Duchy of Brittany

Duchy of Brittany

Dugelezh Breizh
Duché de Bretagne
Coat of arms
Motto: Kentoc'h mervel eget bezañ saotret
Potius mori quam fœdari (Latin)
Plutôt la mort que la souillure
A ma vie (variant)
Location of Brittany
StatusTributary state under the Kingdom of the Franks (942–952)
Dynastic union with the Kingdom of the English (1181–1202)
Vassal state under the Kingdom of France (1202–1491)
Dynastic union with the Kingdom of France (1491–1547)
Common languagesBreton, Gallo, Latin, French, Poitevin
GovernmentFeudal monarchy
• 1514–1524
Claude (last)
LegislatureEstates of Brittany; Parlement of Brittany
1 August 939
13 August 1547
11th century[1]34,023 km2 (13,136 sq mi)
• 11th century[1]
• 12th century
• 13th century
• 14th century
• 15th century
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Kingdom of Brittany
Kingdom of France

The Duchy of Brittany (Breton: Dugelezh Breizh, French: Duché de Bretagne) was a medieval feudal state that existed between approximately 939[a] and 1547.[b] Its territory covered the northwestern peninsula of Europe, bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on the west, the English Channel to the north, and less definitively by the Loire River to the south, and Normandy and other French provinces to the east. The Duchy was established after the expulsion of Viking armies from the region around 939. The Duchy, in the 10th and 11th centuries, was politically unstable, with the dukes holding only limited power outside their own personal lands. The Duchy had mixed relationships with the neighbouring Duchy of Normandy, sometimes allying itself with Normandy, and at other times, such as the Breton-Norman War, entering into open conflict.

Henry II of England invaded Brittany in the mid-12th century and became Count of Nantes in 1158 under a treaty with Duke Conan IV. Henry's son, Geoffrey, became Duke through his marriage to Constance, the hereditary Duchess. The Angevins remained in control until the collapse of their empire in northern France in 1204. The French Crown maintained its influence over the Duchy for the rest of the 13th century. Monastic orders supported by the Breton aristocracy spread across the Duchy in the 11th and 12th centuries, and in the 13th, the first of the mendicant orders established themselves in Brittany's major towns. Civil war broke out in the 14th century, as rival claimants for the Duchy vied for power during the Breton War of Succession, with different factions supported by England and France.

The independent sovereign nature of the Duchy began to come to an end upon the death of Francis II in 1488. The Duchy was inherited by his daughter, Anne, but King Charles VIII of France had her existing marriage annulled and then married her himself. As a result, the King of France acquired the title of Duke of Brittany - jure uxoris. The Ducal crown became united with the French crown in 1532 through a vote of the Estates of Brittany, after the death of Queen Claude of France, the last sovereign duchess. Her sons Francis III, Duke of Brittany and then Henry II of France would in any case have created a personal union on the death of their father.

Following the French Revolution, and as a result of the various republican forms of French government since 1792, the duchy was replaced by the French system of départements (or Departments) which continues under the Fifth Republic of France. In modern times the departments have also joined into administrative regions[c] although the administrative region of Brittany does not encompass the entirety of the medieval duchy.



Brittany in the 9th century

The Duchy of Brittany that emerged in the early 10th century was influenced by several earlier polities.[3] Prior to the expansion of the Roman Empire into the region, Gallic tribes had occupied the Armorican peninsula, dividing it into five regions that then formed the basis for the Roman administration of the area, and which survived into the period of the Duchy.[3] These Gallic tribes – termed the Armorici in Latin – had close relationships with the Britonnes tribes in Roman Britain.[4] Between the late 4th and the early 7th centuries, many of these Britonnes migrated to the Armorican peninsula, blending with the local people to form the later Britons,[5] who eventually became the Bretons. The reasons for these migrations remain uncertain.[6][d] These migrations from Britain contributed to Brittany's name. [8]

Brittany fragmented into small, warring regna, kingdoms, each competing for resources.[9] The Frankish Carolingian Empire conquered the region during the 8th century, starting around 748 taking the whole of Brittany by 799.[10] The Carolingians tried to create a unitary administration around the centres of Rennes, Nantes, and Vannes using the local rulers, but the kings of Brittany's hold on the region remained tenuous.[11][12][13] Carolingian technology and culture began to influence Brittany, and the church in Brittany also began to emulate the Frankish model. [4]

The greatest influence on the later Duchy, however, was the formation of a unitary Brittany kingdom in the 9th century.[14] In 831 Louis the Pious appointed Nominoe, the Count of Vannes, ruler of the Bretons, imperial missus, at Ingelheim in 831. [15] After the death of Louis in 840, Nominoe rose to challenge the new emperor, Charles the Bald, emboldened in part by new Viking raids on the empire.[16] Charles the Bald created the Marches of Neustria to defend Western Francia from the Bretons and the Vikings.[17] Erispoe fought Charles the Bald, who felt that a quick attack would successfully challenge the new Breton leader. Erispoe won a victory at the Battle of Jengland and, under their Treaty of Angers in 851, Brittany's independence was secured.

The new kingdom proved fragile and collapsed under Viking attack.[14] In 853 the Viking Godfried left the Seine with his fleet, sailed around the Breton peninsula and sacked Nantes. Erispoe entered into an alliance with the leader of another Viking fleet, Sidroc, who betrayed him, resulting in Erispoe's defeat at the hands of the Vikings.[18] A weakened Erispoe ruled until 857 when he was assassinated and then followed as Breton ruler by his cousin and rival, Salomon, the Count of Rennes and Nantes.[13] Viking raids continued. Alan I successfully defeated one wave of Vikings around 900, expanding the kingdom to include not only the Breton territories of Léon, Domnonée, Cornouaille, and the Vannetais, but also the Frankish counties of Rennes, Nantes, Coutances, and Avranches, as well as the western parts of Poitou and Anjou.[citation needed] Alan I's military success resulted in a period of peace from Viking invasions and few raids from the Vikings were recorded from 900 through to 907.[19]

After Alan I's death in 907, Brittany was overrun once again by Vikings. Fulk the Red, Count of Anjou, is said to have occupied Nantes from 907 to 919 when he abandoned it to the invading Vikings. In 919, the great Viking fleet of Rognvaldr landed in Nantes, quickly coming to dominate the region. This invasion accelerated the exodus of Bretons, including that of the machtierns, "the local hereditary officers upon whom the civil administration depended".[20] Among the refugees were Mathedoi, the Count of Poher, and his son Alan Barbetorte, the grandson of Alan I; they fled to England and lived in exile in the courts of Edward the Elder and Edward's son and successor Æthelstan. The Viking occupation of Brittany lasted until about 936.[21] Little recorded history of this period is available until Alan Barbetorte returned in 937 to expel the Vikings and reestablish a version of the former Carolingian kingdom.[22][14]

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