Who were the Bretons (Britons)?

Introduction

Bretons or Celtic Britons were a people which inhabited Britain when the Romans arrived in the region during the 1st century.

These Britons continued to inhabit the British Isles all the way until Germanic Anglo-Saxon tribes began to arrive wave after wave from the 4th century onwards.

Celtic Bretons

Celtic Bretons

The Bretons were then largely subdued and most were forced to migrate to Continental Europe. In Europe, Bretons became established in Brittany, given the region its name. In time, a few of them would return to England as conquerors under the Norman, William the Conqueror.

Brittany France

Brittany France

Bretons and Romans

In the 1st century, Roman Empire began a conquest of Britain. The Romans were successful in subduing several lands of the Bretons so that Romans and Bretons came to co-exist. This led to the creation of a unique Breton-Roman culture at this time.

The Bretons also faced the threat of Anglo-Saxon attacks and invasions so they relied on the Roman administration to safeguard them from this threat. In time, Rome’s grip on Britain waned so that the Bretons became more vulnerable to the attacks of the Anglo-Saxons.

The Anglo Saxon People

Anglo Saxons

Bretons and Anglo-Saxons

From the beginning of the 4th century, Central and Western Europe witnessed the mass migration of the Germanic tribes from the further east. These tribes, in turn, were pushed westwards by other tribes who were coming from the east.

Anglo Saxon Settlements Map

Anglo Saxon settlements in England in the early period of 400-500

The Anglo-Saxons, who originally occupied lands along the coastline of north-western Europe, began to migrate to Britain around this time. They arrived wave after wave at a time when Roman Empire was no longer able to protect the British lands it once ruled. Bretons were not a match for the Anglo-Saxons who were able to defeat and subdue them. This was followed by migrations of the Bretons from Britain to Continental Europe.

Anglo Saxon Warfare

A few Brittonic kingdoms were able to resist assimilation by the Anglo Saxons and continued to exist all the way until the 11th century. In the old north of England in particular, the Bretons continued to enjoy a degree of independence that was no longer possible in the more southern territories.

Bretons in Continental Europe

In Continental Europe, the Bretons settled many colonies, mostly along with the coastal areas. The most notable of these was Brittany, which is located in the west of modern-day France. Brittany derived its name from Bretons and their language, effectively becoming one of the most prominent Breton settlements in Europe. Bretons who migrated from Britain also settled in other regions in Hispania.

Brittany France

Brittany France

Bretons and the Norman Invasion of England

In 1066, Norman baron and Duke of Normandy, William the Conqueror, launched a conquest of England. His Norman forces were largely supplanted by the Bretons from Brittany and other regions of Continental Europe.

King William The Conqueror Medieval Kings

William The Conqueror Medieval Kings

These Bretons fought alongside William and helped him secure victory over the Anglo-Saxon forces of England. Following William’s conquest of England, many Breton noblemen received significant estates as their reward. Thus some of the Bretons were able to reclaim the land which their ancestors had once inhabited.

Norman Flag