Corsairs were French privateers from the north-western French port of St-Malo, located on the northern coast of Brittany. Since the corsairs gained a swashbuckling reputation, the word corsair is also used generically as a more romantic or flamboyant version of the word privateer, or even of the word pirate. The barbary pirates of north Africa were sometimes called "Turkish corsairs".
The name "corsair" derives from the commissioning document received from the king, the Lettre de Course ("racing letter" or "racing commission"). The "race", la course, was a euphemism for chasing down foreign merchant shipping. The Lettre de Course was known in other countries as a letter of marque and reprisal (in French Lettre de Marque); the French often preferred the different term of Lettre de Course but the document was the same in substance.
The Corsair was ordered to attack only the ships of enemy countries, theoretically respecting “neutrals” and his own nation's ships. If he did not respect this rule, he was then treated as a pirate and hanged. The Corsairs' activities also provided the King with revenue as the licence required them to hand over a part of their booty to the King.
In common with privateers of other nationalities, however, they were often considered pirates by their foreign opponents, and could be hanged as pirates if captured by the foreigners they preyed on.
The “pirate” activities started in the Middle Ages the main goals really being to compensate for the economic problems in war periods; and the ship owners did not accept that the war was an obstacle to their trade. Jean de Châtillon, who was a bishop, in 1144 gave the town of St. Malo the status of rights of asylum which encouraged all manner of thieves and rogues to move there. Their motto was "Neither Breton, nor French, but from Saint Malo am I!". St Malo however, progressed and in 1308 the town was made into a free commune to encourage the commercial activities of craftsmen as well as merchants and ship owners. This did not really work out and later in 1395 the town became a free port. This situation continued until 1688.
The activities of the Corsairs were so profitable that the Minister of the Navy used this in his strategy to make money. Moreover, the King used to take one quarter and even one third of the booty. The Corsairs’ activities weakened France’s enemies; indeed, the English trade losses were very important from 1688 until 1717.
The relationship between the Corsairs and the State changed depending on who was leader. The rules became stricter and State control more and more present. At the end of the 18th century, the “course” started to decline until its legal death in 1856. The «course» disappeared in France with the Empire in 1815, but was officially only in 1856 during a meeting in Paris where every major nation was present during the Congress of Vienna (except Spain, Mexico and United States).
In the 1300s Jeanne de Montfort, nicknamed "The Flame", sailed in the English Channel plundering French ships, fighting with the English for Brittany's independence. She played an important role in the Battle of Morlaix. Another woman, Jeanne de Clisson, was known as "The Lioness of Brittany".