Britons become Bretons: Dark Age Politics, Part 13

In a small corner of northwestern France, you can experience a culture that has notable differences from the rest of the country. Brittany has a distinctly Celtic feel, from the architecture, to music, food, and especially the language of the Bretons. It’s a close cousin to Welsh and Cornish, which evolved from the language of the Britons. Today we look into why that happened. We have very few records from the time of the “Arthurian Age“, so what follows is pieced together from the clues we have.

A Little Background on the Bretons

The pre-Roman inhabitants of Gaul, including the region of Brittany, were also Celts. Their language was closely related to that of the Britons, with whom they had strong commercial ties. The Gauls of Brittany were conquered by the Romans in 51 BC and, like the rest of Gaul, adopted a more Roman than Celtic culture over time. The peninsula became known to the Romans as Armorica. At some point, it became known to the Britons as Letavia.

Letavia: Land of the Bretons (map adapted from my novel, The Retreat to Avalon)

In the 3rd Century, AD, however, the Roman Empire was struggling. Armorica, like much of the empire, was ravaged by Germanic raiders and by internal insurgents and brigands made up of peasants, escaped slaves and army deserters. The economy collapsed, and many inhabitants fled the region.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, Britons began emigrating to Armorica in the late 4th Century. It may have been due to economic opportunities in the depleted region, to escape Germanic, Pictish, and Irish raiders, or both. Yet, there is an interesting possibility that ties legend and history together in the form of Magnus Maximus.

Magnus Maximus

Magnus Maximus was a capable and admired Roman military officer who served in Britain, during The Barbarian Conspiracy. That war ended in 368 AD, and Maximus continued his career in other parts of the Roman Empire. In 381 he was back in Britain, defeating an incursion of Picts and Scoti, further enhancing his resume. In 383, the Roman army in Britain revolted and proclaimed Maximus Emperor at Segontium (Caernarfon, Wales). They were frustrated with pay problems and dissatisfied with Gratian, the emperor of the Western Roman Empire.

Britons and Bretons
The image of Magnus Maximus on a coin minted in London during his reign.

Maximus reorganized the government in Britain, then took a large portion of the British garrison to Gaul to depose Gratian, defeating him near Paris. Gratian fled and was later killed. Maximus then marched on Italy to depose Gratian’s 12 year old half-brother and “co-emperor”, Valentinian II. Negotiations resulted in Maximus being recognized as co-emperor of the west by Valentinian and Theodosius I, emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire. Three years later, the civil war was back on. This time, Theodosius’ and Valentinian’s forces defeated Maximus and he was executed in 388.

This history is tied into Welsh and Breton legends that have a lot to say about Maximus, and which we’ll delve into with later posts. For the moment, we’re just looking at what happened to all those soldiers he took to Gaul from Britain. According to legends and sources such as The History of the Britons by Nennius, many of Maximus’ British troops were settled in Armorica. The monk, Gildas wrote that Maximus stripped Britain of its military and young men (probably somewhat exaggerated), none of whom returned to Britain.

Three Main Arguments about the Bretons

The common argument is not about whether Britons settled the area, but whether they were settled by Maximus, were simply natives of southwestern Britain who moved there for economic opportunities, or were refugees from eastern Britain fleeing the barbarian attacks.

The arguments against the settlement by Maximus are essentially that there are no Roman records stating this. However, upon Maximus’ execution, the Roman Senate declared Damnatio Memoriae upon him, erasing him and his family from all official records. It wasn’t completely successful, but we can’t know how much was lost.

Some argue that the colonies were populated simply by people moving to the region for economic reasons. They point out that the names of the kingdoms of Brittany are based on the kingdoms of southwestern Britain. Domnonée is named for Dumnonia (Devon), Cornouaille comes from Cornwall, and Léon is probably named for Caerleon in southeastern Wales. Additionally, traditional genealogies link ruling families in Brittany to ruling families in southwestern Britain. Clearly, the southwestern Britons influenced Brittany.

Which brings us to the tradition that Brittany was settled by Britons fleeing raiders. Gildas doesn’t say anything about Maximus settling troops in Armorica, but he does say that many Britons fleeing barbarian raiders escaped across the sea, and this is corroborated by other sources. Yet, If Britons in the east were fleeing Anglo-Saxon invaders, why would the colonies in Brittany not have names associated with eastern Britain?

Why Not All Three?

I don’t think any of those three arguments are incompatible. I suspect that centuries-long ties between the peninsula and western Britain created the circumstances that allowed aristocratic Britons to establish lands and ports in Armorica when the region became depopulated. These small holdings would have been a resource for Magnus Maximus, and the perfect place to keep a portion of his demobilized soldiers near-at-hand, where they’d fit in well with other Britons.

What about those refugees from eastern Britain? Again, there’s no reason they could not have been part of the mix, as well. For one, they were probably not just from the east. Germanic, Pictish and Irish raiders attacked pretty much every part of Roman Britain. The southwest seems to have been the safest region, so of course refugees would head that way. Now, people already living there would be unlikely to say, “Hello! Take half my farm and make yourself at home.” More likely, they’d tell the unfortunates to keep moving on, and Letavia would be their best option.

Wrapping Up

Letavia wasn’t the only place Britons settled in the Arthurian Age. A smaller colony of several settlements was also established in Galicia, a region in the northwest corner of Spain. Called “Britonia”, it was not a large migration, possibly being led there by a British bishop and his community. Unlike the Bretons, this community eventually assimilated into the Germanic culture already there and their Britonnic language disappeared. Interestingly, this colony may also be linked to Magnus Maximus, who happened to have been from Galicia.

The Bretons, like their cousins, the Welsh, have a wealth of Arthurian legends from their ancestors, the Britons. Most of these are found in the later French Romances, but many may have the seeds of history behind them. One example is King Arthur’s close friendship with Hoel, a king in western Brittany. Hoel is mentioned in The Retreat to Avalon as well as The Strife of Camlann. We’ll be meeting him in the story of Arthur’s life, in book 3, Three Wicked Revelations, currently in production. We’ll also see how the Bretons may have influenced the way Arthur waged war on the Anglo-Saxons.

Until next time, thanks for dropping by, and as always, I love to get questions and comments.

4 thoughts on “Britons become Bretons: Dark Age Politics, Part 13”

  1. This weekend we are hoping to visit Brioc, the Early Medieval ship where she lies for the moment at Sandy Cove, Penzance. What could be nicer than experimental archaeology putting one in touch with a recreation of the sort of vessel common on the waters during the period of your books and later? I am sure that post-Roman troop carrying ships were most likely of wooden construction but all over the area boats with hulls of skin like Brioc and others would have been common. Anyone needing a boat could probably build one as did both JuliusCaesar and the much much later Irish rebels. Even Saxons are recorded as using them,

  2. Certainly think that the fleeing insurgents is over stressed. Why would those with portable wealth or connections more directly affected by incomers not go from the South of Britain into Gaul and further South?

    For the elite I wonder if they saw much difference between Cornwall and Armorica, right from Julius Caesar’s time there were regular links across the Channel with even shared kingships, Atrebates, for example.

    But there is an alternative that officially or not the shores of the Channel were in effect a separate realm with ports and people inextricably mixed. An historical linguist of mine speculated that there were two or may be only one common languages amongst them. He thought maybe Early Frisian or that in the Eastern half and Brythonnic in the West. If the semi-independent Channel nation is true then the above ideas of settlement could hold but, remembering the Veneti, they are another power to be negotiated with. Note the earlier activities of Marcus Aurelius Mausaeus Carausius and his British and Gaul naval bases. Much later the “treaties” British south-coast ports had with foreign ones, even perhaps some Barbary ones.

    • Always good input, Edwin!
      I think your points work well with mine. I suspect eastern Britons wouldn’t go directly south because that was already a more heavily populated area and more heavily impacted by Germanic raiding. And I also think that Brittany became pretty much it’s own area of petty realms, as centralized control wasn’t viable in the absence of Roman power.


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