The Bretons were originally from the ancient province of Brittany which lies in the northwestern peninsula of France. Formerly known as Armorica, a possession of the Roman Empire, this land consists of a plateau with a deeply indented coastline, and is broken by hills in the west. However, the region was renamed Britannia Minor by the Romans, following the emigration of six thousand Britons across the English Channel, an event which took place at the behest of the Roman commander in Britain.
Originally of Celtic stock, the Bretons were mainly composed of three tribes from Cornwall and south Wales who were known as the Veniti, the Curiovolitae, and the Asismii. Their leader, Prince Cowan of Powys was married to the sister of St. Patrick and was considered to have been the most ancient Christian king in Europe. Following the fall of the Roman Empire, and subsequent invasion of Britain by the Angles and the Saxons during the 5th and 6th centuries, many more Britons fled their ancient home. Many settled in the continental region of Brittany, where the race that came to be known as the Bretons flourished.
The Celtic traditions of the Bretons, particularly the Brythonic language, which is still spoken in the west of Brittany, sharply contrasted them with the many other diverse peoples who helped to found modern France. This is particularly true of their neighbors in the adjacent region of Normandy, who were the descendants of Viking raiders. Nevertheless, the Bretons played a significant role in the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. Led by Earl Alan of Richmond, the Bretons constituted one-third of the Norman forces at the Battle of Hastings.
Many of these Breton knights were granted considerable land-holdings by William the Conqueror in return for their services. The Domesday Book survey of 1086, shows them dispersed widely throughout England, with a significant number settled in the region known as East Anglia. A very large number of Breton surnames ultimately find their origin with these Breton knights. However, it is indisputable that a genuine migration from Brittany to England also took place. Bretons came to hold important positions in the Norman nobility of England, and the dukes of Brittany forged alliances through arranged marriages with the kings of Scotland.
Over the course of the next few centuries, England came into increasing conflict with France, culminating in the outbreak of the Hundred Years War in 1337. Brittany, like many other French regions, changed hands frequently over the course of the century-long conflict. Brittany was united to the French crown through the marriage of Anne of Brittany and King Charles VIII in 1491, and was finally annexed in 1532, although a separatist movement thrives in that area to this day.
- ^ Swyrich, Archive materials