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  • Writer's pictureHans Faber

A Frisian warlord who ruled in Brittany, until his wife cheated on him


featured image: Vendel helmet, Uppland, Sweden, ca AD 600

Where the English Channel and the Celtic Sea meet, is where the ships of the Frisian brothers Corsold and Coarchion roamed, raided and ruled in the early sixth century. For a while they even had their own kingdom in Brittany. Breton legends tell that the village of Kersaout ‘Corseul’ was the residence of dux Corsold. Also, origin of the place name (Haut)-Bécherel, with its Roman ruins, might stem from the Old Frisian word beki meaning ‘stream’ (Bourgès 2010). Furthermore, according to Breton tradition, the old fortress Camp des Rouëts at the village of Bodieu, was erected by Corsold (Vincent 2020). Lastly, motto of the Bretons is: Kentoc'h mervel eget bezañ saotret, meaning ‘rather dead than dishonour’. Sounds familiar to Frisians, this phrase? So, how come ancient memories exist of Frisians in Brittany?


There's an old text that speaks of dux ‘leader’ Corsold. It's the Vita inedita S. Melori martyris in Britannia Minori 'the unpublished life of Saint Melor the martyr in Britannia Minor [i.e. Brittany]', written by an anonymous person. Precise old age of the Vita S. Melori is being disputed among experts. It might have been written at the end of the eighth, or at the beginning of the ninth century, or between 1060 and 1080, or in the twelfth century (Lebecq 1983, Chédeville 1985, Brett 2020). In ordinary language: nobody has a clue how old.


Saint Melor was decapitated at the age of fifteen in the early eighth century. His head, which he held in his hands, spoke posthumously. Indeed, a talking head. Melor was a young prince of Cornouaille "Cornwall' in Brittany. A descendent of the two Brittonic nobles named Lex and Regula ‘law' and 'rule’. Both, Lex and Regula, left Britannia during a time when Frixones ‘Frisians’ under the command of Corsold thoroughly devastated the lands. King Lex, also named John or Jean, sailed across the sea to Cornwall armoricaine, what's now known as Brittany, to found a kingdom (Lebecq 1983). It might also be that Frisians devastated parts of Brittany, instead of ransacking insular Britain. The text of the Vita S. Melori is namely ambiguous on this point (Chédeville 1985).

Is post desolationem Frixonum et Corsolid ducis nostram audiens desertam Cornugalliam. Classe mare cum maximo Comitatu transmeavit, Regnum accepit, habitavit, excoluit.

After the desolation by the Frisians and Corsold, our leader [king John] heard of the deserted [Armorican] Cornwall. He crossed the sea [the English Channel] with a great fleet, took the kingdom, inhabited it, and cultivated it (Bourgès 1997).


Besides the Vita S. Melori there's another old text recounting the adventures of Corsold, namely the Chronicon Briocense ‘chronicle of Saint Brieuc’ written in the late fourteenth century. The sources the author used for his chronicle are unknown and have been lost. This time Corsold enters the stage with his brother Coarchion. It's after the death of King Conober of Brittany around the year 560 that the kingdom became vulnerable for external threats. Frisians, together with the Goths, the Alains and other tribes, conquered Brittany, and were all cruel and devilish people. The Frisians, who had come from overseas, weren't only skilled navigators but excellent traders too. Buying and selling goods in the wider region (Codecasa 2017). But raiding remained part of their income generating activities as well. Attacking ships of the princes of Dononée, the former kingdom, which comprised more or less present-day Cornwell in England. When the Frisians conquered Brittany, many Bretons diverted to Cornwall across the English Channel. Bretons who stayed behind, lived a miserable life as slaves under harsh Frisian rule.


Furthermore, in the Chronicon Briocense we find an interesting plot.


Warlord Corsold had a very beautiful wife named Aleth, also spelled Alétha. Her beauty apparently couldn't be resisted by his brother and greatest warrior Coarchion. One day, when Corsold returns from one of his raiding expeditions, he learns of the affair of his brother with his wife, and that his brother has carried his wife away. Heartbroken Corsold, taking every noble and brave warrior with him, sails with his ships after the two renegades. As fast as the wind would take him and his oarsmen could row. Corsold and his army never returned. Only a few men did. To quote the chronicle: ‘nec unquam cum am reversus est’. Leaving his successful kingdom weakened behind and to be reconquered by the Bretons soon (Morice 1742, Roujoux 1839, Chédeville 1985, Vincent 2021). For all we know, Corsold and his men still chase the seven seas.


Note that Alethum is the ancient name of the modern town of Saint-Malo in Brittany (Codecasa 2017). Explaining the name of Corsold’s gorgeous Aleth or Alétha (Brett 2022).


salt marsh near mouth of river Couesnon, 11th-century chapel Sainte-Anne-de-la-Grève, and in the background Mont-Saint-Michel

Frisians hanging out at the Celtic Sea and in the English Channel, even battled with King Hoel the Great, a relative of the legendary dux bellorum 'warlord' or King Arthur. Hoel was king of Brittany. War victories against the Frisians in the first half of the sixth century gave him, of course, a solid reputation. Hoel the Great is also known as Hywel or Sir Howell, one of the mythical knights of the Round Table. Kings Hoel II and Budic of Brittany also had to deal with aggression of Frisians attacking the Breton kingdoms. These Frisians were allies of the Franks. Allegedly, Frisians had poisoned King Budic in the year 509, after which they spread over parts of Brittany. Many Bretons subsequently fled to Britain (Guépin 1839).


Lastly, Riwallo Murmaczon, a prince from Cornwall, fought the Frisians in Brittany too and was able to defeat the remnants of the army of Corsold. Frisians, as explained, who were weakened already due to internal division between the brothers Corsold and Coarchion. Besides Frisians, also Goths had to be defeated by the Bretons. Maybe clashes with the Frisians took place in the area of the town of Tréguier, because it was said that the Bretons of this area, together with that of Letanie, the present-day region of Léon in the outer northwest of Brittany, suffered strongly under the yoke of the Frisians (Roujoux 1839).


It's noted here that in the province León in Spain (also) a village reminds of the presence of 'northerns', namely the village of Lordemanos, the word to denote Norsemen. Possibly a tenth-century Scandinavian settlement. Another Lordemão can be found as the name of a neighbourhood in the city of Coimbra, Portugal (García Losquiño 2018).


Corsuld
Vendel helmet, early fifth century AD

Somehow the events of Corsold, Coarchion and beautiful Aleth reminds of the Hollywood movie The War Lord of 1963. Setting of this classic movie is Normandy in the High Middle Ages. A story in which two brothers battle against each other too, and the warlord wants to take his mistress to his water castle in the Frisian lands. For more, see our post Filmstar Ben-Hur made peace with Frisian raiders. The story also has parallels with two other famous Frisian brothers who lived in the fifth century as well, namely the warriors Hengist and Horsa, and the beautiful Rowena.



What to make of all this?


In Cornish and Breton early history, raids of many tribes play an important role. The Frisians were apparently one of those barbarian tribes, and distinctly too. In Britain, the Britons were overrun by the Picts, Jutes, some Frisians, and notably the Angles and Saxons. Many migrated from the Isles and moved south to Brittany, also known as Britannia Minor, as Armorican Brittany, or as Lesser Britannia. Here too, things were on the move. Here too, existed unrest and turmoil. Including Frisian warbands taking control of parts of the northern coast of Brittany in the sixth century. They more or less had established themselves permanently in the region, and were remembered as merchants, sailors and cruel raiders. Warlord Corsold, awarded the title of dux ‘leader’ in the oldest texts, but in books sometimes also named king, was one of the Frisian big men. He's also known as compté de Léon 'count of Léon' (Abelard 2017), since the Frisians allegedly settled in this north-western corner of the peninsula.


Besides being mentioned in old texts, memory of Corsold's name survives in a few local traditions in the village of Bodieu in Brittany as well (Vincent 2021). Some even argue that place name Corseul in Brittany derives from Corsold (Bizeul 1857; see note below). Eventually, Britons from Greater Britannia, i.e. insular Britain, crossed the English Channel and drove out the Frisians for once and for all. Bretons who had been enslaved by the Frisians were finally freed: the so-called liberation of Brittany: Kentoc'h mervel eget bezañ saotret 'rather dead than dishonour'. This victory was facilitated because discord had arisen among the ranks of the Frisians. The reader surely will understand, otherwise it wouldn't have been possible for the Britons to defeat them anyhow.


The events ought to have taken place at the end of the Migration Age and the beginning of the Early Middle Ages. A period when the once mighty Roman empire was crumbling, and tribes and peoples of the wider North Sea region were on the move. A time when Angles, Saxons, Jutes and, to a lesser extent perhaps, Frisians settled in Britain, and the mighty federation of tribes under the name Franks became increasingly powerful in the north-western part of the Continent.


Perros-Guirec, Brittany

Centuries later, when Bretons migrated from Britain to Armorica (i.e. Brittany) again, their arrival was described by the poet Ermoldus Nigellus, also known as Ermold le Noir. Ermoldus, attached to the Frankish court, lived in the beginning of the ninth century. He gives a less heroic description of the arrival of the Bretons. Ermoldus described these Celtic immigrants from the sea as poor people seeking protection from the wind and rain, and something to live off. It was a brutal, rude, and unmannered people. Living incestuous lives, with brothers and sisters sharing the same bed, and only in name Christian. All according to Ermoldus. Maybe, we add, the past centuries living on the Isles under the new Anglo-Saxon rule hadn't done much good to the Celts. Or is it the negative framing of immigrants, that is of all times?


Another lesson of this story, apparently, successful warlords can get into trouble when beautiful women come into play. King Arthur too had his share when he was seduced by his own (half-) sister Morgane and bore him a son. In a final battle between Arthur and his son, both were slain. But read also our post about what happened with prinses Cunera, King Radbod and his wife; Don’t believe everything they say about sweet Cunera.



What's next?


Exploring the information available about warlord Corsold and the presence of Frisians in early-medieval Brittany, is something like exploring the deep web, not knowing whether you already entered the forbidden dark web. Trying to understand and making sense of 150-years-old books in French language, reinforced this feeling. Moreover, it was fascinating to notice no historian outside France has paid any serious attention to duxCorsoldus. At least, we aren't aware of any history books covering Frisia of the Early Middle Ages that mentions Corsold, except for the father of early Frisian history, the Frenchman(!) Stéphane Lebecq (1983). We, humble hikers, tried to create a first very rough picture in English language and await with tense anticipation all the historical publications yet to come. If not, we have to wait for quantum computing.

 


Note 1 - A word on archaeological site Camp des Rouëts. Local tradition tells this earthen fortress at the village of Bodieu in the municipality of Mohon, was the residence of Breton kings, and originally erected by the Frisian warlord Corsold. Not only it functioned as a fortress but, according to tradition, also as love nest of Coarchion and Aleth (Vincent 2021). The structure is a so-called motte castle and dated tenth century (Boule 2021). Motte castles were a widespread defensive structure in Europe consisting of a handmade mound with a single lone-standing tower, surrounded by a moat and a palisade. In other words, Viking Age material and therefore much too young to be erected by Corsold. The castle hill of Rouëts is about eight metres high and its moat about ten metres deep.


That Corseul is associated with Corsold, isn't historic (Brett 2022). The old name of Corseul is civitas Coriosolitum and documented around AD 400, after a Gallic people named the Curiosolites mentioned by the Romans first century BC. Other spellings of the name Corsold besides Corseul and Corsoldus, are: Corseult, Corsult, Corsolt, Corsoult, Cursoul, Corseu, Courseu, and Corseulle (Haize 1900).


Concerning the toponym (Haut)-Bécherel stemming from the Old Frisian word beki (Bourgès 2010), it must be noted that the Old Norwegian word bec for 'small river or rivulet' might also be its origin (García Losquiño 2018).


Note 2 - We noticed, the history of Brittany is marbled with kings and overlords, like King John and lord Corsold, coming from oversees and establishing new kingdoms and new laws. This is very comparable with the social memories existing in medieval Frisia and in Anglo-Saxon England. Read our post We’ll drive our ships to new land.


Another similarity in the former oral tradition between Frisia and Brittany is towns being drowned in the sea as punishment for mocking God and the Gospel. Most notably the town of Rungholt in the region of Nordfriesland. Brittany, has the exact same stories to tell. About splendid cities that disappeared into the waves. Like the town of Rungholt, the Breton city of Ker-Is was left intact and merely covered by the sea. Other drowned, rich Breton cities are Tolente, Nasado, Herbauges, and the city at the dunes of Saint Efflam. Sagas concerning the latter speak of a preserved city under water, including church tower bells. Sounds familiar? Read our post How a town drowned overnight: the case of Rungholt.


Finally, the theme of living as slave under the yoke of an invading tribe, is recognizable in both the Breton as the Frisian sagas. Whereas the Bretons lived as slave under the rule of cruel Frisian raiders from the north, the Frisians lived as slave under the rule of the Danish raiders from -also- the north. Check our post With a Noose through the Norsemen’s Door.


Frisians, in their different speeches along the Wadden Sea coast, use for centuries the phrase leaver dea as slaef, liewer düd aß Slaawe, lever dood as Slav, lewer duad üs Slav, etc., meaning 'better dead than slave'. Bit like the copycat yell of William Wallace in the movie Braveheart: "They may take our lives but they will never take our freedom!"


Note 3 - It goes without saying that Corsold had been indicted before the International Criminal Tribunal for Frisia (ICTF) to be tried for the harm he has done to the Breton people. See also our press release Consensus Frisia Tribunal.


Note 4 – About the same time, two other Frisian war-leaders caused turmoil in the region. They were Hengist and Horsa who, after having fought alongside King Vortigern of the Britons first, caused terror among the Britons and founded the first Anglo-Saxon kingdom: the Kingdom of Kent. Read our post Hengist and Horsa – Frisian horses from overseas founded the Kentish Kingdom.



Suggested hiking

You can do some great hiking in Brittany. First of all, there's the GR34 and nicknamed the Sentier des Douaniers ‘path of the custom officers’. A coastal path of 2,000 kilometres.


Then there's Tro Breizh which is an ancient pilgrimage passing the graves of the Seven Founder Saints of Brittany. It's always seven, like the Seven Sealands of medieval Frisia, or the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands (i.e. Dutch Republic). But this aside.


When visiting Camp des Rouëts near the village of Bodieu, you can also make a circular walk of fourteen kilometres: Circuit des Rouëts. Find more information on the site of MonGR.fr. 


Suggested music

Donna Summer, I Feel Love (1977)

Talking Heads, Life During Wartime (1983)

Bon Jovi, You Give Love A Bad Name (1986)


Further reading

Abelard, K., Edition scientifique des Chroniques des rois, ducs et princes de Bretagne de Pierre Le Baud, d’après le manuscrit 941 conservé à la Bibliothèque municipale d’Angers (2017)

Agence Bretagne Presse, Histoire maritime de la Bretagne avant 1532 – 2/10. Les Rois et les Saints traversent la Manche (2012)

Bizeul, L.J.M., Des curiosolites: de l’importance de Corseult au temps de la domination (1857)

Bon Repos Gites, Lost Cities of Brittany (2021)

Boule, G., Camp des Rouëts – Mohon (2021)

Bourgès, A.Y., Le Dossier Hagiographique de Saint Melar. Prince et martyr en Bretagne armoricaine (1997)

Bourgès, A.Y., Noms anciens de Carhaix et de Corseul: onomastique et hagiographie (2010)

Brett, C., Brittany and the Atlantic Archipelago, 450–1200. Contact, Myth and History (2022)

Brett, C., St Kenelm, St Melor and Anglo-Breton contact from the tenth to the twelfth centuries (2020)

Chédeville, A., Stéphane Lebecq. Marchands et navigateurs frisons du haut Moyen-Age, 2 vol., 374 et 471 pages, cartes et illust., Presses Universitaires de Lille, 1983 (1985)

Clerinx, H., De god met de maretak. Kelten en de Lage Landen (2023)

Codecasa, G., Alla ricerca della Storia: Gottfried von Straßburg e il suo “Tristano e Isotta” (I Quaderni dell’Eclettico n° 4) (2017)

García Losquiño, I., The North Germanic place-name element bec in England, Normandy and Galicia (2018)

Guépin, A., Histoire de Nantes (1839)

Haize, J., Annales de la Société Historique et Archéologique de l’Arrondissement de Saint-Malo (1900)

Jones, J. (ed.), Coastal walks: Normandy & Brittany (1989)

Knol, E., Nait 'Laiver dood as sloaf!' (2022)

Lebecq, S., Marchands et navigateurs frisons du haut Moyen-Age, Vol. 2 (1983)

Lenoir, N., L’Heure fatale en abyme de la Chanson d’Aiquin (2007)

Lot, F., Mélanges d’histoire bretonne (VIe-XIe siècle) (1907)

Mon GR, Camps des Rouëts (website)

Morice, P.H., Mémoires pour servir de preuves à l’histoire ecclésiastique et civile Bretagne. Tome I (1742)

Plaine, F., Vita inedita S. Melori martyris in Britannia Minori ab anonymo suppari, ut videtur, conscripta (1886)

Puchol, J.M.G., Bretagne gallo-romaine: Corseul, capitale des Coriosolites et de l’Armorique (website)

Roujoux, de M., Histoire de rois et des ducs de Bretagne. Vol.1 (1839)

Vincent, P., Histoire du Camp des Rouêts (2020)

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