Breton history


Palaeolithic Brittany is thought to have supported few if any people prior to the end of the last glaciation. A few Palaeolithic sites are known such as the rock shelter of Perros-Guirec near Rochworn and the cave site Roc'h Toul in a sandstone promontory near Guiclan in Finstere. The cave contained about 200 artefacts.


Well known Mesolithic sites from Brittany are the cemeteries on the islands of Hoedic with 10 graves and Teviec with 9 graves in Morbihan. Funeral gift'flint tools, engraved bones, shell ornaments and are found on the sites.


The Kerloas Menhir, near Plouarzel. This menhir at a height of about nine and a half metres is the tallest standing menhir in Bretagne. Prior to severe weather damage it was thought to stand at over ten metres.

Early long mounds date back to the middle of the fifth millennium as in Barnenez. Early passage graves can date to between 4000 and 3000 bc, followed by evolved passage graves between 3000-2500 bc. In the later part of the Neolithic, allee couvertes and simple dolmens became the main type of burial monument. Passage graves that are decorated include Gavrinis. Middle Neolithic settlements include La Motte, La Butte-aux-Pierres and Lannic. They are mainly in the Coastal areas.

Bronze Age

Early Bronze Age culture is believed by many to have grown out of Beaker roots. In the early Bronze Age, individual graves are found under barrows. The Breton barrows have been divided into two series by Cogné and Guiot, the first dating from 1900-1600 bc, the second to 1600-1400 bc. The barrows of the first series can six metres high and fifty in diameter. Found in Western Brittany, along the coast, the Blavet river and at the southern border of the Monts d'Arree, other examples have been found in Normandy. The barrows contain a small cairn over a stone cist, wooden coffin or dry stone structure containing the burial. The chambers can be covered by stone slabs. Roofed mortuary houses have been found such as St. Jude en Bourbriac.

The barrows of the second series are smaller and mostly inland. They contain numerous pottery vessels. The later part of the early Bronze Age saw the beginning of the exploitation of the Armorican tin deposits. Discovered hoards contain tools and weapons such as the Tréboul-group of hoard. The hoard from Bignan (Morbihan) contained bronze jewellery only. The Museum of Pre-History at Carnac has significant quantities of Late Bronze Age bronze and copper artifacts from the Atlantic Bronze Age. This maritime trading culture that included Brittany, France and the other Celtic Nations.

Iron Age, Roman Rule and into the Middle Ages

Roman sources point to a number of tribes such as the Venti, Armoricani, Osismii, Namnettes and Coriosolites. In 56 BC the area was conquered by the Romans under Julius Caesar. The Romans called the district Armorica an interpretation of the Celtic word meaning "coastal region" (Gallia Lugdunensis). The present département of Côtes-d'Armor is a continuation of that name. By the 4th century AD British tribes started to settle. The continued immigrant ion of Britons (during and after the withdrawal of Roman forces from Britain and the need to escape the invading Anglo Saxons) contributed to the Breton language, Brezhoneg, which is linked to the languages of Welsh and Cornish. The name Brittany from "Little Britain" also developed at this time. The early Middle Ages saw Brittany divided into the three kingdoms of Domnonia, Cornouaille (Kernev) and Bro Waroc'h. These were eventually incorporated into the Duchy of Brittany.

Frankish Rule

After a long period of continual resistance (which included alliances with Vikings) to Frankish designs on Brittany. The Kingdom of France defeated the Breton army in 1488 and the last Duke of independent Brittany was forced to submit to a treaty giving the King of France the right to determine the marriage of the Duke's daughter, the heir to the Duchy. The Duchess Anne was the last independent ruler of the duchy. She was ultimately obliged to marry Louis XII of France. The duchy passed on her death to her daughter Claude, but Claude's husband François I incorporated the duchy into the Kingdom of France in 1532. The duchy kept specific laws and taxes until 1790, when the French revolutionaries withdrew all the "privilèges".

Brittany into the modern era

To the present day, Brittany has maintained a distinctly Celtic identity. Brittany, along with Scotland, Ireland, Isle of Man, Wales and Cornwall is seen as one of the Six Celtic Nations and as such is a member of The Celtic League and Celtic Congress. The language continues to be spoken into the modern era and is one of the two Insular Celtic Languages (Brythonic as spoken in Brittany, Wales and Cornwall and Goidelic as spoken in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man). Despite years of pressure from a much centralised France the Breton language has survived and similar to other Celtic languages is experiencing a significant revival at this time. Part of this success is due to the Diwan which is a federation of Breton language medium schools.

Politically there have always been movements in favour of an independent or autonomous Brittany. Such organisations as the Breton National Party, Front for the Liberation of Brittany (FLB) and more recently Unvaniezh Demokratel Breizh (Union Démocratique Bretonne) have sought political autonomy, as well as promoting the Breton language and culture in Brittany and Loire-Atlantique. In 2012 Paul Molac was elected to The National Assembly of France when he stood for the UDB in Morbihan.

The City of Nantes and the Loire-Atlantique Department were formerly part of the historic province of Brittany and Nantes along with Rennes was one of its traditional capitals. Historically, the country around Nantes was always seen as part of Brittany. In 1207 the Dukes of Brittany lived in Nantes. Most of the Dukes and Duchesses were buried in the cathedral or adjacent abbeys.  The Loire-Atlantique was split from the other four departments in Brittany by the Viche regime in 1941; a new region had been created centred on Nantes called the Pays de la Loire.  However, Loire-Atlantique is culturally, historically and geographically united to Brittany. There continues to be active campaigns for the reunification of Brittany.

Further reading

The information above is only given as a compacted and brief sketch of the history of Brittany. New discoveries and further academic work gives varied views of the historical developments in trade, culture and lifestyle that have added to and influenced Brittany. We would encourage you to look further into the works of, Browen, Monnier and Cassard, Tonnerre, Fleuriot, Dylan, Myles Chadwick, Nora and Guyonvarc'h, Flueriot and others. Clearly the information contained in the museums of Brittany can add and point to other sources to increase your knowledge of Historic Brittany.

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