Olivier de Clisson

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Olivier V de Clisson
Constable of France
Coat of Arms Clisson Family
Coat of Arms Clisson Family
Spouse(s) Catherine of Laval and Chateaubriant
Titles and styles
Earl of Porhoët, Baron Pontchâteau, Lord of Clisson, Porhoet of Belleville and Garnache
Father Olivier IV de Clisson
Mother Jeanne de Clisson
Born 23 April 1336
Château de Clisson,Brittany
Died 23 April 1407
Buried Chapel at the castle of Josselin

Olivier V de Clisson (1336, Clisson – 23 April 1407), nicknamed "The Butcher", was a Breton soldier, the son of Olivier IV de Clisson, who was put to death by the French in 1343 on the suspicion of having willingly given up the city of Vannes to the English.


Olivier de Clisson was born on April 23, 1336 at the Château de Clisson in Brittany.

Clisson Family Context[edit]

Olivier’s father chose the camp of Charles de Blois and the King of France in the Breton War of Succession and was the military commander defending the city of Vannes when the English besieged it in 1342. His father was captured by the English and imprisoned, but was released after a relatively low ransom was paid. Because of the amount, the King of France, Philip VI and his advisers suspected Clisson of conspiring with King Edward III.

After a peace treaty was signed, his father was invited to Paris for a tournament, but was arrested, tried and executed by beheading on 2 August 1343. This expeditious execution shocked the nobility as the evidence of guilt was never made public. Moreover, the notion of betrayal does not refer in the same way for nobles of that time: they claimed the right to choose whom to honor. Olivier IV's body received additional posthumous humiliation: his body was hanged by the armpits at the gallows at Montfaucon in Paris, and his head was piked at the Sauvetout gate of Nantes.

Crest of the House of de Montfort

Formative years on the seas and in England[edit]

Olivier’s mother, Jeanne de Belleville née de Clisson, swore Olivier and his brother Guillaume to avenge their father. She raised funds for an army to attack troops loyal to France, stationed in Brittany. Eventually she armed ships and started a piratical war against French ships. These ships were eventually lost and Jeanne with her two sons set adrift for five days. Guillaume died of thirst, cold and exhaustion. Olivier and his mother were finally rescued and taken to Morlaix by Montfort supporters.

It was after these events that Olivier was taken by his mother to England when he was twelve years old. He was raised in the court of King Edward III with John IV de Montfort, a future claimant of the Ducal throne of Brittany. Olivier's mother Jeanne, eventually married her fourth husband, an English military commander of King Edward III.

Breton War of Succession[edit]

1359: After ten years in England, Olivier, then twenty-three, accompanied King Edward III and John IV at the head of an Breton-English force to Brittany as part of a guerilla campaign near Poitou.

Olivier V de Clisson depicted on his tomb Basilique Notre Dame du Roncier, Josselin, Brittany.

Treaty of Brétigny[edit]

1360: Olivier was reconciled by the new King of France, John II, the Good as part of the Treaty of Brétigny on 8 May, which sought to defuse sources of conflict between France and England. This treaty opened a nine-year truce between the two Kingdoms. This process allowed for the posthumous rehabilitation of Olivier's father's honour and regaining his family’s rights and privileges.

First Marriage[edit]

In the same year, Olivier also married Catherine of Laval (fr) and Chateaubriant, heiress of the family Laval, and granddaughter of the Duke Arthur II. He therefore became both first cousin of both Ducal claimants:

  • John IV de Montfort and
  • Joan, Duchess of Brittany, wife of Charles de Blois,

This also made Olivier a relative of the King of France. This alliance opened up new political possibilities. The marriage produced two daughters:

  • Beatrice of Laval, lady Villemomble
  • Margaret

The war continues[edit]

1363: Olivier still on the side of the Breton-English Montfortists and one of the commanders of the Montfort troops failed to take Nantes, but managed to hold Bécherel.

Chaos as the French King is captured[edit]

1364: Several months after the accession of another French King, Charles V, John IV took advantage of the troubled situation in France since the capture of King John II, the Good and was assisted by the English under John Chandos, the commander who had decided the battle of Poitiers.

Death of Charles de Blois[edit]

1365: John IV besieged the city of Auray. The two opposing Breton armies clashed under the walls of the city on September 29. Monfortistes were entrenched there and John IV attempted to overcome the numerical inferiority of his army by attacking the Breton-French camp by surprise. The Breton-English commander however adopted a proposal from Olivier and waited for the Breton-French army to climb a slope leading to Auray. They managed to divide the troops of Charles de Blois and were fought separately. Isolated from the bulk of his army, Charles de Blois was surrounded and killed in the melee, while Bertrand du Guesclin, the French Commander, was captured but released later with a ransom in 1365. The Breton War of Succession ended with this battle and Olivier had played an important role. Olivier was however injured and lost the use of one eye, earning him the nickname "the Auray Blind".

The First Treaty of Guérande and the spoils of war[edit]

The widow of Charles de Blois, Joan, Duchess of Brittany, acceded to these events, and peace talks between the houses of Blois and Montfort started. John IV, was nicknamed the Conqueror and was recognized as the only Duke of Brittany. Olivier, while nursing his injury learnt that John IV had given the English commander, John Chandos, the Gâvre castle and forest, a reward, Olivier coveted for his loyal service. Olivier expressed his displeasure at the new Duke, but this did not change the matter. Olivier evidently raged "I would rather give myself to the devil than have a English neighbor" A fortnight later, the Gâvre castle was surprisingly burnt down. In response to this, Duke John IV confiscated the lordship of Châteauceaux from Olivier.

1366: Olivier was then sent to Paris as the Breton ambassador to ensure that Charles V, King of France complied to the guarantees of the status of an independent Brittany. On 22 May, Olivier was received with great fanfare, in Paris.

Battle of Castile[edit]

1367: Olivier participated, with the English General, Robert Knolles under command of the Black Prince, at the battle of Nájera (Castile) faced troops commanded by the French Constable du Guesclin. The French lost this battle and du Guesclin was captured for the second time.

Change of allegiances to France[edit]

1369: In the spring, Olivier advised the French King in planning a possible invasion of England, to avoid the winter storms of the Channel given the weakness of the French fleet.

In August of the same year, Olivier failed to take Saint-Sauveur-le-Vicomte for the English, since he was forced to decamp and to negotiate on behalf of Duke John IV with King Charles V.

King Charles V apparently secured the full services of Olivier at this stage by paying him with properties in Normandy. It is with these lands that Olivier exchanged for the lordship of Josselin with the Count of Alençon, his cousin in 1370. A few months later, Olivier formalised his change of allegiance, by signing a charter establishing the suzerainty of the King of France over Josselin, even though it was located in the heart of Brittany. For his part, Duke John IV expressed his displeasure with Olivier in this regard.

Crest of France
Entrance gate of Clisson's residence, rue des Archives, Paris, with plaque.

1370. Having acquired the lordship of Josselin, Olivier began to build Josselin Castle, an imposing new fortress with eight towers.[1] In the same year, he joined Bertrand du Guesclin, the constable of France, and followed him in campaigns against the English, including the Siege of Brest in 1373.

1370: King Charles V requested Olivier to plunder English-controlled southwest France. On 23 October, Olivier allied now with du Guesclin, by the oath of Pontorson, defeated the English at the Battle of Pontvallain, The oath between the new allies stated that the benefits of any gains would be shared. This alliance was indicative of the general state of vassalage links of the era, leading to situations where these links were intertwined and inextricable, each becoming free to choose sides in the interests of the moment. The brotherhood of arms had become greater than the vassal relationship, Olivier respected the oath with Du Guesclin. From this pact, Olivier formally became a Valois[disambiguation needed], the murderers of his father.

In the same year, during a raid by the English General Robert Knolles outside Paris, Olivier advised the King in a cautious tactic, a defensive strategy to avoid a pitched battle as the French were not sufficiently prepared; Knowles was eventually turned away from capital.

1371: The King of France decided to attack the English in their possessions of Guyenne. The Constable and Olivier shared the military command, the former leading the fight in Auvergne and Rouergue, while the second attacked the English positions of Poitou, Saintonge and Anjou during the summer. The English retaliated by leading an expedition against the stronghold of Moncontour, which fell after ten days of siege.

1372: The English controlled cities of Loudun, Saint Jean d'Angely and Saintes were captured. The people of La Rochelle themselves opened the gates to the French troops. On several occasions, as with Moncontour, the English did not spare prisoners who could pay ransom. The squire of Olivier who was captured in Benon Saintonge, was tortured and killed. In revenge, Olivier executed fifteen prisoners and developed a reputation for not hesitating to mutilate captive enemies, cutting off arms or legs. du Guesclin evidently remarked "God! The body of St. Benedict, the English are not wrong when they call you the Butcher! "

Breton War Debt[edit]

Brittany was at this stage indebted to the English King Edward III. Thomas Melbourne, Treasurer and Receiver General of the Duchy, and other advisors to the Breton Duke were English. Breton Nobles such as Olivier resented this as well as an increasing popular discontent over the implementation of a permanent ducal tax, the hearth tax. Duke John IV chose to sign a new treaty of alliance with England explaining to France that he was forced to host English troops in order to counter Olivier's militant presence in Brittany.

1373: In response to this, King Charles V ordered the Constable on 1 March to seize the Duchy and ensure the support of Olivier, by giving him the lordship of Guillac. Du Guesclin and Olivier started a propaganda war to discredit the Breton nobility of Duke John IV. English troops were stationed in Derval, Rouge, Brest and Saint-Mathieu. Abandoned by most of the Breton nobility, Duke John IV was forced into exile and crossed the English Channel on April 28 1373.

Olivier as co-regent of Brittany[edit]

Olivier could have claimed the title of Duke, but King Charles V chose to hand over Brittany to his brother, the Duke of Anjou, who was married to a daughter of Charles Penthievre Blois, to head the Duchy, with the title of "lieutenant of the King" This appointment was however honorific, as the Duke of Anjou never entered Brittany. Olivier was subsequently appointed co-regent with a Vicount, John I of Rohan.

1373, the summer began with the siege of Derval, symbolic as this castle was the property of the English General, Robert Knolles.

1373-1377: Duke John IV re entered Brittany after attaining the services of the English Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt to intervene with about ten thousand troops. Duke John IV retook Saint-Pol-de-Léon and besieged St. Brieuc. In southern Brittany, Olivier built up military forces, while Duke John IV tried to capture Quimperlé. A truce between the Kings of France and England however prevented Olivier from using it this force. The siege of Brest lasted from 1373 to 1377; Olivier then built the fortress of Guesnou to prohibit access to the city by the sea. At this stage, Brest was the last city under English occupation in Brittany.

1378: King Charles V made the political choice to fully annex Brittany to the Kingdom of France in December 18, causing a reversal of the independence of the Breton nobility, including Joan, Duchess of Brittany, as the Treaty of Guérande had not been respected. King Charles V petitioned four Breton lords to give their opinion on the subject:

  • Guy XII de Laval refused to fight against Duke John IV,
  • Vicount Rohan timidly promised his help,
  • Clisson and du Guesclin affirmed their loyalty to the Valois cause.

Duke John IV on his return from exile found support in Brittany and a Breton provisional government was created to meet with the King of France. Olivier saw an opportunity to take the title of Duke but failed again to convince the King of France as Duke John IV again had a secret arrangements with the then King of England, Richard II. Duke John IV therefore reclaimed his seat of Brittany except the land held by Olivier, including Nantes.

Olivier V de Clisson personal blason

Second Marriage[edit]

1378: Widowed, Olivier married his second wife Marguerite de Rohan (1330-1406), a daughter of Alain VII Rohan. Marguerite was the widow of Jean de Beaumanoir, a hero of the Breton nobility, who faced the English at the battle of Trent, she had three daughters. A sister of Clisson, Isabeau, is also united in 1338 to Jean Rieux. With these unions, Olivier V is linked to the largest noble families of Brittany.

Constable of France under a new French King[edit]

1380: After the death of du Guesclin, King Charles VI, was crowned at the age of twelve and gave Olivier the rank of Constable of France on November 28, with the support of the Duke of Anjou, but despite the opposition of the Dukes of Berry and Burgundy, all three uncles of the King. Two other two candidates declined the offer considering that Olivier's experienced fighting skills. The role of Constable gave the holder the right to keep loot of war apart from gold, silver and prisoners. Olivier received the Constable's sword, and held the office from 1380 to 1392.

The Second Treaty of Guerande[edit]

1381: the second Treaty of Guérande of 4 April normalised relations between the Duchy of Brittany and the Kingdom of France, Duke John IV and Olivier signed a treaty of "good allies" on 30 May 1381, which was reaffirmed on 27 February 1382.

Flanders campaign[edit]

1382: Battle of Roosebeke: Following a revolt in Flanders challenging feudal power, King Charles VI of France decided to intervene and assist his ally, the Count of Flanders, Louis de Male. Olivier led the French Royal army on 27 November to victory in the battle during which twenty-five thousand men were massacred. The Constable was able to apply a tactical advantage against the inexperienced bourgeois militias, artisans and merchants who were crushed by the seasoned French troops, who then engaged in massive looting.

The Flemish uprising caused secondary emancipatory desires in Paris itself. A decision to reinstate a tax which had been abolished by the previous King, started a revolt from the citizens of Paris Revolt of Maillotins in March 1382. King Charles VI's absence from Paris while supporting his troops in Flanders, gave hope to the revolters that royal power had weakened. King Charles VI's, victory in Flanders and return to Paris however changed the situation as the Parisians chose not to confront the King. In February 1383, Olivier stated to them that they appear to be rich and bourgeois, and stated: "Corps and property, you are in case of forfeiture. See what you choose: justice or mercy." They chose mercy, that is to say the payment of a large sum depending on the fortunes of each person. The King's entourage was magnanimous and eventually abandons a portion of these "fines".

Marriage of daughter[edit]

1384: The treaty Olivier had with Duke John IV did not prevent him to pay the ransom of the Count of Penthièvre, Jean de Blois, son of Charles de Blois, who was held hostage in England. Moreover, Olivier betrothed his daughter Margaret, to him. It appears that Olivier was positioning his family as under the terms of the Treaty of Guérande, if Duke John IV had no male child, Jean de Blois, son of Joan, Duchess of Brittany, would then be the Ducal heir apparent.

The England invasion project[edit]

1384: Olivier conceived a project to invade England using a huge fortified raft. One thousand three hundred ships were gathered and protected by ninety-seven warships. This very expensive operation was not successful: at the time of its completion, in December 1386. The Duke of Berry, one of the King’s uncles, delayed and prevented the smooth running of the operation, especially as main supporter, the Duke of Burgundy had fallen ill. Bad weather also prevented the project, which was finally abandoned in 1387.

First Assassination Attempt[edit]

1387: Olivier was invited by Duke John IV to attend a session of the Parliament of Brittany in Vannes, to inaugurate the castle of Hermine which Duke John IV had built. On 27 June 1387, the Constable was seized and imprisoned, and the Duke ordered that Olivier be sealed in a bag and thrown into water, but this order is not followed through by Jehan Bazvalan, the weapons master of Duke John IV, who was content to keep him locked up. In the morning, Duke John IV asked about the fate of Olivier, and John Bazvalan admitted the non-execution of the order. Olivier eventually had to pay a large sum and gave to Duke John IV the forts of Blain, Josselin and Jugon Le Guildo.

1388: The King of France traded with the Duke for Olivier and restored the Constable his confiscated land, but not the ransom. This was to spare the Duke from humiliation and again becoming a fulcrum for the English.

The government marmousets[edit]

Since the King was only twelve years old, Olivier played a special role, as the historian Françoise Autrand qualified, as an "uncle". By 1388 at the age of fifteen, King Charles VI decided to govern without his real uncle. The Constable was now part of a group which headed the government, included with Olivier were:

  • the chamberlain of Charles V Bureau de La Rivière
  • Jean Le Mercier promoted to grand master of Hotel King
  • John Montaigu

This political episode is known as the "government of the marmousets'.

Heir to Brittany[edit]

1389: The King encouraged leader of noble Breton families such as Olivier, to apply for the title of Duke of Brittany, if Duke John IV had no male heir. The Duke of Brittany, however did produce a son with Jeanne de Navarre, who was also named Jean and was born on 24 December.

Second Assassination Attempt[edit]

1392: On Olivier's return to Paris, an attempt was made to assassinate him by Pierre de Craon, allegedly at the instigation of Duke John IV. Craon waylaid Olivier in a narrow street. Olivier's unarmed servants fled, but Olivier was saved from death by his chainmail coat, and was able to draw his sword and fend off his attackers. In the struggle, he fell from his horse and was knocked out against the door of a baker's shop. Believing him dead, Craon fled Paris for Brittany.[2]

Refuge in Brittany[edit]

In order to punish Duke John IV and Craon, King Charles VI, accompanied by the Constable, marched on Brittany, but it was on this expedition that the King was seized with a bout of madness. The uncles of King Charles VI blamed Olivier for his breakdown. During King Charles VI’s dementia phase, the King's uncle was returned to power. The Parliament[2] condemned Olivier and on December 10, 1392 for having illegally enriched himself and banished Olivier from the Kingdom and fined him two hundred thousand pounds, as well as the return of the sword of Constable. Olivier refused to return the sword, and seeks refuge in the castle of Montlhéry, and in Brittany in his castle of Josselin.

Duke John IV wanted to ingratiate the favor of France, besieged Josselin. By 1394, King Charles VI however restored confidence in Olivier and although Philip of Artois succeeded him in 1392, the King confirmed his function as the Constable. In 1397, Louis de Sancerre was also appointed Constable, replacing Philippe of Artois who had died, but Olivier retained the privilege of being the holder of 'sword. By 1397 Olivier had also formed a secondary Royal alliance with Louis d'Orleans, brother of King Charles VI.

Reconciliation with Duke John IV and Protector of Brittany[edit]

After thirty years of conflict, Olivier, through the Duke of Bourgogne, was reconciled in 1396 with his overlord Duke John IV. The latter sent his son as a guarantee of his sincerity. They promised peace and good friendship until death. The promise was kept, the two men were at peace when Duke John IV died in 1399. The Dukes son was only ten years old when the regent Joan of Navarre married King Henry IV of England. Louis of Orleans offered to his brother King Charles VI that the government of Brittany be therefore entrusted to Olivier, to prevent it passing under English domination, however Philip the Bold became regent of Duchy.

Crest of the Dutchy of Brittany

Marguerite de Clisson, daughter of Olivier, nicknamed Margot, however sided with her husband John of Brittany, Count of Penthièvre, claimed the Duchy, and attracted the wrath of her father, who predicted: "Perverse, you'll ruin your children.” This prediction will come true, since two of her sons will be executed for treason after removing the Duke and the third will be imprisoned for twenty five years. The clash of Olivier and his daughter in 1399 and gave rise to a legend. In her flight, Marguerite broke her leg and became lame earning her the nickname "Lame Margot." This legend was probably invented by an opposing faction of the family after 1420.

Death at Josselin[edit]

After mentioning in his will a wish to return the sword of the Constable, Olivier de Clisson died in Josselin on 23 April 1407 at the age of 71. He was buried in the chapel of the castle of Josselin. His grave was however desecrated in 1793.


Clisson carried the noble titles of:

  • Earl of Porhoët,
  • Baron Pontchâteau,
  • "Lord of Clisson, Porhoet of Belleville and Garnache, Clisson and Belleville was the name of the respective lordships of his father (who was a Knight banneret) and her mother.


Clisson had two daughters, born of his union with Catherine de Laval.

The eldest, Beatrice (born before 1366 - died in 1448), married in 1407 Alain VIII de Rohan. Their son, Alain IX of Rohan, married Margaret, a sister of John V. This branch of the Rohan family had a flourishing destiny and inherited Castle Josselin. The twenty-first (de Rohan Senator Morbihan from 1983 to 2011, held the title of Duke of Rohan, a 19th generation of grandson of Olivier).

Marguerite (1366 - 1441) married January 20, 1387 John I of Châtillon, the son of Joan, Duchess of Brittany, Duchess of Brittany, and Charles de Blois. Taking up the claims of Penthièvre family in terms of the ducal throne, she kidnapped John V, son of Duke John IV. She was defeated and her property was confiscated by John V.


Depending on the items specified in his will, Yvonig Gicquel estimated that the annual revenues of Olivier in 1400 were around five hundred million Francs, representing about one hundred and eighty million euros in 2013 terms. When estimating his property, his heritage and his fortune was estimated at six tons of gold and sixty tons of silver.


  1. ^ History at chateaujosselin.com
  2. ^ a b Michael Jones, Ducal Brittany, 1364-1399: relations with England and France during the reign of Duke John IV, Oxford University Press, 1970, pp. 106, 123-4, 128, 130, 200.

Further reading[edit]

  • Turnbull, Stephen, The Book of the Medieval Knight (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1985).
  • Henneman, John Bell, Olivier de Clisson and Political Society in France under Charles V and Charles VI (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996).