have supported Charles de Blois. His brother, Amaury de Clisson, supported John de Montfort. Olivier was ordered to help defend the city of Vannes against the English. In 1342, Vannes fell to the English and Olivier was captured. He was subsequently exchanged for Ralph Stafford (a gentleman whose rather high-handed marital exploits you can read much more about here) and a ransom. A suspiciously low ransom according to Philippe VI who suspected Olivier might be in cahoots with the English and John de Montfort.

Clisson Exécution_d'Olivier_IV_de_Clisson_(1343)

Olivier and his Breton buddies being executed

The French king had a devious side to him. In 1343, a treaty was signed by Philippe VI and Edward III, creating a bit of a breathing space in the ongoing war. To celebrate, Philippe organised a major tournament and Olivier, together with some other Breton lords, was invited to take part. Turns out there wouldn’t be much jousting for Olivier. Instead, he (and several other Breton lords) was arrested, dragged off to Paris where he was tried by his peers and sentenced to death. Early in August, he was beheaded, his body displayed in a gibbet and his head sent off to adorn a spike in Nantes.

In France, such a public display of a nobleman’s body was not the done thing. Besides, there was no evidence of Olivier’s guilt. Contemporaries were therefore not impressed by their king’s actions, with quite a few expressing concern an innocent and loyal man had been murdered on the king’s say-so.

Back in Bretagne, Jeanne received the news of her husband’s death. She took her two surviving sons with her to Nantes to show them their father’s head, and I can’t imagine what it must have felt like for her (and her boys, at the time seven and five) to see her husband’s head displayed as a trophy. Something snapped in Jeanne. There, in front of her beloved husband’s decapitated head the forty-three-year-old widow swore revenge: King Philippe would live to regret having murdered her husband.

Clisson 500px-De_Belleville_Montaigu-1

Supposedly, this is Jeanne.

First, Jeanne sold everything she had of value—likely the lands had been attainted, but what she could sell, she sold. Then she armed herself (legend says with a huge axe), hired several men-at-arms and began her own personal war on the French. Supposedly she attacked a couple of castles, slaughtered the garrisons (she left one or two alive as witnesses) and openly declared her support for John de Montfort—and Edward III.

After this initial killing spree, Jeanne bought three ships (probably with financial support from the English) that she painted black and fitted with crimson sails, and began to wreak havoc on the French. This was not a pirate out for spoils. Jeanne targeted French ships to kill, exacting a grisly and bloody revenge for the death of her husband. She participated herself in the killing—or so the legend says—using that big axe of hers to lop of the heads of whatever unfortunate Frenchmen she captured. French nobles could expect no mercy, no matter that they promised huge ransoms. The Lioness of Brittany was not interested in gold: she wanted blood.

clisson BattleofSluys

Battle of Sluys

The French had nothing with which to fight back—at least not initially. After all, the French had lost most of their fleet at the Battle of Sluys in 1340, and Philippe was beginning to feel the pinch of being constantly at war: he simply did not have the money or the men to outfit a new fleet.


Clisson Capture_Charles_de_Blois

Charles de Blois being captured

In Brittany, it seemed Charles of Blois had finally managed to gain the upper hand. By 1345, John de Montfort was dead and most of his supporters had no choice but to make their peace with Charles. However: Charles did not inspire much loyalty among the Bretons—especially not after slaughtering huge numbers of civilians when he took the town of Quimper. And when the English defeated the French at Crecy and went on to capture Charles of Blois in 1347, the de Montfort cause revived somewhat.

Not that Jeanne cared. She’d helped the English transport provisions over the Channel in preparation for Crecy, but otherwise she preferred to expend her time on her favourite pastime: murdering Frenchmen. However, her luck could not hold for ever, and somewhere around 1346-47 the French managed to sink her flagship. Jeanne and her two sons ended up drifting around for days. Her younger son died of exposure before they were rescued and she decided to send her surviving and eldest son, Olivier, to England to be raised in the household of the English king. After this, she went back to her pirating and would continue to be a scourge on the French until 1356 or so.

After thirteen years as a pirate captain, Jeanne had apparently had enough. Her husband’s death had been avenged many times over and her eldest son was safe in England where he was a close companion of John de Montfort Jr. At well over fifty, she was probably tired of living on a cramped ship. Or maybe it was more a case of wanting to spend time with her new hubby, an English gentleman called Walter Bentley. Whatever the case, she settled down in the Breton town of Hennebont with her husband, the castle in which she lived situated right by the sea.

In 1359, Jeanne died. She would therefore never know that her eldest son was destined to become the most famous Clisson male, ending his life as Constable of France and the richest man around. But that, as they say, is another story. Besides, I’m not entirely sure our Jeanne would have been pleased by her son’s change of sides. For her, Philippe VI had permanently killed any loyalty to France when he unjustly beheaded her husband.

So lived and died La Tigresse Bretonne, a lady who brought home just how dangerous a woman can be when sufficiently riled. And frankly, thinking about her did serve as an adequate distraction while my dear dentist went at it with his drill. After all, if she could survive her excessively exciting life, then I can live through a visit to the dentist. Maybe.

Brotherly love in medieval Sweden

463px-Hommage_of_Edward_I_to_Philippe_le_BelIt’s tough being a parent. Even tougher if you were a medieval king, blessed with too many sons. Just look at what happened to poor old England in the aftermath of Edward III, what with him having a number of healthy sons, all of them with their own dynastic ambitions. Maybe things wouldn’t have ended up as pear-shaped as they did had the eldest, Edward the Black Prince, been as healthy and long-lived as his brothers, but as it was… Civil war, people, cousins fighting cousins, tearing the kingdom apart.

VädersolstavlanAs a case in point, let us travel back to the very early fourteenth century and Sweden, at the time not much of a kingdom to squabble about – at least not from a lofty European perspective, but hey, you make do with what you have.

Due to the Swedes being a prideful people, very conscious of their rights and liberties, kingship was still not hereditary at the beginning of the fourteenth century. In fact, it wouldn’t become hereditary for another two centuries or so. In principle, that is, because in practise the Swedish crown had been bandied back and forth between a couple of families, murder leading to usurpation, yet another murder resulting in the crown being snatched back, more murders, more crown-snatching… you get the picture, right? Very much Shakespeare, very exhausting, especially for the people caught in the middle (and all those murdered kings, of course).

Birger_jarl_(Forssén)However, in the late thirteenth century Sweden was gifted with a man of foresight and vision, named Birger Jarl (Jarl is the equivalent to the English word “Earl”, but a Jarl is far more powerful, closer to a royal Marshal) More or less single-handedly, dear Birger brought peace to Sweden (and God to Finland, although his crusades to Sweden’s eastern neighbour were no walk in the park for the poor Finns), and to ensure this hard-won peace would survive his own life, he groomed his son, Valdemar, to be king while he himself was still around to guide him and support him. A relatively successful strategy – as long as Birger remained alive.

No sooner was Birger safely interred, but Valdemar  and his brother Magnus locked horns, and as Magnus was the far more capable of the two, ultimately he won, had Valdemar incarcerated for life (but under relatively comfortable circumstances – Magnus thereby qualifies as a nice dude) and set out to do all that work for which he is remembered as one of our foremost lawmakers. As an aside, Magnus gets a high score when it comes to his laws: in other European countries, women were perceived as chattels, in Sweden they got hereditary rights AND were legally protected when it came to abuse and rape – how innovative!

Magnus had three sons. One would have thought he would have spent a lot of time ensuring his sons grew to love each other so as to avoid the situation he himself had experienced with his older brother. Well, maybe he planned to, but unfortunately, Magnus died young, and by the time his three sons were adults, there was little love lost between them. The eldest, Birger, was the king while his two younger brothers, Erik and Valdemar were “only” dukes – something Erik set out to change by creating his own mini-kingdom in the borderlands between Sweden and Norway.



Tensions increased, tempers were lost. Birger was royally pissed off at Erik for setting himself up as an alternative king – even more so as Erik attracted a much larger following than Birger, being perceived as the better and more capable of the brothers. Birger growled and threatened, did his best to curtail Erik’s powers.Erik smiled and seethed, straining against these royal proclamations that restricted his power, while baby brother Valdemar followed Erik’s lead like an adoring hound.

In 1307, Erik and Valdemar dropped in for a surprise visit at Birger’s palace in Håtuna. The king was somewhat taken aback, but welcomed his brothers and their retinues as well as he could given the short notice. In the middle of the night, Erik and Valdemar snuck into Birger’s bedroom and took the king and his queen prisoner. Birger’s son, however, escaped, carried away by a loyal servant before Erik’s men could grab the little boy.

The king and queen were locked up in Nyköpingshus (Sweden’s most formidable castle at the time), but if Erik hoped that by holding the king captive he had sorted things once and for all he was wrong. Pressure was brought to bear on the young, larger-than-his-boots duke. A lot of pressure, as Erik was a stubborn character (and, apparently, an excellent leader of men. Charismatic, even), but ultimately he agreed to release his brother (on the condition that both he and Valdemar were given huge shares of Sweden, effectively splitting the kingdom into three), the kiss of peace was exchanged and things settled down – for a while.


Duke Erik’s seal

Birger went back to ruling what remained of his kingdom, Erik concentrated his ambitions on winning the hand of the fair Ingeborg, princess of Norway and heiress to the Norwegian throne. Ingeborg’s father blew hot and cold, not entirely sure he approved of a duke that set himself up against his king, but Erik was a good match, and Erik was finally approved as royal son-in-law, marrying little Ingeborg in 1312, when she was about eleven. Baby brother Valdemar was also married to an Ingeborg, also a Norwegian princess (but not the heiress to the crown). Happily ever after, one could hope, the two younger brothers settling down to enjoy life as married men and future fathers.

Remember the saying “revenge is a dish best eaten cold”? Well, dear king Birger would wholeheartedly agree, and for a decade he held his peace, probably choking on bitter bile whenever he saw his brothers, which was as rarely as possible. But in 1317 he somehow managed to convince Erik and Valdemar that bygones were bygones, and invited his brothers to celebrate Christmas with him at Nyköpingshus. Silly idiots, they came. In a reversal of the events ten years earlier at Håtuna, the king served Erik and Valdemar one more delicious dish after the other, and once the brothers were asleep, he had them arrested, struck in irons and thrown into the deepest dungeon of the castle, all the while asking them if they remembered the “fun and games at Håtuna” as well as he did. Obviously not; had they but stopped to think Birger’s invitation through, they might have decided to pass…


Erik and Valdemar being thrown into the dungeon

The reaction to Birger’s imprisonment of his (much more) popular brothers was violent. Birger was taken very much by surprise when the kingdom erupted in anger, and saw no option but to flee the country. But before he did, it is said he took the time to pop by for one last visit to his brothers, by now rather weakened after weeks in the dark with very little food. He bid them goodbye, held up the key to their dungeon, and promised he would throw it in the moat when he left. Which he did.

As per tradition, Erik and Valdemar starved to death in their dungeon, as no one could open the door to give them food. Hmm. Whatever the case, they wrote a will (which still exists), made their peace with God (but not, one assumes, with their brother)  and died. Nine months later their rather decayed corpses were exposed on the walls of Nyköpingshus, this to deter the besieging armies. Didn’t work. If anything, the sight of the dead bodies of their lords enraged the armies further, and very soon afterwards the royal castle fell to the besiegers.

Erik was dead. Valdemar was dead. Birger was in exile and would never return. Birger’s son, Magnus, was imprisoned and subsequently executed – despite being promised his life.  So ended the tragedy of the three Magnusson brothers, preserved for posterity in the “Erikskrönika” (The Chronicle of Erik). And in 1319, a small three-year old boy was elected king of Sweden and Norway, staring with certain trepidation at the nobles that surrounded him. “Hail Magnus Eriksson!” the men shouted, “Hail our new king!”


Magnus Eriksson

Given his father’s importune death of starvation, Magnus had no brothers to make his life hell. Somehow, I don’t think that was much of a comfort, either to little Magnus or to Erik’s formidable widow, Ingeborg. Besides, Magnus Eriksson was destined to have his own personal burr up his royal arse, namely St Birgitta of Sweden, and I seriously suspect there were days when he would have preferred a dozen murderous brother to her. But that, as they say, is another story, dear people, one you can find right here!


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