Was Brittany Founded by Magnus Maximus?

Brittany is a part of France inhabited by the descendants of ancient Britain. According to legend, it was founded by Magnus Maximus. But what do the facts show?

Mar 28, 2024By Caleb Howells, BA Doctrines and Methodology of Education

magnus maximus founded brittany


Needless to say, the vast majority of France is French-speaking. However, in the northwest corner of the country, there is a notable exception. The region of Brittany, in complete contrast to the rest of the country, speaks a language very similar to Welsh and Cornish. Why is this one region of France so different from the rest?


According to tradition, Magnus Maximus was responsible for the creation of this region. He was a usurper who rose up out of Britain and conquered much of the Western Roman Empire in 383. On the other hand, many modern sources make a different claim. According to them, it was founded by British refugees fleeing from the Anglo-Saxons during their invasions in the fifth and sixth centuries. Which version is best supported by the available evidence?


Magnus Maximus and Brittany: The Limited Contemporary Evidence

Province of Brittany, by TY’s Commons, via Wikimedia Commons


Unfortunately, there is no contemporary account of how Brittany came to be. What we do know is that Roman sources used the term “Armorica” to refer to this corner of Gaul in the early centuries of the Roman Empire. Even so, there are not many references to it. In any case, by the time of Gregory of Tours (writing towards the end of the sixth century), the term “Britannia” was applied to this area. So, what happened between the height of the Roman Empire and the late sixth century that led to this place being called “Britannia?”


Well, the simple reality is that we do not know for sure. However, several decades before Gregory of Tours, the Byzantine historian Procopius seems to have referred to Brittany. He refers to an island called “Brittia” which was between “Britannia” and the isle of Thule (a northern island). He also specifies that Brittia was not far from the shore, which would require the aforementioned “Britannia” to have been part of the shore. This makes it almost certain that Procopius was referring to Brittany when he said “Britannia” in this passage, while “Brittia” was Britain.

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Portrait of Sidonius Apollinaris, by Andre Thevet, 1584, via Sidonalpol.org


Procopius’ words appear to be the earliest known reference to Brittany. But even before this, the fifth-century writer Sidonius Apollinaris referred to an event that occurred in c. 467. He says “the Britanni settled north of the Loire.” This confirms that the Britons were already “settled” in that area by c. 467, which is very useful information. Therefore, we can say that there were already Britons in sizable numbers settled in — at least approximately — the area known as Brittany today. But had these Britons been settled there by Magnus Maximus, or had they fled there due to the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain?


Based just on this information, we cannot say. Magnus Maximus invaded Gaul in 383 and died in 388. On the other hand, the Anglo-Saxon invasion appears to have begun in c. 430. Both of these scenarios would allow sufficient time for large numbers of Britons to have arrived in Brittany by 467.


What Does the Literary Evidence Say?

Folio from one of the earliest surviving copies of De Excidio, by Gildas, 10th century, British Library, London


It is worth considering which view has the greater amount of literary evidence supporting it. The earliest trace of the idea that Magnus Maximus was involved comes from Gildas, writing in the sixth century. He claimed that Maximus deprived Britain of all its troops and that these troops never returned to Britain after his usurpation. The later Historia Brittonum, written in c. 830, specifically claims that Maximus did not want to let his soldiers go home, so he settled them in Gaul. The idea of Maximus settling his British troops in Gaul leading to the formation of Brittany is also found in a variety of medieval Welsh texts. In these, the leader of the British troops, who becomes the first king of Brittany, is named Conan Meriadoc.


On the other hand, Gildas does also say that some Britons fled “beyond the sea” as a result of the Anglo-Saxon attacks. He does not specifically say where they went. Procopius does directly say that many Britons were leaving Britain and settling in the land of the Franks, which might be a reference to Brittany. However, he does not give any indication that this was anything but a recent phenomenon, whereas we know from Sidonius that the Britons were already there by c. 467. Therefore, the literary evidence clearly favors the Magnus Maximus theory.


A Significant Objection to the Refugee Theory

Map showing the migration from western Britain to Brittany, via Wikimedia Commons


The idea that Brittany was founded by refugees fleeing the Anglo-Saxons is very unlikely for one key reason. The regions of Britain from which the inhabitants of Brittany (called “the Bretons”) came make no sense in the context of the Anglo-Saxon invasion.


Brittany was divided into several kingdoms by at least the sixth century. There was a kingdom of Dumnonia (modern-day Domnonée), a kingdom of Cornubia (modern-day Cornouaille), and a kingdom of Léon. The names of these three main kingdoms of early Brittany come directly from place names in Britain. The kingdoms of Dumnonia and Cornubia are obviously named after the Dumnonia and Cornubia in the West Country, modern-day Devon and Cornwall. The kingdom of Léon appears to have been named after Caerleon, which was a prominent location in southeast Wales with close contacts with Devon and Cornwall. Obviously, then, the Britons who settled in Brittany were from these areas, as historians widely recognize.


Map of Anglo-Saxon cemeteries in fifth-century Britain, all on the eastern side of the country, via Wikimedia Commons


Why is it so important to note that the Bretons were from those parts of Britain? The reason is that the Anglo-Saxons started their conquest from the east coast, not from the west coast. There was a major concentration of them in the southeast, in Kent and the surrounding area, as well as further north. From there, they spread eastward and somewhat northward.


Archaeology shows that they got to the border of Wales by at least the mid-sixth century, but the Saxons did not start to invade Devon until the seventh century. And it was not until the eighth century that the Saxons began attacking Cornwall, the south-western tip of Britain. The idea that the Bretons were Britons who fled from the Anglo-Saxon invasion goes completely contrary to these facts. The Anglo-Saxon invasions of Dumnonia and Cornubia were several centuries too late to explain why Britons from those areas had migrated to Gaul.


Does Archaeology Support the Refugee Theory or the Magnus Maximus Theory?


Prospect of Camalet Castle, by William Stukeley, 1723, via baronofnorthcadbury.com


It might be thought that archaeology could settle this matter. Unfortunately, there is an infamous lack of evidence for any migration of Britons to Brittany in any period, even though we know there was one. Nonetheless, archaeology can point us in the right direction. One researcher noted the absence from early Brittany of the type of material culture that emerged in Western Britain from the late fifth century onwards.


For example, in Britain from c. 450 onwards, we see lots of impressive imported pottery, countless stone inscriptions, decorative metalwork, and Iron Age hill forts being reoccupied. Yet none of that (aside from a few isolated examples of imported pottery and perhaps seven inscribed stones) is present in early Brittany. As that researcher noted, this British culture is “conspicuous by its absence” in Brittany. It seems that with every year that passes, the richer Britain’s Post-Roman material culture appears to have been (exemplified by a beautiful mosaic dating to the late-fifth century). Therefore, the lack of any of this in Brittany truly is conspicuous.


An artist’s impression of the Roman town of Camulodunum in Britain, via Visit Colchester


Archaeology, therefore, certainly does not support the idea that Brittany was founded by Britons migrating from their homeland in the mid-fifth century and after. What about in the time of Magnus Maximus? Well, in his time, both Britain and Armorica were part of the Roman Empire. The movement of a sizable number of troops from one location to the other would not necessarily have resulted in a substantial change in material culture. For one thing, the two cultures would already have been relatively similar from the start. Additionally, this would have made it comparatively easy for the Romano-British troops to assimilate into the culture of Roman Armorica. True, the lack of physical evidence for a migration is still strange. Yet, it is not nearly as inexplicable as it would be if we were to try to place this migration in the Post-Roman era. On this basis, then, the archaeological evidence is in favor of the migration having occurred in the time of Magnus Maximus.


Magnus Maximus and Le Yaudet

Map of Le Yaudet, Brittany, via Oxford University


One interesting site in Brittany may well hold some evidence for the migration in the time of Magnus Maximus. This is Le Yaudet, a location on the north coast of Brittany used in Roman times as a port. It appears to have been uninhabited from the late third century through the majority of the fourth century. However, it appears to have been occupied again in the late fourth century, after which it continued to be inhabited throughout the Middle Ages. Note that the late fourth century was when Magnus Maximus invaded Gaul.


Furthermore, one of the only physical structures recovered from this period was a drystone building. It was not exactly Roman-style architecture, but it was notably similar. One researcher speculated that it “suggests a familiarity with Roman-style structures that would be unsurprising in a sub-Roman tradition.” It is interesting that the date of the resettlement appears to correspond to Magnus Maximus’ campaign. Yet, the architecture is not fully Roman in style. What could this mean?


Map showing the distribution of Roman towns and villas, with very few on the western side of the country, via Wikimedia Commons


While not necessarily the only possibility, this is surely consistent with the tradition of Magnus Maximus settling British troops here. If Le Yaudet was resettled simply by Roman troops, then we would expect to see purely Roman styles of architecture. On the other hand, Magnus Maximus was strongly associated with the parts of Britain that were not very Romanized, such as the North and the West. Architectural styles which are not Roman but suggest familiarity with Roman styles is exactly what we would expect from the presence of his British troops. This would nicely harmonize the style of architecture with the date of reoccupation.


Furthermore, the idea that Magnus Maximus would settle some of his foreign troops in a specific area and give them some autonomy is not strange. In fact, it is exactly the kind of thing that really did happen in the fourth century. The use of foederati — barbarian tribes settled in a specific spot within the Roman Empire as part of a mutual agreement — had become positively common. Somewhat similarly, Fraomar, a Germanic king, was placed by the Romans in a site in Britain with the status of tribune over his people. Therefore, there is nothing remarkable whatsoever about the idea that Magnus Maximus gave a small corner of Gaul to a British leader and his men.

Did Magnus Maximus Found Brittany?

Illustration from the Llanbeblig Book of Hours, possibly depicting Magnus Maximus, 14th century, National Library of Wales, via Wikimedia Commons


We cannot say with any certainty what the origin of Brittany really was. However, we do know from contemporary records that there were Britons settled in that region of France by at least c. 467. Therefore, the migration of Britons to Brittany must have occurred before that. Welsh tradition claims that it was founded by Magnus Maximus during his usurpation of the Western Roman Empire in 383. This tradition claims that he gave it to a British prince called Conan Meriadoc, and that it was inhabited by the British troops who accompanied him to Gaul. While many modern online sources claim that Brittany was founded by British refugees fleeing the Anglo-Saxons, this is not likely. The Bretons clearly came from western Britain, yet the Anglo-Saxons would not attack these pertinent regions until centuries after Brittany was already founded.


In the absence of any alternative, the prevailing Welsh tradition is clearly the best choice. Archaeology supports the conclusion that Brittany was not founded in the mid-fifth century. A foundation in the late fourth century is most compatible with the archaeological evidence, limited though it is. Finally, the legend is consistent with what really was going on in the Roman Empire in the fourth century, such as the use of foederati.

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By Caleb HowellsBA Doctrines and Methodology of EducationCaleb is a published history author with a strong interest in ancient Britain and the Mediterranean world. He holds a BA in the Doctrines and Methodology of Education from USILACS. He is the author of "King Arthur: The Man Who Conquered Europe" and "The Trojan Kings of Britain: Myth or History?". Caleb enjoys learning about history in general, but he especially loves investigating myths and legends and seeing how they might be explained by historical events and individuals.