This Month in Celtic History
by Stephen Paul DeVillo

March 2002


23 March 1402:   Yann V crowned Duke of Brittany and his forty-three year reign provides a period of economic prosperity and artistic creativity.

This month marks the 600th anniversary of the coronation of Duke Yann V, one of the key figures in Breton history. In many ways the reign of Yann V was the autumn of glory for independent Brittany. Yann’s peaceful reign was built on the achievements of his father Yann IV, from whom Yann inherited the ducal throne in 1399. (Yann’s formal coronation was delayed to 1402 while the coronation ceremony was revised to make it a more royal event.)

For years Brittany had been caught uneasily in the currents of the Hundred Years War between France and England. But Yann IV saw that English power was waning and so he brought peace to Brittany by signing the second treaty of Guérande in 1389 by which he broke Brittany’s alliance with England. Though the terms of this treaty forced the Breton duke to render formal homage to the infant French King Charles VI, Brittany was left with enough freedom to pursue its own foreign policy, which in effect meant that it could still maintain its independence by balancing the English off against the French. For Yann V this meant a policy of strict neutrality. WIth neither side willing to interfere with Brittany for fear of driving her into the enemy’s camp, Yann successfully kept Brittany out of the ongoing Hundred Years War.

Yet while he was officially neutral in the Franco-English conflict, Yann could hardly ignore the Welsh revolt that Owain Glyn Dwr launched against the English in 1400. A successful Welsh revolt could give Brittany a potential Celtic ally, and so Yann turned a blind eye to the activities of Breton privateers who plundered English shipping in the Channel, as well as to any Breton adventurers who hitched a ride on the French expedition to Wales in 1405. But a year later the French abruptly backed off from their intervention in the Welsh revolt, and Yann’s neutrality policy again proved its value when the young English King Henry V renewed the war on France and left neighboring Normandy awash in fire and blood.

But Henry’s depredations and his upset victory at Agincourt in 1415 didn’t blind Yann to the fact that the balance of power was in the long run still tipping towards France. Long before France made up with its breakaway duchy of Burgundy at the treaty of Arras in 1435, Yann saw that the old balance of power politics weren’t going to work much longer for Brittany. Yann instead sought to bolster Brittany’s independence by making the maximum use of her limited resources. In doing so he took some actions that were ahead of their time, and which in some ways moved Brittany towards becoming a modern nation-state.

First, Yann reformed the system of taxation, putting various levys and their collection on a regular basis, and introduced the newfangled notion of an annual governmental budget. Reorganizing the tax system had a double benefit: while it ensured a steady flow of income to the royal court, it also had the effect of easing the tax burden on the country as a whole by eliminating waste and arbitrary assessments.

Yann’s military reforms aimed at preparing Brittany to fight for her freedom. WIth a secure cash flow, he invested in the new gunpowder technology that was revolutionizing European warfare, and endowed Brittany with some state-of-the-art artillery and fortifications. And he didn’t stop there. Mindful of the bowmen of Agincourt and the victory they wrought over the French knights, Yann borrowed an idea from his Welsh counsins and organized a peasant militia of "francs archers." He also created the nucleus of a permanent standing army, a radical idea for its day, which Yann built around a core of cavalry companies. Lastly, Yann took an idea from the embattled Swiss cantons and made plans to turn out the entire male population of Brittany in a wartime levy en masse.

At the end of his reign in 1442 Yann, by now known as "Yann the Wise," left a legacy of a peaceful, prosperous country, where the literature of the Breton language flourished and whose government functioned as an independent nation. So accepted was Brittany’s independent status that at his funeral Yann’s body was decked out in what was described as the "royal habit" of scarlet and ermine.

But Yann’s brilliant reign could only stall the sweep of forces that were combining against Brittany’s independence. Less than fifty years after his death Yann’s dream of a secure and independent Brittany would lie in ashes, and the golden days of his reign would become the subject for poetic nostalgia.

The stories in This Month in Celtic History are drawn from over 1000 anniversaries of people and events from the histories of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann in the 2002 Celtic Calendar, now available from the Celtic League American Branch.

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