38 - Jeanne de Clisson (la belle dame sans merci)

Words by French: Patrice Deshayes and Stéphanie Deshayes; English: Rosie Sharkey
Tune by Patrice Deshayes and Stéphanie Deshayes

Always on the look-out for songs about female seafarers, we found this one in French by Celtic folk-rock duo Stetrice about the 14th-century avenging pirate, Jeanne de Clisson, Lioness of Brittany.

We loved the tune so inexpertly tried translating but, in order to keep the rhyme scheme and fit with the tune, the words ended up changing a lot. So the English version is a reinterpretation that fits the original tune, and tells a bit more of Jeanne's story, for anglophones. It has a refrain, but it doesn't kick in after every verse, so watch out!

The 'La belle dame sans merci' line is originally from a French poem about unrequited love written over a century after Jeanne was born, but it seemed to fit her merciless revenge just as much as a scornful lover.

The original words from Stetrice are below, for any French speakers.

Let me tell you, my friends, of a woman named Jeanne
As widow and pirate she avenged her dead man
With sails red as blood, aboard her black ships three
Lioness of Bretagne, la belle dame sans merci

With sails red as blood, aboard her black ships three
Lioness of Bretagne, la belle dame sans merci

Seven centuries ago, in the hundred years’ war
England and France fought for Brittany’s shores
Olivier de Clisson sided with the French crown
But for fear of betrayal, Charles de Blois cast him down

Thanks to whispers of treason in King Philippe’s ear
Olivier was condemned, faced the sword without fear
And like salt in the wound, the King sent his head
To hang on Nantes’ gates, shaming the dead

Jeanne de Clisson heard her husband was dead
So she took her young sons to see their father’s head
Gazing at his blank eyes, Jeanne yearned for revenge
And she vowed in that moment, her love to avenge

With sails red as blood, aboard her black ships three
Lioness of Bretagne, la belle dame sans merci

She-wolf of the Channel, Lioness of the main
Jeanne slaughtered French sailors again and again
She’d leave one man alive to warn others to flee
From Jeanne de Clisson, la belle dame sans merci

Her flagship, ‘My Vengeance’ was beaten at last
She escaped from the wreck, holding her two sons fast
For five days she rowed, praying for England’s shore
But her youngest, Guillaume, at last breathed no more

With sails red as blood, aboard her black ships three
Lioness of Bretagne, la belle dame sans merci

She cradled his body, adrift on the sea
Swore she’d bring his sweet brother home to Brittany
And Jeanne found her way home, and lived peacefully
Lioness of Bretagne, la belle dame sans merci

Let me tell you, my friends, of a woman named Jeanne
As widow and pirate she avenged her dead man
With sails red as blood, aboard her black ships three
Lioness of Bretagne, la belle dame sans merci

Ecoutez braves gens les aventures de Jeanne
La lionne de Clisson, exhilée de Bretagne
Une histoire de femme, et de ses deux enfants
Celle qui fut la terreur du Royaume des francs

Olivier de Clisson, son mari fut tué
A la porte de Nantes, sa tête fut accrochée
Pour alliance aux Montforts, et Royaume d’Angleterre
Contre l’envahisseur qui lui volait sa terre

Le poignard à la main, mais la mort dans l’âme
Débutèrent les tueries, le vengeance de Jeanne
hors la loi sans allié que le Diable en personne
Pour ne laisser entendre que le canon qui tonne

Elle écumait les mers, chassant la fleur de Lys
Enseignant les batailles et la mer à ses fils
Et les marins français tremblaient face au vaisseau
arborant le Jolly Roger comme drapeau

Après nombreuses victoires et batiments coulés
de l’ultime défaite, elle put s’échapper
Dérivant sur les flots avec ses deux jeunes gars
Elle vit l’un de ses enfants mourir dans ses bras

C’est ainsi que disparut Jeanne de Clisson
Pour élever son dernier descendant breton
Mais le destin aussi a voula sa revanche
Il devint connétable auprès du Roy de France

Ici prennent fin les aventures de Jeanne
La lionne de Clisson, exhilée de Bretagne
L’histoire d’une veuve, et de ses deux enfants
Celle qui fut la terreur du Royaume des francs