Famous Female Outlaws: The Lioness of Brittany

Jeanne de Clisson, known from history as the Lioness of Brittany, began life as a Breton noblewoman in 1300. Her parents arranged for her marriage at the age of 12 to the 19 year old Geoffroy de Châteaubriant VIII. They had two children before he died prematurely in 1326. She married again in 1328 to Guy of Penthièvre, but this didn’t last long – the marriage was annulled in 1330 by Pope John XXII. Until her third marriage, Jeanne’s life was uneventful, but in 1330 she married Olivier de Clisson IV, a wealthy nobleman with lands in Blain, a castle in Clisson and a manor house in Nantes. They...

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Famous Courtesans: Jane Shore

  Jane Shore (c.1445 – c.1527) was the mistress of Edward IV during the last decade of his life. She was born in London as a part of the merchant class, the daughter of John and Amy Lambert. Her father was a successful business man, and Jane spent many days in her father shop, coming into contact with many upper class ladies. While she was very beautiful, she was also very intelligent and her father ensured she was well educated, a rarity for women of her class. Her great beauty attracted many admirers including those in the King’s circle, such as William Hastings. This level of...

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Famous Courtesans: Veronica Franco

Veronica Franco (1546-1591) was a poet and courtesan in sixteenth century Venice. There were two types of courtesans during this period: the upper class, intellectual cortigiana onesta, and cortigiana di lume, the lower class courtesans. Veronica was one the most successful and popular cortigiana onesta courtesans of her time. Her mother, Paola Fracassa, was also a cortigiana onesta who brought Veronica up to be well educated, and to use her natural assets to ensure she got a good marriage. In her teens she married the wealthy physician, Paolo Panizza, but the couple separated shortly after....

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Famous Courtesans: Madame du Barry

Madame du Barry, or Jeanne Becu (19 August 1743 – 8 December 1793), was the last chief mistress (or maitresse-en-titre) of Louis XV of France. At the high point of her career she was one of the most influential women in France. Although her origins do not reflect this, as the illegitimate daughter of a seamstress she came from a fairly lowborn family. Her predecessor, Marquise de Pompadour, had set a precedent for girls who weren’t a part of the French nobility becoming the maitress-en-titre, although Jeanne had further to climb than de Pompadour. In her youth she had a variety of...

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Famous Courtesans: Harriette Wilson

Harriette Wilson (22 February 1786 – 10 March 1845) was a Regency courtesan. She had many high profile clients including the Prince of Wales; Arthur Wellsley, 1st Duke of Wellington; Lord Melbourne’s son the honourable Frederick Lamb; and the Duke of Argyll. While she was a beautiful woman, part of her charm was her intelligence and wit. She played the perfect balance of feigning disinterest while also keeping the interest of the man. The high class men of the day were used to ladies of polite society and enjoyed the wit and interesting conversation she provided. Her three sisters were...

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Famous Courtesans: Alice Perrers

Alice Perrers (c. 1348-1400) was the mistress of the English King, Edward III. Even compared to the negative press mistresses got during this period, Alice was particularly despised. Little is known about Alice’s early life, although it is known that she had a poor start in life: some stories say that she was the daughter of a knight, while others claim she was the illegitimate product of a relationship between a town labourer and tavern whore. It is more likely to be the former, as she would have needed to be a certain level of class to become Queen Phillipa’s lady-in-waiting. She joined...

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Famous Courtesans: Emma, Lady Hamilton

Emma was born in 1761, with the birth name Amy Lyon. She was the daughter of a blacksmith but she rose through several high profile relationships to become one of the most well known British women in the world, the most famous of which was her relationship with Admiral Horatio Nelson. Emma’s father died when she was very young, and she was brought up by her mother. She had no formal education and began working at a young age as a maid in houses, which she soon switched to be a maid to actresses at Drury Lane Theatre. It was here that she caught the eye of her first suitor, Sir Harry...

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Famous Courtesans: Nell Gwyn

Nell Gwyn (1650-1687) was an English actress and the most famous mistress of Charles II. She embodied the spirit of the restoration period in England. She came from very humble beginnings: there are rumours her father died in a debtors prison when she was very young. She grew up with her mother, who ran a brothel, and it is believed Nell worked there, pouring drinks for customers. With her older sister she became an orange girl at the Drury Lane theatre. Here she caught the eye of Charles Hart and became his mistress, soon after she joined stage and began her career as an actress. From...

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Famous Courtesans: Mata Hari

Mata Hari was born Margaretha Zelle in Leeuwarden, Netherlands in 1876. She was the eldest of four children to Adam Zelle and Ante van der Meulan. Her father was successful in his business ventures, including a hat shop and oil investments. Margaretha had a privileged start to life, going to good schools and living comfortably. In 1889 things started to fall apart: her father went bankrupt, her parents divorced and in 1891 her mother died. Margaretha moved to Sneek to live with her godfather and started training to become a kindergarten teacher. However, when the headteacher began to show...

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Famous Courtesans: Wu Hou

Wu Hou, born as Wu Zhao, came from a minor aristocratic family in China. She became the first woman to hold the title of Emperor of China, and her extraordinary story starts with her becoming the concubine of Emperor Taizong, of the Tang dynasty. She was selected at the age of 13 to become one of the Emperor’s imperial concubines, because of her beauty. She had tough competition, as the Emperor had 122 concubines, who were all graded. At the top was the Empress (who had died before Wu joined the harem), below her were 4 women of the 1st grade, then came 9 women of the 2nd grade, then...

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