By Peter Konieczny
“And now you shall hear of the boldest and most remarkable feat ever performed by a woman.”
It ranks as one of the most exciting stories from the 14th century, one that chroniclers of that time relished in telling and historians have ever since recounted. It was the defence of Hennebont in the year 1342 by Countess Joanna of Flanders, which would earn her the nickname Jeanne la Flamme (Fiery Joanna).
Perhaps the best account of this episode comes from The True Chronicles of Jean le Bel, a Flemish writer who had been commissioned to compose a history of recent events. He wanted his work to be honest and impartial, and to include only events that “I have witnessed myself or have heard from those who have been present when I have not.”
While historians have long known about Jean le Bel, his work was lost for centuries and was only rediscovered in the mid-19th century. His chronicle covers the years 1290 to 1360 and focuses on the situation between England and France during the early stages of the Hundred Years’ War. One large section covers the so-called War of the Breton Succession, a conflict that began when John III, Duke of Brittany, died on April 30, 1341. Since he had no children, his inheritance was in doubt and there were two claimants. One was his half-brother John of Montfort, and the other was his niece Joan of Penthièvre, who was married to Charles of Blois.
It did not take long for the Kings of England and France to get involved in the dispute – even though there was a lull in the fighting of the Hundred Years War, they each wanted their own candidate to become the next ruler of Brittany, a very strategic duchy on the northwest coast of France. While the King of France supported Joan and Charles, the English sided with John of Montfort.
In the autumn of 1341 the Monfortian side took a blow when John of Montfort was imprisoned by King Philip VI of France, despite having given him a promise of safe conduct. Charles of Blois then began preparing an army to invade and conquer Brittany, which he thought would be his soon. However, Joanna of Flanders, wife of John of Montfort, was not prepared to give up. She sent one of her trusted followers to sail to England and speak with King Edward III, asking him to send troops to help her defend Brittany.
While her message was being sent, the forces of Charles of Blois invaded the duchy and began to conquer its towns. After capturing Rennes in May of 1342, he began marching on Hennebont, where Joanna was based. Jean le Bel continues the story:
When the valiant lady and her supporters heard that Lord Charles was coming to besiege them, they gave orders for all their troops to arm and for the great bell to be rung to summon everyone to the city’s defence. This was done without demur. And when Lord Charles and the French lords drew near and saw the city’s strength they ordered their men to make camp in positions for a siege. Some of the young Genoese and Spanish fellows – French, too – went to skirmish at the barriers, and some of the defenders came out to meet them, as always happens; and there were a number of fierce clashes in which the Genoese, through their recklessness, lost more than they gained. When evening drew in everyone returned to quarters.
The fighting would continue over the next couple days, with “the valiant countess, armed and riding a great charger from street to street, was cheering and summoning everyone to the city’s defence, and commanding the women of the town, ladies and all, to take stones to the walls and fling them at the attackers, along with pots of quicklime.”
After three days of fighting, Jean le Bel relates one of the most dramatic moments of the siege:
And now you shall hear of the boldest and most remarkable feat ever performed by a woman. Know this: the valiant countess, who kept climbing the towers to see how the defence was progressing, saw that all the besiegers had left their quarters and gone forward to watch the assault. She conceived a fine plan. She remounted her charger, fully armed as she was, and called upon some three hundred men-at-arms who were guarding a gate that wasn’t under attack to mount with her; then she rode out with this company and charged boldly into the enemy camp, which was devoid of anyone but a few boys and servants. They killed them all and set fire to everything: soon the whole encampment was ablaze.
When the French lords saw their camp on fire and heard the shouting and commotion, the assault was abandoned as they rushed back in alarm, crying: “Treachery! Treachery!” The valiant countess, seeing them alerted and the besiegers streaming back from all sides, rallied her men and, realizing there was no way back to the town without losing many of her soldiers, rode off in another direction, straight to the castle of Brayt, some four leagues away.
While the defenders of Hennebont were happy over the victory, they did not know what had happened to Joanna. The French besiegers were no help either, as they shouted out: “Go on! Go find your countess! She’s lost for sure: it’ll be years before you see her again!”
The defenders had to only worry for five days:
Then the valiant countess, guessing her people would be alarmed and fearing for her, raised about five hundred troops well armed and clad and mounted, and rode from Brayt at midnight and came at the crack of dawn to one of the gates of Hennebont’s castle and entered to a triumphant blast of trumpets and drums and other instruments.
The Count of Blois, frustrated over Joanna’s victories and the many deaths on his own side, brought in twelve siege machines that could bombard the walls of Hennebont. Leaving to go besiege another town, Charles left Sir Herve of Leon in charge. Soon enough, the siege machines were wrecking the town and castle, and the defenders’ spirits began to waver. Among those inside Hennebont was Guy, Bishop of Leon and uncle to Sir Herve. The two had a parley and the nephew persuaded the Bishop to convince the other lords to give up before it was too late. Guy spoke to the other defenders, letting them know the terms of surrender.
Jean le Bel writes:
The countess immediately feared the worst, and begged them, on Our Lady’s honour, not to do anything rash, for she was confident that aid would arrive within three days. But the bishop was insistent and persuasive, filling the lords that night with alarm and dread. He carried on next morning, until they were all but convinced that they should yield; and Sir Hervé was just on his way to the town to accept their surrender when the valiant countess, looking out to sea from a castle window, began to shout in jubilation, crying with all the strength she could summon:
“I see the aid I’ve desired so long!”
All the people in the city ran to the walls to see what she had seen; and there, as plain as could be, they beheld a vast fleet of vessels, great and small, heading for Hennebont.
It was the English fleet, led by Sir Walter Mauny, who had arrived. King Edward III had agreed to come to the rescue of the Countess, but the fleet had been hampered by storms in the English Channel and had taken forty days to reach Brittany. Meanwhile, “Sir Herve was enraged; he called up the biggest engine they had and ordered a constant bombardment by day and night.”
As the English disembarked, Joanna of Flanders held a feast in their honour, where Sir Walter Mauny proposed a plan to stop the attack from the siege machine:
So Sir Walter and all his company went and armed at once, and slipped quietly through a gate, taking with them a body of three hundred archers who loosed such fine, dense volleys that they drove back the men who were guarding the engine. The men-at-arms then advanced and killed a good number, and toppled the great engine and smashed it to pieces before charging into the enemy camp and setting it ablaze, killing plenty before the besiegers were awake and could respond.
The fighting would continue on, drawing in more combatants from each side, but the English troops were able to get back behind the walls of Hennebont with their victory secure. Jean le Bel added that “anyone who saw the valiant countess then come down from the castle and kiss Sir Walter Mauny and his companions two or three times in turn, would have said she was a lady of noble spirit indeed.”
Two days later the French forces withdrew from Hennebont. The War of the Breton Succession would continue on for another 22 years, but when Charles of Blois was killed at the Battle of Auray in 1364, his wife’s claim to the duchy collapsed.
However, by this time the life of Joanna of Flanders had taken a tragic turn. A few years after victory at Hennebont she developed a mental illness while in England and had to be confined to a castle. She would live on until 1374, hopefully with the knowledge that her son had won the Duchy.
The story of Joanna of Flanders, who gained the nickname of Jeanne la Flamme / Fiery Joanna for her actions at the siege of Hennebont, is just one of the many events recorded by Jean le Bel in his True Chronicles. This work has been called “one of the most remarkable pieces of literature of the fourteenth century,” and offers readers vivid accounts of warfare and chivalry, including the Battle of Crecy and fighting on the Scottish frontier.