January 9th marks the five hundredth anniversary of the death of Anne of Brittany (Breton: Anna Vreizh) in 1514. Born in Nantes, Brittany she was the daughter of Francis II (Breton: Frañsez II) and Margaret of Foix. Anne was their only surviving child and she became Duchess of Brittany upon the death of her father in 1488.
Anne was only aged twelve when she inherited the Duchy and was the last independent ruler of Brittany. These were turbulent times and marriage to Anne was sought by both the House of Habsburg and the French Crown. Despite a treaty between France and Brittany that required French agreement on the marriage of Anne, a proxy marriage with Maximilian 1 was undertaken. The treaty in question was the Treaty of Sablé; forced upon Brittany by the French after defeat at the Battle of Saint-Aubin-du-Cormier on July 28, 1488.
Anne’s proxy marriage to Maximilian 1 of Austria at Rennes on 19th December 1490 upset the French, who saw it as a breach of the Treaty of Sablé and at the same time placed Brittany in an alliance with their enemy. The subsequent French invasion and fall of Rennes led to Anne’s proxy marriage to Maximilian being forcibly broken. Anne was given no choice but to become engaged to Charles VIII and they were married on 6th December 1491. At the time of Charles death in 1498 they had no surviving children. Anne then married Louis XII (cousin and successor to Charles) and they had two daughters Claude and Renée.
Anne died on January 9th 1514 just before her 37th birthday at Château de Blois. Her last wishes were for her heart to be removed, placed in a gold reliquary, then brought to her beloved Brittany and placed in the tomb of her parents at Nantes. Throughout her life Anne of Brittany sought to defend the autonomy of Brittany and to preserve the Duchy as separate from the French crown. Anna Vreizh was a very pious woman and in 1505 made a pilgrimage around Brittany, known as the Tro Breizh, to honour the seven founding Saints of Brittany-Malo, Samson, Brieuc, Tugdual, Pol Aurélien, Corentin and Patern. She is remembered for her intelligence and as a promoter of literature and the arts. The Grandes Heures of Anne of Brittany was commissioned by Anne in the early sixteenth century. A book of hours is a Christian devotional book and the Great Book of Hours of Anne of Brittany is beautifully illustrated and has been described as one of the best ever made. It is seen to be the work of miniature painter and illuminator Jean Bourdichon.
Anna Vreizh will be commemorated in ceremonies throughout Brittany in 2014, the 500th anniversary of her death. She represents a spirit of Brittany which continues to oppose centuries of discrimination against its culture and language.
Since the Battle of Saint-Aubin-du-Cormier in 1488 and Anne’s efforts to retain Brittany’s autonomy, there has been a systematic campaign to undermine Breton independence. It was demonstrated at the time of the French revolution when Abbé Gregoire (1794) in his report on the necessity of universalising the French language, wrote that:
…..Breton and Basque, represent the barbarism of centuries past and need to be obliterated and replaced by standard French
It persisted through to the French Minister of Education’s statement of intent in 1925 that:
For the linguistic unity of France, the Breton language must disappear.
Onwards to the offensive official warning signs that appeared in schools in the 1950s declaring:
No spitting on the ground or speaking Breton.
Echoing the 1925 statement in 1972, George Pompidou, who was President of France at the time, said that there was no place for regional languages in France.
At present, although not wishing to be seen as openly discriminatory, the French establishment would still be happy to see the eradication of the Breton language. As seen by The French Government’s refusal to ratify the "The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages", thus trying to deprive Breton speakers of the rights and privileges protected by the Charter.
So in the coming year’s commemorations of the life of Anne of Brittany attention will also be paid to the continuing struggle to defend and promote Breton culture and identity. The gold reliquary of Anne’s heart is now held at the Museum in Dobrée in Nantes. The city of Nantes and the Loire-Atlantique Department in which it is situated were formerly part of the historic nation of Brittany. Loire-Atlantique, although culturally, historically and geographically united to Brittany was itself split from the other four departments by the Vichy regime in 1941.
Not least in the coming year’s celebrations of the life of Anna Vreizh, the campaign for the reunification of Brittany will be at the forefront of many people’s minds. The separation of Nantes from the rest of Brittany would have been inconceivable to Anne of Brittany.