Brittany in Arthurian Legend

Brittany is the dark blue part of the map. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Brittany is the dark blue part of the map.  Southern England is the gray area directly above. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

So, I’m back to Book 3 in Guinevere’s story, and am excited to be exploring brand new terrain: the land of Brittany.

History
Today, Brittany is part of northwest France, but in Arthurian times, it was its own kingdom, though often considered a colony of Britain, peopled as it was by many former Britons, some of whom fled from the Anglo-Saxon invaders in late fourth and early fifth centuries. In some references, it’s even called “Less Britain” or “Little Britain,” and was part of a larger area known as Armorica.

Like many locations, its origins are murky. Historically, Brittany was home to five Celtic tribes in the time before the Romans conquered it: the Curiosolitae, the Namnetes, the Osismii, the Redones and the Veneti (Wikipedia has a longer explanation, if you want to learn more). Brittany became part of the Roman Empire in 56 AD. and had strong trade ties with Britain and Gaul, especially in the tin trade.

Geoffrey of Monmouth tells us that the Brittany we know from legend was founded when the Roman emperor Magnus Maximus (a historical figure who reigned from 383 – 388 AD) took his army of Britons there and crowned a man known either as Conan Meriadoc or Eudaf, depending on the source, as king. King Arthur’s grandfather, Constantine, was said to be the brother of Conan’s successor, thereby giving Arthur a relation to Brittany.

Arthurian Legend
In Arthurian legend, Brittany is most famously associated with Lancelot, Tristan, Viviane/Nimue, Merlin and to some extent, King Arthur. There are many more, but I am going to focus on these characters.

Brittany is the location of the famous Forest of Borceliande, the setting for many Arthurian stories. In some, it is the Breton equivalent of Avalon, ruled over by another Lady of the Lake. It is in this forest and by this woman that Lancelot is raised after his father Ban of Benwick (also in Brittany) dies. He gets his surname, du Lac or “of the Lake” from this upbringing. Borceliande is also where Merlin is trapped by Viviane/Nimue in the Estoire de Merlin. If you want to go visit Borceliande (I know I do, it’s next on my Arthurian list) look for the Forest of Paimpont, which is how it is currently known.

Lancelot and Guinevere riding to Joyous Gard  by N.C. Wyeth (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Lancelot and Guinevere riding to Joyous Gard by N.C. Wyeth (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Lancelot
In addition to being his birthplace, Brittany is also home to Lancelot’s castle and possible final resting place, Joyous Gard (or Guard), which appears in the Vulgate Cycle of Arthurian legend. This castle was first called Dolorous Guard because of a dark curse, changing to Joyous Gard when Lancelot puts an end to the evil being done there. Other traditions refute this location, saying Bamburgh Castle off the coast of Northumberland in England is the true Joyous Gard.

In some versions of Arthurian legend, Lancelot flees to Brittany with Guinevere after rescuing her from death at the stake. In other versions, she remains behind, while he flees, causing Arthur to chase him, which leaves the throne open for Mordred, which results in the battle of Camlann.

Tristan
In Gottfried’s version of Tristian’s lineage, he is Breton by virtue of his parentage: King Rivalin and Queen Blanchefleur. Even if he is not, he marries into Breton royalty when he takes Isolde of the White Hands (not to be confused with Isolde of Ireland, his first love) as his wife. He is said to live with her in Brittany until he dies of a broken heart, falsely believing Isolde of Ireland abandoned him in his hour of greatest need.

King Hoel
Brittany is also the home of King Hoel, who was a relative and ally of King Arthur, and in many traditions, also father-in-law to Tristan through his marriage to Isolde of the White Hands.

The Giant of Mont-Saint-Michel
If you’ve been around here a while, you know an Arthurian roundup wouldn’t be complete without at least one weird association. Brittany, or more specifically, Mont-Saint-Michel, was said to be besieged by giant from Spain, who had quite rudely kidnapped Lady Helena, a relative of King Hoel. Though thousands of knights tried and failed to best the giant, only King Arthur was victorious.

What do you know about Brittany from Arthurian legend? What do you want to know more about? Share your questions and I’ll try to find answers.

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Sources:
Arthurian Romance in Brittany
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Arthurian Legends by Ronan Cohhlan
Encyclopedia Britannica Online: Brittany (region, France)
King Arthur and the Grail Quest by John Matthews
Knights of the Round Table (Pitkin Guide)
Wikipedia: Brittany

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5 thoughts on “Brittany in Arthurian Legend

  1. Brittany is a fascinating place, and its connection with Britain actually goes back long before the Dark Ages, into prehistory. The shores of Armorica, land of the sea, were the main ‘port,’ it seems, for journeys from the western seaboard to the Isles in antiquity. Stonehenge itself has some features more commonly found in stone monuments in Brittany (a horseshoe and a rectangle) and the bronze age barrows surrounding the monument contain items such as daggers,axes and pottery often imported straight from Brittany’s shores.
    I wonder if many of the Arthurian legends, rather than being brought from Britain by unrelated newcomers, were familiar to both areas from ancient times, passing back and forth across the Channel with trade and marriage (I am talking about the more mythological and folkloric themes here obviously.)

    • Hi Janet,

      Thanks again for another wonderful addition! You really should teach a class! Always great to learn more from you.

      I think you may be right about the exchange of Arthurian information. Puts a whole new spin on things when you think about them that way.

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