Skip to main content

History of Brittany

Neolithic monuments and Roman conquest, the emigrations of Britons to the advent of the Renaissance, the history of Brittany is rich with fascinating tales and legends. The modern region we find today has been shaped over millennia by outside influences and retains clearly defined links to its past, not least in the ancient remains that can be found across the region.

Carnac Stones

Prehistoric growth

Mystery and wonder shroud much of the prehistoric era in Brittany. Known throughout antiquity as the Armorican peninsula, it features Neolithic monuments such as the Carnac Stones, which are thought to pre-date the development of the Egyptian pyramids and indicate early inhabitance of the region. With the growth of the Roman Empire encompassing more and more of Europe, the arrival of Caesar’s legions and the conquest of Armorica was inevitable, taking dominion over the Celts that had made the region home in the intervening periods.

Thus, as part of the Roman Empire from 51BC, the development of the Armorican peninsula was fast and substantial, with several cities such as modern-day Nantes and Rennes being established according to typical Roman standards. Despite the centuries of rule, however, the fall of the empire led to the ceding of control of the peninsula to others, with the end of the fourth century proving a time of significance for the region.

Foundation of Brittany

Traditional Breton houses

Immigrants from Ireland, Wales, and southern England would flock to the Armorican peninsula, bringing with them cultures and traditions of Britain and transforming the region into an outpost of the homeland known as Brittany – Little Britain. This influx led to the division of the area into three kingdoms – Domnonea, Cornouaille, and Broerec – throughout the Middle Ages, kingdoms that would only be unified in the ninth century under King Nominoe.

Following this formation of the Breton kingdom and the Breton duchy, infighting led to a bloody civil war during the 14th century known as the Breton War of Succession. This in turn led to a growth in the number of impressive forts and Gothic structures developed, and a desire among those in power to establish dominance over the various towns and villages.

Economic rise and fall

From the 15th to the 18th centuries, the region experienced an economic boom, with seaports proving a valuable base for French naval ships. But, with the Duchy abolished during the French Revolution and the creation of factories elsewhere in the nation, Brittany suffered a significant slump in fortunes. This would continue into the 20th century; while Brittany sought to modernise itself with improved transportation links, both the First and Second World Wars left the population – as well as major towns and cities – decimated. Only following the liberation of the province did Brittany begin to experience significant positive change, with 1956 seeing it legally reconstituted as the Region of Brittany, thereby preserving its traditions and cultures in a manner that would benefit future generations.