Historical King Arthur: Breton King?

Brittany, Lesser Britain

Brittany, located in the northwest of France, is celebrated for its unique Celtic legacy, distinguishing it culturally and historically from other French regions. It’s encircled by the English Channel to the north, the Celtic Sea to the west, and the Bay of Biscay to the south. This geographical positioning has contributed to its distinct identity.

Often referred to as “Lesser Britain” in contrast to “Great Britain,” Brittany is the home of the Bretons, a people with deep historical ties to Britain. Their ancestors, who migrated from Britain during the decline of the Roman Empire and its territories in the West, including the larger region known as Armorican Gaul, have had a significant influence on the development of Arthurian legend. These historical migrations helped forge a cultural and historical connection between the people of Brittany and the British Isles, contributing to the rich tapestry of myths and legends shared across these regions. The name Brittany itself reflects this heritage, derived from the Latin Britannia, which was used to refer to the British Isles and came to denote this area of France due to the influx of British settlers.

Emperor Maximus & Brittany

Welsh folklore links the establishment of the settlement with Emperor Maximus, who wrested control from Duke Inbalt. Maximus, acclaimed in Britain in 383 and the conqueror of Rome in 388, faced a swift downfall thereafter. His army comprised many Britons, whom, as per Welsh accounts, he granted territories on the mainland. Geoffrey of Monmouth recounts that the Breton realm took shape when Maximus conferred the crown upon Conan Meriadoc, who was identified elsewhere as Evdaf, the King of Britain’s nephew. Nennius, writing in the early ninth century, mentions:

The seventh emperor was Maximus. He withdrew from Britain with all his military force, slew Gratian, the king of the Romans, and obtained the sovereignty of all Europe. Unwilling to send back his warlike companions to their wives, children and possessions in Britain, he conferred upon them numerous districts from the lake on the summit of Mons Jovis, to the city called Cant Guic, and to the western Tumulus, that is, to Cruc Occident. These are the Armoric Britons, and they remain there to the present day. 

Nennius’ Historia Brittonum

Nennius’s account implies a wide dispersion of Britons, suggesting that the settlement in present-day Brittany endured. When the Britons sought a leader, Conan’s successor, Aldroenus, appointed Constantine, his brother, who would later become Arthur’s grandfather. In Arthurian lore, King Hoel of Brittany is depicted as Arthur’s kin and ally. Tradition holds that Hoel ruled from around AD 510-545.

Dream of Macsen Wledig & Brittany

This narrative expands upon in the Mabinogion tale “The Dream of Macsen Wledig.” In this story, Macsen, identified as Maximus himself, marries the British princess Elen. When her brother Cynan brings a British army to Rome to assist Macsen, he rewards Cynan’s warriors with autonomy in Armorica following their victory. They proceed to marry local women and suppress their speech by removing their tongues to prevent them from diluting the British language.

And they took counsel and cut out the tongues of the women, lest they should corrupt their speech. And because of the silence of the women from their own speech, of Armorica are called Britons. From that time there came frequently, and still comes, that language from the Island of Britain.

The Dream of Macsen Wledig

This tale is rooted in onomastics. The Welsh term for Brittany, Llydaw, is suggested to derive from “lled” meaning ‘half’ and “taw” meaning ‘silent’, indicating that only half of the population, the males, could communicate verbally.

Cynan, also known as Conan in Breton, bearing the surname Meriadoc, is portrayed as the founder in the Legend of St. Goeznovius. While the author acknowledges the tale of the tongues, they seem unaware of its significance, resulting in the loss of its intended point. In this Breton rendition, there’s no mention of Maximus, presenting Conan’s colonization as solely a British endeavour.

King Arthur & Brittany

In ancient times, Brittany was also referred to as Armorica, likely occupying a similar geographical area but with a larger territory than the modern province. It’s conceivable that Brittany, rather than Great Britain, served as the birthplace of Arthurian romance as we know it. Evidence suggests a British presence in Armorica dating back to the periods these accounts imply. Before the Roman conquest in the first century BC, Armorica was inhabited by indigenous Celtic tribes like the Venetii and the Osismii. Subsequently, Armorica became integrated into the Roman Empire as part of the province of Gallia Lugdunensis.

The initial Christian colonization occurred in the late 450s, historically marked by a reference to a “bishop of the Britons,” Mansuetus, a figure linked with Toul in Gaul, attending a council at Tours in 461. Gildas describes the overseas movements as a response to the Saxon devastations, at least initially. However, the majority of the emigration appears to have originated from southwestern Britain, far from the Saxon strongholds. It’s plausible that some Britons migrated deliberately with the assistance of Aegidius, the Roman ruler of northern Gaul, and collaborated over the following years in coastal defense and other control measures. The migrant leaders, often affluent and educated individuals (Gildas notes they carried many books), seemingly aided in repelling and containing Saxon raiders occupying the lower Loire valley.

There’s no evidence to suggest a cohesive mass settlement that significantly altered the character of the region as early as described. The argument for such a settlement relies entirely on the assumption that a substantial British force operating in Gaul circa 468-470 was recruited in Armorica, implying a sizable British population already established there. However, the limited historical records regarding this army indicate that most, if not all, of its members originated directly from Britain, casting doubt on the notion of a pre-existing British population in Armorica.

The subsequent development, in the later fifth century, saw the influx of “saints” – primarily Welsh ecclesiastics – who migrated from Britain and played crucial roles in organizing Breton communities. By the first half of the sixth century, a larger-scale wave of general emigration effectively transformed most of Armorica into “Brittany,” with the names “Brittany” and “Armorica” becoming interchangeable. Although nominally under the rule of the Frankish kings, Brittany maintained a distinct cultural and economic identity. The indigenous Armorican people were assimilated, and Breton evolved as a distinct language, derived from the Celtic British speech of the imperial era, akin to Welsh and Cornish. Brittany boasted local dynasties and maintained strong ties with Cornwall, with several regional rulers possibly exerting authority on both sides of the English Channel.

Brittany’s rich traditions concerning Arthur were predominantly oral, making their exact nature a subject of inference rather than certainty. However, insights gleaned from the Legend of St. Goeznovius suggest that these traditions were rooted in genuine historical events. Nevertheless, poetic and fanciful motifs surrounding Arthur’s immortality and prophesied return may have originated in Brittany as well. Noteworthy is the belief in Arthur’s eternal existence, frequently attributed to Breton sources by various authors, starting with Henry of Huntingdon. Geoffrey of Monmouth exhibits a pro-Breton bias in his works, drawing upon materials from that region, potentially brought to England by Bretons who returned to their ancestral island alongside the Norman conquerors. If Geoffrey’s claim of an “ancient book in the British language” as his source holds any truth, it’s plausible that it originated from Brittany rather than Wales.

Breton tales, disseminated by wandering minstrels across France and beyond, likely form the foundation of much of the Arthurian romance found on the Continent. In Chrétien de Troyes’ Cligés, Arthur holds court in Brittany, while Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival explicitly places Arthur’s court at Nantes. Brittany also features prominently in the Tristan legend, possibly contributing certain elements to it. Wace, credited with first mentioning the Round Table, claims to have learned of it from Breton sources. He also mentions the enchanted forest of Brocéliande, situated in the heart of Brittany. Though Wace himself was underwhelmed by it, the forest reappears in later romance, preserving Arthurian folklore to this day, alongside other Breton locales.

France and Brittany likely contain significant sites such as the Broceliande Forest and the lake where Lancelot was raised. At times, readers of old romances may struggle to discern whether the author had British or Breton locations in mind. The confusion is understandable, particularly given similar names across both regions, such as Benoye or Benwick, and the presence of a magical lake and its accompanying damsel on both sides of the English Channel, possibly resulting from a blending or mix-up of British and French sites in the original romances.

In Arthurian narratives, rulers of Brittany during Arthur’s era are identified as Hoel, Brian of the Isles, Aramont, Fflergant, Caradoc, and Peissawg the Tall. Arthur is often depicted as Brittany’s overlord, particularly in Middle High German romance, which frequently positions Brittany as Arthur’s primary kingdom, with Nantes as its capital.

Chrétien de Troyes’ works portray Brittany as one of Arthur’s domains, narrating two occasions of Arthur’s visits there, both of which are met with joy by his Breton subjects. One instance occurs when Arthur selects Nantes in Brittany as the location for Erec’s coronation as king of Outre-Gales, potentially reflecting topical issues of Chrétien’s time. During Alexander’s tenure with Arthur, which likely precedes Erec’s adventures, Arthur plans to visit Brittany but seeks advice from his lords on whom to appoint as regent in his absence, a decision that ultimately leads to turmoil when Count Angrs is chosen.

Arthur’s meticulous selection of a regent and the extended duration of his planned stay in Brittany suggest that it wasn’t a routine part of his yearly itinerary. He gathers soldiers from across Brittany to bolster his army before addressing the rebellion incited by Angrs. However, in Yvain, Chrétien seemingly relocates the Broceliande Forest to England.

Arthurian legends in Brittany

The intertwining of Brittany’s Celtic heritage with the Arthurian legends indeed provides a rich tapestry of folklore and literature. Here’s a deeper dive into some of the points you’ve highlighted:

  1. Igraine’s Connection to Cornouaille: Igraine, King Arthur’s mother, being associated with Cornouaille adds a regional flavor to the Arthurian legend, rooting it in Brittany’s geography.
  2. Breton Knights of the Round Table: Characters like Sir Owain (Ywaine) being depicted as Breton knights further strengthen the ties between Brittany and the Arthurian saga.
  3. Tristan and Isolde: The love story of Tristan and Isolde, which has ties to both Cornwall and Brittany, showcases the cross-cultural influences in Arthurian literature.
  4. Lancelot’s Breton Origins: Lancelot’s portrayal as having Breton origins adds another layer to the regional connections within the Arthurian tales.
  5. Quest for the Grail in Brittany: The inclusion of Brittany as a destination in the quest for the Holy Grail underscores its significance in Arthurian adventures.
  6. Isle of Avalon: The association of the Isle of Avalon with Brittany, particularly Îsle d’Aval, provides a regional variation to the mystical location in Arthurian lore.
  7. Château d’Avalon: Mentions of Château d’Avalon in Breton romances further enrich the Arthurian tradition within Brittany’s literary heritage.
  8. Blend of Religious and Arthurian Motifs: Instances of local saints interacting with Arthurian characters highlight the fusion of religious and Arthurian elements in Breton literature.
  9. Welsh Influence: The close cultural ties between Brittany and Wales, including shared legends and language, likely facilitated the exchange of Arthurian stories between these regions, enriching Breton traditions.
  10. Modern Celebrations: The hosting of Arthurian-themed festivals and events in Brittany reflects the enduring significance and popularity of Arthurian legends in the region’s cultural heritage.
  11. Depictions in Art and Sculpture: The presence of Arthurian characters in Breton churches and medieval monuments underscores their widespread popularity and cultural significance in Brittany.

Overall, these points illustrate how Brittany’s unique cultural heritage has contributed to the richness and diversity of the Arthurian legends, reflecting the region’s historical connections and influences on medieval literature and folklore.