Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Duke Conan II/King Conan I "The Old" (ruled 1040-1093)

Brittany is the purple bit.
Our examination of the Rennes begins in 1066, that pivotal year in European history. While William the Conqueror, just next door to Rennes, launched his war against the tottering nobility of England, a personable, largely content young man took the first steps in establishing a vital, cross-Channel Celtic kingdom.

In 1066, Duke Conan II of Brittany was 33, unmarried, and (besides one talented but shunned bastard) childless. This did not seem to faze him in the least. While not lazy, he wasn't ambitious. His talent for multiplying coin was mainly used on a local level, keeping his small court in the lap of relative luxury.

Without an heir, the ducal throne was set to pass to his hated sister, Hawise, and her stupid husband, Hoel. This would, of course, spell the end of the Rennes family. Urged by his court to find a suitable wife in order to put a stop to this eventuality, Conan would, against all probability, ignite one of the great love affairs of the age.

His wife, Princess Sancha of Aragon, was the youngest sister of King Sancho I of Aragon, only 18 at the time of her wedding to Conan. She was the perfect compliment to the duke, a smart, vivacious woman, burning with genius and ambition. She was the hot to his cold; she completed him in ways which he couldn't have imagined prior to their marriage. Almost immediately, they fell in love... a rarity in the 11th century.

At Sancha's suggestion, Conan launched a building program aimed at shoring up Rennes' defenses and increasing village productivity. Concurrent with this, Conan set about bribing and cajoling his vassals to approve the passage of primogeniture inheritance, rather than gavelkind. This they did, with some grumbling, primarily from other members of the Rennes family.

The year 1069 saw the birth of Conan's firstborn, a daughter named Prostlon. The girl was born with a clubfoot but otherwise healthy. This secured the de Rennes line, albeit through a daughter rather than the preferred son. Conan and Sancha proved doting parents, both to Prostlon and the rest of their five children.

During this time, Conan wrote extensively about his desire to unite the Celtic peoples under his rule. It was rudimentary and certainly nothing like the nationalism of the modern day, but the primary document detailing his thoughts on a Celtic kingdom (ruled by the de Rennes, of course) is extant to this day, housed in the cathedrale Saint-Pierre de Rennes. Titled Le Mars Des Bretons, it references the migration of the Celts from Cornwall to Brittany centuries prior and calls for the Celtic people to unite under a new king. Notably, Sir Tristram de Lyonesse is mentioned well before tales of the knight's adventures were collected in the written word.

One of the main points set out in this document is that Ireland, as a fractious land without a proper king, must be the first target of conquest. To this end, Conan and Sancha dispatched his chancellor, Count Josselin of Vannes, to the county of Desmond. The count had orders to find (or forge) documents proving a de Rennes claim on the southern tip of Ireland. Unfortunately for both the duke and his chancellor, Josselin was murdered four months into his mission, stabbed to death in a whorehouse and left to rot outside. It was a slight which Conan never forgot.

In June of 1071, Duke Conan II was apprised of a plot by his uncle, Count Eon of Penthievere, to usurp the ducal throne. Eon avoided arrest and raised his flag in rebellion. He would find his death on the battlefield, leaving his son, Geoffroy, to surrender to Conan. The son suffered for the sins of the father, being banished in early 1072. This brought Penthievere into the duke's personal demesne, strengthening his position relative to his vassals even further.

In 1072, William the Conqueror became King of England as William I. It was an uneasy truce, one which would not hold once he passed on. His son, King Robert the Cruel, was too heavy-handed, sparking a revolt which would see the entire north of England establish itself as an independent Duchy of Lancaster.

Conan and Sancha would have their first son, named Riwallon, in 1074, followed by a second, Herve, the next year. With the proper male "heir and spare" to go with two daughters, the de Rennes line was well and truly secure. The couple's last child, a third son, named Derrien, was born in 1079.

Throughout all of this, the building program which Conan put into action proceeded apace. Land was reclaimed from forest and swamp, training grounds expanded for the duchy's military, and old Roman roads slowly cobbled back together. Brittany seemed an oasis of peace in an increasingly volatile Western Europe; France was constantly feuding with the duchies of Flanders and Toulouse, whilst the Jimena family (of which Sancha was a member, of the Aragonese branch) fought both each other and the Islamic states of southern Iberia in incessant wars.

Not that Breton politics were immune to the allure of warfare. In 1086, Conan came into papers which "proved" an ancestral claim on the county of Connacht in western Ireland. Wasting no time, Conan assembled the fighting men of the realm and landed nearly 2000 troops on the shores near Galway. With little resistance to be mustered, the title passed to Conan.

Consumption breaks out everywhere.
Despite all the gains, terrible things were in store for the peninsula. 1088 was known as the Year of Shadows, L'An D'Ombres. A terrible plague of tuberculosis broke out all over Brittany and neighboring parts of France. The ducal court was devastated; one in five people died, with many others never fully recovering.

December 31st of that dread year saw the worst nightmares of the duke realized. Drowning in her own blood, Conan's beloved wife and partner died. The duke, now an old man, was distraught. A month of mourning was declared, black banners hung from every window.

It is hard to overstate just how great a role Sancha played in the policy of her husband. While his hand was on the rudder, her passion for rule was at least as responsible for his climb to power as anything else in his life.

Conan was better suited to power than he realized; the expansion which Brittany saw during his deft rule was testament to that. What he lacked was the initiative to get things going in the first place. Sancha was his spark, getting the ball rolling for a demonstrably capable man who might otherwise have faded into obscurity. Her loss was devastating to Conan. He never fully recovered.

With the terrible blow of Sancha's death delivered, responsibility for the running of Brittany fell increasingly to the ducal council and Riwallon, not yet the age of majority in 1088. Riwallon, even at the age of 14, proved more innately ambitious than his father. While never proven, the next few years, years which would alter the landscape of Europe forever, have been lain at the feet of young Riwallon and his siblings.

Much of the speculation to this effect has to do with just how dynamic Conan seemed after Sancha's death. Personal accounts paint him as a doddering, fading geriatric, barely able to feed himself. And yet, 1089 saw him proclaim himself Duke of Connacht and force Count Aed of Breifne to swear fealty to him. This brought nearly a quarter of Ireland under his rule. More importantly, it offered young Riwallon a powerful base from which to expand ever further into Ireland.

Perhaps strangest of all, Conan married a Welsh courtier named Owena Dinefwyr a scant two months after his beloved Sancha's passing. Accounts of the wedding have the 59 year old duke shuffling into the cathedral, barely able to see his 18 year old bride. It is probably safe to say that it was a marriage forced on the poor old man by his family and counselors, both for appearances and in the hopes of squeezing one more heir from his withered seed.

Riwallon, for his part, married Princess Andregoto (another Jimena), daughter of King Alfonso VI of Castille. At the lavish wedding, a plot by Count Alain of Nantes was revealed to the ducal heir by a drunken courtier. Alain fled the proceedings and closed the gates of Nantes to all who approached, rebelling against the duke (or, more likely, his heir). The rebel count declared that elective succession was the only proper response to Riwallon's machinations, so as to keep the throne from passing to him.

The rebellion was put down in short order, Alain captured and exiled, just as Count Geoffroy had been 20 years earlier. Duke Conan found both Nantes and Cornouailles added to his personal demesne, the latter of which he gave as a personal fiefdom to Riwallon.

With so much of the peninsula under the direct control of the de Rennes family, the new Count of Cornouailles pressed his father to declare himself King of Brittany. This he did in 1091, becoming King Conan I of Brittany. Riwallon stood to inherit far more than he could have realized just three years earlier.

Conan's death was entirely disappointing for a man who had accomplished so much in such a short time (remember that, though old, he did not even get married until the age of 33). Shortly after the birth of one last daughter, a girl named Alienor, he insisted on riding forth to put down a small peasant rebellion in Nantes. An arrow caught him in the neck as he led his army. His last words as his breath left his body were, "Elle est m'accueillir"... "She is welcoming me".

The great man was survived by seven children and four grandchildren. His tomb is in the crypt of Rennes castle, the epitaph Un Roi engraved upon it.

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