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Brittany (Traditional province, France)

Bretagne, Breizh

Last modified: 2004-12-22 by ivan sache
Keywords: brittany | bretagne | breizh | ermines: 9 (black) | ermines: 11 (black) | ermines: 5 (black) | marchal (morvan) | gwenn-ha-du | banniel |
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[Flag of Brittany]by Vincent Morley
Traditional design

[Flag of Brittany]by Michel Bolloré
Modern design

See also:

Description of the modern flag of Brittany (Gwenn-ha-Du, White and Black)

The Breton flag is called Gwenn-ha-Du, which means 'white and black'. The Bretons often say that it is the only black and white flag in the world, which is wrong (see for instance the flags of Fribourg and Ceuta), but surely it is the only flag in the world that in a parade shall be carried at arm's length over the head. The dimensions of the flag are not really fixed. They vary from 9:14 cm to 8:12 m. The flag is not only used by cultural associations or autonomists but really by everybody, and this quite often: you can even see it on town halls in the region. Because of the absence of legislation concerning regional flags in France the flag is also flown on sail and fishing boats. This is tolerated, but the French flag must also be flown. The design of the ermine spots can vary but the most frequently seen is that on the above drawing.

In the past, the authorities considered the flag as separatist but things have now changed and the flag can appear everywhere, even on public buildings along with the French flag. It no longer has any political connotations. The Gwenn-ha-du is now the flag of the Region Bretagne. It is also used in the department of Loire-Atlantique, although this belongs to the Region Pays de la Loire, because the territory of Loire-Atlantique is historically part of the province of Brittany. Nantes (Naoned), its préfecture, was once one of the two capital cities of Brittany.

Pascal Vagnat, 13 January 1997

Meaning of the Gwenn-ha-Du flag

The explanation of the flag given by its designer Morvan Marchal was:

  • A canton semé with ermine spots (therefore according to heraldry rules, in an unlimited number);
  • Nine alternating equal black and white stripes. The white stripes stand for the bretonnant countries (where Breton was spoken) : Léon, Trégor, Cornouailles,Vannetais. The black stripes stand for the gallo countries (where French was spoken) : Rennais, Nantais, Dolois, Malouin, Penthièvre;
  • This flag is supposed to be a modern synthesis between the traditional banner of arms and a figuration of the Breton diversity.

There are a lot of variations of the Gwenn-ha-Du, but the current version has eleven ermine spots, this number being without any specific meaning (except, for some Bretons, the 11 letters of Breizh dieuh [Free Brittany]).

Source: P. Rault. Les drapeaux bretons de 1188 à nos jours [rau98]

Ivan Sache, 5 January 1999

Origin of the Gwenn-ha-Du flag

In 1923, Morvan Marchal (1900-1963), a student in architecture and founding member of the nationalist movement Breizh Atao (Brittany forever) designed a new Breton flag.

The design seems to have been inspired by the American Stars and Stripes and the Greek flag, or by the arms of the city of Rennes. Interestingly, the arms of the Irish Marshall clan are very similar to Marchal's design. There is, however, no evidence of a direct relationship between the two designs.

The original design had an unlimited number of ermine spots in canton:

[Original Breton flag]by Ivan Sache

The Gwenn-ha-Du was adopted by the first congress of the Breton Autonomist Party, held in Rosporden on 10 September 1927. It was hoisted over the Breton pavilion at the Exposition Internationale of Paris in 1937 by C. Couäsnon. The canton of this flag had nine ermine spots and was unusually large:

[Breton flag, 1937]by Ivan Sache

The Gwenn-ha-Du was described as 'autonomist flag of Brittany' in the flag book Fahnen und Flaggen by O. Neubecker (1939) [neu39a].

Despite early disputes, the Gwenn-ha-Du is now widely used by Bretons of all political, religious and cultural orientations. It was also present in the space shuttle, brought by the Breton spationaut Jean-Louis Chrétien.

Source: P. Rault. Les drapeaux bretons de 1188 à nos jours [rau98]

Ivan Sache, 5 January 1999

The birth of the flag was not straightforward: some intellectuals, like the bard Léon Le Berre, criticised this creation a lot. He wanted the Breton flag to be herminois plain only. The dispute between him and Marchal was very harsh and the newspapers Ouest-Eclair and La Bretagne à Paris (not separatist minded at all) filled their pages for years with the dispute, which lasted 12 years! I won't mention here all the incidents which happened, like when Marchal's flag was flown for the first time on the town hall of Plougastel without any French flag, but his flag won over the other.

Pascal Vagnat, 13 January 1997

Vertical Gwenn-ha-Du flag

[Vertical flag]by Michel Bolloré

The building of the television channel France 3 in Nantes flies a vertical Breton flag beside the French flag of the same format, the flag of region Pays de la Loire and the logo of the channel.

Michel Bolloré, 27 February 2001

Erroneous Gwenn-ha-Du flag

[Variant of the Gwenn-ha-Du]by Ivan Sache

In Ar Banniel [arb] #11 (Spring 2000), Divy Kervella reported an interesting erroneous Gwenn-ha-Du. The flag has a small canton with only five ermine spots (3 + 2). However, the main interest of this flag is the number of stripes, which is five white and four black stripes.

The flag is shown hanging on the wall of a gym in the city of Lannion where members of the FALSAB are training. The picture is dated 1970. The FALSAB is most probably the Fédération Autonome de Lutte et Sports Athlétiques Bretons (Autonomous Federation of Breton Wrestling and Athletic Sports).
The picture is from the newspaper Le Télégramme de Brest.

Ivan Sache, 25 July 2003

Use of the word banniel (flag) in Breton

The word banniel was initially used to designate a procession banner, displayed during the traditional Roman Catholic festivals, the most famous of them being the pardons. In French, bannière is feminine (une bannière) whereas in Breton banniel is masculine (ur banniel). The plural form is bannielo. A traditional song called bannielo Lambaol celebrates the banners of the city of Lampaul.
The use of banniel was later extended to all kinds of flags, for instance the flag of Brittany, banniel Breizh.

The expression Derc'hel uhel e vanniel means 'to hold one's banner high', in the sense of 'to maintain one's rank'. The expression especially targets the young women interested only in good matches. The expression kouezhet eo e vannielo has the opposite meaning, 'one's banners fell down', in the sense of 'he/she is less proud'.

Treiñ banniel, litterally 'to turn the banner', means 'to change sides'. Jean Quéré, a famous preacher of the XIXth century, used the expression in his sermons, e.g. keit ha n'ho po ezhomm ebet / C'hwi a gavo kalz mignoned / Pa zeu avat berro a-wel / Kalz mignoned a dro banniel ! ('As far as you are not in need, You'll find a lot of friends. As soon as you start to have problems, many friends turn their banner'.)

Dougen banniel sant Laorañs, literally 'to bear St. Lawrence's banner', means 'to be silly'. The expression includes a pun based on the word laorañs which means 'silly' in Trégor slang.

Source: Ouest-France on-line Breton lessons

Ivan Sache, 1 July 2002