Rex totius Bretanniae?

Obverse of a silver penny of King Athelstan of Wessex (924-39) from the Winchester mint by the moneyer Wulfheard, legend reading +ÆÐELSTAN REX TO BRI, now in the British Museum, SCBI 34 no. 162

Obverse of a silver penny of King Athelstan of Wessex (924-39) from the Winchester mint by the moneyer Wulfheard, legend reading +ÆÐELSTAN REX TO BRI, now in the British Museum, SCBI 34 no. 162

Apropos of a local postgrad seminar paper around here the other day which I think it would otherwise be inappropriate to blog, this question arose in the discussion. King Æthelstan of Wessex, or indeed England or yet Britain, as you can see from the coin above used the title Rex totius Britanniae, King of All Britain. In 936 this aspiring king landed the eventual Duke Alain II Barbe-Torte of Brittany, with whom he had grown up, at Dol to take over the rather Viking-battered principality for his own, which with his English support Alain duly did.1 Æthelstan must have known it was called Brittany by analogy with Britain; did he think his claimed “totus Britanniae” included it, do you suppose? Was this a takeover, or just a spreading of his friends? Is there a difference in tenth-century Europe? From one corner to another, I just wonder.


1. Source for this is Flodoard’s Annals, ed. Philippe Lauer as Les Annales de Flodoard, publiées d’après les manuscrits, avec une introduction (Paris 1903), online at the Internet Archive where last mod. 19th June 2008 as of 9th February 2009 (warning: the OCR’d plain-text is unusably garbled, the PDF is your only resort), cap. ΜΓ, and now transl. Steven Fanning & Bernard S. Bachrach as The Annals of Flodoard of Reims, 919-966, Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures (Peterborough ON 2004), s. a. 936. For background see Joëlle Quaghebeur, “Norvège et Bretagne aux IXe et Xe siècles : un destin partagé” in Pierre Bauduin (ed.), Les fondations scandinaves en Occident et les débuts du duché de Normandie (Rouen 2005), pp. 113-131.

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5 responses to “Rex totius Bretanniae?

  1. I doubt it. For one, I know of no evidence for a claim to Brittany. Second, Brittania referred to the island itself. Off the top of my head, I don’t think the Latin name Britania applied to Brittany in Anglo-Latin, not until the 12th century. I might be wrong on that though, best check at sometime.

    • Well, I don’t know about Anglo-Latin, but the Annales Bertiniani use it for Louis the Pious’s 830 campaign against Brittany:

      Anno ab incarnatione Domini dcccxxx, mense februario, conventus ibidem factus est in quo statuit cum universis Francis hostiliter in partes Britanniae proficisci, maximeque hoc persuadente Bernhardo camerario.

      I mean, it’s not like Æthelstan would have had another name for this place where the scruffy kid knocking round his court who was going to be a duke some day came from, and it seems that that’s the name the ducal scion himself would have used.

  2. I don’t see anything in principle which must mitigate against such an idea, the difficulty is of course coming up with positive evidence that the title was thus intended. Certainly amongst the Brittonic or P-Celtic peoples a sense of pan-‘Britishness’ did prevail, and Britones could refer to all the peoples together, and by extension I believe Britannia too (which was used not only in it’s Roman geographical sense, but also to designate the region in which the Britones presently lived), at least if I remember David Dumville’s lectures rightly. The strongest argument against such a suggestion to my mind would be that the coinage bearing the title begins directly following Æthelstan’s takeover of York in 927, and has been argued by Blunt to be a reaction to that, not least on the grounds that the York cross-type coins first bear the title. On the other hand, some evidence in favour of the thesis might come from the fact that the Welsh poem, Armes prydein vawr, which calls for a pan-Brittonic response to English imperialism, and has often been read as a direct response to Æthelstan’s expansionism (for discussion see Dumville’s, ‘Brittany and “Armes prydein vawr”’, Études celtiques, 20 [1983], 145-59).

  3. Ah, I hadn’t thought of looking at the opposition case, that’s very interesting. Thankyou!

  4. Pingback: I left my heart phone charger in St Andrews (1 of 3) « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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