French history

Virginia Ghesquière

Virginia Ghesquière was a soldier in the French army during the First French Empire of Napoleon Bonaparte during the 19th century.

While little is known of Ghesquière's early life, it is established that she joined the French army in 1806. Ghesquière elected to take her brother Jean Baptiste's place in the French army, disguising herself as a man. Accounts vary as to whether her brother died in battle and she replaced him masquerading as another brother, or if she represented herself as Jean Baptiste himself in order to enlist. Regardless, Ghesquière served in the 27th Line Regiment of the army for 6 years.

Ghesquière had a distinguished military career serving in a number of campaigns during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1807 she took part in the invasion of Portugal during the Peninsular War, serving under General Jean-Andoche Junot. Distinguished numerous times for her performance, Ghesquière was promoted to Sergeant for her bravery at the Battle of Wagram, where she saved her captain from drowning in the Danube river. She was also commended for saving the life of a colonel who had fallen from his horse after being shot.

Ghesquière was injured in battle in 1812 and the surgeon treating her wounds discovered her identity as a woman. This led to her immediate dismissal from the army. However for her contribution in the war she was awarded the French Legion of Honor medal by Napoleon himself.

Ghesquière's dismissal from the army brought her a small amount of fame and she was featured in an article of the Journal de l'Empire newspaper. There was also a song composed about her life, which referred to her as the 'jolie sergent' (pretty sergeant). Although her year of birth is unknown, Ghesquière is believed to have been over 100 years old when she died in 1854.

Jeanne de Clisson

Jeanne de Clisson, also known as the Lioness of Brittany, was a Breton pirate who launched a reign of terror across the English Channel in the 14th century.

Jeanne became embroiled in the events of the Hundred Years’ War between England and France when her husband, Oliver, placed his support behind the English candidate to rule Brittany. For this he was tried and executed for treason by King Philip VI of France.

Enraged, Jeanne swore vengeance for the betrayal. She sold her husband’s remaining land so that she could buy three warships, which she had painted black with red sails. Under Jeanne’s command the ‘Black Fleet’ raided the English Channel for the next 13 years, destroying any French warships they came across. Each time Jeanne had the crew slaughtered, save for one or two French sailors which she sent back to the French king to let him know what she had done.

While an independent privateer, Jeanne formed an alliance of convenience with the English and helped to keep supplies available to the English forces for the Battle of Crécy in 1346. Even after Philip VI died in 1350, Jeanne continued to wreak havoc on French shipping. She made a point of targeting ships carrying French noblemen, which she boarded so that she could personally behead the aristocrats with her axe. 

In 1356, Jeanne retired from piracy and married an English lieutenant. She later returned to France, where she died in 1359.