The history of Brittany in France is a rollercoaster ride of Celtic shenanigans and epic feuds, served with a side of linguistic acrobatics.
Known as “Bretagne” in French, the Brittany region is known for trying to go things its own way. It is a region with a strong independent Celtic heritage that it adheres to this day.
And this is despite the region’s conquest by the Romans (who named it “Armorica”), followed by the Franks (who tried to wipe out the local language Breton), and every other invading force to the area.
All the while, the local folks in Brittany enjoyed a view of the English coastline from its windows, making for occasional allies as well as political foes.
As the region was located along the west coast of France, its proximity to the English coastline was closer than its distance from the French capital Paris, making for an interesting tug-of-war. There’s nothing quite as spicy like a territorial soap opera, Breton-style!
So let’s have a look at some of the key points in the history of Brittany, shall we? Allons-y!
1. Artefacts date back to the prehistoric era.
Settlements in Brittany date back to prehistory, from 700,000 years BC. It is the site of some of the world’s oldest standing structures such as the the Neolithic Barnenez, the megalithic Carnac stones, and Tumulus Saint-Michel date back to the 5th century BC.
While French history shows that the Gaelic tribes were spread throughout France, these cultural monuments are mostly only still visible in Bretagne.
2. It was inhabited by Gallic and Celtic tribes.
The first written record dealing with Brittany comes from around 500 BC. At the time, the Gauls followed pagan traditions and were closely related to the Celts of the British Isles.
Like at Stonehenge in England, menhirs and other Celtic and Gaelic artefacts have been found all over Brittany.
3. The area was conquered by Julius Caesar and the Romans.
Brittany was conquered by Julius Caesar in 56 BCE, on his way to the British Isles. The region became part of the Roman Empire as “Armorica” which was a Romanized version of the Celtic word for “seaside.”
4. Celtic Britons from Wales and Cornwall took refuge here.
The Celtic traditions in Brittany strengthened after the fall of Rome. This is because in the 5th and 6th centuries, the Britons of what is now Wales and Cornwall in Great Britain began to emigrate to Armorica (aka Brittany).
The tribes were of Celtic origin and immigrated to Brittany to escape the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain that was going on at the time.
An example is the Celtic settlement near the town of Saint-Malo in Brittany which was named after the Welsh Malo d’Aleth, one of the most famous saints in France. He came across the English channel from his native Wales in the 6th century, bringing Christianity to the region, building many churches in the area.
As such, the region gained the name “Little Britain” or “Brittany”. In French, the region is called “Bretagne” and Great Britain is called “Grand Bretagne“. Brittany, which is known as “Breizh” in Breton, is one of 6 Celtic nations along with:
- Cornwall (known as “Kernow”)
- Ireland (known as “Éire”)
- Scotland (known as “Alba”)
- Wales (known as “Cymru”)
- Isle of Man (known as “Mannin”, or “Ellan Vannin”)
5. The Kingdom of Brittany was formed under King Nominoe in the 9th century.
At the beginning of the medieval era, Brittany was divided into multiple kingdoms, including Domnonea, Cornouaille and Broërec.
It would be the legendary Nominoe who would merge these realms eventually merged into a Kingdom as King between 845 and 851. He is considered the Breton “Pater Patriae“, meaning “father of the country” in Latin.
6. The area was heavily attacked by the Vikings.
Brittany was heavily attacked by the Vikings at the beginning of the 10th century, losing territories like Normandy and Anjou. At this time Brittany was called “Lydwiccum”.
7. The Duchy of Brittany was formed.
The Kingdom was liberated by Alan II of Brittany in 937 with the support of his godbrother King Æthelstan of England. For aiding in getting rid of the vikings, Alan agreed to pay homage to Louis IV of France (who was also Æthelstan’s nephew) and thus Brittany ceased to be a kingdom and became the Duchy of Bretagne.
8. Brittany and Normandy were traditional rivals.
The Battle of Dinan occurred in 1065, when King Harold actually fought on the side of Duke William against Duke Conan of Brittany. William won and the battle is recalled in the Bayeux Tapestry
Some of the Breton nobles would be a powerful allies helping William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy to invade England. Many nobles were awarded lands in Brittany, as a result of William’s victories
These days, the region of Brittany and Normandy continue a low-key rivalry, with each claiming that their culture is distinct.
9. The Bretagne war of succession helped preserve Brittany’s independence for a while.
The War of the Breton Succession was a local episode of the Hundred Years’ War.
It saw the House of Blois backed by the French, fighting with the House of Montfort, backed by the English. The Montforts won in 1364 and enjoyed a period of independence until the end of the 100 Years’ War.
It is also known as the War of the Two Jeannes due to the involvement of two queens of that name, Jeanne of Flanders and Jeanne de Penthièvre.
10. The Duke of Brittany was on the losing side in the War of the Roses and the Mad War.
The Dukes of Brittany were closely linked with the English, and in 1471 Duke François II of Bretagne unexpectedly became the protector of England’s House of Lancaster in exile. It was a period of civil war in England as the House of York and House of Lancaster fought each other for the English throne.
As soon as the House of Lancaster was defeated, Duke François II got involved in a revolt against French royal authority called the “Mad War”. He lost, and with that Brittany was again forced to give allegiance to the King of France.
11. Anne de Bretagne marries the King of France.
The year was 1491 and the wars in the region had barely ended, when there was a highly eligible 14-year-old bride entered the royal marriage mart.
Anne de Bretagne was the daughter of Duke François II of Bretagne, and his only heir to reach adulthood. She and her lands were so coveted, that she was promptly betrothed to:
- Edward, Prince of Wales and heir to the English throne
- Maximilian, King of the Romans and Archduke of Austria
- Alain I of Albret, a French count and great-grandson of Duke John V of Brittany
- Louis, Duke of Orléans, cousin of French King Charles VIII.
- John IV of Chalon-Arlay, Prince of Orange (Netherlands)
- Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham (England)
The poor girl, fortunately, didn’t have to marry all those men, because King Charles VIII of France (and his army) insisted that she marry him instead.
In order to save the city of Rennes which was under siege, she acquiesced. And thus the duchy of Brittany became part of France.
Her husband King Charles VIII would not last long however. None of their children survived early childhood, and when the king died in 1498, the throne went to his cousin, King Louis XII.
Following an agreement made to secure the annexation of Brittany by France, Anne had to marry the new king, making her twice the Queen of France.
Throughout her life Anne de Bretagne fought for the rights of Bretons, as its citizens were called. To this day the region of Brittany considers itself a separate entity, paying her tribute.
12. King François I takes away Brittany’s independence.
Anne de Bretagne died in 1514 without a male heir. The French throne and the Duchy of Brittany was inherited by a cousin, King Francois I who was married to Anne’s daughter. He formally united the two crowns was in 1532.
He did however grant several privileges to Brittany, such as exemption from a tax on salt. Brittany and France were governed as separate countries but under the same crown, so Breton aristocrats in the French royal court were classed as Princes étrangers (foreign princes).
13. Jacques Cartier went to Canada from Brittany.
On April 20, 1534, French explorer Jacques Cartier set sail from his hometown of Saint-Malo in Brittany under a commission from King François I. He would make several trips to the area for François I. It was the start of the French colonial expansion, and settlement of lands in the Americas.
Along with sailors, the area around the Brittany coast was also famous for being a pirates’ den. It was the era of the high seas, and merchant ships from neighboring England, Spain, and the Netherlands were fair game in this war of attrition. The region became wealthy as its pirates and sailors brought back wealth from their travels.
14. During the 1789 French Revolution, the Duchy of Brittany was abolished.
The Bretagne Parliament was dissolved by the French National Assembly but famously never ratified by the Parlement itself.
The Parliament of Brittany had been established in 1485 by Duke François II of Brittany, the father of Anne, providing a direct link to the fight for independence.
The Parliament of Brittany met on the same day for the final time to declare the decision “null and void forever”.
15. The flag of Brittany still flies high.
The black and white flag of Brittany still flies high across the region. It is called the Gwenn-ha-du in Breton, a relative of the Celtic language.
It was designed in 1923 by Morvan Marchal, an activist in the Breton movement for liberty and independence, who was inspired by the American flag and the flags of the age-old rulers of Brittany.
It continues to be used in protests and displayed around the region of Brittany.
If you enjoyed that article, you may like to read more facts about Brittany here. A bientôt!