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Duchy of Brittany (1188-1532)

Last modified: 2013-11-30 by ivan sache
Keywords: ermine (black) | kroaz du | cross (black) | herminois plain | combat of the thirty | iron cross (black) |
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[Duchy of Brittany]

Flag of the Duchy of Brittany - Image by Ivan Sache, 5 January 1999

See also:

The Kroaz Du (Black Cross) flag

The traditional flag of the Duchy of Brittany, white with a black cross (in Breton, Kroaz Du) has been analyzed in detail by P. Rault (Les drapeaux bretons de 1188 à nos jours [rau98]) and D. Kervella (Review of P. Rault's book, Ar Banniel [arb] #7).

While a Frankish chronicle from the 9th century says that Breton warriors used black shields, the origin of the black cross flag remains controversial. It is unlikely that the black cross appeared during the First Crusade (1095) since the use of banners with crosses by Crusaders is firmly attested only from 1188 (see W. Smith [1975] [smi75c], pp. 42-47).
In 1188, the Duchy of Brittany was steeped in anarchy, so that very few Breton barons joined the Crusade. It is therefore more conservative to consider that the Kroaz Du was granted to Duke Pierre Mauclerc by Pope Gregor IX in 1236 or 1237. The Kroaz Du was then used by Breton sailors and soldiers, and was probably the national flag of the independent state of Brittany until 1532.

The Kroaz Du has been shown in reliable sources only since the 15th century. It is reproduced as the Breton civil ensign in Almanach de Trodec (15th century), in Manuel de Pilotage de Brouscon (15th century), and on Homan's map (1559).

The recommended specifications of the Kroaz Du for modern use are proportions 2:3 and width of the cross equal to 1/5th of the flag width.

Ivan Sache, 5 January 1999

The plain ermine flag

[Plain ermine]

Banner of arms of Brittany - Image by Mikael Bodlore-Penlaez, 30 March 2004

The traditional banner of arms of Brittany, plain ermine, has been analyzed in detail by P. Rault (Les drapeaux bretons de 1188 à nos jours [rau98]).

In 1213, King of France Philip II Augustus granted the Duchy of Brittany to Peter of Dreux "Mauclerc", the second son of Robert II of Dreux, from the Capetian lineage. Although he was only the Prince Consort, Peter replaced the arms of Duchess Alix with his own - indeed his father's - arms, chequered blue and yellow with a red border and an ermine canton as the brisure. At the time, ermine was used as a fur by clerks; its use by Peter might recall that he should have been a clark instead of a soldier (therefore his nickname Mauclerc, literally "Bad clark"). Peter's banner of arms was the first banner of Brittany, with proportions 2:1 or 3:2.

In 1316, Duke John III, in trouble with his family, removed any reference to it from his arms, adopting the plain hermine as his banner of arms.
The banner was used by vessels belonging to the Duke or under his authority, and, to some extent, as the national ensign.

In 1532, Brittany was incorporated to the Kingdom of France, as an autonomous province. The plain ermine flag became the flag of the province and was suppressed in 1789, when provinces were abolished and replaced by departments.

Ivan Sache, 5 January 1999

The coat of arms of Brittany (herminois plain, plain ermine), shown for the first time on a seal from 1318, was the emblem of the Duchy. The autonomist movement Union Régionaliste Bretonne used at first this emblem for its struggle, but subsequently abandoned it because of frequent confusion among ordinary people and journalists with the fleurs-de-lis.
The Army of Brittany, set up during the Franco-Prussian 1870 war, used the coat of arms of the Duchy on a white field.

Pascal Vagnat, 13 January 1997

Origin of the ermine spot

According to legend, a 10th-century Breton Duke was inspired to resist and defeat Viking raiders when he saw an ermine which was being chased by a fox suddenly turn and attack the larger animal. A later Duke, John IV, established a chivalric called "Order of the Ermine" in 1381.

Vincent Morley, 13 January 1997

In Brittany, we usually say that Duchess Ann saw a ermine chased by hunters and this ermine stopped, refused to cross a pool and prefered to die. The duchess said that it was an act of bravery. The motto of the Duchy of Brittany is Potius mori quam foedari (Latin) / Kentoc'h mervet eget am zoatran (Breton), Rather dead than spoiled.

Mikael Bodlore-Penlaez, 29 June 1999

The ermine spots may have originated from ermine tails. The true origin of the arms has certainly something to do with the beginning of heraldry, when battle shields had to be reinforced. The ermines spots might have been nailed at first.

Pascal Vagnat, 31 August 1997

Flags used in the Combat of the Thirty (1351)

[Combat des Trentes]

Flag used in the Combat of the Thirty - Image by Ivan Sache, 13 January 2002

The Combat of the Thirty (Combat des Trentes) is a famous event of the Breton Succession War.
In 1341, Duke John III died and the Succession war broke out between Joan of Penthièvre, nicknamed Joan the Lame and Charles of Blois' wife, and her brother John of Montfort. France supported the Blois party whereas England supported the Montfort party. In 1364, Charles of Blois, in spite of the support of Constable Duguesclin, was defeated and killed in Auray. The Montfort family ruled Brittany until definitive annexation by France in 1532.
In spring 1351, John of Beaumanoir, of the Breton-French party, challenged the Breton-English party in single combat. Each party appointed thirty knights who faught in single combat near Ploërmel (Central Brittany) on 27 March 1351. The Breton-French party won the combat.

According to P. Rault (Les drapeaux bretons de 1188 à nos jours [rau98]), illuminations decorating Compillations de Cronicques et Ystores des Bretons show the Breton-English knights wearing tunics with a red cross and the Breton-French knights wearing tunics with a black cross. Another illumination also illustrating Combat des Trentes shows the Breton-French knights with a narrow, forked white oriflam, charged with a cross couped (that is reamed, with the arms not reaching the edge of the flag).

Ivan Sache, 13 January 2002

Dubious flags

[Dubious Breton flag]         [Dubious Breton flag]

Early Breton flags reported by R. Toulou - Images by Ivan Sache, 12 March 2002

P. Rault (Les drapeaux bretons de 1188 à nos jours [rau98]) reports two Breton flags of dubious origin. The only source for these flags is a paper published by Raffig Toulou in the Breton review Skoed (#8, 1986-1987), entitled "Ancient and modern Breton flags, heraldic blasons of Brittany".
The first flag is horizontally divided white-black with a black iron cross in canton.
The second flag is white with a black decentered cross and a black iron cross fimbriated in white and black in canton.
Toulou describes these flags as follows:

The first Breton flag [...] dates back to the early Middle Ages. This first flag bears in canton the iron cross of the ancient Breton kings. This iron cross was already the symbol of Brittany long before the ermine spots [...]. The second flag was used on land and at sea.

As pointed out by P. Rault, Toulou does not cite any source for the flags he reports. Such flags have never been found on any document or portolano. However, most of the coins released by the ancient Dukes of Brittany (before the Dreux dynasty) bear the iron cross.

Ivan Sache, 12 March 2002

Though "iron cross" may be generally understood, I believe that "formy cross" (or, more heraldically, "cross formy" or "cross pattée") would be more appropriate. Strictly speaking, the Iron Cross is only a Prussian, later German, decoration for valour, which became more generally used as a symbol of the German armed forces. Thus its association with a different country's flags may be confusing. Also, the (German) iron cross is almost always depicted as a very specific kind of cross formy, with curved arms (unlike those on these dubious Breton flags) and with a white-black fimbriation. However, it appears that Toulou himself uses "iron cross" in his descriptions.

Santiago Dotor, 14 March 2002