The interest in Arthuriana is well known by the Plantagenet family and it is known that Henry II paid attention to the Prophecies of Merlin. Eleanor of Aquitaine and her daughter Marie of France,924 Countess of Champagne, was patroness to Chrétien de Troyes. Henry Blois was the uncle of the Countess’s husband. Henry Blois on occasion must have visited as he is the first promulgator of the Grail legends. Both Chrétien and Robert after ‘hearing’ Henry Blois Grail stories in the guise of Master Blihis at the court of his two young nephews (sons of his brother Theobald) and their wives, are responsible for further propagating the original oral romances into literature.
After Henry II came to the throne of the British Isles, Brittany and Aquitaine were in the same political area, ruled over by the Plantagenet family. Brittany was conscious of its links to the pre-Saxon Britons and the link of Arthur to Brittany pre-existed Geoffrey’s HRB, but much of the Breton lore was oral.
The links between the Armorican peninsula named Brittany since the sixth century emigration of some Britons (mostly from Dumnonia as a Dumonian king ruled) provided a shared cultural heritage. The persistence, until the 13th century and beyond, of a linguistic and cultural community between Brittany, Wales and Cornwall were not ‘Geoffrey’s’ invention.
Saint Goeznovius was a Cornish-born Bishop of Léon in Brittany, who died c.675 and is venerated as a saint in the region around Brest and the Diocese of Léon. According to his Legenda he was born in Cornwall and became one of many of his countrymen who moved to the continent in the wake of the Anglo-Saxon incursions. This in effecy is the crux to the Matter of Britain and the reasoning as to why the Island of Ineswitrin was doned to Glastonbury in the 601 charter.
The prologue to Saint Goueznou’s life, written in the 11th century bears testimony to the existence of a long-standing cultural background:
And so, the Armorici islanders and the British, who use the same laws in brotherly love, treated themselves as a people of one country for a long time under the rule.
The Bretons of Brittany, (little Britain) and Britons on opposite sides of the Channel (later called Great Britain to distinguish the two) formed one people. The same consciousness of a common past is found. In the Book of Llandaff,925 c.1135-1150, it relates that the Welsh prince Guidnerth, guilty of murdering his brother, was sent to Dol in Brittany by his archbishop to do penitence, because: He Guidnerth and the Britons and the archbishop of that land are of one tongue and of one national though the lands are spatially divided.
924See chapter 35
925The text of the Book of Llan Dâv reproduced from the Gwysaneg Manuscript. Edition by Gwenogoryn Evans and John Rhys. Aberysthwyth: National Library of Wales, 1893, p. 181.
Although we can see the attestations to cultural background, in the cartulary at the Abbey of Saint-Sauveur-Redon there are several occurrences of the name Arthur. Also, we hear of a lineage of Arthuiu, Lord of Bain-de-Bretagne in the ninth century.926 Lailoken also appears as Lalocan in the middle of the ninth century.927 Saint Judicael ap Hoel c.590–658 (of Jewish descent) was the King of ‘Domnonee’ and a Breton King in the mid-seventh century. According to Gregory of Tours, the Bretons were divided into various regna during the sixth century, of which, were named Domnonee and Cornouaille.
According to Saint Judicael’s Life, his fellow, Taliesin sometimes stayed in the Abbey of Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys in Brittany to study. Saint Judicael’s Life relates people asked Taliesin to explain King Judhael’s dream about his future son.
Regarding Henry Blois and his involvement in rewriting history, we can see in Vita Merlini, where Henry Blois’ has Merlin say: Bid Taliesin come. I have much I wish to discuss with him, since he has only recently returned from Brittany, where he has been enjoying the sweets of learning under the wise Gildas.” (VM). All of this is tied up with Henry Blois’ impostering of Caradoc and the concoction of the life of Gildas.
Henry Blois sees himself as both from Norman and Breton heritage and part of the heritage which started to merge after the Vikings’ ravages of Normandy along with parts of Brittany at the beginning of the 11th century in an era where we see a double alliance between the ducal houses of Brittany and Normandy. The traditional rivalry between Brittany and Normandy continued at the close of the 11th century.928
The Breton-Norman war of 1064–1065 was the result of William I of England’s support of rebels in Brittany against Alan’s grandfather, Conan II. However, the name of Arthur was in use on the continent as early as the middle of the 11th century and the name of Arthur is witnessed in Normandy. We find it in Fougères (‘Artur de Mansionili’), in the second half of the 11th century.928
Also in 1087, in the course of William the Conqueror’s funeral at Caen, Ascelin, son of Arthur, claimed that William’s grave site was owned before by his father Arthur, and had been stolen from him by William to found the Trinity’s church of Caen.929 Arthur, Ascelin’s father, appeared in records between 1056 and 1070 when he sold lands to Lanfranc.930 Another instance is the lord Artus of Champeaux visited the hermit William Firmat in the forest of Passais.931 Many Bretons came to England with William the Conqueror’s army. Even before 1066, Normans and Bretons had already settled and been warmly welcomed there since the times of King Alfred the Great and his son Athelstan. This tradition of welcome even became a law under Edward the Confessor’s reign.932
The political relations between Henry Ist Beauclerc and Alan Fergant were very strong. Alan came to Henry’s aid when the latter was fighting against his brother Robert Courteheuse for the throne of England. Alan Fergant’s natural son, Brian Fitz-Count, was fostered at Henry Ist court. His foster brother was Henry’s son, Robert of Gloucester, to whom Normans and Bretons had close connections, even if these relations were not always harmonious. Bretons participated together in the first crusade under Robert Courteheuse’s command, with Alan Fergant, Duke of Brittany.
926Fleuriot, Léon, 1974. “Old Breton Genealogies and Early British Traditions.
927Cartulary of Redon.
928Gallais, Pierre, 1967. “Bleheri, la cour de Poitiers et la diffusion des récits arthuriens sur le continent.”, Actes du 7ème congrès national de la littérature comparée, Poitiers, 1965, Paris: Didier, 47-79
929See Orderic Vital. Histoire de Normandie. Traduction de Louis-François du Bois et François Guizot. Paris: Brière, 1825-27, VII, p. 218.
930See Gallais, op. cit., 61, A5
931See Raison, Chanoine Louis, René Niderst, 1948. Le mouvement érémitique dans l’Ouest, fin 11ème siècle, début 12ème siècle.
932“Brytones vero armorici, cum venerint in regno isto, suspici debent et in regno protegi sicut probi cives. De corpore regni hujus exierunt quondam, de sanguine Brytonum regni hujus. “ Mentioned by Joseph Loth, 1883. L’émigration bretonne du 5ème au 7ème siècle de notre ère.
933Much of this appendix supplied by Patrice Marquand. Cultural connections between Brittany and Aquitaine in the Middle Ages (10th-13th centuries): ‘The Matter of Britain’ and the ‘Chansons de Geste.’