Côtes d'Armor Finistère Ille-et-Vilaine Morbihan


Some Notes on Brittany

   There had been two earlier attempts to rationalize the départements of France, and  the historic and geographical Brittany lost 20% of its area in the Vichy Programme of 1941; these initial attempts were either ineffective or were abolished in 1945. When the regions of France were created in 1956 that 20% - the Département of Loire-Atlantique - was included in the region of Pays-de-la-Loire so that Brittany not only lost one of its five départements but also its regional capital, Nantes, which this département had contained. Many Bretons, understandably, are not at all happy about this as Brittany was quite independent from France for a long period of its history. It is also culturally and linguistically distinct, even though there had been attempts to eliminate the Breton language.- 4
   The four départments are now: Finistère (capital Quimper), Côtes d'Armor (originally, Côtes-de-Nord) (capital Saint-Brieuc), Morbihan (capital Vannes), and Ille-et-Vilaine (capital Rennes, which is also the regional capital.) There are three languages spoken in Brittany: French, of course, Breton, a Celtic language, and Gallo, which is a form of early Northern French and is spoken, as might be expected, in the eastern part of Brittany.

   The Romans called Britain, Brittania, the original source of this word coming from a word meaning cut, presumably because it is an island cut off from mainland Europe; however, they referred to Brittany  as Amorica, meaning close to the sea. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire Brittany was also called Brittania but in due course became called Brittania Minor (or Little Britain) to distinguish it from Brittania Major, or in other words, from Great Britain. So the Great in Great Britain has nothing to do with being it being great no more than Little Britain (now Brittany) has anything to do with it being somehow inferior. Rather like Bunter Major and Bunter Minor, terms which will be familiar to fans of the Owl of the Remove.

At the beginning of the middle ages Brittany was divided into three separate kingdoms which were then united into a single kingdom under Nominoe (king 845-857). Subsequently the Kingdom of Brittany reached its maximum extent extending into what are now adjacent départements, only to be reduced again by severe Viking attacks. In 937. Allan II of Brittany - with the support of Athelstan, the first king of England - expelled the Vikings and recreated a strong state. Allan paid homage to Louis IV ⁻° of France so that Brittany ceased to be a kingdom and became a duchy. Breton lords helped William the Conqueror invade England and were given large estates there as a reward. However the Dukes of Brittany were often independent, allying with either the French or the English as best suited their own particular purpose.

   The Breton War of Succession, which was itself a localized part of the Hundred Years' War between England and France, was fought between the House of Blois (backed by England) and the House of Montford (backed by France). The House of Montford triumphed in 1364 and enjoyed independence until the end of the Hundred Years' War. The eventual failure of the English as the Hundred Years' War drew to a close led to Breton commanders playing key roles in the defeat of the English in the final battles. The war ended in 1453 with victory to the French and only Calais remained in English hands.

  In 1485 after the death of Louis XI, 'The Universal Spider' (top left), and during the minority of his son Charles VIII 'The Affable', France was ruled by a regent, Anne de Beaujeu (top right),  the late King's sister.  In what came to be known as the Mad War, a coalition of feudal lords, including François II, Duke of Brittany with aid from the Empire and the kingdoms of England and Castile-Leon, attempted to depose Anne, who must have been quite a formidable lady as she succeeded in breaking the revolt without a major battle. A truce was agreed in 1485 but a second phase of the rebellion broke out when the truce expired: this was regarded as a Franco-Breton war between France and François II of Brittany. This rebellion again ended in failure with the defeat of François at the Battle of Saint-Aubin-du-Cormier. Peace was restored with the Treaty of Sablé being signed in 1488. In this François acknowledged the French king as overlord, but the clause that interests us here is the one specifying that the Duke would need  the permission of the French King for the marriage of his daughters.

   François had made his daughter Anne of Brittany ⁻¹ (mid left) promise never to subjugate Brittany to France. He died a few months after the Treaty of Sablé was signed as a result of a fall from his horse when Anne was eleven years old. In 1490, Anne now being thirteen was married by proxy to Maximilian of Austria (mid right), the future Holy Roman Emperor; Maximilian was of the Hapsburg family whose holdings included not only the Holy Roman (German) Empire but Burgundy, the Low Countries and lands in the Iberian peninsula. This certainly kept Anne's promise to her father but it not only broke the terms of the Treaty of Sablé but also would have surrounded France by her enemies, and was thus quite unacceptable to the Regent, Anne de Beaujeu. 

   King Charles VIII (left), now twenty-one, took his army into Brittany and laid siege and soon captured Anne of Brittany's stronghold Rennes. Maximilian, preoccupied with affairs in the Empire did nothing. Anne now agreed to marry King Charles and they were subsequently married in 1491 in an elaborate ceremony on the banks of the Loire at Langeais, although the marriage was of dubious validity. One of the terms of the marriage contract was that if Charles were to died before Anne and if the had not produced a male heir, then she was to marry the next king of France. In fact Charles did die first by, it is reported, hitting his head on a low door lintel, at the early age of twenty-seven in 1498; and they had not produced a male heir although Anne, in one of her seven pregnancies, had given birth to only one surviving child, a son who had died, of measles at the age of three.

   The next king of France was Charles's cousin, Louis XII  'The Father of the People', a popular king (bottom right) whom Anne, according to the marriage contract married ⁻². This marriage produced nine children of which only two survived, both daughters, one of whom is important to our narrative here. Anne died in 1515 aged only 37 and before her husband . The surviving daughter was Claude, who on her mother Anne's death, became Duchess of Brittany, and four months later married her cousin  François, Duke of Valois. He was heir to the French throne, being then the nearest male relative of  Louis XII. If Louis XII did not produce a male heir form his third marriage to Mary Tudor, the sister of HenryVIII of England, then  François would succeed to the throne. He did not and François succeeded to the throne and again a Duchess of Brittany became Queen of France. François and Claude had seven children but only two lived past the age of thirty. Claude died young at only twenty-four and was succeeded in Brittany by her eldest son the Dauphin François who became Duke François III. He died childless and then, Henry, the second son of Louis XII and Claude became both Dauphin and Duke of Brittany; he eventually succeeded to the throne as Henry II.

   At the revolution Brittany was abolished as a province of France - although hardly as a cultural and geographical entity or as a people - and was divided into five départements. The five départements remained until in 1956 the region of Brittany was created out of four and that takes us to where we began

Claude, Duchess of Brittany

François I

   ⁻° Allan II 'Allan Twisted Beard (Varveck in Breton) and Louis IV (Louis from Overseas) were closely allied as both had been exiles in England as the courts of Kind Edward the Elder of Wessex (son of Alfred the Great) and his son Athelstan because of internal  disruption ins their kingdoms. Louis IV's mother was a daughter of Edward the Elder.

    ⁻¹ Anne had been initially promised to King Edward V, one of the 'Princes in the Tower'; it might be interesting (although entirely futile) to speculate the future course of history if this boy king had survived.

   ⁻² Louis XII, as Louis of Oléans, had been forced by Louis XI to marry the latter's daughter Joan who was deformed and sterile. This was a cynical attempt by the King to extinguish the Orléans cadet branch of the Valois dynasty. Louis XII, when he became king, had this marriage annulled by the Pope so that he could marry Anne. Joan later founded a monastic order.

   -3  In fact there are three languages spoken in Brittany: French, of course; Breton, spoken in the west and related to the Celtic languages of the British Isles; while in the east a dialect of langues d'oïl - a language continuum spoken in Nothern France - may be heard. Breton which began to die out has had a revival in recent times: it is taught as a second language in some schools and used partially by some media.