The Tale of Macliau of Brittany


As far as a Frankish observer such as Gregory of Tours could tell, there were three dominant dynasties that ruled Brittany in the mid 6th century. The Franks disparagingly called these Briton noblemen “counts,” but the leaders of Brittany likely considered themselves independent kings. Whatever the case, Gregory of Tours was able to identify three figureheads ruling rival bases of power in the region of Brittany. Two men, named Budic II and Conomor, were each said to rule a personal domain. Additionally, a set of five brothers shared power in a third region of Brittany. Politics in these rival domains ebbed and flowed like the tide, with regions sometimes working together and other times engaging in war. In addition, there could be internal strife and plotting—a problem that particularly plagued the aforementioned five brothers.

According to Gregory of Tours, one of the five brothers, named Canao, was determined to seize for himself all of the power held by his siblings. His great ambition was dangerously matched with a ruthless propensity toward bloodshed.  Canao reportedly killed three of his four siblings through warfare or assassination and imprisoned his final brother, Macliau, in a well-guarded dungeon. Canao was supposedly on the verge of having Macliau executed when Saint Felix, the bishop of Nantes, intervened and convinced Canao to spare Macliau’s life. Not long after the brother’s release, however, Canao regretted his decision—or perhaps Macliau began plotting a revolt. Whatever the case, Canao reportedly began a manhunt for his brother, and Macliau was forced to flee. In order to escape the reach of his murderous kinsman, Macliau sought shelter in the domain of Conomor, the ruler of one of the other regions of Brittany that was outside of Canao’s sphere of influence.

Macliau eventually joined the church and reportedly became the bishop of Vannes. Yet, although he had taken holy vows, he never stopped watching for opportunities to arise in the politics of Brittany. His chance came around the year 570, when news of Canao’s death reached Vannes. Seizing the moment, Macliau quickly abandoned his religious duties (earning him an excommunication from the church) and rushed off to take control of his family’s domain. Gregory of Tours did not mention if there was any resistance to Macliau’s return, or if he had to fight off any claimants to his land. Gregory did, however, record that Macliau managed to form a powerful alliance with Budic II, one of the other significant figures in Brittany.

Although the alliance between Macliau and Budic was strong and mutually beneficial, relations between the two domains of Brittany quickly broke down after Budic’s death. Macliau reportedly swore that he would support Budic’s heir, Tewdwr (Budic’s son or grandson), yet as soon as the succession crisis began following his late ally’s passing, Macliau invaded the region and drove Tewdwr into hiding. After an unknown period of time, Tewdwr reemerged with an army and faced Macliau on the battlefield around the year 577. It was an overwhelming victory for Tewdwr, and he succeeded in killing both Macliau and his eldest son, Jacob, during the fateful battle. After killing his rival, Tewdwr reclaimed his family’s domain and made peace with Macliau’s remaining son, Waroch—a man who would go on to become a dominant leader in Brittany over the next decades.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Painting of King Clovis in battle, by Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


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