Armorica – The Mass Migration from Cornwall to Brittany

In the 5th and 6th centuries there was a mass migration of people from Cornwall to the region of France known as Armorica, modern day Brittany and Normandy. Although Cornwall’s deep connections with Brittany are well known, this piece of history is still shrouded in mystery.

Like the Welsh and the Cornish the Bretons are ethnically Celtic and consider themselves one of the six celtic nations. Consequently Cornwall and Brittany really do have much in common. Our languages are closely related, our coastlines look so similar and Brittany even has its own St Michael’s Mount! But the connections go far deeper than this.

Mont Saint Michael, Normandy

The Celtic Connections

Cornwall and Brittany have always traded, especially in tin, for thousands of years. But more than that, there are also deep prehistoric connections. Back in the mists of time it seems likely we had the same ancient ancestors. You only have to look at the similarities between the ancient monuments found in France and those here in Cornwall. And I have also heard it said that the Cornish are genetically and linguistically more closely related to the Bretons than they are even to the Welsh.

The Coasta Rouge Dolmen or Quoit found near Lodeve, France

So the movement of people between the two regions probably goes back far further than the 5th century. Armorica is an ancient name, perhaps with Latin roots, for the region of France or Gaul that lies between the rivers Seine and Loire. It included what is now the Brittany peninsula and it was to here that the Cornish migrated.

There had been a slow trickle of people moving across the channel since around the 4th century. In fact it is likely that people had always moved freely between the two regions to a certain extent. But the numbers grew significantly in period of history known as the Dark Ages. The reason for this mass movement of people, mostly from Cornwall, Devon and West Wales, isn’t clear. Some say that the Cornish Celts were trying to escape the Saxons who were aggressively invading their homeland from the north.

A Flood of People

Whatever the causes, large numbers of people made the crossing from Cornwall to mainland Europe and to begin a new life there.

turner lands end 3
Cornwall’s Lands End

Records for this time are practically non-existent but we do know a little from the writings of Procopius. Although merely recording tales that he had heard of distant lands he had never seen, Procopius writes that there was a huge movement of people from an island known to him as Brittia to the Frankish mainland in around the 5th century.

It is thought that amongst the hundreds, possibly thousands, fleeing Cornwall there were a number of Cornish princes. These settlers must have been reasonably welcome in their new home as they quickly created two new kingdoms in Armorica which were known as Cornouaille and Domnonea. Names that of course sound very familiar to us today and surely relate to modern day Cornwall and Devon.

The Prince of Cornouaille

It is thought that Cornouaille was founded by Rivelan Mor Marthou, one of the first Cornish princes in the region but no real records of this exist. The name Cornouaille is said to have its roots in the name of an ancient Brythonic tribe. Latinized as Cornovii, it means “peninsula people”, from the Celtic “kernou“, meaning horn or headland. And the name is cognate with, has the same root as, the Cornish name for Cornwall, Kernow.

Vannes, Brittany, once part of Armorica

The region has a complicated history, and you can find more detailed information HERE. Gradually the Armorica evolved in to the regions now known as Normandy and Brittany. And the area’s connections with Cornwall became almost entirely forgotten. But the echoes of those connections I believe continue to this day. Like the Cornish, the Bretons are fiercely independent and passionate about their Celtic culture.

In a time when the world seems determined to return to isolating individualism it is time we thought more about what draws us together, what connects us. Rather than what divides.

Further reading

Cornwall & The Nebra Sky Disc

The Giant’s Crossing – Statue of Saint Piran, a journey to Brittany

Saint Keyne and Equal Rights for 5th Century Women


18 thoughts on “Armorica – The Mass Migration from Cornwall to Brittany

    1. Britain was joined to the mainland until around 7,000 years ago, but the last vestige of that was between East Anglia and Holland. The English Channel was the lower Rhine valley with the Seine and Thames as tributaries.

  1. Thank you, interesting view. I think mass migration is misleading. Many people came over to Brittany but in dribs and drabs over hundreds of years and not in an organised movement. Many of the saints came with a handful of followers – St Pol left Cornwall with 12! The language of the incomers merged with native Gallic dialects to form Breton over time.

  2. Brittany is fascinating and I have been photographing its churches, which means I am bumping up against the saints. Some of the photographs will be in an exhibition in Cratfield, Suffolk, on 12 and 13 April, if you are travelling. And there will also be a little exhibition in Brittany at the end of April. I am thinking of exploring the connections in Cornwall and Wales next – thank you for this post.

  3. That there was a 5th century and later colonisation of Brittany (and Galicia in the NW tip of Spain) from the SW British kingdom of Dumnonia (Cornwall & Devon) is well known, but there were no internal pressures that far west to cause anyone to “flee”. The reason has been mysterious except……. The Atlantic Seaways trading network was millenia old and, by Caesar’s time, was controlled by the Veneti of Southern Brittany. The Roman invasion of that area, and later of Britain, interrupted those Seaways for 400 years by taking full control of all trading, so when the Roman legions finally withdrew, it was open for some entrepreneurs to get the old Seaways up and running again. This, I think was the reason for the colonisations. The entrepreneurs were Dumnonian and, by occupying the two most strategic points on the route, the NW tips of Gaul and Iberia, could take over control. The Seaways most certainly resumed. There are strong indications that the control centre of the Atlantic Seaways, for a while, was Tintagel, maybe in the 6th and 7th centuries, and after Tintagel’s decline as a power-centre c.700, control of the Seaways shifted to Vigo in Galicia. There was still a British bishopric there in the 9th century!

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