Though it is situated in the north west corner of France, Brittany offers a culture, unique unto itself. It also benefits from being surrounded by sea on three sides offering residents, and visitors alike, a mild temperate climate and a glorious coastline. For me, many of its wonders lie embedded within its unique culture, stunning landscape and layered history.
You might be surprised to learn that Brittany has a strong historical link to Scotland through the Stewart/Stuart kings.
During the reign of Henry 1 of England, there were ongoing wars between England and France. A request had been made for Henry and his army to come to the aid of the Breton Dukes to put down an uprising of their enemies. When Henry later returned to England, he recruited some of the loyal Breton nobles to act as mercenaries in return for generous land grants.
It was from a noble Breton family, primarily that of the Seneschal of Dol from NE Brittany, and his descendants, who went on to became hereditary Stewards of the Scottish kings. A later descendant founded Paisley Abbey in Scotland and the family’s name gradually morphed into Stewart. These Stewarts developed a considerable power base associated with their role in supporting Scottish royalty, and their tendency to marry strategically into the Scottish nobility consolidated their high status role.
In the twelfth century, a strategic marriage was brokered for a royal princess, sister of two Scottish kings, Malcolm (iv) and William 1; Princess Margaret became the wife of Conan (iv), Duke of Brittany. Subsequently, her second husband Humphrey de Bohun became a Constable of England, and progenitor of the ‘de Bohun’ family, whose members were active during the Wars of Independence between England and Scotland.
Here our story shifts to Duchess Margaret’s daughter, Constance, who played a key role in the intrafamilial tensions between Henry 11and his wife Eleanor of Acquitaine, and their sons. Henry arranged for Constance’s marriage to his fourth son, Geoffrey. When the latter was trampled to death in a tourney accident, Constance became sole ruler of Brittany. She was the mother of Arthur, named as heir to Henry’s throne. At the age of 16, Arthur disappeared in captivity. Though his fate was unknown, many believed King Richard, of Lionheart fame, had facilitated his murder – especially when Arthur’s sister, Eleanor, was similarly imprisoned to prevent her succession. Sometime later in 1241 she died during her imprisonment in England.
Later in Scotland, in the 14th century, King Robert the Bruce forged an even stronger alliance with the Stewart family, when a notable son, Sir Walter, married the king’s daughter, Princess Marjorie Bruce.
Their descendants went onto to found the Stuart dynasty which ruled Britain for many centuries.
The Breton links with Scotland were consolidated by other marital alliances when the daughters of the Scottish royal house were married to Breton Dukes. One such daughter was Isabella Stewart (born 1426) – the second daughter of King James 1 of Scotland and Joan Beaufort – who was married to Duke Francois 1, the good-hearted, of Brittany.
After her husband’s death, Isabella remained in Brittany despite her father’s attempts to marry her off to another royal suitor. Royal women were frequently used as pawns to shore up alliances and wealthy connections between countries. Isabella died in Vannes, an important seat of political power, in 1494.
Vannes is an imposing walled city in southern Brittany. Its turreted walls, formal gardens and medieval buildings offer the visitor intriguing nooks and crannies to explore. With its range of shops, cafes and restaurants and delicious food, there is plenty to entice the visitor. And when you’ve exhausted these delights, not far away lie the extrordinary fields of standing stones at Carnac.
So many wonders! Perhaps I’ll see you there?