Sacred Texts  Legends and Sagas  Celtic  Index  Previous  Next 

p. 13


THE romantic region which we are about to traverse in search of the treasures of legend was in ancient times known as Armorica, a Latinized form of the Celtic name, Armor ('On the Sea'). The Brittany of to-day corresponds to the departments of Finistère, Côtes-du-Nord, Morbihan, Ille-et-Vilaine, and Loire-Inférieure. A popular division of the country is that which partitions it into Upper, or Eastern, and Lower, or Western, Brittany, and these tracts together have an area of some 13,130 square miles.

Such parts of Brittany as are near to the sea-coast present marked differences to the inland regions, where raised plateaux are covered with dreary and unproductive moorland. These plateaux, again, rise into small ranges of hills, not of any great height, but, from their wild and rugged appearance, giving the impression of an altitude much loftier than they possess. The coast-line is ragged, indented, and inhospitable, lined with deep reefs and broken by the estuaries of brawling rivers. In the southern portion the district known as 'the Emerald Coast' presents an almost subtropical appearance; the air is mild and the whole region pleasant and fruitful. But with this exception Brittany is a country of bleak shores and grey seas, barren moorland and dreary horizons, such a land as legend loves, such a region, cut off and isolated from the highways of humanity, as the discarded genii of ancient faiths might seek as a last stronghold.

Regarding the origin of the race which peoples this

p. 14

secluded peninsula there are no wide differences of opinion. If we take the word 'Celt' as describing any branch of the many divergent races which came under the influence of one particular type of culture, the true originators of which were absorbed among the folk they governed and instructed before the historic era, then the Bretons are 'Celts' indeed, speaking the tongue known as 'Celtic' for want of a more specific name, exhibiting marked signs of the possession of 'Celtic' customs, and having those racial characteristics which the science of anthropology until recently laid down as certain indications of 'Celtic' relationship--the short, round skull, swarthy complexion, and blue or grey eyes. It is to be borne in mind, however, that the title 'Celtic' is shared by the Bretons with the fair or rufous Highlander of Scotland, the dark Welshman, and the long-headed Irishman. But the Bretons exhibit such special characteristics as would warrant the new anthropology in labelling them the descendants of that 'Alpine' race which existed in Central Europe in Neolithic times, and which, perhaps, possessed distant Mongoloid affinities. This people spread into nearly all parts of Europe, and later in some regions acquired Celtic speech and custom from a Celtic aristocracy.

It is remarkable how completely this Celtic leaven--the true history of which is lost in the depths of prehistoric darkness--succeeded in impressing not only its language but its culture and spirit upon the various peoples with whom it came into contact. To impose a special type of civilization upon another race must always prove a task of almost superhuman proportions. To compel the use of an alien tongue by a conquered folk necessitates racial tact as well as

p. 15

strength of purpose. But to secure the adoption of the racial spirit by the conquered, and adherence to it for centuries, so that men of widely divergent origins shall all have the same point of view, the same mode of thought, manner of address, aye, even the same facies or general racial appearance, as have Bretons, some Frenchmen, Cornishmen, Welshmen, and Highlanders--that surely would argue an indwelling racial strength such as not even the Roman or any other world-empire might pretend to.

But this Celtic civilization was not one and undivided. In late prehistoric times it evolved from one mother tongue two dialects which afterward displayed all the differences of separate languages springing from a common stock. These are the Goidelic, the tongue spoken by the Celts of Scotland, Ireland, and the Isle of Man, and the Brythonic, the language of the Welsh, the Cornish, and the people of Brittany.

The Breton Tongue

The Brezonek, the Brythonic tongue of Brittany, is undoubtedly the language of those Celtic immigrants who fled from Britain the Greater to Britain the Less to escape the rule of the Saxon invaders, and who gave the name of the country which they had left to that Armorica in which they settled. In the earliest stages of development it is difficult to distinguish Breton from Welsh. From the ninth to the eleventh centuries the Breton language is described as 'Old Breton.' 'Middle Breton' flourished from the eleventh to the seventeenth centuries, since when 'Modern Breton' has been in use. These stages indicate changes in the language more or less profound, due chiefly to admixture with

p. 16

[paragraph continues] French. Various distinct dialects are indicated by writers on the subject, but the most marked difference in Breton speech seems to be that between the dialect of Vannes and that of the rest of Brittany. Such differences do not appear to be older than the sixteenth century. 1

The Ancient Armoricans

The written history of Brittany opens with the account of Julius Cæsar. At that period (57 B.C.) Armorica was inhabited by five principal tribes: the Namnetes, the Veneti, the Osismii, the Curiosolitæ, and the Redones. These offered a desperate resistance to Roman encroachment, but were subdued, and in some cases their people were sold wholesale into slavery. In 56 B.C. the Veneti threw off the yoke and retained two of Cæsar's officers as hostages. Cæsar advanced upon Brittany in person, but found that he could make no headway while he was opposed by the powerful fleet of flat-bottomed boats, like floating castles, which the Veneti were so skilful in manœuvring. Ships were hastily constructed upon the waters of the Loire, and a desperate naval engagement ensued, probably in the Gulf of Morbihan, which resulted in the decisive defeat of the Veneti, the Romans resorting to the stratagem of cutting down the enemy's rigging with sickles bound upon long poles. The members of the Senate of the conquered people were put to death as a punishment for their defection, and thousands of the tribesmen went to swell the slave-markets of Europe.

p. 17

Between A.D. 450 and 500, when the Roman power and population were dwindling, many vessels brought fugitives from Britain to Armorica. These people, fleeing from the conquering barbarians, Saxons, Picts, and Scots, sought as asylum a land where a kindred race had not yet been disturbed by invasion. Says Thierry, in his Norman Conquest: "With the consent of the ancient inhabitants, who acknowledged them as brethren of the same origin, the new settlers distributed themselves over the whole northern coast, as far as the little river Coesoron, and southward as far as the territory of the city of the Veneti, now called Vannes. In this extent of country they founded a sort of separate state, comprising all the small places near the coast, but not including within its limits the great towns of Vannes, Nantes, and Rennes. The increase of the population of this western corner of the country, and the great number of people of the Celtic race and language thus assembled within a narrow space, preserved it from the irruption of the Roman tongue, which, under forms more or less corrupted, was gradually becoming prevalent in every other part. of Gaul. The name of Brittany was attached to these coasts, and the names of the various indigenous tribes disappeared; while the island which had borne this name for so many ages now lost it, and, taking the name of its conquerors, began to be called the land of the Saxons and Angles, or, in one word, England."


One of these British immigrants was the holy Samson, who laboured to convert pagan Brittany to Christianity. He hailed from Pembrokeshire, and the legend relates

p. 18

that his parents, being childless, constructed a menhir 1 of pure silver and gave it to the poor in the hope that a son might be born to them. Their desire was fulfilled, and Samson, the son in question, became a great missionary of the Church. Accompanied by forty monks, he crossed the Channel and landed on the shores of the Bay of Saint-Brieuc, a savage and deserted district.

As the keel of his galley grated on the beach the Saint beheld a man on the shore seated at the door of a miserable hut, who endeavoured to attract his attention by signs. Samson approached the shore-dweller, who took him by the hand and, leading him into the wretched dwelling, showed him his wife and daughter, stricken with sickness. Samson relieved their pain, and the husband and father, who, despite his humble appearance, was chief of the neighbouring territory, gave him a grant of land hard by. Here, close to the celebrated menhir of Dol, he and his monks built their cells. Soon a chapel rose near the ancient seat of pagan worship--in later days the site of a great cathedral.

Telio, a British monk, with the assistance of St Samson, planted near Dol an orchard three miles in length, and to him is attributed the introduction of the apple-tree into Brittany. Wherever the monks went they cultivated the soil; all had in their mouths the words of the Apostle: "If any would not work, neither should he eat." The people admired the industry of

p. 19

the new-comers, and from admiration they passed to imitation. The peasants joined the monks in tilling the ground, and even the brigands from the hills and forests became agriculturists. "The Cross and the plough, labour and prayer," was the motto of these early missionaries.

Wax for Wine

The monks of Dol were renowned bee-farmers, as we learn from an anecdote told by Count Montalembert in his Moines d'Occident. One day when St Samson of Dol, and St Germain, Bishop of Paris, were conversing on the respective merits of their monasteries, St Samson said that his monks were such good and careful preservers of their bees that, besides the: honey which the bees yielded in abundance, they furnished more wax than was used in the churches for candles during the year, but that the climate not being suitable for the growth of vines, there was great scarcity of wine. Upon hearing this St Germain replied: "We, on the contrary, produce more wine than we can consume, but we have to buy wax; so, if you will furnish us with wax, we will give you a tenth of our wine." Samson accepted this offer, and the mutual arrangement was continued during the lives of the two saints.

Two British kingdoms were formed in Armorica--Domnonia and Cornubia. The first embraced the Côtes-du-Nord and Finistère north of the river Élorn, Cornubia, or Cornouaille, as it is now known, being situated below that river, as far south as the river Ellé. At first these states paid a nominal homage to their native kings in Britain, but on the final fall of the British power they proclaimed a complete independence.

p. 20

The Vision of Jud-Hael

A striking story relating to the migration period is told concerning a Cambrian chieftain of Brittany, one Jud-Hael, and the famous British bard Taliesin. Shortly after the arrival of Taliesin in Brittany Jud-Hael had a remarkable vision. He dreamt that he saw a high mountain, on the summit of which was placed a lofty column fixed deeply in the earth, with a base of ivory, and branches which reached to the heavens. The lower part was iron, brilliantly polished, and to it were attached rings of the same metal, from which were suspended cuirasses, casques, lances, javelins, bucklers, trumpets, and many other warlike trophies. The upper portion was of gold, and upon it hung candelabra, censers, stoles, chalices, and ecclesiastical symbols of every description. As the Prince stood admiring the spectacle the heavens opened and a maiden of marvellous beauty descended and approached him.

"I salute you, O Jud-Hael," she said, "and I confide to your keeping for a season this column and all that it supports"; and with these words she vanished.

On the following day Jud-Hael made public his dream, but, like Nebuchadnezzar of old, he could find no one to interpret it, so he turned to the bard Taliesin as to another Daniel. Taliesin, says the legend, then an exile from his native land of Britain, dwelt on the seashore. To him came the messenger of Jud-Hael and said: "O thou who so truly dost interpret all things ambiguous, hear and make clear the strange vision which my lord hath seen." He then recounted Jud-Hael's dream to the venerable bard.

For a time the sage sat pondering deeply, and then

p. 21

replied: "Thy master reigneth well and wisely, O messenger, but he has a son who will reign still more happily even than himself, and who will become one of the greatest men in the Breton land. The sons of his loins will be the fathers of powerful counts and pious Churchmen, but he himself, the greatest man of that race, shall be first a valiant warrior and later a mighty champion of heaven. The earlier part of his life shall be given to the world; the latter portion shall be devoted to God."

The prophecy of Taliesin was duly fulfilled. For Judik-Hael, the son of Jud-Hael, realized the bard's prediction, and entered the cloister after a glorious reign.


Taliesin ('Shining Forehead') was in the highest repute in the middle of the twelfth century, and he was then and afterward, unless we except Merlin, the bardic hero of the greatest number of romantic legends. He is said to have been the son of Henwg the bard, or St Henwg, of Caerleon-upon-Usk, and to have been educated in the school of Cattwg, at Llanvithin, in Glamorgan, where the historian Gildas was his fellow-pupil. Seized when a youth by Irish pirates, he is said, probably by rational interpretation of a later fable of his history, to have escaped by using a wooden buckler for a boat. Thus he came into the fishing weir of Elphin, one of the sons of Urien. Urien made him Elphin's instructor, and gave him an estate of land, But, once introduced into the Court of that great warrior-chief, Taliesin became his foremost bard, followed him in his wars, and sang his victories. He celebrates triumphs over Ida, the Anglian King of Bernicia (d. 559)

p. 22

at Argoed about the year 547, at Gwenn-Estrad between that year and 559, at Menao about the year 559. After the death of Urien, Taliesin was the bard of his son Owain, by whose hand Ida fell. After the death of all Urien's sons Taliesin retired to mourn the downfall of his race in Wales, dying, it is said, at Bangor Teivi, in Cardiganshire. He was buried under a cairn near Aberystwyth.

Hervé the Blind

There is nothing improbable in the statement that Taliesin dwelt in Brittany in the sixth century. Many other British bards found a refuge on the shores of Britain the Less. Among these was Kyvarnion, a Christian, who married a Breton Druidess and who had a son, Hervé. Hervé was blind from birth, and was led from place to place by a wolf which he had converted (!) and pressed into the service of Mother Church. One day, when a lad, Hervé had been left in charge of his uncle's farm, when a ploughman passed him in full flight, crying out that a savage wolf had appeared and had killed the ass with which he had been ploughing. The man entreated Hervé to fly, as the wolf was hard upon his heels; but the blind youth, undaunted, ordered the terrified labourer to seize the animal and harness it to the plough with the harness of the dead ass. From that time the wolf dwelt among the sheep and goats on the farm, and subsisted upon hay and grass.


Swarms of Irish from Ossory and Wexford began to arrive about the close of the fifth century, settling along the west and north coasts. The immigrants from

p. 23

[paragraph continues] Britain the Greater formed by degrees the counties of Vannes, Cornouaille, Léon, and Domnonée, constituted a powerful aristocracy, and initiated a long and arduous struggle against the Frankish monarchs, who exercised a nominal suzerainty over Brittany. Louis the Pious placed a native chief, Nomenoë, at the head of the province, and a long period of peace ensued. But in A.D. 845 Nomenoë revolted against Charles the Bald, defeated him, and forced him to recognize the independence of Brittany, and to forgo the annual tribute which he had exacted. A ballad by Villemarqué describes the incident. Like Macpherson, who in his enthusiasm for the fragments of Ossianic lore 'reconstructed' them only too well, Villemarqué unfortunately tampered very freely with such matter as he collected, and it may even be that the poem on Nomenoë, for which he claims authority, is altogether spurious, as some critics consider. But as it affords a spirited picture of the old Breton chief the story is at least worth relating. The poem describes how an aged chieftain waits on the hills of Retz for his son, who has gone over to Rennes to pay the Breton tribute to the Franks. Many chariots drawn by horses has he taken with him, but although a considerable time has elapsed there is no indication of his return. The chieftain climbs to an eminence in the hope of discerning his son in the far distance, but no sign of his appearance is to be seen on the long white road or on the bleak moors which fringe it.

The anxious father espies a merchant wending slowly along the highway and hails him.

"Ha, good merchant, you who travel the land from end to end, have you seen aught of my son Karo, who has gone to conduct the tribute chariots to Rennes?"

p. 24

"Alas! chieftain, if your son has gone with the tribute it is in vain you wait for him, for the Franks found it not enough, and have weighed his head against it in the balance."

The father gazes wildly at the speaker, sways, and falls heavily with a doleful cry.

"Karo, my son! My lost Karo!"

The scene changes to the fortress of Nomenoë, and we see its master returning from the chase, accompanied by his great hounds and laden with trophies. His bow is in his hand, and he carries the carcass of a boar upon his shoulder. The red blood drops from the dead beast's mouth and stains his hand. The aged chief, well-nigh demented, awaits his coming, and Nomenoë greets him courteously.

"Hail, honest mountaineer!" he cries. "What is your news? What would you with Nomenoë?"

"I come for justice, Lord Nomenoë," replies the aged man. "Is there a God in heaven and a chief in Brittany? There is a God above us, I know, and I believe there is a just Duke in the Breton land. Mighty ruler, make war upon the Frank, defend our country, and give us vengeance-vengeance for Karo my son, Karo, slain, decapitated by the Frankish barbarians, his beauteous head made into a balance-weight for their brutal sport."

The old man weeps, and the tears flow down his grizzled beard.

Then Nomenoë rises in anger and swears a great oath. "By the head of this boar, and by the arrow which slew him," cries he, "I will not wash this blood from off my hand until I free the country from mine enemies," Nomenoë has gone to the sea-shore and gathered


Click to enlarge



p. 25

pebbles, for these are the tribute he intends to offer the bald King. 1 Arrived at the gates of Rennes, he asks that they shall be opened to him so that he may pay the tribute of silver. He is asked to descend, to enter the castle, and to leave his chariot in the courtyard. He is requested to wash his hands to the sound of a horn before eating (an ancient custom), but he replies that he prefers to deliver the tribute-money there and then. The sacks are weighed, and the third is found light by several pounds.

"Ha, what is this?" cries the Frankish castellan. "This sack is under weight, Sir Nomenoë."

Out leaps Nomenoë's sword from the scabbard, and the Frank's head is smitten from his shoulders. Then, seizing it by its gory locks, the Breton chief with a laugh of triumph casts it into the balance. His warriors throng the courtyard, the town is taken; young Karo is avenged!

Alain Barbe-torte

The end of the ninth century and the beginning of the tenth were remarkable for the invasions of the Northmen. On several occasions they were driven back by Salomon (d. 874), by Alain, Count of Vannes (d. 907)--but it was Alain Barbe-torte, 'Alain of the Twisted Beard,' or 'Alain the Fox' (d. 952), who gained the decisive victory over them, and concerning him an ancient ballad has much to say. It was taken down by Villemarqué from the lips of a peasant, an old soldier of the Chouan leader Georges Cadoudal.

In his youth Alain was a mighty hunter of the bear and the boar in the forests of his native Brittany, and

p. 26

the courage gained in this manly sport stood, him in good stead when he came to employ it against the enemies of his country, the hated Northmen. Rallying the Bretons who lurked in the forests or hid in the mountain fastnesses, he led them against the enemy, whom he surprised near Dol in the middle of the night, making a great carnage among them. After this battle the Scandinavian invaders were finally expelled from the Breton land and Alain was crowned King or Arch-chief in 937.

A free translation of this ballad might run as follows

Lurks the Fox within the wood,
His teeth and claws are red with blood.

Within his leafy, dark retreat
He chews the cud of vengeance sweet.

Oh, trenchant his avenging sword!
It falls not on the rock or sward,

But on the mail of Saxon foe:
Swift as the lightning falls the blow.

I've seen the Bretons wield the flail,
Scattering the bearded chaff like hail:

But iron is the flail they wield
Against the churlish Saxon's shield.

I heard the call of victory
From Michael's Mount to Élorn fly,

And Alain's glory flies as fast
From Gildas' church to every coast.

Ah, may his splendour never die,
May it live on eternally!

But woe that I may nevermore
Declaim this lay on Armor's shore, p. 27

For the base Saxon hand has torn
My tongue from out my mouth forlorn.

But if my lips no longer frame
The glories of our Alain's name,

My heart shall ever sing his praise,
Who won the fight and wears the bays!

The Saxons of this lay are, of course, the Norsemen, who, speaking a Teutonic tongue, would seem to the Celtic-speaking Bretons to be allied to the Teuton Franks.

Bretons and Normans

During the latter half of the tenth and most of the eleventh century the Counts of Rennes gained an almost complete ascendancy in Brittany, which began to be broken up into counties and seigneuries in the French manner. In 992 Geoffrey, son of Conan, Count of Rennes, adopted the title of Duke of Brittany. He married a Norman lady of noble family, by whom he had two sons, Alain and Eudo, the younger of whom demanded a share of the duchy as his inheritance. His brother made over to him the counties of Penthièvre and Tréguier, part of the old kingdom of Domnonia in the north. It was a fatal transference, for he and his line became remorseless enemies of the ducal house, with whom they carried on a series of disastrous conflicts for centuries. Conan II, son of Alain, came under the regency of Eudo, his uncle, in infancy, but later turned his sword against him and his abettor, William of Normandy, the Conqueror.

p. 28

Notwithstanding the national enmity of the Normans and Bretons, there existed between the Dukes of Normandy and the Dukes of Brittany ties of affinity that rendered the relations between the two states somewhat complicated. At the time when Duke Robert, the father of William of Normandy, set out upon his pilgrimage, he had no nearer relative than Alain, Duke of Brittany, the father of Conan II descended in the female line from Rollo, the great Norse leader, and to him he committed on his departure the care of his duchy and the guardianship of his son. Duke Alain declared the paternity of his ward doubtful and favoured that party which desired to set him aside from the succession; but after the defeat of his faction at Val-ès-Dunes he died, apparently of poison, doubtless administered by the contrivance of the friends of William. His son, Conan II, succeeded, and reigned, at the period when William was making his preparations for the conquest of England. He was a prince of ability, dreaded by his neighbours, and animated by a fierce, desire to injure the Duke of Normandy, whom he regarded as a usurper and the murderer of his father, Alain. Seeing William engaged in a hazardous enterprise, Conan thought it a favourable moment to declare war against him, and dispatched one of his chamberlains. to him with the following message: "I hear that you are ready to pass the sea to make conquest of the kingdom of England. Now, Duke Robert, whose son you feign to consider yourself, on his departure for Jerusalem left all his inheritance to Duke Alain, my father, who was his cousin; but you and your abettors have poisoned my father, you have appropriated to yourself the domain of Normandy, and have kept

p. 29

possession of it until this day, contrary to all right, since you are not the legitimate heir. Restore to me, therefore, the duchy of Normandy, which belongs to me, or I shall levy war upon you, and shall wage it to extremity with all my forces."

The Poisoned Hunting-Horn

The Norman historians state that William was much startled by so hostile a message; for even a feeble diversion might render futile his ambitious hopes of conquest. But without hesitation he resolved to remove the Breton Duke. Immediately upon his return to Conan, the envoy, gained over, doubtless, by a bribe of gold, rubbed poison into the inside of the horn which his master sounded when hunting, and, to make his evil measures doubly sure, he poisoned in like manner the Duke's gloves and his horse's bridle. Conan died a few days after his envoy's return, and his successor, Eudo, took especial care not to imitate his relative in giving offence to William with regard to the validity of his right; on the contrary, he formed an alliance with him, a thing unheard of betwixt Breton and Norman, and sent his two sons to William's camp to serve against the English. These two youths, Brian and Alain, repaired to the rendezvous of the Norman forces, accompanied by a body of Breton knights, who styled them Mac-tierns. 1 Certain other wealthy Bretons, who were not of the pure Celtic race, and who bore French names, as Robert de Vitry, Bertrand de Dinan, and Raoul de Gael, resorted likewise to the Court of the Duke of Normandy with offers of service.

p. 30

Later Brittany became a bone of contention between France and Normandy. Hoel, the native Duke, claimed the protection of France against the Norman duchy. A long period of peace followed under Alain Fergant and Conan III, but on the death of the latter a fierce war of succession was waged (1148-56). Conan IV secured the ducal crown by Norman-English aid, and gave his daughter Constance in marriage to Geoffrey Plantagenet, son of Henry II of England. Geoffrey was crowned Duke of Brittany in 1171, but after his death his son Arthur met with a dreadful fate at the, hands of his uncle, John of England. Constance, his mother, the real heiress to the duchy, married again, her choice falling upon Guy de Thouars, and their daughter was wed to Pierre de Dreux, who became Duke, and who defeated John Lackland, the slayer of his wife's half-brother, under the walls of Nantes in 1214.

French Influence

The country now began to flourish apace because of the many innovations introduced into it by the wisdom of its French rulers. A new way of life was adopted by the governing classes, among whom French manners and fashions became the rule. But the people at large retained their ancient customs, language, and dress; nor have they ever abandoned them, at least in Lower Brittany. On the death of John III (1341) the peace of the duchy was once more broken by a war of succession. John had no love for his half-brother, John of Montfort, and bequeathed the ducal coronet to his niece, Joan of Penthièvre, wife of Charles of Blois, nephew of Philip VI of France. This precipitated a conflict between the rival parties which led to years of bitter strife.

p. 31

The War of the Two Joans

Just as two women, Fredegonda and Brunhilda, swayed the fortunes of Neustria and Austrasia in Merovingian times, and Mary and Elizabeth those of England and Scotland at a later day, so did two heroines arise to uphold the banners of either party in the civil strife which now convulsed the Breton land. England took the side of Montfort and the French that of Charles. Almost at the outset (1342) John of Montfort was taken prisoner, but his heroic wife, Joan of Flanders, grasped the leadership of affairs, and carried on a relentless war against her husband's enemies. After five years of fighting, in 1347, and two years subsequent to the death of her lord, whose health had given way after his imprisonment, she captured her arch-foe, Charles of Blois himself, at the, battle of La Roche-Derrien, on the Jaudy. In this encounter she had the assistance of a certain Sir Thomas Dagworth and an English force. Three times was Charles rescued, and thrice was he retaken, until, bleeding from eighteen wounds, he was compelled to surrender. He was sent to London, where he was confined in the Tower for nine years. Meanwhile his wife, Joan, imitating her rival and namesake, in turn threw her energies into the strife. But another victory for the Montfort party was gained at Mauron in 1352. On the release of Charles of Blois in 1356 he renewed hostilities with the help of the famous Bertrand Du Guesclin.

Bertrand Du Guesclin

Bertrand Du Guesclin (c. 1320-80), Constable of France, divides with Bayard the Fearless the crown of medieval

p. 32

[paragraph continues] French chivalry as a mighty leader of men, a great soldier, and a blameless knight. He was born of an ancient family who were in somewhat straitened circumstances, and in childhood was an object of aversion to his parents because of his ugliness.

One night his mother dreamt that she was in possession of a casket containing portraits of herself and her lord, on one side of which were set nine precious stones of great beauty encircling a rough, unpolished pebble. In her dream she carried the casket to a lapidary, and asked him to take out the rough stone as unworthy of such goodly company; but he advised her to allow it to remain, and afterward it shone forth more brilliantly than the lustrous gems. The later superiority of Bertrand over her nine other children fulfilled the mother's dream.

At the tournament which was held at Rennes in 1338 to celebrate the marriage of Charles of Blois with Joan of Penthièvre, young Bertrand, at that time only some eighteen years old, unhorsed the most famous competitors. During the war between Blois and Montfort he gathered round him a band of adventurers and fought on the side of Charles V, doing much despite to the forces of Montfort and his ally of England.

Du Guesclin's name lives in Breton legend as Gwezklen, perhaps the original form, and approximating to that on his tomb at Saint-Denis, where he lies at the feet of Charles V of France. In this inscription it is spelt "Missire Bertram du Gueaquien," perhaps a French rendering of the Breton pronunciation. Not a few legendary ballads which recount the exploits of this manly and romantic figure remain in the Breton language, and I have made a free translation of the

p. 33

following, as it is perhaps the most interesting of the number:


TROGOFF'S strong tower in English hands
Has been this many a year,
Rising above its subject-lands
And held in hate and fear.
That rosy gleam upon the sward
Is not the sun's last kiss;
It is the blood of an English lord
Who ruled the land amiss.

"O sweetest daughter of my heart,
My little Marguerite,
Come, carry me the midday milk
To those who bind the wheat."
"O gentle mother, spare me this!
The castle I must pass
Where wicked Roger takes a kiss
From every country lass."

"Oh! fie, my daughter, fie on thee!
The Seigneur would not glance
On such a chit of low degree
When all the dames in France
Are for his choosing." "Mother mine,
I bow unto your word.
Mine eyes will ne'er behold you more.
God keep you in His guard."

Young Roger stood upon the tower
Of Trogoff's grey château;
Beneath his bent brows did he lower
Upon the scene below.
"Come hither quickly, little page,
Come hither to my knee.
Canst spy a maid of tender age?
Ha! she must pay my fee." p. 34

Fair Marguerite trips swiftly by
Beneath the castle shade,
When villain Roger, drawing nigh,
Steals softly on the maid.
He seizes on the milking-pail
She bears upon her head;
The snow-white flood she must bewail,
For all the milk is shed.

"Ah, cry not, pretty sister mine,
There's plenty and to spare
Of milk and eke of good red wine
Within my castle fair.
Ah, feast with me, or pluck a rose
Within my pleasant garth,
Or stroll beside yon brook which flows
In brawling, sylvan mirth."

"Nor feast nor flowers nor evening air
I wish; I do entreat,
Fair Seigneur, let me now repair
To those who bind the wheat."
"Nay, damsel, fill thy milking-pail
The dairy stands but here.
Ah, foolish sweeting, wherefore quail,
For thou hast naught to fear?"

The castle gates behind her close,
And all is fair within;
Above her head the apple glows,
The symbol of our sin.
"O Seigneur, lend thy dagger keen,
That I may cut this fruit."
He smiles and with a courteous mien
He draws the bright blade out.


Click to enlarge



She takes it, and in earnest prayer
Her childish accents rise:
"O mother, Virgin, ever fair,
Pray, pray, for her who dies p. 35
For honour!" Then the blade is drenched
With blood most innocent.
Vile Roger, now, thine ardour quenched,
Say, art thou then content?

"Ha, I will wash my dagger keen
In the clear-running brook.
No human eye hath ever seen,
No human eye shall look
Upon this gore." He takes the blade
From out that gentle heart,
And hurries to the river's shade.
False Roger, why dost start?

Beside the bank Du Guesclin stands,
Clad in his sombre mail.
"Ha, Roger, why so red thy hands,
And why art thou so pale?"
"A beast I've slain." "Thou liest, hound!
But I a beast will slay."
The woodland's leafy ways resound
To echoings of fray.

Roger is slain. Trogoff's château
Is level with the rock.
Who can withstand Du Guesclin's blow,
What towers can brave his shock ?
The combat is his only joy,
The tournament his play.
Woe unto those who would destroy
The peace of Brittany!


In the decisive battle of Auray (1364) Charles was killed and Du Guesclin taken prisoner. John of Montfort, son of the John who had died, became Duke of Brittany. But he had to face Oliver de Clisson, round whom the adherents of Blois rallied. From a war the strife degenerated into a vendetta. Oliver de Clisson seized the person of John V and imprisoned

p. 36

him. But in the end John was liberated and the line of Blois was finally crushed.

Anne of Brittany

The next event of importance in Breton history is the enforced marriage of Anne of Brittany, Duchess of that country in her own right, to Charles VIII of France, son of Louis XI, which event took place in 1491. Anne, whose father, Duke Francis II, had but recently died, had no option but to espouse Charles, and on his death she married Louis XII, his successor. Francis I, who succeeded Louis XII on the throne of France, and who married Claude, daughter of Louis XII and Anne, annexed the duchy in 1532, providing for its privileges. But beneath the cramping hand of French power the privileges of the province were greatly reduced. From this time the history of Brittany is merged in that of France, of which country it becomes one of the component parts in a political if not a racial sense.

We shall not in this place deal with the people of modern Brittany, their manners and customs, reserving the subject for a later chapter, but shall ask the reader to accompany us while we traverse the enchanted ground of Breton story.


16:1 Consult E. Ernault, Petite Grammaire bretonne (Saint-Brieuc, 1897); L. Le Clerc, Grammaire bretonne (Saint-Brieuc, 1908); J. P. Treasure, An Introduction to Breton Grammar (Carmarthen, 1903). For the dialect of Vannes see A. Guillevic and P. Le Goff, Grammaire bretonne du Dialect de Vannes (Vannes, 1902).

18:1 Lit. 'long stone,' a megalithic monument. See Chapter II, "Menhirs and Dolmens." Students of folk-lore will recognize the symbolic significance of the offering. We seem to have here some connexion with pillar-Worship, as found in ancient Crete, and the adoration of the Irminsul among the ancient Saxons.

25:1 Charles the Bald.

27:1 For the Breton original and the French translation from which the above is adapted see Villemarqué, Barzaz-Breiz, p. 112.

29:1 'Sons of the Chief.' MacTier is a fairly common name in Scotland to-day.

Next: Chapter II: Menhirs and Dolmens