BRITTANY BRETAGNE (Fr); BREIZ (Breton).
The northwestern peninsula in France, and
- A pre-Viking Kingdom;
- A medieval Duchy;
- A gouvernement in the Ancien Régime;
- An administrative region in present-day France.
The region was called Armorica in Roman times, but there was much immigration into the peninsula from the island of Britain from the late 4th to the 7th centuries, with the greatest, and probably decisive, influx in the mid-6th century. The result was that the language became a Brittonic one rather than Gaulish, and the ancestor of the Breton language which is still widely used in the peninsula today. The name also changed, to Little Britain (Britannia Minor). The 6th century also saw political turbulence as factions amongst the people of the peninsula and amongst the neighbouring Franks led to disputes, changing alliances, and warfare.
In the early Carolingian period, or quite possibly before, the Franks placed the barrier of the Breton March across the neck of the peninsula. Louis the Pious, on the other hand, made Breton leaders his representatives in Brittany. After his death in 840, the intrigues of the Marcher lords, the skills of the Breton leader, Nominoë, and the preoccupation of Louis’s sons with the problems of dividing the Empire, allowed Nominoë (d.851) and his son, Erispoë (d.857) to create a Kingdom in Brittany, which absorbed much of the Breton March. As Kingdom or Duchy Brittany survived into the next century, despite dynastic disputes and bloody successions, but in the early 10th century, Vikings, who had been active at times in the lower Loire region, settled more and more in Brittany. There was no longer a King or Duke, though it is likely that local rulers continued through the occupation, including the important Count of Rennes, in the old March.
The Duchy – never again a Kingdom – was restored in 936 by Alan Barbetotte, grandson of the last ruler. His power was centred at Nantes. His only legitimate son died young, and although two of his bastards were Dukes, the real power had passed by 970 to the Count of Rennes, who was Duke by 988. The Counts of Nantes remained powerful and eventually in 1066 the Duchy passed to the heiress of Rennes and her husband, the Count of Nantes.
Brittany was sufficiently strong to maintain its separate existence until the end of the middle ages, but rarely strong enough to control its own destiny. During the first two centuries of the restored Duchy, the Dukes of Normandy and the Counts of Anjou contended for influence in Brittany. At times, when Normandy was weak, the Counts of Blois came into play, but they had the disadvantages of distance and no common border. Then in the 12th century the two rivals merged. Matilda, the only surviving legitimate child of Henry I of England and Normandy married Count Geoffrey V of Anjou (there were a good many illegitimate children of King Henry, one of them married to Duke Conan III of Brittany). Although the succession of Henry’s nephew, Stephen, to England and Normandy postponed the union of Anjou and Normandy, Count Geoffrey conquered Normandy in 1144 and in 1154 his heir, Henry II, became King of England. In Brittany a prolonged succession crisis followed the death of Duke Conan III in 1148, but ended in 1156 when the Duchy passed to the son of Conan III’s daughter and her first husband, a member of a junior branch of the Ducal House and also Earl of Richmond, in Yorkshire.
With Duke Conan IV began a long association between the Dukes and the Earldom of Richmond, which was to be generally held by them or a member of their family until 1399. Pressure upon Duke Conan forced him to permit the marriage of Constance, his infant daughter and heiress, to Geoffrey, the infant third son of Henry II. That accomplished, the Duke was obliged to abdicate in 1166, and Brittany passed to the two children, whose interests were looked after by King Henry. Thus the merging of the powers whose rivalry had helped to sustain Breton separation had apparently submerged Brittany.
A new power, always there in the background, now came to the fore – the King of France. In 1203 Arthur, the son of Geoffrey, was murdered; if primogeniture were the rule, then he should have become King of England when Richard I died. Captured by King John, he died in his custody. It gave a moral reason for Philip Augustus’s decision in the following year to dispossess John of Normandy and Anjou. Arthur had left a sister, Eleanor, but she was in the custody of the English King, and in custody the Damsel of Brittany remained until her death in 1241. Eleanor was not the only heiress however. Duchess Constance, who had escaped from a second marriage forced on her by her English relatives, had given birth to a daughter by her third husband, a Poitevan noble. So if one heiress was safely locked up in England, King Philip had another within his Kingdom. When the girl’s father died in 1213, she was married at the age of twelve to Peter of Dreux, known as Peter Mauclerc, a junior member of the Royal House of France.
The Kings of France only recognised the rulers of Brittany as Counts rather than as Dukes; in 1297 however the then Count, John I, was made Duke of Brittany and a Peer of France.
It was Brittany’s misfortune that the next succession difficulty, arising from the childless death of the thrice-married John III, occurred in 1341, not long after the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War. John III’s brother had died before him, leaving a daughter, Jeanne of Penthièvre, but John III also had a half-brother, John of Montfort. These two, the niece and the half-brother, became the French and English candidates in a succession war which lasted for twenty years and more. Even Jeanne’s acceptance in 1365 of John of Montfort’s son after her husband, Charles of Blois, had been killed in battle, brought no more than a lull, for in the 1370s the armies of the King of France were active and succeeded in driving John IV or V from Brittany. He was later allowed to return, and, as is the way of things, the English candidate ended up pro-French, and was deprived of Richmond.
The renewal of the war between England and France in the 1410s and the French defeats gave the Dukes of Brittany a fairly free hand, but eventually the revived power of France and the astute selfishness of Louis XI coincided with the last Duke, Francis II, who had an immense capacity for making mistakes. His last venture in 1488, during the regency of Anne of Beaujeu, ended in defeat, and he was obliged to accept that his young daughters – he had no sons – should only marry with the consent of the King of France. He died the same year.
In 1491 his daughter Anne made a bid to escape: she got herself, the heiress of Brittany, betrothed to Maximilian, the heir to Austria, whose daughter by his first marriage was engaged to Charles VIII of France. Neither Maximilian nor his daughter married their betrothed; it was Anne who married Charles VIII, and thus joined Brittany to France. Charles died childless in 1498, and his kinsman, the new King, Louis XII, secured a swift annulment to his marriage to Charles’s sister in order to marry Charles’s widow. He left two daughters when he died in 1515; Claude, the elder, Duchess of Brittany since 1514, was the wife of the new King, and was succeeded in 1524 by the Dauphin as Duke of Brittany. In 1532 Brittany was united with France.
At the end of the century, Brittany was largely independent again. Philip of Lorraine, Duke of Mercoeur, ardently Catholic and in arms against King Henry IV, was not merely the Governor of Brittany, but the husband of the heiress of the Penthièvre descendants of Jeanne, the claimant of 1341, and the holder of much property in the province. In the end he had to accept the new regime, and a humiliating provision for the future of his heiress, namely, marriage to the eldest of the King’s bastard sons.
Brittany was a gouvernement until the Revolution; in civil and financial administration, it was in the généralité of Nantes, which was transferred in 1689 to the old capital of Rennes, at the same time as an Intendant was first appointed in Brittany. Brittany was one of the provinces where the Estates managed to survive, so that the power of the King and his local representatives was to some degree restricted.
In 1790 Brittany was divided into the Départements of Finistère, Morbihan, Côtes-du-Nord(now Côtes-d’Armor), Ille-et-Vilaine and Loire-Inférieure (now Loire-Atlantique). The first four are now in the administrative Region of Brittany (Loire-Atlantique, the region around Nantes, is in the Region of Pays de la Loire).