Today, while watching French TV at lunchtime, we found out that 2023 marks 100 years of the Breton flag. We were surprised as we both thought it dated back much further but to be honest, we knew nothing about it and had never really questioned it. So, we tried to do a bit of research and discovered that its history is actually pretty interesting.

To begin with, the flag is also called Gwenn ha Du, which means “White and Black”. I guess it makes sense, as it is made up of 9 horizontal black and white lines with 11 ermine tails in the top right hand side corner. Hmmm… interesting… ermine tails? But why?

USA flag

Well, first of all, let’s go back to the beginning: following WW1, the Breton regionalist movement started looking for a flag that would reflect Brittany. Eventually, the chosen banner that we are now all familiar with was designed by an architect and Breton nationalist activist called Morvan Marchal, between 1923 and 1925. Wishing to symbolise freedom and independence, he was mostly inspired both by the coat of arms of Rennes and by the American banner, which represents these values. The flag has since become a true emblem, and can now not only be found on all the town hall facades in Brittany but is also proudly worn by Bretons in Brittany and around the world.

What do the stripes actually mean?

Well, at least the stripes make sense. There are 5 black ones and 4 white ones, and they represent the 9 historical regions of Brittany. The black stripes identify the 5 regions of Haute Bretagne (or Upper Brittany), with the black representing the Gallo language which is spoken there:

Breton flag with ermine
  1. The pays Vannetais (Bro-Wened)
  2. The pays de Cornouaille (Bro-Guernev)
  3. The pays de Léon (Bro-Leon)
  4. The pays du Trégor (Bro-Dreger)

The 4 white stripes represent the 4 regions of Basse Bretagne, or Lower Brittany, and this time the white stands for the Breton language, which is spoken there:

  1. The pays Rennais (Bro-Roazhon)
  2. The pays Nantais (Bro-Naoned)
  3. The pays de Saint Brieuc (Bro-Sant-Brieg) or Penthièvre
  4. The pays de Dol (Bro-Zol)
  5. The pays de Saint-Malo (Bro-Sant-Maloù)

So far, so good, it all makes sense and is actually pretty obvious, when you think about it

What about the ermine flecks?

This is quite a nice story, really. The ermine, or stoat, is a small animal with brown fur that turns white in winter and is very similar to a weasel. Legend has it that the Duchess Anne of Brittany was riding her horse when she spotted a white-furred ermine being hunted by dogs. The ermine found itself trapped on the edge of a muddy pond and preferred to face the hunters and death, rather than dirty and soil its noble white coat. Fascinated by its bravery, the Duchess let it live and made it her emblem, giving rise to Brittany’s motto: “Plutôt mourir que la souillure” (Rather dying than being stained).

Stoat or ermine

There are 11 ermine flecks on Gwenn ha Du. Opinions are divided when it comes to their meaning: some say that they represent the saints of Brittany and others think that they represent the Dukes of Brittany.

It’s funny how an apparently simple flag can have so much meaning and so much history (before you say anything, if you dig deeper, you will discover even more history behind it: we have barely scratched the surface. In actual fact, the ermine as a symbol dates back to the 13th century: once reserved for the clergy, it symbolised purity. Pierre de Dreux, Duke of Brittany, added it to his father’s coat of arms, echoing the French Royal lily).

Most of us can instantly recognise the Breton flag, but would never stop to think about what it represents. And yet, after our little research today, we were not really surprised to find out there is such a story behind it: Brittany is a fascinating region in Western France, full of folklore, traditions, and iconic images.

After having spent an exciting day researching our favourite region of France, all we want to say tonight is Happy birthday, Gwenn ha Du!

Editor’s Note

Do you know any other stories regarding the Breton flag that you would like to share with our readers? Please do comment, we would love to hear from you!

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