Bretons and Britons

6th century migrations

Brittonic emigration from Britain towards the continent is part of a long tradition of exchanges from one side of the Channel to another. These exchanges already existed in prehistoric times, and went on during the Celtic period. In 50 BC, Britons came to assist the Armorican Veneti against the Roman troops. Brittonic settlements are attested along the southern side of the Channel as early as the first century AD.

The first wave of Briton settlement in the peninsula is highlighted by two points: History of Briton soldiers in the Roman army, and History Bagaudes, the rebels against the Roman order.

Since the Caesarean conquest of Britain, the number of Briton soldiers engaged in the Roman army greatly increased. At the end of the 4th century at least one fifth of the imperial army standing in Gaul had been recruited in Britain. This Briton presence was scattered throughout northern Gaul, but was not homogeneous. The Roman Empire gave to the Briton foederati the charge of protecting Armorica and controlling sea-roads offshore the peninsula. Briton military settlements had several advantages. They were useful for the Romans in maintaining their domination. They were reassuring for the local population, because they felt protected against organized robbers or pirates from the north.

The number of Briton soldiers in the peninsula increased towards the end of the 4th and the beginning of the 5th century due to two events in Roman Empire History.

In 383, the empire was in confusion. The feeble Gratian ruled the empire together with his brother Valentinian. He had given the government of the Eastern empire to Theodose. Ambitions were whetting among the war chiefs. Magnus Maximus, a general in the Roman army of Britain, crossed the Channel with Briton soldiers. The emperor Gratien was defeated and killed. Magnus Maximus was crowned emperor and established himself in Augusta Treverorum, the main town of Belgian Gaul. When Magnus Maximus invaded Italy in 388, Theodose decided to stop him. Magnus Maximus was defeated and killed near Aquilea (not far from Venice). It was remembered for a long time in Britain that a lot of young people went to the continent with Magnus Maximus (known in Wales as Macsen Wledig) and never came back. From this episode also came the Conan Meriadec story, lieutenant of Magnus Maximus, who allegedly settled in the Armorican peninsula with his troops and created the Breton nation of Brittany[1].

In 406 Constantin was made king by the Roman army of Britain. He crossed the Channel and gathered the Roman soldiers settled in Gaul along with his Briton troops. He defeated the German barbarians, and made peace with the Bagaudes. He was finally defeated by Emperor Honorius.

The Roman emperors chose to send these boisterous Briton soldiers to garrisons far away from the main towns of the Empire. To send them to the west of the Armorican peninsula could have been a pre-planned decision.

The Briton presence is also attested in the Bagaudes, a group of rebels fighting against the Roman rule. The Bagaudes were guerilla[2] troops of people ruined by the fiscal tyranny, adventurers and deserters. They had already risen in 284-285, but were defeated in 286. The revolt center was situated in Celtic Gaul, between the Seine and the Loire rivers. After a long lull during the 4th century, they rose again. At the same time, Armorican cities rebelled. The influence of the Britons, probably remains of Maxim or Constantin armies, in Bagaudes organisation and action is quite clear. In 470 it is recalled that Briton rebels helped the slaves of a big landowner to escape.

The Armorican cities, in rebellion against the Roman order, sent an ambassador to Attila, chief of Huns. Attila then attacked the Roman empire of Occident, while his first aim was the Roman empire of Orient.

Britons were maintaining the imperial order; others were fighting against it. In the context of the decline of the empire, the parties were not clearly defined, borders were moving, loyalty did not last. Whatever the case, a “Breton” society was establishing itself in the peninsula. The names of Domnonea (Devon) or Cornwall, given to principalities on both sides of the Channel, show that the Briton settlement was well organized in the western part of the peninsula.

Mansuetus, “bishop of the Bretons”, was at the Tours Synod in 453. At this time the Britons settled in Armorica were still included in the Gallo-Roman organisation of the bishoprics. They will later claim their own religious organization when the Franks become the rulers in northern Gaul.

The link between the Armorican and island-based Britons during the 5th and 6th centuries is so close that the distinction between the two communities appears to be very small. Armorican Britons are known to have shaped Christianity in Wales, and vice-versa. St. Iltud founded a school where the spiritual and political leaders of the Briton emigration were trained. Samson, Gildas, Briec, and Pol are born in Wales. Divi (Dewi), the great saint of Wales, was allegedly born in Armorica. His Welsh mother Nonn settled in Diri-Nonn, (the Oaks of Nonn) where her alleged grave-stone is[3].

It is during this period that King Arthur would presumably have ruled over the “kingdom of the two Britains”. His main knight Lancelot was an Armorican Briton.

Actually, after the departure of the Romans from Great Britain in 410, the Britons ruled three-quarters of the territory of the island until 550. A few years before 500 AD, under the rule of Ambrosius Aurelianus, the Britons won the battle of Mons Badonicus against the German enemies, ensuring 50 years of peace. This period of waning of the Saxon power on the island is also a period when Frankish power waned on the continent. The Roman ruler Syagrius, allied with the Briton king Riothamnus, pushed the Franks back from the river Loire to the river Somme. According to Fleuriot (in Les Origines de la Bretagne, ed Payot 1980), Riothamnus and Ambrosius-Aurelianus were the same man, whose deeds have later been ascribed to the legendary King Arthur.

The first meeting between Franks and Britons occurred in 491. The town of Blois on the river Loire, held by the Britons, was entered by the troops of Clovis, king of the Franks. Later the Franks attacked Nantes and fought against a coalition of Armoricans and Britons. The outcome of the war remained doubtful. A Treaty was signed in 497. Britons recognized the power of the Franks, but not their right to rule or to impose a tribute over the Armorican peninsula. Clovis acknowledged the rule of the Britons over the territory of the Coriosolites, accepted baptism and became Christian.

The treaty of 497 allowed Clovis to neutralise the Bretons, and to gain the sympathy of the Gallo-Roman population and the Christian church. After the victory of Tolbiac over the Alamans, he defeated the Visigoths and extended his domination over most of the peoples of ancient Gaul.

The Treaty of 497 illustrates very clearly what were and what would be the lack of understanding between Franks (later French) and Britons (later Bretons).

Britons were acting and thinking in the interest of a human community. They settled in Armorica to live as they lived in Britain. What they wanted was political independence. Peace and order for them was founded on limits more than on hierarchies.

The Franks were not a nation, but a coalition of different germanic tribes: Chamaves, Ansivarians, Sicambres, Bructers, Salians… What they wanted was an acknowledgement of their political strength. Their concept of hierarchizing the political powers in terms of strength and obedience was unknown to the Bretons. This concept was to be the primary one of the French kings for centuries. In 1214, the victory of the French king Philippe-Auguste over the emperor Othon at the battle of Bouvines broke the – theorical – hierarchy between the king and the emperor. In 1259 the French king Louis IX (Saint Louis) gave the English king power over large provinces like Limousin, Perigord, and Quercy in return for an acknowledgement of his suzerainty over the English monarch for the province of Guyenne.

For the Bretons, the world order was a question of balance among diversity. For the Franks, the world order was a question of unity, and then hierarchy. The newly recognized Frankish church strove immediately to gain supremacy over the other churches. In 510, Frankish clergy attacked the Breton one over the issue of the conhospitae. Breton priests were assisted by women during offices, which scandalized Franks. Another point of Celtic Christianity which was not accepted by the Franks was the wandering clergy who went from one Breton community to another with portable altars. In 567 the Frankish clergy tried clearly to enforce control over the Breton Church. It would take centuries to succeed.

[1]  The story is in the Life of Saint Goeznou, written in Latin in 1019 : “With his Britons, [Conan Meriadec] conquered victoriously all the area from one sea to another, as far as the city of Angers and including Rennes and Nantes. He killed all the men who were still heathens, and for that they were named Pengouët, which means Hoary Heads. He cut out the tongues of all the women to prevent them from corrupting the Breton idiom; and his companions used with them for marriage and other duties required by circumstances.

Then they built churches in several places to sing God’s praises. They organized in plou and tref the whole country, which from then, through God’s blessings, was called Little Britain (Brittany)”

Vita sancti Goeznovei. Rennes, Archives départementales d’Ille-et-Vilaine, MS 1 F 1003 = Vetus collectio manuscripta de rebus Britanniae.

[2] Such a definition may be considered as excessively modern, but it sticks quite well to the reality.

[3]  Others places also claim the glory of having seen the death of the mother and the birth of her holy son. Must we really complain? Primary rationalism is always untimely when history gives place to the legend of saints and heroes.


This article is a chapter from History of Brittany that is available in digital form on Kindle

3 thoughts on “Bretons and Britons

  1. It seems to me that there’s a slight confusion in this article between Bretons and Britons. Probably a translation issue. It’s quite confusing.

  2. It will be interesting to figure out which legion(s) came to settle in Armorica ? Is it the famous 9th ? The word LEON, the northwestern district of Brittany, part of Finistère, came from the latin LEGIO.

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