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Post-Roman Britain

The Kingdom of Brittany

by Peter Kessler, 1 April 1999. Updated 19 March 2016

Armorica, the western arm of northern Gaul, was the ancient domain of the Veneti. Although there were smaller Celtic tribes also living in the area, the Veneti were the most powerful.

Several theories account for their origins, but the best - and most practical - of these is that they were northern Celts, otherwise known as Belgae. This population seemingly migrated into the Low Countries and northern Gaul around the fourth and third centuries BC from an unspecified location farther to the east.

The area had been mostly Celtic for over three hundred years. It was as much an established part of Gaul as the Romans were of Italy. During the second century BC, Gaul was considered a centre of Celtic culture in Europe.

Conquest by Rome

At this time over sixty major tribes inhabited this western section of Gaul (present day France). Rich accounts of Julius Caesar's Gallic Wars (circa 52 BC) and the Roman conquest of Gaul are found in various writings, supplying a lively picture of the Celtic warriors.

Wisely, the Roman conquerors and governors allowed the Celts to blend their mythology with that of the Romans and, in some instances, the Romans embraced some of the Celtic gods and goddesses themselves, such as Epona, the goddess of mares.

By AD 400, the newly arriving Franks regarded themselves as the natural heirs of the Romans in Gaul and they sought to retain their hold on this, the richest part of Gaul. However, during the middle years of the fifth century, at a time at which former Saxon foederati were in revolt in Britain, a migration of the island's upper classes secured Armorica for Britain's 'Second Kingdom', as it was sometimes known.

The Franks had not yet had a chance to secure the territory for themselves, and wouldn't have been powerful enough to contemplate it until at least the start of the sixth century. Now they had Romano-Britons there, and a fairly powerful bunch of them, to say the least.

In time, this British settlement proved fully capable of defending itself. By AD 450, most of the land north of the Loire was under British control, submerging the older Gallic and Belgic tribes. The Franks eventually created a border zone which served to peg back the British advance, and the two sides achieved a form of balance for a century or so.

Glomel in Brittany
The landscape of Armorica - extremely hilly inland with a wonderful, long coastline - would have seemed very familiar to the Britons who began to settle here from the late fourth century onwards (Glomel in the modern Côtes-d'Armor département is shown here)


Britons abroad in Gaul

Armorica was being settled by Britons long before the end of the Roman empire, however.

Traditionally, the colony in Brittany was established before the expedition into Gaul of Constantine III in 407-411. According to what little evidence is available, Magnus Maximus secured Armorica during his own earlier expedition in 383, and as a reward for his support gave it to his wife's cousin, Conan Meriadog of Dumnonia.

Conan governed much of what forms modern Brittany as the 'Kingdom of Vannetais', maintaining the local Celtic tribal name (of the Veneti) with a probable capital in Vannes. But in the usual Celtic practice of dividing territory between sons and with other adventurers from Britain founding states of their own, a patchwork of as many as half a dozen smaller sub-kingdoms or principalities were created during the course of the fifth and sixth centuries.

In these early days, and at least before Dumnonia in south-western Britain crumbled from the seventh century onwards, the British of Armorica had very close ties with the home country, and probably recognised the authority of the central administration in Britain (whether that was a proposed high king or not).

Respectful of this, the likely (and slightly lesser) title for the overall ruler of British Armorica, as used by writers such as Gregory of Tours, should be 'King of the Bretons'.

Many kings are mentioned for Bro Erech, Cornouaille, Domnonia, Leon, and Poher in the later Lives of the Saints and Medieval Abbey Charters, on most occasions where the Bretons had dealings outside their borders only one king of the Bretons is mentioned. It seems highly likely that the sub-kingdoms continued to be ruled over by the 'High' king, or king of the Bretons, probably in much the same way as the high kings of Britain are traditionally though to have governed.

Historically, the first Breton chief to be cited on the continent is Ivomadus who established himself in Blois in 410 (Chronicles of Anjou).

His activities take place outside of Conan's Vannetais, in an enlarged British occupied territory in Gaul. He and his men were likely to be the remains of Constantine III's army which crossed the Channel with him after proclaiming him emperor in 406.

Although the records seem to name him as a king of Brittany, he may only have been acting in the king's name, or perhaps operating in Blois as a sub-king or entirely independent commander in his own right.

As the Britons are said to have controlled most of the territory north of the Loire by 450, Blois must have been part of an extended Armorican (Breton) kingdom until it fell to Clovis in 491. From that date, Brittany contracted to what largely became its traditional borders.

Meagre records

After Constantine departed, Jordanes explains that a monarch named Riothamus fought as an ally of Emperor Anthemius against the Visigothic King Euric in 469. After this, the only other historically confirmed fact from the fifth century is that the town of Blois was captured by the Frankish King Clovis in 491, probably the eastern limits of Brittany's occupied territory within Gaul (Chronicles of Anjou).

After circa 600, the kings of Domnonia appear to have gained precedence over the others, always likely as this was Armorica's strongest kingdom.

From Iudicael onwards, the kings of Domnonia were also just about always the kings of the Bretons for as long as they were independent. Despite the claims of the Frankish Duke Wido on his expedition through Brittany around the year 800, Brittany was still not a Frankish subject, remaining unconquered by the Carolingians.

Ninth century Breton history confirms this in the many attacks made by Charlemagne and his successors on the state. It wasn't until circa 900 that Brittany lost some of its status, accepting French overlordship (although not direct French rule) and reducing the kingdom to the status of a duchy.

It still retained its independence until 1532, when the last duchess of Brittany, Anne, already married King Charles VIII of France, became queen regnant of France itself and the Union Treaty of Vannes, one of Brittany's oldest centres, was signed.

 

 

     
Text copyright © P L Kessler. An original feature for the History Files.