Medieval Brittany: the establishment of a territor

The Romans conquered Britannia - known today as Great Britain - in the 1st century. At this time, the Britons had a steady relationship with Armorica. With the departure of the Roman legions in the 5th century encouraging Angle and Saxon invasions from Germania and raids by the Picts of Scotland and the Scots of Ireland, the Britons emigrated en masse to Armorica, which could be reached in one or two days by boat, between the 6th and 8th centuries.

These immigrants from across the channel faced attempts to seize control by the powerful neighbouring Franks, Merovingians and Carolingians. After many decades of conflict, the Breton dukes Nominoe and Erispoe managed to triple the area of their territory and establish a kingdom whose definitive borders were fixed by the Traité d’Angers (Treaty of Angers) in 851.

After the death of King Alan the Great in 907, the great dynasties (Cornouaille, Rennes, Nantes, etc.) fought to control Brittany. Viking invaders took advantage of the situation and 32 years of conflict ensued, which mainly resulted in the exile of large parts of the religious communities, the loss of territories conquered between 851 and 867 (the Cotentin, part of Anjou, etc.) and the transformation of the kingdom into a duchy.

From the 10th to the 14th century, despite dynastic conflict and French and English intervention, the Dukes of Brittany managed to strengthen unity and their rule in the territory until the Guerre de Succession de Bretagne (Breton War of Succession), which began in 1341. The title of duke was then claimed by two candidates: Charles of Blois, the husband of Joan of Penthièvre, the granddaughter of Duke Arthur II from his first marriage; and John IV of Montfort, the son of Arthur II from his second marriage. Blois was supported by the King of France, Philip VI, while John IV of Montfort accepted support from the English. After 20 years of war, the battle turned in favour of Montfort. Blois was killed in 1364 during the Battle of Auray and John IV of Montfort ascended the throne. The Traité de Guérande (Treaty of Guérande) of 1381 was an acknowledgment of Brittany's neutrality in the conflict between France and England.
Marked by 40 years of conflict, Brittany rebuilt itself: in the 14th and 15th centuries, an administration was established in the region: a council, a chancellery, a Chambre des Comptes (chamber of accounts), states, which would become the parliament, etc. Brittany enjoyed relative economic prosperity, particularly when it came to maritime trade.

Brittany's independence from its neighbours France and England came to an end at the end of the 15th century. At the same time, the civil war, which weakened England for almost thirty years, reinforced the authority of the King of France. In December 1491, after two wars (1485-1488 and 1490), Anne, the young Duchess of Brittany, married King of France Charles VIII.

Some dates to remember

•    851 : Erispoe is victorious over the Frankish army at the Battle of Jengland and the Traité d’Angers is signed, providing him with royal regalia.
•    914 : The Vikings take Nantes.
•    939 : Alain Barbe-Torte frees Brittany from the Vikings.
•    1066 : Many Breton lords assist in the invasion of England by William the Conqueror.
•    1297 : The King of France, Philip IV, officially recognises the title of Duke of Brittany in recognition of the loyalty of Breton rulers to the Capetians.
•    1341 : The Guerre de Succession de Bretagne begins.
•    1364 : Charles de Blois is killed at the Battle of Auray. The victorious John IV of Montfort becomes the Duke of Brittany.
•    1491 : Anne, the Duchess of Brittany, marries Charles VIII at 15.

Brittany and the Renaissance: the Golden Age

In 1532, two edicts issued by King Francis I formalised the union of Brittany and France while also recognising its privileges, especially those regarding tax and regulation. The autonomy accepted by the monarchy allowed Brittany to avoid most of the civil and external conflict that troubled the kingdom during the 16th and early 17th centuries. The diversity in agriculture, thriving industries, particularly the textile industry, and international trade, stemming from almost 100 Breton ports, allowed the Breton people to avoid food and other major shortages experienced by the rest of the kingdom. The economic development of the province was only affected by the Guerres de la Ligue (Wars of the League) (1590-1598).

At the end of the 17th century, however, economic prosperity wavered, which resulted in public revolts. From the 1660s onwards, life became more difficult, particularly in rural Lower Brittany. Against the advice of the parliament, Louis XIV imposed new taxes (on stamped paper, tobacco, tin, etc.) in 1674, while local lords added taxes to goods made by peasant farmers, thus reducing their margins. In 1675, the people of Rennes rejected the tax on stamped paper, i.e. the tax indirectly added to all official documents. Suspected of being weak, the parliament was moved to Vannes to ensure it did not surrender to the orders of the masses. At the same time, the Révolte des Bonnets Rouges (Revolt of the Bonnets Rouges) broke out in Lower Brittany between the peasant farmers and the tax collectors. The troops and the royal justice fiercely suppressed it.

Louis XIV intensified his policy of economic warfare. Brittany was placed at the forefront of his military strategy, and the small town of Brest became the arsenal of the west. Remodelled by architect Vauban in 1694, it was the centre of shipbuilding.
From then on, and given the difficulties faced by the rural population, urban migration rose.

The face of Brittany changed and it became more metropolitan.

Some dates to remember

•    1532 : Francis I issues two edicts, one in Nantes and one in Plessis-Macé, Anjou, formalising the union of Brittany and France.
•    1554 : The Parliament of Brittany is established in Rennes. Its magistrates deal with major legal matters in the province and set taxes.
•    1675 : Two revolts break out: the Révolte du Papier Timbré (Revolt of the Papier Timbré) in Rennes, Nantes and other towns in Upper Brittany, and the Révolte des Bonnets Rouges in Lower Brittany.

Like the rest of the kingdom, Breton towns benefited from renewed economic activity in the 18th century. Triangular trade helped Nantes, Saint-Malo and Lorient to prosper: printed cotton canvases were sent to Africa and exchanged for slaves, who were then sold to the Antilles for coffee, tobacco and especially sugar. The capital Rennes, which recovered very quickly from the exile of parliament and the huge fire in 1720, continued to thrive.

Rural Brittany, however, did not benefit from this dynamism: it did not yet have forage crops and potatoes, and some winters were harsh for the peasant farmers, particularly in Lower Brittany.

In the 18th century, the administration of the kingdom of France was increasingly active in Brittany. Although the States of Brittany attempted to resist this omnipresence, they failed to maintain their authority due to demands from the monarchy, particularly regarding tax.

During the night of 4th August 1789, the privileges of Brittany, who was deemed a "foreign province", were abolished. In particular, Brittany lost its parliament; the province was divided into 5 departments in 1790. The experiences of the Revolution were very different depending on the area of Brittany, where the civil constitution of the clergy, mass uprising and the abolition of provincial privileges were either met with significant support or provoked rebellions, which were known as the Chouannerie (Chouan uprising) in Brittany. At war, the Republic feared counter-revolution and greatly suppressed any counter-revolutionary activity. Nantes was a strategic target for both the armies of the Republic and the Chouans and the Vendean insurgents operating further south: the city resisted the major attack on 29th June 1793. In July 1795, Hoche sentenced hundreds of prisoners to death by firing squad after the arrival of the English emigrants in Quiberon. The Concordat of 1801, an agreement with the church, signalled the return of civil peace in Brittany.

Some dates to remember

•    23rd December 1720 : A fire tears through Rennes and destroys almost all the old town, including the parliament. The town is then rebuilt in accordance with designs by 18th century town planners.
•    March 1793 : Rural populations from across the entire region of Nantes, a large part of Morbihan, Léon and several other areas refuse to join the army.
•    29th June 1793 : Nantes resists an attack by the "Catholic and Royal Army" and remains Republican.

Contemporary Brittany: a time of ordeals

In the 19th century, rural Brittany began to benefit from the major advances of the Industrial Revolution. However, while living conditions improved somewhat for the peasant farmers, the collapse of the textile industry resulted in the emigration of thousands of Bretons fleeing poverty. From the 1850s onwards, almost twenty thousand left each year. Paris became a popular place of immigration for these old Breton workers.

The First World War saw the defeat of Brittany's active forces: 200,000 young Breton soldiers were killed on the battlefield, and tens of thousands of conscripts came back severely disabled.

In 1941, under the Vichy regime, Loire-Inférieure was separated from the rest of Brittany for the first time. This choice was inspired by the division of the region into archbishoprics, which was carried out by the Catholic Church in 1859, as well as by the administrative division of the economic regions established in 1938.
Brittany was known for its very strong activity from the Resistance and paid a heavy price for the war effort: the cities of Brest, Saint-Nazaire, Saint-Malo and Lorient were almost completely destroyed by Allied bombing. Five hundred Jews deported from Brittany died in concentration camps, and almost five thousand victims of the Nazi repression were executed in Brittany. In remembrance of the execution of forty-eight hostages, victims of retaliation against communist resistant fighters, in Nantes, the city was awarded the title of Compagnon de la Libération (Companion of the Liberation).

Some dates to remember

•    1899 : The appeal trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus takes place in Rennes.
•    1914-1918 : 200,000 Breton soldiers are killed on the battlefield, leaving Brittany decimated and reducing its active forces.
•    1940 : Resistance fighters from the Île de Sein leave for England.
•    1941 : Loire-Atlantique is administratively separated from the rest of Brittany by the Vichy regime.
•    21st October 1941 : After the execution of German soldier Karl Hotz by the Resistance, the Germans announce that at least 50 hostages will be executed by firing squad if the shooters are not handed over. Two days later, the Nazis kill 48 people.
•    10th May 1945 : After 277 days of siege, the German general Fahrmbacher and the soldiers in the Lorient Pocket surrender to the American troops of General Kramer.

Modern Brittany: combining identity and openness

After the Liberation, Brittany had to fulfil two obligations: rebuilding the cities destroyed by Allied bombing and dealing with the economic backwardness of the previous century.

The CELIB (Comité d' Étude et de Liaison des Intérêts Bretons, a committee created to promote the economic development and identity of Brittany), which was composed of elected members from almost all parties, was significantly involved in the reconstruction. In 1955, the CELIB was recognised as an official representative of the state in matters relating to Brittany, and one year later, it obtained a Programme d'Action Régionale (Regional Action Programme). At the same time, innovative projects were launched in Brittany: the Radome de Pleumeur-Bodou (Radome of Pleumeur-Bodou) in 1962, the Usine Marémotrice de la Rance (Rance Tidal Power Station) in 1966 and the Plan Routier Breton (Breton road plan) in 1968, which led to the construction of several hundred kilometres of dual carriageway in Brittany.

In 1960, the urban population exceeded the rural population for the first time. The face of rural Brittany changed: farmers were turning to market gardening (cauliflowers, artichokes, etc) and livestock farming. The creation of agricultural cooperatives, which became major economic powers, was one of main tools in the reorganisation.

In 1975, Brittany became a place of immigration for the first time in a century and a half, and it remains one today. At the same time, the daily Rennes newspaper Ouest France became the most widely circulated newspaper in France. The expansion of higher education establishments and the construction of a university in Brest at the time was another sign that Brittany continued to thrive.

Brittany’s stances have often been repeated nationally: the 1972 strike within the Joint Français company in Saint-Brieuc, which demanded that the work of Breton labourers be recognised, the solidarity in view of the Amoco Cadiz ecological disaster in 1978 and the conflict over the Plogoff nuclear power plant in 1980-81 are all important events that have marked its history.

Brittany has since learned to highlight the different aspects of its identity. It has become a place of innovation, research and academic excellence. Without denying its past, it has become part of a resolutely contemporary culture and today manages to combine identity and openness.

Some dates to remember

    1951 : The CELIB (Comité d'Étude et de Liaison des Intérêts Bretons), the chosen representative for Breton interests with the central government and a driving force in regional planning, is established.
•    1955 : The Programme d'Action Régionale is implemented, and Loire-Inférieure (which becomes Loire–Atlantique in 1957) is administratively separated from the rest of Brittany.
•    1959 : The Collège Scientifique Universitaire, (scientific and academic union), the first higher education establishment in Brest, is established.
•    1972 : The first car-ferry link with England (Brittany-Ferries, or BAI) is introduced.


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