One of the strongest claims to be the source for the legend of Bluebeard is probably the 6th century Breton warlord Conomor, popularly remembered as Conomor the Accursed; an ambitious tyrant who is reputed to have murdered all his many wives.
The first widely available compilation of French folk tales was published by Charles Perrault in his 1697 book Histories or Tales from Past Times with Morals or Tales of Mother Goose. Although only partly derived from traditional folk tales, the collection included such now-familiar stories as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots and Bluebeard. Amongst the stories of fantastic beings and magical enchantments, the tale of Bluebeard – an ugly mass-murderer who keeps his victim’s corpses in a ghoulish trophy room – sits a little incongruously; if it were not for the magical key there would be little to merit its inclusion in any list of fairy tales. Yet the story continues to exercise a peculiar fascination over readers today, as it has done for the last three hundred years.
Unfortunately, we cannot be certain of the source that Perrault used to build his tale upon and there are several suggested candidates; from a reworking of the classical myth of Eros and Psyche to the life of King Henry VIII of England. However, the two potential sources most commonly proposed for Bluebeard are the story of Gilles de Rais, a 15th century Breton nobleman executed for sorcery and the multiple murder of children, and an oral folktale concerning Conomor, a mid-6th century chieftain often styled as a prince or count of Poher, a district in central Brittany.
Of the two, the stories surrounding Conomor have far more points of similarity with the tale of Bluebeard than do the exploits of de Rais. There are several versions of the story of Conomor but essentially it is this:
Towards the end of one warm summer’s day, weary emissaries from the court of Conomor (Comorre) entered the Kernow stronghold of Gwened seeking an audience with its overlord Guerech (Waroc’h), whose realm shared a long and relatively trouble-free border with Conomor’s domains to the north. A formal meeting was duly arranged for the following day when Guerech graciously received Conomor’s tribute of flax, honey and a dozen suckling pigs. However, Guerech’s effusive thanks were soon halted as he heard his visitors relate how their master had visited the city’s summer fair disguised as a common soldier and had caught sight of Guerech’s daughter and was totally smitten with her; he was now desirous of her hand in marriage.
Now, Conomor might have seemed a strong suitor for Guerech’s only daughter, the virtuous Triffin (Tréphine); he was powerful, wealthy and ambitious but alas he also carried a reputation for wickedness and cruelty. The common folk shared many tales of Conomor’s brutality; as a boy, his mother was reputed to have sounded a bell to warn the people of the neighbourhood that he was at large and when he was unsuccessful in a hunt, he would satiate his bloodlust by setting his dogs on the farmhands in order to tear them to pieces. Most terrible of all the rumours that circulated about him was that he had been married four times and each wife had died suddenly, without receiving the last rites. Some even whispered that Conomor himself had dispatched his wives with the knife or else with fire, water or poison.
Although he was not a man who listened to gossip, Guerech could not countenance giving his daughter, unsullied by a single mortal sin, to this brute of a man and was steeled to sacrifice his kingdom for her honour and happiness. He therefore thanked Conomor’s emissaries and bade them to return with his highest regards to their master but Triffin would not be leaving his court as she was too weak in health to even think of marrying. Unfortunately, Conomor’s men were prepared for such a rebuff and demanded Triffin join them, saying that they were instructed to declare a state of war against Guerech if the young princess was not sent back with them. Unmoved by their aggressive stance, Guerech simply responded that he would not be swayed on the matter and that they need do as they must.
Dismissed, Conomor’s envoys vowed to return as they made their way through the city’s north gate. They had travelled but a short distance when the four men drew out across the road and turned back to face the city, whereupon the eldest of the men set light to a thick handful of straw and grass they had collected from the roadside; pointing the burning embers towards the city, he cast the flames to the winds while declaring that thus would the anger of Conomor pass over the land.
Guerech did not allow himself to be disheartened by the threat from Conomor but wasted little time in summoning his vassals and men-at-arms to prepare for the defence of his realm. Before a week had passed, news was received in Gwened that Conomor was advancing upon the city at the head of a powerful army. Guerech readied his troops and after bidding his beloved daughter farewell, set out to meet the forces of Conomor.
When the venerable Gweltas (Gildas) witnessed the preparations for a bloody battle he sought the princess Triffin whom he found at prayer in the castle’s oratory. He pleaded with her to halt the slaughter that was to come; that so many men should die because of her decision could not be right and so he implored her to save bloodshed and consent to the marriage with Conomor. Weeping softly, Triffin seemed to resign herself to her fate, saying: “Alas, that God demands of me the death of all my peace and happiness. Would that I was but a mere beggar, for then at least I could marry the beggar of my choosing but if it is God’s will that I espouse this dreadful brute, then please read for me the Office for the Dead.”
Moved by the distress caused by her self-sacrifice, the wise saint counselled her and seeking to assuage her fears, said: “Fear naught, dear Triffin. Take this ring whose silver shines as white as milk; it shall serve you as a warning for it will become as black as a raven’s wing should any danger approach you. Take courage and have faith.” Reassured by the saint’s words, the young princess consented to his request and agreed to wed Conomor. It was therefore with the utmost speed that Saint Gweltas hurried to the opposed armies to announce the good tidings to their chiefs. However, Guerech remained opposed to the union but was eventually persuaded to accept it by Conomor’s earnest entreaties.
Amidst great rejoicings, the marriage took place and such celebrations have never since been seen in Brittany. The first day saw six thousand guests feast at table and on the second day as many poor people were fed; the bride and bridegroom themselves serving at their tables. Musicians came from throughout the land and the dancing and merry-making lasted for three full days. Finally, the revelries over, the guests departed and the families of these two noble houses of Brittany, now united in marriage, returned to their own lands and Conomor carried off with him his young bride; as a sparrowhawk that had proudly snatched up a little songbird.
For some time all went well and it seemed as though Conomor’s affection for Triffin had softened him more than might have been expected; his bouts of rage were rarely seen and his dungeons and gibbets remained empty. The marriage was far from miserable but despite his kindness towards her, Triffin remained in dread of Conomor and was forever ill at ease. Every day she visited the castle’s private chapel where she prayed at the tombs of his four wives, beseeching God to preserve her from a violent death.
At the next Candlemas festival, Conomor made preparations to attend a formal assembly of the Breton princes that had been called at Rennes and which he was obliged to attend. Before his departure, he gave into Triffin’s safe keeping all the keys to the castle’s chambers and cellars, desiring her to amuse herself as it pleased her in his absence.
It was almost five months before he returned, full of anxiety to see Triffin, of whom he had thought often during his long absence. Unwilling to lose any time by announcing his arrival, he immediately hastened up into her room, where he found her busy trimming an infant’s cap with fine silver-lace. On seeing the little cap, Conomor turned pale and asked for whom it was designed. Thinking to rejoice his heart, Triffin joyfully told him that they would shortly be blessed with a child but on hearing this news, Conomor recoiled in horror and rushed from the room.
Triffin might have taken this for one of her husband’s frequent caprices, had she not noticed that her silver ring had now turned black; which signalled danger. Although she knew not why or how she might escape it. Confused as to the reason for her husband’s sudden displeasure and anxious about her silver ring’s portent, it was with a heavy heart that she went to the chapel to pray.
Here, in this hallowed space, she found peace and it was some hours before she rose from her prayers to depart. The hour of midnight struck just as she was leaving and a sudden sound of movement in the silent chapel chilled her to the bone. The grating sound of grinding stone echoed around the small room and her eyes beheld the eerie sight of the tombs of Conomor’s former wives slowly opening; from which, all silently emerged, swathed in their rotting funeral shrouds. Faint with terror, Triffin tried to flee but the phantoms cried out to her: “Take care, poor lost one! Conomor desires your death.”
“Me but what evil have I done and how have I offended, that he seeks my death?” stammered the frightened Triffin.
“You have told him that you will soon birth his child. The Evil One once revealed to him that his first child will be his destroyer and thus it was that he took our lives when we too fell with child.”
“Have I truly fallen into hands so cruel? If so, what hope, then, remains for me?” cried Triffin.
“Return to the safety of your father’s house,” chorused the spectral wives.
“How can I possibly escape when Conomor’s giant dog guards the door?” responded Triffin.
“Give him this poison which killed me,” said the first wife.
“But how might I ever descend the castle’s high wall?” asked the young wife.
“Lower yourself down by means of this cord which strangled me,” replied the second wife.
“And who will guide me through the dark?” asked Triffin.
“Take this burning fire that consumed me,” said the third wife.
“Gwened is so far to the south, how can I make such a journey?” returned Triffin.
“Make good use of this staff which crushed my skull,” rejoined the fourth spectre.
Now armed with the poison, rope, torch and staff, Triffin resolved to set out for her father at once. Having silenced the guard dog and safely scaled the wall, she headed southwards, the thick blanket of night penetrated only by the torch she carried aloft.
It was shortly after breakfast when Conomor called on Triffin; unable to find her in her chamber or in the chapel, he instructed his servants to search for her in every room within the castle grounds and it was some time before all returned to confirm that his wife was no longer in the castle. On hearing this, Conomor quickly climbed to the top of his castle’s keep and searched not the land before him but the sky about him; to the north he saw a croaking raven; in the direction of the sun, a swallow on the wing; to the south, a wailing gull; and to the west, a turtle-dove that sped away. Taking the latter bird as an omen, he promptly set off in pursuit with his finest hunting dogs.
His unfortunate wife was now upon the border of the mighty forest which surrounded Conomor’s castle near the Blavet River. Warned of his approach by seeing her silver ring grow black, she immediately turned off the track that she had been following and almost at once came upon the miserable cabin of a poor shepherd, whose sole possession was an old magpie trapped in a cage hanging by the door. Here she hid herself the whole day, bemoaning her lot and praying for her urgent deliverance. As the darkness of night drew in, she set forth once more along the rough paths that skirted the fields of flax and corn.
After almost two days of fruitless searching, Conomor was returning home to change his horse when he chanced upon the same shepherd’s cabin. Such is the fickle hand of fate, for what else could have caused him to pass the hut just as the magpie began to mimic the melancholic complaints it had so recently heard, calling out “Poor Triffin!” Surmising that his wife had passed this way, Conomore once more set his dogs upon her scent.
Not far away, an exhausted Triffin lay down to rest and promptly gave birth to a son. As she clasped the baby in her arms, she saw overhead a falcon wearing a golden collar, which she recognised as one from her father’s mews. The bird responded to her call and landed on her knee whereupon she gave him her silver ring and bade him deliver it to her father who would be sure to send men to her aid. The bird understood his charge and taking the ring, it flew like a flash of lightning towards his master in Gwened.
No sooner was the falcon out of sight than the air was filled with the commotion of baying hounds and the harsh yells of Conomor driving them onwards. Unfortunately, without her magical ring, Triffin had gained no vital warning of his approach and barely had time to wrap her baby in her cloak and conceal him in the hollow of a tree before Conomor appeared. Seeing his wife, he uttered a savage cry like that of a wild-beast and furiously threw himself upon her and with one mighty blow from his sword, severed her head from her body.
While Conomor sheathed his sword and prepared to turn for home; the falcon arrived at the court of Guerech. Entering the great hall through a roof window, it hovered over the table and dropped the ring into the cup of his master, who, recognizing it, cried: “My daughter is in danger! Saddle the horses and have Saint Gweltas accompany us.” Following the flight of the falcon, Guerech and his party were not too long in reaching the spot where Triffin lay dead. Upon sighting her prostrate body, Guerech leapt from his horse but there was nothing to be done. His beloved daughter dead, all that he could do was scream in anguish until Saint Gweltas silenced him with a call to prayer.
As the party rose from their knees, having completed their fervent prayers, the saint separated himself from the others and stood over the princess’s prone body and called upon her: “Arise, take up your head and your child and follow us.” Triffin’s body obeyed the saint’s command as the men readied for the pursuit of Conmore. However, no matter how hard they forced their horses, the headless body of Triffin was always ahead of them, carrying her son on her left arm and her pale head on her right. In this manner they reached the castle of Conomor, who, witnessing their approach, ordered the closure of the castle gates and the raising of its drawbridge.
Saint Gweltas dismounted near the castle’s moat and called out to Conomor saying: “I return your wife to you, such as your wickedness has made her; and your son, as God has given him to you. Will you receive them under your roof?” Receiving no response, Saint Gweltas repeated his question a further three times but all to no avail. The saint turned and took the new-born child from Triffin and set him upon the ground where, to the astonishment of all except Gweltas, he stood proudly upright and strode to the very lip of the moat where he gathered a handful of earth from the ground. Throwing it against the castle, the baby uttered “Let God serve His justice!” At that instant, the castle’s towers shook and fell with a great crash; the once mighty walls gaped open and collapsed in complete ruin, burying Conomor and all who had abetted him in sin.
With the air thick with dust and rubble, Saint Gweltas replaced Triffin’s head upon her shoulders and laying his hands upon her, restored her to life; to the great joy of her father and all those who were present.
Several versions of this tale exist; some attest that Conomor had five previous wives rather than four (the spectre of the fifth wife gifted Triffin a horse to aid her escape) and that their relics were kept in a secret room rather than in the dignity of an oratory but all agree that it was fear of a prophecy, claiming that he would die killed by his own son, which drove him to take the lives of his wives once he learned of their pregnancies. Some versions of the tale, particularly that painted in 1703 on the wall of a small chapel in central Brittany, feature a quite different chronology claiming that Guerech brought his daughter’s dead body back to his castle in Gwened and then sought out Saint Gweltas at his remote hermitage to remind him of his earlier oath to keep her from harm and demand restitution.
This is in keeping with a variant of the story that tells how it was Conomor who had made a solemn oath not to mistreat Triffin and pleaded with the saint to convince Guerech to sanction the marriage of his daughter. Shocked by Conomor’s broken oath, Saint Gweltas first travels to Conomor’s castle where he is rudely rebuffed but after the castle falls before him, he hastens to Guerech’s castle where he restores Triffin to life. Once restored, Triffin gives birth to Conomor’s son, Tremeur, who is raised by Saint Gweltas in the monastery he founded on the Rhuys Peninsula. Tremeur learned well from the wise saint and became renowned for his virtue and miracles, ending his life in holiness. Triffin subsequently entered a convent in her father’s domain where she devoted the remainder of her life to God and herself attained sainthood. Saint Triffin was commonly invoked for sick children and by expectant mothers who were overdue.
According to an account written by Albert le Grand in his monumental Lives of the Saints of Armorican Brittany (1637), Conomor survived the destruction of his castle by the forces of Guerech and managed to escape to his principal stronghold at Carhaix about 30 miles to the west. Frustrated by his attempt to escape justice, Saint Gweltas devoted the next three years to traversing Brittany denouncing Conomor for his crimes and eventually managed to convene a conference of the bishops of Brittany “to cut off this rotten branch from the body of the Church.” Meeting near Guingamp, the bishops excommunicated Conomor and condemned him to the loss of all his rights, spiritual and temporal and the forfeiture of his civil and religious goods and chattels.
Another story relates how, upon hearing of the birth of his son, Conomor dispatched men to kill the infant but the child could never be found. However, by chance, some nine years later Conomor was travelling through the forest near his old estate at Castel Finans when he came across Tremeur at play and instantly removed his son’s head with a blow from his sword. One story claims that father and son engaged in a bout of Breton wrestling and that Tremeur was slain because he bested his father. Legend has it that Tremeur allowed his father to flee and promptly picked up his head and walked a few miles along the old Roman road to repose at his mother’s tomb near the village of Laniscat.
The intertwining of history, legend and myth that has happened over the last fifteen hundred years or so makes it impossible for us today to clearly separate the disparate threads that constitute the story of Conomor. However, we can be fairly certain that in the mid-6th century there was a man named Conomor who, through conquest and alliances, eventually ruled much of western Brittany, from Carhaix in the west to Dol in the east and from the north coast as far south as Locmine. He is described as a foreigner and thus, like Saint Gweltas, was probably a first-generation settler from one of the Celtic communities of Great Britain; some people have even speculated that he might be one and the same character as King Marc of Cornwall although this is unlikely.
This Conomor is said to have extended his initial domain by having had a hand in the murder of a neighbouring ruler, Jonas, and marrying his widow, while exiling the heir apparent, Judael, to the Frankish domains far to the east. Likely his desire to subsequently marry the daughter of the ruler who held sway over much of the land south of the Blavet River was driven by a vision of extending his domain still further. Whether he actually killed his new wife or mistreated her, we will never know. Similarly, whether the historical Conomor killed his son is unknown although it seems to stand against reason that a man seemingly so desperate to carve out a kingdom for himself in Brittany would murder his only heir and one that was crucial to consolidating his southern alliance.
Clearly, at some point, Conomor’s rule reached a point where his relationship with the early Church leaders and neighbouring lords broke-down irrevocably and it is said that several Breton bishops were behind the plot that orchestrated the return of the exiled Judael to Brittany. Anathematised by the religious and secular authorities, Conomor and those loyal to him found themselves hounded by Judael’s forces until finally brought to battle near the Arrée mountains where two mighty but inconclusive battles were fought. A third and final clash, said to have lasted for three full days, saw the total defeat of Conomor; killed by his onetime stepson.