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Brittany Prepares for St. Yew's Day

On 19th May, all the Bretons in the world will celebrate “Gouel Erwan” (or St-Yew’s day, i.e. Brittany’s Day!), the equivalent to the Irish St Patrick’s Day! Time to look back at what Brittany was in the past, what it is nowadays and what it could become in the next decades…

Brittany is a beautiful piece of land located in the North-West of France. Well known to Britons for being their favourite second home choice in France, but who actually knows much about the actual place? Did you know for example that Brittany is a former independent Celtic kingdom and duchy that was incorporated into France in 1532?


Two following waves of Britons (or Brythons) settled in Armorica around the fourth and fifth centuries to escape from the Anglo-Saxons and the Scots in Britain, and they actually gave the country the name of “Little Britain” which later became the modern “Brittany” (in London, Little Britain was also the street where Embassy of the Duchy of Brittany was later located).

The newcomers also contributed to create the Breton language, Brezhoneg, which is a Celtic language descending from the Brythonic of Insular Celtic languages brought by Romano-British and other Britons to Armorica. It is a sister language to Welsh and Cornish. Breton is actually far older than French. The earliest text in the Breton language dates from 590 while the earliest text in French dates from 843, more than 250 years later!


Since their settlement in Armorica, the Bretons were divided into tribes, but with a common ennemy that they were fighting against for generations: the French. Nominoë (or Nevenoe in Breton), Earl of Vannes and first Duke of Brittany, founded the first unified and independent Kingdom of Brittany in 845, when the Breton defeated the King of France’s army at the Battle of Ballon. He is ever since known as the father of the country (“Tad ar Vro”).

After defeating the French army a second time in 851 under King Erispoë (Nominoë’s son), the Bretons’ control over Rennes, Nantes and the Pays de Retz was secured, and consequently French King Charles the Bald recognised the independence of Brittany and determined the borders that defined the historic duchy.


Were the French afraid of the Bretons? Probably because it wasn’t before 1488 (more than 600 years later) that the French army, with the very precious help of 5,000 mercenaries from Switzerland and Italy, defeated the Breton army. They then forced the Duke of Brittany Francis II to submit to a treaty giving the King of France the right to determine the marriage of the Duke’s daughter. Duchess Anne, 12 years old, was the only heir to the Duchy and the last independent ruler of the Duchy. She was ultimately obliged to marry King Louis XII of France.

Even though on her death the Duchy was supposed to pass onto her daughter, Brittany was eventually incorporated into the Kingdom of France in 1532 by Francis I of France, through the Edict of Union between Brittany and France, registered with the Estates of Brittany.


After the Edict of 1532, Brittany retained some kind of fiscal and regulatory autonomy. But when the French Revolution started off and the National Constituent Assembly in Paris unanimously proclaimed the abolition of feudal privileges, on 4th August 1789, Brittany lost the juridical existence, autonomy, Parliament, and administrative, fiscal and legal guarantees secured with the Edict of Union of 1532. Hence the move to abolish feudal distinctions proved very unpopular in Brittany. The French Revolution was everything but a good thing for Brittany: even its territory was split into five “départements”.

For as long as the Monarchy lasted in France, French Kings didn’t concern themselves with the minority languages. And it’s therefore the revolutionaries who introduced policies favouring French over any other language, pejoratively referred to as “patois”, since they assumed that monarchists preferred regional languages to keep the peasant masses under-informed.

From the Revolution, Breton language, history and culture were stamped out of state schools for almost 200 years through humiliating practices and posters in the streets, with humiliating slogans such as: “It is forbidden to spit in the street and to speak Breton!”


Bretons have always been proud of their land, their language and their culture. Their courage is well known too: Bretons have emigrated all around the world at various points in their history. Did you know for example that majority of William the Conqueror’s army that invaded England, in 1066, was actually Breton?

Through adversity, Bretons always kept their traditions and culture alive. It actually made them stronger. In 1897, François Jaffrenou wrote a national anthem for Brittany, the “Bro Gozh ma Zadoù” (Breton for “Old Land of My Fathers”). The music was composed by the Welsh James James. In 1923, Morvan Marchal created a flag for Brittany, the Gwenn-ha-du (which means white and black in Breton).


In 1941, as the majority of France was under Nazi occupation, the French regions were created by the Vichy regime of Marshal Philippe Pétain (a collaborationist dictatorship that surrendered France to the Nazis). Brittany’s territory then shrank to 4/5 of its size as the former Duchy lost part of its historical territory with the Nantes area being included into a brand new region made up of other historical provinces. The fascist government of Vichy called it Pays de la Loire… and it surprisingly still exists today!

After 200 years of French ruling, the unity of Brittany had become a thing of the past…

(to be continued…)

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“Bro Gozh ma Zadou”, by Tri Yann
(the Breton national anthem)

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Tags: Video , France , Brittany , History , Nominoe , Duchy , Duchess Anne , Rennes , Nantes , Bro Gozh Ma Zadou
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