The sunken pathways and ruined castles of Brittany are rich in legends of ghosts and supernatural spirits. Many of these fall into the category popularly known as White Ladies; spectral women wearing white gowns that appear at night to haunt the localities of their tragic death. Sometimes, the circumstances of their deaths are still remembered while others are barely known but a common theme appears to be betrayal, deceit or lost love and the ghosts are either lamenting their circumstances or warning, those that would listen, of the cruel hand of fate.
Ghostly white ladies are said to haunt the Place du Parlement de Bretagne in the city of Rennes but I have not been able to find records of any reported sightings to suggest that this is not a relatively new phenomena. Who knows, perhaps this urban legend will be established folklore in a century or two? A little south of the city’s airport lies Bruz where, near the marshy ground on the village outskirts, the plaintive cries made by a white lady who was said to dwell in a cave nearby were sometimes heard although none have been reported since the village exploded into a decent sized town at the end of the 20th century.
The woods that surround the medieval Château de Trécesson near Campénéac are haunted by the ghost of a white lady wearing a mud-splattered wedding dress. Legend tells that this is the ghost of a noble woman who was buried alive on her wedding day; murdered in the autumn of 1750 by her brothers for having agreed to a marriage they felt dishonoured the family. The lady’s death was witnessed by an old poacher who reported what he had seen to the lord of the castle; the lady was found alive but never regained consciousness and died shortly thereafter.
All that now remains of the Château de Saint-Cast are the ruins of an 18th century manor house at Val Saint-Rieul that were built over the site of the castle. It is reported that on certain moonless nights, four black phantoms, restrained by a large iron chain, can be seen being led through the brambles and thorns by a young girl who seemingly has no arms. Local legend tells that these are the ghosts of four local lords who were condemned for having, in life, cruelly mistreated young girls and women. They beg the young girl, whose arms were cut off by one of their party, to forgive them but she does not seem to hear their pleading and continues to lead them through the thickest barbs. She will continue to do so until the Day of Judgement is called.
Another legend or perhaps a variant of the above tale is attached to these ruins. It tells that the lord of the Château de Saint-Cast often invited the prettiest girls of the region to attend his feasts. Those that accepted the invitation ultimately found themselves forced to dance naked for the amusement of the lord and his drunken friends; those poor girls that refused were never seen by their friends or family again. That is to say, not seen alive; many tales tell of spectral white ladies seen walking slowly along the road that leads from the ruins of Val Saint-Rieul.
Legend tells that a powerful lord once lived in the Château de Carnoët; a man renowned for removing his wives as soon as he saw them pregnant with child. He is reputed to have married the sister of a saint, a young woman who fell pregnant after a year of marriage. However, knowing of the rumours surrounding the fate of her predecessors, she tried to avoid suffering the same and fled the castle.
Unfortunately, she was seen by the lord’s valet who immediately revealed her escape to his master, an experienced horseman who quickly caught his wife whom he fell upon with his sword. Having cut his wife to pieces, he left her body on the road, forbidding it to be buried and it is along these narrow lanes that the former lady of the castle is said to walk on moonless nights. The details of this tale so clearly agree with those relating to the misdeeds of the 6th century Breton warlord Conomor, the Breton Bluebeard, that this legend must have been inspired by the other.
Near Corseul, the ruined Château de Montafilan is home to a white lady who walks the battlements at night before disappearing near the castle’s old well. It is believed that she enters the subterranean passages where she can be heard counting coins and crying. This sorrowful shadow is reputed to be that of a lady of the House of Dinan once sold in marriage who has returned from the grave to claim the wretched blood money that was exchanged for her happiness.
Today, the marshes around Glénac are serene places bursting with wildlife but in the 16th century this land was devastated by the brutality and violence that marked the Wars of Religion. Legend has it that after the Château de Malestroit had fallen to the forces of the French king, the lord of that castle tried to escape with a few trusted followers. Being hotly pursued, this small band soon found themselves in the marshland where several tributaries flow into the River Oust and it was here, with enemy forces rapidly bearing down, that the lord’s daughter, Ermengarde, acted. She leapt into a boat encouraging the French soldiers to follow, which they did with great speed. However, Ermengarde knew the river and allowed her vessel to be carried by the current; she perished in the chasm and by the time her pursuers could take stock, they too were caught in the torrent and were drowned.
Since that time, it is said that Ermengarde returns every night to drift along the western marshes and linger above the watery chasm which was her untimely tomb; cursed because she saved her honour and her father’s life by means of a sin. Sometimes, this white lady of the marshes is seen above the waters; the folds of her dress almost translucent under the moonlight, her hair billowing in the wind as if it might even touch the stars themselves.
In the Gulf of Morbihan, off Brittany’s southern cost, the Île-aux-Moines is reputedly the haunt of ghostly white ladies who attend to their hair on the shoreline. On the neighbouring Île-d’Arz, tall white ladies were said to have been regularly sighted walking on the waves from the mainland or nearby islands. These ghosts were reported to sit on the shore, buckled-over in sadness, absentmindedly digging the sand with their feet or else stripping the leaves from the branches of rosemary they had picked near the dunes. It was believed that these were the ghosts of girls from the island who had long-since moved away and having died without absolution far from their native soil, returned there to ask their families to pray for their salvation.
The fishermen of the south coast town of Piriac often reported seeing, at twilight, two figures running on the tops of the waves. Local tradition held that these were the ghosts of a lady and her husband; the latter having drowned before the eyes of his wife, she became so mad with grief that, one day, she allowed herself to be taken by the sea.
According to local legend, a dishevelled white lady whose hands seem clasped together appears at the Château de la Ville Éven near the northern town of Saint-Briac; her appearance is believed to announce the imminent death of the head of the household. It is said that this is the ghost of a lady who died in the 17th century and who, on her deathbed, promised her eldest son that she would return to warn her descendants when they were to prepare for death. Under 10km (6 miles) to the west, a white lady has also been reported emerging, at midnight, from the ruined Château du Guildo at Créhen. Sometimes shrouded in mist, the ghost walks the 40 or so metres to the banks of the Arguenon estuary to wash her linen before suddenly vanishing.
Built hard against the old Breton border with Vendée lie the ruins of the once formidable Chateau de Montaigu; when it was rebuilt in the 15th century, its moat was said to have been some 16 metres deep! Every year – the exact date is unclear – a headless white lady appears amidst the ruins at midnight and walks the path of the old battlements. Local legend attributes her visitation as a plea by the lady to remember her savage death. Sadly, the castle was the scene of much slaughter during the 16th century Wars of Religion and again during the French Counter-Revolution of the late 18th century, so, the circumstances of this sad rememberancer’s death are unfortunately lost to us.
Returning to the north of Brittany, the majestic ruins of the once mighty Château de Tonquédec are home to a white lady who walks balefully around the summits of the medieval towers at night. Little is known of this spectral figure; some say that she is the ghost of a watchful Huguenot who once took refuge in the castle during the Wars of Religion and is warning those who would listen of some impending disaster. Interestingly, a young girl dressed in white is also said to haunt the castle ruins; she is said to be seen when the sun shines brightest and seems to retreat upon the approach of the living.
Sacked during the Wars of Religion by the bloodthirsty brigand La Fontenelle in 1595, the old manor of Kerprigent in Plougasnou is the scene of another ghostly white lady. She is said to appear walking near the ruins on the nights of a full moon and has been described as a great beauty whose hair appears scattered wildly over her shoulders as if she had been caught unawares. The lady’s half-open mouth seems to expresses anguishing pain and her right hand, holding a soiled cloth over her heart, displays a gaping wound bleeding heavily. Sometimes, this piteous lady releases heart breaking cries that attract a white doe that docilely lies at her feet and licks away the blood that constantly drips from her hand.
According to legend, a visiting lord, smitten by the lady of Kerprigent, had his advances rebuffed by her and determined that he would have his foul revenge. Following his departure, the servants of the house found the lady’s bloody body on the floor of her bedchamber and since that day she has returned to seek justice but her husband, who died in a foreign country, never heard of her calamity and her parents did not try to avenge her death. She is therefore fated to return, again and again, until the end of time.
In the east of the region, the 12th century Château de Châteaubriant was once home to Jean de Laval sometime Governor of Brittany. His wife, Françoise de Foix, was a noted beauty and a mistress of the King of France. Having lost the king’s favour, she returned to Brittany and died unexpectedly just nine years later in 1537. A number of legends attribute her death to the resentful jealousy of her husband who is said to have locked her in her chamber where he had her slowly bled to death. Her ghost returns to haunt the castle at midnight every 16 October; the anniversary of her death. Some variants of the story have her appearing alone; others have her being joined by her husband and even seen as part of a courtly procession of priests and other lords and ladies.
Nearby, the ruins of the 13th century Château de Pouancé, which once guarded the border between Brittany and Anjou, is said to be haunted by a former mistress of the castle. This late 14th century lady is reputed to have been desperately in love with a Breton knight and one night, at his behest, opened one of the doors to the fortress; the gate was immediately rushed by the Bretons who quickly captured the castle.
With the departure of the Breton forces, legend tells us that the lord of the castle had his wife walled-up alive within the castle as punishment for her treachery. Since then, many people have reported seeing a white lady walking the ramparts, her finger pressed close to her lips. Another tale assures that in the 18th century, renovation work at the castle uncovered a sealed chamber where the body of a woman was found tied seated at a table upon which rested silver cutlery; inside her mouth, a single gold coin.
The stunning 13th century Château de Largoët near Elven, whose imposing keep is the tallest in France, once saw the future King of England, Henry VII, held within its walls. However, it is not the usurper of the Plantagenets that haunts this place but a white lady wearing a dress soiled with blood. Said to stalk the surrounding forest, the ghost is thought to be a former lady of the castle who killed herself with a dagger, struck through the heart, upon the death of her lover, a knight who perished defending her. The white lady of Elven is sometimes seen in the company of another ghost, draped in a tattered shroud; perhaps, in death, the lovers are now forever reunited.
Little now remains of the Château de Vioreau near Joué-sur-Erdre but it was a significant site in Medieval times and was, for a time, part of the powerful Barony of Châteaubriant. A tale tells that a lady of the castle once had a brief love affair with her husband’s page; a liaison that ended badly and saw bitterness soak the lady’s heart. One day, she sent her former lover on an important errand; to deliver a letter to her kinsman, the governor of Nantes. He was promptly clapped in irons after the governor read the message: “Hang, without delay, the bearer of this letter”.
Fortunately for the page, the lord of Vioreau had been concerned by the sudden departure of his page on a secret errand and had followed him to Nantes. In the dungeon of the city’s castle, he confronted his servant, demanding to hear the truth of the matter. Having already betrayed his master, the wretched man now betrayed his mistress.
Some weeks later, the lord and lady of Vioreau attended a great celebration at the nearby Château de Blain. As the music began, the lord took his wife to dance and did so with such enthusiasm that all remarked how joyful he seemed. The lively dancing went on late into the night and the attentive lord insisted that his wife dance with him without any interruption. Having danced for hours, the lady collapsed exhausted, hot and breathless. The lord lost no time in tenderly escorting his wife to rest on a nearby window seat. As he had hoped, the coldness of the stone seat served his vengeful designs well; the lady contracted a chill that soon proved fatal. Betrayed by the only two men she had loved, the white lady of Vioreau roams the castle ruins to this day.
The ruined 15th century Château de Rustéphan near Pont-Aven is said to be home to the ghost of a young lady from the 16th century who died of grief after her fiancé renounced their marriage to become a priest. Legend tells that the lord of Rustéphan did not consider the prospective groom a good match for his daughter and pressured him to take holy orders and leave the parish. After midnight, during the nights of a full moon, the unhappy lady, wearing a green dress, has been seen weeping while walking along the castle’s walls. Sometimes, the ghostly figure of an old priest has been sighted at the windows, gazing longingly upon the green lady of Rustéphan.
In many Breton legends, the appearances of ghosts are often motivated by a request they have to make to the living; they often appear to claim the fulfilment of a vow or to honour one. There are also many tales of people condemned to return to earth to expiate their sins by a posthumous penance, such as the ghosts of priests begging for alms, condemned to wander the land until they have collected the money for masses for which they were paid but did not perform.
Other tales seem to have their origins in the chaos and violence wrought in the aftermath of the Revolution when religion was suppressed and many of the religious houses forcibly closed-down. The sight of monks and nuns dispossessed of lands they had farmed for centuries must have struck a powerful chord in some areas as many localities contain tales of wandering clerics with uncertain back-stories. For instance, the ghosts of monks are sometimes seen to appear near the Iron Age tumulus known as Château-Serein near Plévenon on Brittany’s north coast but we know not why.
At night, around the village of Bourg-des-Comptes, a headless priest is said to walk slowly along an old path before disappearing and returning to walk the same ground again. The ghost of another headless priest has also been noted over the Breton border in Saint-Laurs although there the decapitation is attributed to the priest having had his head blown off by Republican troops during the excesses of the Counter-Revolution.
A farmhouse near the northern town of Lamballe is reputed to be the site where a sheltering priest was captured and killed by Republicans who had sought him for some time. Each evening, strange noises are heard emanating from the attic; a sound described as similar to that made by a falling sack of potatoes. Legend tells that one day the attic was cleared and at the very spot where the noise seemed to originate, a large blood stain was revealed. This proved impossible to scrub away and persists to this day, as fresh as if the blood had been spilled the day before.
To the east, just outside the town of Châteaubriant, the chapel of the Manoir de Bois-Briant was said to be visited by three beautiful ladies, dressed in white. These ghosts always appeared from the neighbouring woods and walked arm-in-arm towards the chapel singing with much sweetness. In the 19th century, these white ladies were said to reveal themselves every Christmas Eve and sometimes on the eve of other sacred festivals. Their lament was said to be a reproach to the local people for their disgrace in forgetting the death of a priest killed in the chapel during the Revolution.
We have already remarked on the white lady of the Château du Guildo, so, it is only right that we note the phantom monk who appears some four times a year, when the moon is high in the night sky, near the site of the old priory of Guildo. The ghost is said to walk down to the estuary of the Arguenon River and over the water before disappearing somewhere behind the strange basalt boulders known as the ‘Singing Stones’ of Guildo. The Château du Guildo was also said to be visited each night by the restless spirits of Templar knights; warrior monks who wandered the castle ruins with backs bent under a crushing burden. These ghosts were commonly believed to have been souls of knights condemned, as punishment for their many crimes, to carry, for eternity, the weight of all that they had stolen whilst they lived.
Just six kilometres (4 miles) to the west, in the village of Saint-Pôtan, the ghost of another monk is seen between ten o’clock and midnight, on nights when the sky enjoys neither moon nor stars. The village has grown markedly in recent years and no sightings have been reported for some time but local tradition once held that the monk was greatly feared on account of the disturbing noise made by the creaking of his bones. The ghost was said to walk along the road to Guildo before stopping at a wayside cross a few kilometres away. Here, the monk turned back to face any imprudent enough to have followed him; those foolish souls witnessed, framed in the folds of his hood, a face without flesh.
We do not know whether the monk was associated with the 12th century priory that thrived nearby for some 600 years or of that once operated by the Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller or whether he is someone trying to return home to the Abbey of Saint-Cast. A disturbing local legend tells that the monks of Saint-Cast once kidnapped seven young girls from the surrounding area. The broken bodies of four of these poor unfortunates were discovered when a search was eventually made of the abbey; three more captives were thankfully found alive.
Another monk from this abbey was believed to have been imprisoned in an underground chamber on the nearby isle of Ebihen. This was his punishment for having refused to perform the penance demanded of him for a murder he had committed. It was said that owls constantly tear out his hair to line their nests and that he will remain there, alive, until the day a white dove places a relic of Saint Anne upon his head.
Groups of ghostly monks and nuns have also been reported just 10km away around the town of Matignon. Unfortunately, the histories of these ghosts are lost to us, as are those surrounding the ghostly priests, dressed in white, sometimes sighted at night about 10km to the south on the old roads between Plancoët and Pléven. Curiously, these latter sightings were only recorded by unmarried women.
The presence of the ghosts of priests has also been noted on the moors around Paimpont; one could even be seen ready to say mass, with lit candles by his side. He was said to have pursued unwary travellers, seeming to ask them something and though they might run wildly away from him, he was always with them. Eventually, the locals paid to have masses said for his soul and he has not been seen since. About 10km away, the ghost of an unknown monk, sometimes described as headless, wanders the meadow that borders one of the lanes leading to the Château de Trécesson; his purpose unknown to us.
According to another legend, at midnight on 15 July, we might see appearing on the surface of the Saint-François pond in the forest of Fougères, two wretched ghosts who seem deeply entwined; whirling as if in some crazed dance before disappearing into mist. Local tradition insists that these are the ghosts of a monk and a lady from the neighbourhood who used to arrange their amorous meetings in a boat so as to avoid any prying eyes. One night, the lady’s outraged husband followed them in another boat and having been able to approach the lovers without alerting them, cut off their heads.
It is worth noting that not all spectral ladies seen in the Breton night lament their sad situation. The imposing Roman temple ruins at Bécherel, near the northern village of Corseul, are said to mark the entrance to a vast underground city whose houses are made of the purest gold. The city is hidden beyond the reach of man because it is home to the Devil, who lives there with a company of very beautiful women. Sometimes, on summer nights, these ladies can be seen playing on the ground near the ancient tower but we dare not approach them for these are the Devil’s own women.
Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to express my sincerest thanks to Aron Wiesenfeld; the staggeringly talented artist who created two of the finest artworks accompanying this post and who kindly allowed them to be featured here. The header image is a haunting piece known as The Pit, while the painting placed near the tale of the White Lady of Montafilan is The Grove. These works are not in the Public Domain and copyright thus remains with the artist. If you are not yet familiar with Aron’s work, I urge you to spend a little time browsing his site here.