The founding Saints of Brittany… were they Celts or Britons?

This article expands on an article by the historian Frédéric Morvan president of the Section Histoire de l’Institut culturel de Bretagne on the saints and an old article on the Celts we look at a time when Brittany seems to be experiencing a new stage in its history, from side of these saints whose influence upon Brittany was gargantuan and I’m not using too strong a word when I say this. Who were they?

Procession of the saints of Brittany, Diocese of Dol by Alphonse Hénaff

Obscure sources

The subject is not simple, I must admit, and it is usually necessary to refer to the results of researchers from across the Channel. Connecting to and locating websites which are only in the English language. This situation is not a new because the Saints lived during a dark period in Europe, called by scholars, the Dark Ages. These are the darkest hours at the end of the Roman Empire, what in France is called Late Antiquity, IV-VI century AD. The Roman Empire, rich, covering the whole of the Mediterranean basin, brought together many diverse ethnicities who shared a common cultural background, began to perceive and live through a time of clashes between the Roman generals and their attempts to seize Imperial power, widespread outbreaks of disease, the mutiny by the rank and file soldiers; then groups of Breton peasant insurgents band together with slaves. From an official Imperial viewpoint, they were seen as “bands of brigands who roamed the countryside looting and pillaging” —an event which was coined as bagaudae which gave us the word brigand— and of course we mustn’t forget the surges of foreign peoples on its borders, just as is happening to Europe’s borders today. The sources are not all that clear, sometimes making no sense at all, often compiled by monk scribes —called hagiographers— centuries after the life and the time of the saints has passed, between the IX and XIII centuries, whom of course preferred to gild, enhance and dare I say exaggerate  —so that we may understand— the miracles of their sanctified heroes. Today, historians are distraught in distinguishing between fact and fiction. And as if that were not enough, many of the original writings were destroyed or lost during the destruction of abbeys by pirates known as the vikingr—Vikings in the IX-X centuries. The Vikings seafaring warrior-pirates had begun by raiding coastal sites, especially undefended monasteries, in the British Isles. Over the next three centuries, they would leave their mark as pirates, raiders, traders and settlers on much of Britain as well as parts of modern-day Russia, Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland and  a large part of the European continent.

The end of the Roman Empire

The saints are mostly men —of the 700 or so listed, there are only about twenty women— Christians, originally from Brittany, not mainland Brittany, but from insular Brittany, that is to say from the British Isles. At the end of the Roman Empire, present-day Brittany was included in the Roman province of Lyonnaise III (which had been far more extensive than Armorica) whilst across the Channel, present-day England and Wales were included in the Province of Brittany. On the continent, the Armoricans were designated as Gallo-Romani, on the other side of the Channel, they are called Romano-Britons, protected from the Picts (living in present-day Scotland) by two walls (that of Vallum Aelium also known as the  Vallum Hadriani begun in AD 122 in the reign of the Roman Emperor Publius Aelius Hadrianus (Hadrian) and the Vallum Antonini in AD 142 at the order of Emperor Antoninus Pius) and by auxilia regiments (three Legions) to garrison the forts and mile-castles on Hadrian’s Wall, outpost forts and supply routes. This focus switched to the Antonine Wall in Scotland for the period it was held. Since the III century, Roman Brittany had become very important politically. It is within this territory that emperors are either made and unmade. Constantine a Roman general who declared himself Western Roman Emperor and was acclaimed emperor by the Britannia’s local legions in 407; Constantine then established himself in Gaul. The problem was that more and more the recruitment of legionaries became local. If these legions still leave on the Rhine to defend the borders of the empire against the turbulent Germans, it is for the emperors more and more difficult to make them leave the cities which they founded and developed in England and Wales. (like Chester and York) especially since the legionaries receive their salaries less and less.

In 367 to 368 ( the barbarica conspiratio or Great Conspiracy sees attacks falling on Britain from all sides, —a precise chronology of events is difficult to ascertain due to the main source Ammianus, was living in Antioch at that time of the conspiracy.— The Great Conspiracy seems to be the culmination of seven years of problems and large scale unrest by the Picts, Scotti, Saxons, and those mysterious Attacotti. Rome is taken by surprise, the Emperor’s Dux Britanniarum Fullofaudes is either killed or cut off, most likely near the Antonine Wall. Then Nectaridus, comes maritimi tractus (count of the maritime region), is also killed in action. Both loses are serious blows for Rome and the people of Britain; The Saxons land in the East like the Scots of Ireland, the barbarians are now able to divide up into bands and begin to loot, ransack and burn wherever they went Many Romano-Britons are kidnapped and sold into slavery. During this period, the evidence points to Roman towns being much poorer, politically inactive, and socially weak, although by no means dead. However, a decline clearly seems to be setting in. General Flavius Theodosius —future Emperor— said to have been a diligent administrator, austere in his habits, merciful, and a devout Christian is granted the title of comes rei militaris per Britanniarum (Commander of the Troops of the Diocese of the Britains) and is sent in to salvage the situation, which he does by restoring the army in Britain as a fighting force, pardoning soldiers who had deserted, attacking bands of brigands and looters wherever he finds them, and installing a new vicarius.

The Dux tractus Armoricani et Neruicani, —lit: “commander of the army of Armorica and the nervous region”— a military administration in charge of controlling all the coasts from Boulogne to the Gironde, created in 370, is now obsolete. The seas are infested with pirates. This was the time when a sixteen year old Romano-Briton named Maewyn Succat is kidnapped by Irish Scots pirates and pressed into slavery. From 405 to 411, he lives in Ireland as an enslaved captive shepherd, alone, —the time he spent in captivity was critical to his spiritual development— he finds God. Six years after being enslaved he hears a voice telling him that he would be returning home. Then the voice tells him that his ship was ready. Fleeing his master, he travelled to a port, some two hundred miles away where he found a ship and with great difficulty managed to persuade the captain to aid him. Three days’ later Maewyn Succat landed back in Britain. Succat recounts how he had a vision some years after returning home:

I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland. His name was Victoricus, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: “The Voice of the Irish”. As I began the letter, I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut, which is beside the western sea — and they cried out, as with one voice: “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.” 

Acting on his vision, Patrick returned to Ireland as a Christian missionary  to evangelise his old masters. This young boy Maewyn Succat is Saint Patrick, the Apostle of Ireland. It was also the time when the ten year old Emperor Flavius Honorius III —son of emperor Theodosius and his first wife Aelia Flaccilla— decided to tell the Romano-Britons “look after your own affairs and expect no further aid from Rome,” inevitably leaving them to their own fate. The Irish responded in kind by driving out all of the Roman officers (407). The Sack of Rome on August 24, AD 410, was undertaken by the Visigoths led by king Alaric. Rome by that time, was no longer the capital of the Western Roman Empire. 

A Roman Britain which is no longer Roman

The Romano-Britons were therefore left to fend for themselves. The question now arose as to who would be able to restore order? The Roman-British aristocracy of course decided that they could fill the void, those who could afford to pay troops, build defences and establish principalities. Yet the spirit of Rome still lingered in Britannia. The almost legendary Ambrosius ‘Emrys’ Aurelianus — a war leader of the Romano-British who had been victorious an important battle against the Anglo-Saxons in the V century, according to Gildas. He also appeared independently in the legends of the Britons, beginning with the 9th-century Historia Brittonum. Alleged to have been the uncle of King Arthur, the brother of Arthur’s father Uthyr Pendragon King of sub-Roman Britain —after having repelled the Saxon incursions around AD 455. Recent archeology has revealed a flourish of Roman-type constructions, baths, villas, between AD 450 and 500.

Most interestingly, this also being the century when the saints begin to appear. Like Saint Patrick, they founded monasteries populated by thousands of men, women, ex-soldiers …  in short, they were real cities. Often the abbots would also be bishops like Saint Patrick who seems to have been their paragon. Patrick’s disciples formed Saint Fionnán (Finnian) of Clonard who founded the Mainistir Cluain Iraird, or Abbey of Clonard (County Meath, Ireland), —the Twelve Apostles of Ireland all studied under him— more than 3,000 people lived at the Abbey, where Saints Ciarán, St. Columba of Iona and St. Brendan the Navigator (who founded the Abbey of Clonfert and with Saint Aihran (Aaron) a monastery on Cézembre, a small island near Aleth, opposite Saint-Malo in Brittany around AD 560. Saint Illtud Farchog († 522) may be considered just as important as Saint Patrick. He founded the Abbey of Llanildutt (or in Welsh Llanilltud Fawr in Llantwit Major, Glamorgan, South Wales), and a college known as Côr Tewdws (Bangor Tewdws Lit. “college” or “chief university” of Theodosius, a Celtic monastic college where young aristocrats from the surrounding area, Saint David bishop of Mynyw (Patron Saint of Wales), Saint Samson of Dol (who is counted among the seven founder saints of Brittany and founder of the bishopric of Dóu or Dol), Saint Pol Aurélien (the founder of the bishopric of Saint-Pol de Léon and one of the seven founder saints of Brittany), Saint Tudwal or Tugdal (the founding bishop of the See of Tréguier and one of the seven founder saints of Brittany), saint Gildas the Wise author of the book De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, a major sources of sub-Roman history of Britain). These saints founded a network of abbeys, priories, hermitages, close to the coasts, on the islands, to such an extent that one begins to wonder if they were not in the process of creating a thalassocratic —sea power— state.

A monastic empire on the Irish Sea

Celtic Monasteries on the Continent

There was method to their madness. They were of course the religious, but also sons of members of royal families and the nobility, more often sons of royal princes from Wales and Ireland. Some of whom would formally relinquishing monarchical authority, preferring instead the religious life. There are many people in the same families. One would even be able to produce an impressive genealogy of these saints showing their interrelatedness. They evangelised, by this I mean that they conquered … and not just spiritually. They spread their nascent religion, Christianity, religion of the Roman elite especially after the Emperor Constantine conversion in 313. Constantine had completely altered the relationship between the church and the imperial government, thereby beginning a process that eventually made Christianity the official religion of the empire. Emperor Theodosius’ decrees made Christianity the official religion of the empire and many pagan temples are closed or repurposed as christian churches, yet in no way does it indicate that the entire empire had adopted Christianity. Christianity had simply been transformed from a persecuted sect to the dominant faith practiced within the Roman empire, the links between church and state were expressed in the civil dignity and insignia granted to bishops, who also began to be entrusted with ambassadorial roles. 

The whole Irish Sea is now under their control and of course all of the territories which border it: Ireland, the west of Scotland, Wales, South-West of what is present-day England and perhaps a little further, present-day Brittany. Their points of support, abbeys, hermitages, are located on the coasts, in islands. Today you think when you see where they used to live: “They had to be insane to live in such places.” In fact, these islands and coasts were very busy because they belonged to the very old sea route of the tin. If we take the case of Llanilltud Fawr in South Wales; in fact the abbey overlooked the Bristol Channel and the road from north to south west of Great Britain.

Saints in mainland Brittany

And mainland Brittany? Armorique could only be integrated into their areas of activity for two reasons. The first is that to defend the south of the Tractus Armoricanus and Nervicanus of the British-Roman populations had been installed on the Armorican coasts at the end of the 4th century. In what quantity? We do not know. The second cause comes from the very geography of our Brittany. For centuries, if you wanted to cross from the North to the South of Europe, you had the choice of either going around Brittany by cabotage, or crossing Brittany using its inland rivers. It is therefore not for nothing that Saint Pol Aurélien settled in Saint-Pol-de-Léon, not far from an ancient port near Roscoff, or that Saint Brendan created an abbey near Alet, not far from Saint Malo.

It should also be noted that Saint-Pol de Léon and Alet had been occupied by the Romans. Alet is close to the Roman Corseul, and the name of Leon refers to a Roman legion. These saints are Roman Christians, meaning that they obeyed Papal authority. Of course, they had a peculiar tonsure; and they celebrated Easter on a different day than all the other Christians; of course they lived differently, surrounded by women; they hardly ever remained inside of their monasteries, they travelled an awful lot. However, after the two sojourns of Saint Germain of Auxerre († 448) on the isle of Brittany in order to fight against the heretical Romano-Briton monk Pelagius whose influence was expansive —propounding free will more than grace—, Christians Romano-Briton recognised the authority of the Pope of Rome. Saint Patrick received the his diaconate (ca. AD 418) and ordained to the presbyterate by Saint Germain of Auxerre. To be consecrated  a bishop many had to travel all the way to Rome as did Patrick. In AD 432, he was finally consecrated as a bishop by Pope Celestine I., and was sent to Ireland to spread the gospel to the pagans whilst also providing support to the small Christian communities already established there.

And the misfortunes returned

Extreme weather events of 535–536

The saints therefore for a century seem to have built (mid-5th-mid-6th century) a Christian theocracy or politico-religious empire based more or less on a network of large monasteries, where different cultures began to merge, that of the Romano-Britons, emerging from a Rome which was strongly permeated and influenced by Greek and Oriental ideologies, in addition to coming from a much earlier era dating back to the Neolithic, and by the Scots of Ireland and the Picts of Scotland, which had not been affected by attempts to  Romanise their religious teachings and doctrines. In spite of that, a catastrophe occurred: around the years AD 535–536, extreme weather events caused the climate to change and cold and humidity set in, reducing agricultural resources; at the time these were the most severe and protracted short-term episodes of cooling in the Northern Hemisphere the people had ever experienced, its effects were global, causing unseasonable weather, crop failures, and famines around the world. The Gaelic Irish Annals recorded the following: ‘A failure of bread in the year 536 AD’ – Annals of Ulster, and the Annals of Inisfallen recorded “A failure of bread from the years 536–539 AD”. A 2015 study supported the theory of a major eruption in “535 or early 536”, with North American volcanoes considered a likely candidate. It also identified signals of a second eruption in 539–540, likely to have been in the tropics, which would have sustained the cooling effects of the first eruption through to around 550.

Saint Sebastian pleads with Jesus for the life of a gravedigger afflicted by plague during the Plague of Justinian

Then between AD 541–549 the Justinianic (Yersinia pestis) Plague broke out. It was a plague pandemic that took place in the territories of the Byzantine Empire, with particular strength in Constantinople, between 541 and 542 (VI century), under the reign of Emperor Justinian I (527-565), from whom it took its name. The most accredited estimates speak of 25 million deaths, more than half of the European population was simply wiped out. These events had made such a large impact in insular Brittany that the Anglo-Saxons, well established in the eastern half of insular Brittany and dominating the North Sea, gained ground … that they conquered over the Romano-Britons at the Battle of Deorham or Dyrham (577) fought at Hinton Hill near Dyrham in South Gloucestershire, the Saxons had carried the day, three kings of the Britons, whose names are given as Conmail, Condidan, and Farinmail, were slain. As a result of the battle, the West Saxons took three important cities, Glevum, Corinium Dobunnorum, and Aquae Sulis, representing Gloucestershire and Worcestershire east of the Severn, and a small part of northeastern Somerset. Gildas tells us in De Excidio Britanniae (On the Destruction of Britain) written in a still unconquered part of Britain in about AD 544, that the Saxons now held the lands between the Celtic peoples in South West England and those in Wales and the English Midlands causing a mass exodus of the Romano-Britons to Armorica and the Continent. These Romano-Britons would have been led into exile by their then religious leaders, who are the saints we are leaning about today.

At least that’s what the records of the time made us believe for many hundreds of years. Archaeological and genetic research in the 1990s, revealed that the Romano-Britons populations had not left in a mass exodus, and that the Anglo-Saxon horde were far less numerous than we had originally believed. To be honest we don’t even known if the battle of Dyrham actually took place. Historians now believe that Anglo-Saxon leaders, warriors, simply took power and that the Romano-Briton populations —it is true that the lacquer of Imperial Rome had quickly flaked off after they went back to Rome— adopted the culture of their new leaders. Yet even this theory is controversial. It is increasingly believed that the Anglo-Saxon King Cerdic the first King of Wessex (Kingdom in South West England) from which the Kingdom of England eventually emanated, was a Romano-British. In order to retain power, he would have surrounded himself with Anglo-Saxons … and why not include warriors from other heritages.

Saints lead the first British Brexit (exodus)

Celtic Migration Routes

Can we go any further? Are we to believe that it was only the Romano-Briton leaders, that is to say the ecclesiastical leaders, the saints, who took refuge in mainland Brittany from the second half of the VI century? Regardless, it would hardly be conceivable that they would have left on their own. Monasteries in those early centuries were populated by several thousand people. The saints would have had many disciples. Many of them were royal princes. They would therefore, regardless of their religious standing, have had vassal who would accompany them at times there would be hundreds of people. Yet we cannot be sure from the historical sources currently available to us.

What we do known for sure is that their influence on mainland Brittany, as well as in Wales, was extensive and it endures to this day. In Brittany, they marked the landscape. Their names are recognisable everywhere, in towns, villages, hamlets, churches, chapels, fountains. They created the all of the administrative framework of Brittany and which until the French revolution in 1789, diocese and parishes bore the names of the founding saints. A vast number of religious opinions and practices refer to them. 

How did they succeed in this feat of framing territories of several thousands of squared Acres to such an extent that memory of them still endures to this day after many centuries have passed?

Dis they do this because there had been nothing left in Armorica? The name Armorica is a latinised form of the Gaulish toponym Aremorica, which literally means ‘place in front of the sea’. Upon their arrival, the population would have dispersed because of the bad climate, plague, famine, pirates, revolts of bacaudae (deserting soldiers, runaway slaves, peasants in rebellion after being “subjected to the ravages of the late Roman Empire, and supplanted by great landowners and clerics who had previously been servants of Imperial Rome”. It seems somewhat unlikely. Why? You may ask. Armorica had sent troops and other Celtic warriors to the Roman general dux et patricius Flavius Aëtius (dec. 454) for the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields (Getica 36.191) led by Attila King of the Huns on June 20, AD 451. This would lead us to think that for the Romano-Britons  who had emigrated from the V century onward, that the ground would have been far more favourable upon their arrival and which continued for decades. The inhabitants knew each other quite well after millennia of established trade links which had remained consistent between the North and the south of the Channel. When the misfortunes of the second half of the VI century arrived, the Romano-Briton saints who had been wandering the length and breadth of the Armorican peninsula we know call  Brittany for decades and had established churches, abbeys and hermitages along the route, in short they had established a ecclesiastical network which they administer and controlled. The structures had already been well established. Whilst across the Channel their authority and areas of influence began to diminish, in Brittany they seem to have had such enormous success that they have been referred to for centuries.

Celts or Britons

Celtic Britons

And then they will tell me of course that on both sides of the Channel, we are in the presence of Celts. And here we have a problem. Recent historical, linguistic, archaeological and genetic analyses mention that the populations of insular Brittany and Armorica are not the same as the descent groups of central Europe (of the Hallstatt and La Tène regions) whom we call the Celts. In fact, was it not the Greek geographer-merchants who speak of the latter as Celts. It was also Pytheas of Massalia a Greek living in Marseilles, who around 310 BC, visited the tin route miners of Belerium (Land’s End) and their tin depot at Ictis [somewhere off the southern coast of what is now England], controlled and kept secret by the Carthaginians. The earliest written reference to the British Isles derives from the works of Pytheas who called it Πρεττανική νησιά — Prettanikē nēsoi “The Britannic [land, island]”. This was the first known written form use of the word which was an ancient Greek transliteration of the original P-Celtic [Gallo-Brittonic languages] term.

Asterix, Obelix and Dogmatic from Gaul

According to an old theory, these Celtic populations of central Europe migrated — and whom with their unique brand of Celtic bloodthirstiness — mercilessly went on to conquer all of Europe; yet they were stopped in the South by the Greeks and Romans. They would even have crossed the Channel to conquer the islands around Brittany’s coast. In fact, it was the Belgae of Gallia Belgica (now Belgium) who crossed and they did not as far as we know identify themselves as ‘Celts’ but as ‘Gauls’ [Just picture Asterix the Gaul with his friend Obelix and his dog Dogmatix]. Julius Cesar said of them that they are “the bravest, because they are furthest from civilisation and the refinements of [our] Province, and merchants least frequently resort to them, and import those things which tend to effeminate the mind; and they are the nearest to the Germans, who dwell beyond the Rhine, with whom they are continually waging war.”

However, yet another hypothesis begins to gain momentum, which can be described as somewhat less brutal. For millennia, the populations of the Atlantic area and those of the Alpine area have had close commercial and cultural ties; seas, like the English Channel, and rivers would not have been borders, but places of trade from all parts of Europe. A European culture would then have developed, diverse and rich … But… I think we need to wait a little longer to find out more about these results from the researchers … especially from those across the Channel. One never known what will be said next or what will be discovered. We wait with bated breath to see where this Celtic journey will lead us.