"There was no honor in war, less in killing, and none in dying. But there was true dignity in how men comported themselves in battle. And there was always honor to be found in standing for a just cause and defending the defenseless."
- – Michael Scott
"Be without fear in the face of your enemies. Be brave and upright, that God may love thee. Speak the truth always, even if it leads to your death. Safeguard the helpless and do no wrong; that is your oath."
- – Godfrey of Ibelin, Kingdom of Heaven
"Strange women lying in ponds, distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony!"
- – Dennis the Constitutional Peasant, Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Bretonnia is one of the main factions in Warhammer Fantasy Battle. It is a human nation roughly modeled on a combination of medieval France, a tiny pinch of England and every medieval tale of chivalry ever (especially the legends of King Arthur). At a glance, they could easily be Games Workshop's least creative race, in any game, ever. And yes, that includes
Judge Dredd Adeptus Arbites. One of their special characters is called The Green Knight, and their goddess is the Lady of the Lake (later revealed to also be part of the Elven pantheon). Even the name of the kingdom is derived from Britannia (Roman Empire-ruled Britain) and Brittany (part of north western France). It's pretty lazy, all things considered.
However, it is still inventive in one way: In Bretonnia, the ideals of medieval chivalry and high honour is presented side-by-side with horrible, almost hilarious black-comedy level of oppressive government. The greatest heroic knights could also at the same time be the sort of charmer who worries about soiling their poulaines while stepping over starving peasant orphans, and your armies will be made of equal parts saintly knightly warriors and wretched peasants who gets sent to die in droves in the name of feudal responsibilities. It's gotten to the point where a large part of the charm of Bretonnia is in its black comedy value, in terms of social commentary.
Bretonnian armies basically consist of knights. Lots and lots of knights. And everyone, from the lowliest Knight Errant to the living-god Grail Knights, rides the same. Damn. Horse. Except for the ones that ride Pegasi. There are also some lowly, filthy peasants that support the knights (by which we mean they're meatshields).
The army is currently very old and very out of date, although still readily available, there are some rumors concerning them though. This is unfortunate, since WFB 8th edition nerfed cavalry pretty hard. They're still workable, but they're hurting pretty badly. Some denizens of /tg/ argue that Bretonnia should just be squatted, as they don't have anything over any other army. Seriously, the Empire (ostensibly an infantry-based army) has better cavalry than these guys.
For what it's worth, they're still a major player in the fluff, arguably sharing the "protagonist" stage with the Empire (or at least being the co-star) in the Glottkin End Times book, though the plot material of "Thanquol" seems to have finally done in the nation as an independent entity.
As of March 26th, 2016, the entire Bretonnian range has been added to Games Workshop's 'Last Chance to Buy' section, so it seems like the Brets are finally gone for good. Though due to the aforementioned fading relevance as an army, lack of creativity and stand-out characters, some actually arguing for squatting, and all that even before the End Times and Age of Sigmar, few can honestly say they didn’t see this coming. Compared to Tomb Kings, outrage over the loss seems to be rather lukewarm (likely because the Tomb Kings were the first to get axed, no-one was expecting it to happen, Tomb Kings were one of GW's more creative races, lorewise it makes more sense that at least some of the Tomb Kings would make it to Age of Sigmar than Bretonnians and it would've made sense to keep at least some Tomb Kings units in the new game setting, such as the Sphinxes, rather than axe them all. Some may say it's also because the Tomb Kings were more popular than the Brets but that's subjective).
Long before the land now known as Bretonnia was founded, it was inhabited by the Lizardmen, but they were driven back by Chaos; later, the High Elves from Ulthuan created a vortex to keep the demons at bay, and the territory was taken by the High Elves from Ulthuan, as were most non-mountainous regions in the Old world. But then the
War of the Beard War of Vengeance happened, and the land became a major battlefield between the Dwarves and High Elves. The conflict weakened the High Elves so much that Caradryel, the successor Phoenix King, ordered the retreat of all High Elves back to Ulthuan. Some High Elves refused, and remained in a nearby "special" forest (later known as Athel Loren) and became the Wood Elves. With no elves in sight, humans began to settle the land. It was first inhabited by some pagan hippies who played with rocks, but they got their shit kicked by a badass nomadic human tribe called the Bretonni (hence the name Bretonnia). This tribe was known to travel from the World's Edge mountains. They were of similar martial prowess to the Unberogen (Sigmar's tribe), who had fought both humans and orcs on daily basis and managed to avoid going extinct. Like every human tribe, the Bretonni were given an invitation by Sigmar to be united as a whole, but they refused and chose to keep to themselves, because they were pretty much a mockery of the real life French stereotype and believed through sheer arrogance that their culture was inherently superior. Seriously, the Bretonni are a backward medieval stasis tribe that couldn't even evolve to use metalwork without consulting dwarves who lived in nearby mountains.
The Bretonni were later raided by a clusterfuck of nearby Orc WAAARGH, in addition to Tomb kings led by Settra, who was after the lost shiny bling stolen from his kingdom. Unable to properly unite to face the threats, the Bretonnis were facing annihilation (much thanks to the sheer arrogance towards Sigmar that led to their doom). But an awesome guy named Giles le Breton rallied every Bretonni warrior he could find, including his best friends Duke Thierulf d'Lyonesse and Duke Landuin d'Mousillon, to fight the Orc menace. Still they failed due to the horde's size, and were forced to retreat to a nearby forest. Wandering wearily in the forest, Giles stopped to drink from a lake, and found himself watched over by a strange woman of ethereal form: the Lady of the Lake. Le Breton, facing desperation and madness, asked this Lady to bless him with strength and he was fully restored. Duke Thierulf d'Lyonesse and Duke Landuin d'Mousillon did the same thing, and the three of them became
Lileath's puppet the first three Grail Knights.
With the power to finally pull some awesome ass kicking, Giles and his tribe kicked the shit out of the Orcs, returned to their settlement, united the Bretonni tribesmen under one banner, and founded "Bretonnia," with their benefactor the Lady of the Lake as the centre of their newly created society.
After the unification, Breton was dubbed the "Uniter" and became the first Royarch. Unfortunately, Breton was killed (or we thought) by a cunning git with a spear in one of his many campaigns against the Greenskin. His son Louis the Rash was then crowned the king, and founded the Questing Knight tradition. Many evil like the Tomb Kings and Greenskins were pushed out of the borders of Bretonnia.
There were invasions from Araby where they invaded Estalia. Estalia were desperate, so they sought help from Bretonnia and many Empire provinces. A combined holy crusade of Bretonnia and the Empire were formed to kick them back to their sandy home.
After that, a joint army of undead led by Heinrich and Krell plus the Skaven invaded, but was crushed after the Skaven ran away with their tails between their legs in the middle of the fight.
During the End Times it was revealed that the Lady of the Lake was indeed the elven godess Lileath. The Bretonnians present during this revelation abandoned her, but through some convoluted nonsense
all Grail Knights and Damsels are saved in a new World, the "Haven" and probably live untainted from chaos as immortal rulers of a new Bretonnia (HURRAH!). BUT Bel'akor found out and smothered it in its crib, dooming everyone in there (hurroo...). It was later mentioned that they may have simply lost contact with this Haven, as the Warhammer World was becoming increasingly saturated with Chaos.
KNIGHTS. Want something besides knights? BETTER KNIGHTS. Seriously. If there was a culture in the Old World that was more of a one trick pony, (HA!) then the Bretonnians would probably declare a crusade for cramping their style. Bretonnian culture is all about fancy soldiers on fancy horses making fancy war. Based on the WHFRPG splatbook on the place, Bretonnia loves horses more than is strictly sane. Even peasants at least know how to ride and there's entire sub-breed of horses designed to be easily ridden and cheaply fed, like a medieval Honda Civic. One of the most common punishments for nobles who manage to commit a crime serious enough for anyone to care is to be forced to ride in a carriage rather than on a horse like a manly man.
Outside of horses and the people with sharp metal that ride them, pretty much any French stereotype you can think of will probably be accurate aside from surrendering. They like fancy cheese, they like wine and they never use one vowel when five will work. The splatbook also says they like truffles. So much so that they breed a special truffle hound for finding them. There's a highly suspect bit (from the 2e Warhammer RPG sourcebook on Bretonnia) that says that once a Bretonnian truffle hound gets a taste of some, he'll go psycho-territorial and try to bite off the junk of anyone nearby. Sadly no game rules exist (yet) to allow Emperor Karl Franz to lose his Sausage of Sigmar to a horny dog.
Ironically, Bretonnians actually changed quite drastically between editions before being all but abandoned. The original rendition of Bretonnians, before they became the "Chivalric Romance Knights In Shining Armor" faction was basically the French under Louis XVI - incredibly corrupt, self-centered aristocrats (with a massive problem with Slaanesh cults) ruling over dirty, downtrodden peasants. And, well, the abysmal lot of the peasants remained, but the aristocrats themselves got polished up brighter, to try and present a more sympathetic/heroic interpretation of them. Further, with the introduction of the Herrimault (aka Merrymen), you essentially have men in
tights [ TIGHT tights] hoodies running around fucking the more tyrannical nobles, that is, except when Chaos comes around, at which point Robin Hood fights alongside King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table. Just long enough to avoid execution, presumably by truffle hound.
Aside from being strictly feudal, the biggest difference between Bretonnians and the Empire is that the Bretons worship mainly a single deity; the Lady of the Lake, a mystical woman who gave their first ruler the power to forge the united kingdom of Bretonnia. They do pay homage to other gods and in fact have the seat of power of the cult of Shallya, it's just that those gods are significantly less important and are only called upon when the Bretonnians need something from them. Editions have insinuated to varying degrees that the Lady of the Lake may, in fact, actually be a Wood Elf mage and that the Wood Elves are secretly manipulating the entire Bretonnian culture to use them as expendable pawns. This is why, for example, they are subtly biased against the higher technologies used in the Empire, which would make them more inclined cut down Athel Loren for firewood.
- Knights Errant: You thought you started your career as being a squire? Nope. Nobles who are old enough to wear their armour and sit on a horse are designated as Knights Errant, and told to go off and earn glory however they can. Usually by dying. Of course, a few Knights Errant manage to survive, which earns them the rank of...
- Knights of the Realm: Your basic knight. Someone who's gotten some combat experience and respect already, they're given a bit of land to look after and some peasants to work it. This is often as far as anyone will go, unless they're obscenely rich or lucky, in which case they become...
- Pegasus Knights: Though not technically higher in rank than Knights of the Realm, these guys are fuck-off rich/batshit crazy enough to afford/find and tame a giant, bloodthirsty flying horse instead of your garden variety land-bound kind. Bretonnians are not known to be exactly healthy when it comes to their love of horses, but it gets really insane with the winged ones: peasants can't even touch the animals, and one of the dukes actually killed any peasant that looked at his steed.
- Questing Knights: For any number of reasons, a knight may give up all his lands and titles (like a Slayer), lay down his lance, vow to seek honour and greatness above all else (like a Slayer), and become a Questing Knight. These guys spend the next 10 years or so wandering around the world (like a Slayer), looking for the Lady of the Lake while slaying big, nasty stuff along the way (like a Slayer). Most die. Horribly, alone, and far from home (like a Slayer). Fortunately they all carry giant weapons (mostly greatswords), so their death is guaranteed to have a minimum amount of win (like a Slayer). But, if they are skilled, heroic, and lucky enough, they can succeed in their quest (unlike a Slayer); they find the correct Lake, and meet the Green Knight. If they manage to defeat him, they get to see the Lady, drink some Powerthirst from the grail, and become...
- Grail Knights: The living gods of Bretonnia, they get to live for several hundred years and kick all kinds of ass. All kings have to drink from the grail, which means that unlike in other nations there is always a badass in charge. In fluff grail knights can have all sorts of awesome powers, from killing evil creatures with a touch to healing wounds almost instantly, but on the table all they get is magical attacks (except for the king, he also gets regeneration).
Questing Knights and Grail Knights are technically outside the usual hierarchy (with the exception of the Grail Knights who decide to regain all their titles after completing their quest, as all kings do) but, especially in the case of the latter, their word carries great weight, because they are closer to the Lady of the Lake than all others (with the exception of damsels and prophetesses of the lady, the magic-users of Bretonnia). Knights also tend to have a superiority complex that would put most high elves to shame, which means that no Questing Knight would allow himself to be directly led by a Knight of the Realm and Grail Knights only accept other Grail Knights as leaders (usually the king or a duke). Knights that actually deign to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with peasants are so rare they are considered exemplars of empathy.
Incidentally, there's only one restriction on being a Duke or lord of Bretonnia: you have to have proved yourself first. That is, you have to be at least a Knight of the Realm, but after that it really doesn't matter. It's worth mentioning, too, that you don't inherit solely based on your parentage. If you're at least slightly capable, you'll inherit, but if a lord's son is a complete pussy, someone else will take over. This at least prevents the similar issues faced by planetary lords in the Imperium in 40k then, as this acts to weed out at least the worst of the worst (if not all the worst unfortunately sigh).
It's not easy being a peasant in Bretonnia. Peasants can only ever keep one tenth of what they earn, which means that either peasants earn a lot or they are all, in fact, undead, which would explain their lack of skill at arms; otherwise they wouldn't have enough to sustain themselves. The other 90% goes to the Knights and Nobles, and any leftovers they have go back to the peasants. The splatbook for playing the first edition of the WHFB RPG in Bretonnia would go on to clarify this a little: as a peasant your lord does indeed take 90% of your harvest, but then redistributes part of it back to you so you can survive (sort of). He's probably still going to give you just enough to survive and don't think just because you grew something really nice he's not just going to give you a bag of low-quality grain and some knight spit to cook it in. So basically feudalism with a nice big flavoring of Stalin-era socialism. The reason for this "Giving nine tenths of everything you grow to your lord" lore error actually comes from a myth of the real life Medieval peasantry, which has been perpetuated by people who don't fucking check their sources, or bother to apply logic or reason to anything they read.
If you are a peasant, you also live in complete filth with other peasants in disgusting holdings and you can't ever change your miserable position*. But hey, things are not so bad, you can always join your Lord's men-at-arms and receive enough shinies to set you for life! Or so they told you at the time, but they forgot to mention that you had to pay for all your equipment, so you were left with squat. Still, if you work hard enough, you might become a yeomen, which may earn you the privilege of riding the retarded/maimed horses no noble would dare to look at.
Naturally, under such conditions, many peasants simply snap. Some become bandits, but those who do not wish to be hunted down for the rest of their likely short lives instead find a ragtag band of other loonies, a dead grail knight and a pointy stick to become pilgrims, hoping to earn the blessing of the Lady (usually reserved only for nobles) by fighting for truth, justice and the Bretonnian way while carrying the dead knight around. If there is no dead grail knight around, I am sure that one over there won't recover from his wounds...
- Technically the King or the Fay Enchantress, the hot female pope of the Lady, can raise you to nobility, but this has only happened thrice in all history of Bretonnia (one case was a peasant named Huebald who saved a noblewoman from Beastmen; he was killed in his first battle, the second was Repanse de Lyonesse AKA Joan of Ark), and your children will still be peasants. It's also possible that pretentious nobles will dislike the upstarts and arrange for them to not survive their first battle, like poor Huebald.
Suddenly, Total War
Although the Bretonnians got squatted twice over (first by being removed from the game, and then by the entire game being removed from the game), they've recently got a new lease on life from their appearance in Total War: WARHAMMER, where they're not only playable, but also get entirely new units that they never had in tabletop, including Hippogryph Knights, Blessed Trebuchets loaded with holy water, Foot Squires, and a more defensive-minded version of Grail Knights called Grail Guardians. Even better, they have an awesome campaign that discourages mindless empire-building and instead rewards you with points of Chivalry for being a gallant Lady-fearing crusader.
Of Knights, Lore, And Major Retcons
For all that recent lore has Bretonnia as a place where being a peasant means you exist at the pleasure of the local nobility and can never hope to rise higher in life, this wasn't always the case. The 5th Edition Army Book, in addition to introducing the Lady Of The Lake, described becoming a knight as something that anyone could do provided they followed the ancient Bretonnian custom by which they earned it. Any area that needed a knight to protect it would designate a "perilous task" that the would-be knight had to complete, most likely involving the death of some local monster that had been eating people and causing a ruckus.
This task was traditionally chosen by "the fairest maiden in the village", who was destined to marry the one who succeeded at her task. Any brave or reckless youth was allowed to attempt it, with the volunteer being dubbed a Knight Errant and equipping themselves as best they can with whatever arms and armor they can beg, borrow, or scrounge. If they succeeded they were made a Knight of the Realm, gifted with the best armor and finest warhorse the village could afford (which, judging by the models, would make any Brettonian village ridiculously rich by real-life Medieval standards), along with lordship over the village itself and whatever lands and castle were considered part of it to defend as their own property.
There are several interesting details about this system, such as how Knights Errant are not technically knights; a Knight Errant is not a true knight, but an aspirant, the title meaning they're trying to become a knight by accepting an errand to complete. This leads directly to the tradition of the Errantry War, when the king declares open season on a particular enemy and the war itself becomes an errand. Because you usually only get the chance to become a knight when your village doesn't currently have a knight, an Errantry War is a great opportunity for ambitious peasants and noble scions alike to seek knighthood, as well as a good way to raise a big army very quickly.
Of course, this also makes an Errantry War into a double-edged sword, because you have to give out the knighthoods afterwards. If you haven't conquered enough land to go around...well, you're in a lot of trouble. So kings don't declare Errantry Wars very often.
Another interesting detail is that the Bretonnian system of knighthood was functionally meritocratic, with knighthood something you achieved by completing an errand rather than inheriting the position. A lord's sons start out as Knights Errant and have an advantage over most peasants because they probably have access to much better training and equipment, but even so, they still have to follow the rule. No errand means no knighthood and no domain.
The system essentially worked from the bottom up, with the village as the basic unit of social organisation, and in many ways you became a knight through social consensus. The person who succeeds at the errand is probably going to be the person with community support because the village provided the weapons, equipment, and other essential aid he needed to complete his errand. A knight was essentially a village champion, with the next level up being a champion chosen from among the knights, then you build another champion on top of them, and so on until you reached the King.
In this sense it would probably be fair to characterise 5th edition Bretonnia as a meritocratic aristocracy. You ascend to the aristocracy by performing errands, and if you were born to a noble family but fail to complete an errand then sorry, son, you're not a noble. While it's not perfect, the close association of the knight with the village probably helped to safeguard against abusive knights as well.
After all, who sets the errand? Who decides who the 'fairest maiden' is, and how does she decide what to do? What stops a village agreeing to set a suicidal task if they hated the foremost candidates for knighthood, waited for those candidates to get killed and then set an easier one for the guy they liked?
Even the identification of a particular maiden as 'the fairest' had to do with social consensus. It's entirely possible that the potential knight and the maiden are already a couple and the system is gamed ahead of time. You don't get knighted by an existing knight, a lord, or the king, the whole system hinged on the local community.
Lastly, the knightly errand system made Bretonnia into what is essentially a land of D&D adventurers with a culture that puts strong emphasis on individual heroism, serving as a nice contrast to the Empire. If you want social success, then you just had to go kill a monster! There were also no rules about how the errand is completed or any judges watching you, so it's entirely possible to complete the errand through cleverness.
Of course, Games Workshop didn't think that was grimdark enough, and for Sixth Edition decided to flip the system on its head so that instead of rising from the bottom up, it hangs down and drips feces all over everyone unlucky enough to live at the bottom. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay's Knights of the Grail follows the 6th edition model and provided a strict legal definition of nobility codified by Louis the Rash, second king of Bretonnia. He made a big list of names called the Peer List: if your name was on the list you were a noble, and if both your parents were nobles then you were a noble, but even one peasant would disqualify you.
In theory, all Bretonnian nobles should be able to trace their lineage back to the List, and while the king has the power add a name to the List, he has only done so three times in all of Bretonnia's recorded history. In stark opposition to the egalitarian system of 5E based on deeds, 6E Bretonnian nobility is purely a matter of ancestry. Nobles then claim fiefs and rule over villages, but are not required to interact with them in any way, and the village has no power over them.
- Tactics/Bretonnia, in which we explain you how to best bash skulls in, chaos warrior style, only from a horse.
- Court of Bretonnia - a tumblrfaggot with a new, but good blog on Bretonnia.
- FUCK YEAH BRETONNIA - tumblrfaggot redeems self with decent topical blog about Bretonnia.
- The Roundtable of Bretonnia
- Warhammer Wiki - Bretonnia - Dah Wikis
- Total War: Warhammer Bretonnia Trailer