Said to be one of the most haunted regions of France; the windswept coastlines, bleak moors and uncultivated lands of Brittany have long been closely associated with the ghostly goings-on of the dead. Let us explore some of these haunted sites, beginning our journey in the far west of the region and traversing the land in a great clockwise arc.
Located on a lump of bare rock between the Île de Sein and the Pointe du Van on Brittany’s Atlantic coast, sits the lighthouse of Tévennec. Long reputed to have been haunted by the ghosts of drowned mariners, this lonely rock’s lighthouse has an accursed history that lends itself well to any list of haunted sites. It was said that during its construction, sea birds swirled above the heads of the builders, surprised to see living beings in a place where they could not rest because of the dead; their cries seemed to warn the workers of the dangers that threatened them. Commissioned in 1875, the light was automated just 35 years later; it having proved impossible to recruit anyone willing to live there. Due to an administrative aberration or optimistic fancifulness, the lighthouse was initially placed in the same category as similar lighthouses situated on land, meaning a single keeper was assigned to it.
Working on an isolated rock without relief and relying on a monthly supply boat that depended on the infrequent appearance of a calm sea was not for the fainthearted. The first keeper, an experienced lighthouse-man, descended into madness within a few years, claiming that voices in the wind harassed him with the constant cry of: ‘Go away, go away, this is my place’. Local superstition attributed this to the soul of an unfortunate castaway who died of hunger on the rock having been unsuccessful in attracting the attention of the boats that regularly passed nearby. The replacement keeper remained in post for six years but he too fell into insanity; a development that saw the local priest called upon to bless the rock and exorcise its restless souls.
In an attempt to alleviate the hardship of working on Tévennec, the authorities made it an accompanied posting and one benefiting from a fortnightly supply boat – weather permitting. However, with the notable exception of a couple who stayed for five years and had three children on the rock, the lighthouse cast an unhappy shadow over its occupants; seeing twenty keepers in twenty years and, alarmingly, some ten deaths before its early automation in 1910.
Off the Quiberon peninsula on Brittany’s southern coast, lying between the mainland and the islands of Groix and Belle-Ile is the rocky plateau of Birvideaux; at times covered by less than three metres of water. The lighthouse here is well known as having been the most expensive to construct in France; a process that lasted almost 55 years. A local legend tells that this mile-long plateau is the sunken island of Aïse; a land that was said to have been attached to the mainland as recently as the 13th century when a causeway allowed the inhabitants to attend Sunday mass at the chapel of Saint Clément in Quiberon.
As the sea gradually claimed the land to the west, the people of Aïse adjusted to island living and, for as time, thrived as successful fishermen. However, the rising waters steadily encroached upon the mass of the island but these were a proud people who stubbornly refused to surrender their homes to the relentless sea. One night, a terrific storm saw the total submersion of the island and ever since, the people of Birvideaux have haunted the seabed, feeding on mussels and limpets.
It is said that, to avenge their fate, the ghosts stir the sea to unleash angry waves upon the descendants of those who abandoned them. Sometimes, on a clear night, if you walk along the wild west coast of the Quiberon peninsula, it is said that you can still hear their dreadful lamentations.
In the 14th century, a monk from the Priory of Saint Sauveur in eastern Brittany fell in love with a pretty, young peasant girl. To avert a damaging scandal, the Prior arranged for the monk to be transferred to another monastery and persuaded the young girl to move away to the city. However, this version of events was said to conceal a ghastly truth: the Prior, jealous of his monk, lured the girl to a nearby convent where she languished and died alone. She is reputed to lie buried under the steeple of the church of Béré and, to ward off any prying eyes, the legendary Beast of Béré has been charged to watch over her bones until the Day of Judgement. At midnight, the candles in the church are said to light themselves and a priest from the Otherworld appears to celebrate a funeral mass alone.
The Beast of Béré is a monster of some repute that once terrorised the Breton borderlands; sometimes reported to take the form of a dog, boar, horse or even a sheep. Of immense size and strength, the beast was said to be immortal although no sightings have been reported for some time. A melancholic variant of the legend tells that the beast is, in fact, the spirit of the unfortunate girl who died in captivity.
Just 12km north, the forest of Teillay is haunted by a spectre held to be the Lord of Coetenfao; a Huguenot nobleman once renowned for his cruel nature and dissolute lifestyle. Said to have terrorised the peasants of Brittany during his life, his damned soul continues to spread fear in death with the wild hunts he has been condemned to lead as punishment for the cruelties he once exercised on his vassals. The phantom lord has been reported on foot, on horseback and even riding a carriage driving on his baying hounds and even passing them like lightning. Sometimes, only the cry of his voice or the sounds of his horse’s bridle are heard.
The forest is also home to a small grave known as ‘La Tombe à la Fille’ (the Girl’s Grave). One local legend says that during the Revolution, the National Guard of the area massacred a troop of anti-revolutionary forces who had been hiding in the woods; their presence having been betrayed to the authorities by a young woman named Marie Martin. In retaliation, she was seized by the rebels who tied her, by the hair, to the tail of a horse and dragged her into the forest where she suffered various outrages before being hung from the branch of an oak. Having been buried under this tree, the site became a place of pilgrimage; the humble Marie becoming popularly known as Saint Pataude (a French word that can be roughly translated as awkward or clumsy and a sobriquet once applied towards the Republicans). Her grave was often visited by those seeking deliverance from fever, sterility and paralysis of the limbs, particularly children having difficulty walking. Such invocations are still made there today.
In an earlier post, I related the tale of a haunted oak in the forest of Loudéac in central Brittany and it is worth recounting another haunting reported in that same forest. An entry in the parish register from 1710 records how a twenty-one year old blacksmith named Yann was convicted and subsequently hanged for the murder of his friend, Pierre. It was said that the two men were rivals for the love of a local girl and that Yann lured his friend into the forest and there, in a fit of jealous rage, stabbed him to death. Pierre’s body was discovered at the foot of an oak tree deep within the forest and local tradition asserts that five small basins found in the forest floor thereabouts were created by Pierre’s lifeless body; the depressions tracing where his head, hands and knees lay, waiting to be discovered. Some say that Pierre’s ghost still haunts the forest today. Local legend warns us that the five small hollows should never be covered; any stones put in them disappear the following night and whoever places any stones in the cavities will die within the year.
A more recent urban legend says that some years ago, two young men ended their day-long drinking spree in the forest. One of these, in a moment of boldness – or madness – scorned the old legend by filling the depressions with small stones. His friends and family blamed Pierre’s curse when he was unexpectedly found dead shortly afterwards.
There is barely a stretch of road in Brittany that is not watched over by a carved stone cross but one in the centre of the region has gained a most supernatural reputation. Outside the village of Gomené are the Tertre-Feuillet; three isolated small stone roadside crosses. It is said that the oldest cross was erected in the Middle Ages to ward off evil, the others being added later to compound the power of the trinity. It is said that every full moon night, since the end of 1870’s Franco-Prussian war, the site is visited by a ghostly figure wearing a long coat and the wide-brimmed hat then popularly worn by Breton peasants.
This debased phantom of the night is said to be the malevolent spirit of a soldier, returned from battle to haunt the crosses. Legend tells that a local poacher once decided to confront this ghost with fatal consequences. Now, the spirits of both men haunt the crosses; the full moon illuminates the unlucky poacher, trapped in the moment of his departure, doomed to linger for eternity alongside the dark entity who stole his life.
Just outside the north coast town of Morlaix, a 17th century manor house has long been haunted by the ghost of a nun. It is said that, in life, this woman was overly proud of her well-turned ankles and would reveal them to men by raising her habit coquettishly as she walked. Punished by God for her vanity, the nun is condemned to wander the halls until the Day of Judgement; displaying not shapely calves but one that is gnarled and emaciated and another covered in suppurating ulcers. Legend tells us that one day, exasperated by the ghastly appearances of the nun, an old woman, armed with holy water, confronted the phantom and commanded her to remain in her grave. She heard but a solitary sob and since then, the nun only appears once a year; on the night of New Year’s Eve.
A little further along Brittany’s northern coast, a local legend relates that between the ruins of Beauport Abbey and the Poulafret mill on the coast at Paimpol, there sat a three-cornered field that was said to contain a great hidden treasure. Over the years, many people had tried to locate this prize but none met with any success. However, a young miller who had grown-up on tales of the treasure committed himself to finding it but months of diligent searching were to no avail.
Returning home late from work one evening, the miller was surprised by a heavy downpour and took shelter under a large oak. In the half-light, his eyes slowly discerned, in the neighbouring field, a pale glow around which several small children were gathered in a circle. Despite his uneasiness, the young man crept closer to this mysterious assembly but his courage almost deserted him when he realised that he was spying on a meeting of korrigans. Transfixed, he watched as one of their number moved out of the circle to stand next to the radiant light but was unable to clearly hear the few words uttered by the korrigan, who suddenly stabbed the ground with a pitchfork and pressed his gnarled finger to his lips.
This gesture was taken-up by all the other korrigans who immediately launched into an energetic ronde or circular dance. Their dance ended as abruptly as it had begun and seemed to coincide with the exact moment the light went out; within the blinking of an eye, the korrigans had all disappeared. Seizing his opportunity to investigate, the miller ran to where the pitchfork staked the ground and stood aghast as the object disintegrated at his touch.
Placing a large rock to remember the spot, the excited miller returned the following day in order to better mark the precise location. He took only his closest friend into his confidence and the two agreed to return to the field on Christmas Eve. Under cover of darkness, they silently dug the hard ground for a long time before striking the famed treasure trove. Faced with such fabulous riches, the miller’s friend was trembling with emotion and could not help shouting out: “The fortune is ours!”
No sooner had these few words been uttered than the gold coins turned into brittle dead leaves. The stunned miller then remembered the korrigan’s gesture: the silence had been broken. The night also broke, forever, the friendship of the two men. Since then, it has been reported that around midnight on Christmas Eve, the ghost of the miller has been seen wandering between the ruins of the abbey of Beauport and the Poulafet mill.
Other fields in Brittany have long been said to be haunted by the restless dead; souls of those who died without receiving absolution for their sins. Near the south coast town of Auray, at the end of September 1364, a vicious pitched battle took place between the Anglo-Breton forces of Jean de Montfort and the Franco-Breton troops of Charles de Blois. Unusually for the time, this battle was fought on a Sunday and no quarter was given by either side. This bloody encounter was the decisive battle of the Breton War of Succession and helped guarantee Brittany’s continued independence for almost the next two centuries.
The battle of Auray left behind several thousand fatalities; a contemporary chronicler described the scene: “… strewn with the homeless dead, blood flowed in a great stream, banners shot down, brains outstretched, daggers, swords, axes and people stretched out like cows.” The battlefield and surrounding marsh are reputed to be haunted by the spectres of combatants who died in a state of mortal sin; they wander the ground at night and strike down anyone foolish enough to stand in their path.
Sadly, the ground around Auray was again soaked with more blood some four hundred years later. The failure of the royalist landings at nearby Quiberon in support of the Chouan counter-revolution in the summer of 1795 saw over 6000 rebels captured by Republican forces. Regrettably, promises surrounding the treatment of captives as prisoners of war were not honoured and while most of the women and children were released, over 950 anti-Republican prisoners were systematically slaughtered in cold blood. It was said that the bodies were barely buried, so that the rotting bones quickly rose to the surface.
Twenty years later and just three days after the battle of Waterloo the area was the site of another battle between Republican and anti-Republican forces which saw several hundred dead bodies again litter the fields of Auray. The tragic and bloody history of the area perhaps allows us to better understand the myriad ghost stories that circulate locally. The restless spirits of the dead combatants are sometimes said to be condemned to relive their last moments every night, although some tales tell that these same souls are constantly seeking new victims to satiate their bloodlust.