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Comorre (Conomor) the Cursed

Contained in Legends and Romances of Brittany
by Lewis Spence, pub: George G. Harrap (1917)

A Breton legend that fits well with the historical character Commorus
whom Samson of Dol overthrew.
(Commorus can also be linked to King Mark of Tristan and Iseult fame.)
(St Triphine, the wife of Conomor, is a saint.)

The legend of Comorre the Cursed is told in the frescos that cover the wall of the church of St. Nicolas de Bieuzy in Morbihan, dedicated to St. Triphyne, who in history was the wife of Comorre.

Comorre was the a chief who ruled at at Carhaix in Finistère. (The tale comes from Emile Souvestre, a Breton man, author of Deniers Bretons.)

Guerech, County of Vannes, 'the Country of the White Corn' had a daughter Triphyna, whom he tenderly loved. One day ambassadors arrived from Comorre, a prince of Cornouaille, 'the Country of the Black Corn' demanding her in marriage. Now this caused great stress for Comorre was a giant, one of the wickedest of men, held in awe by everyone for his cruelty. As a boy, when he went out, his mother used to ring a bell to warn people of his approach. When unsuccessful in the chase he would set his dogs on the peasants to tear them to pieces. But most horrible of all, he had four wives, who had died one after the other, it was suspected by knife, fire, water, or poison.

The Count of Vannes therefore dismissed the ambassadors, and advanced to meet Comorre, who was approaching with a powerful army, but St. Gildas went into Triphyna's oratory and begged her to save bloodshed and consent to the marriage. He gave her a silver ring, which would warn her of any intended evil by turning as black as a crow's wing at the approach of danger.

The marriage took place with great rejoicings. The first day six thousand guests were invited; on the next day as many poor were fed, the bride and the bridegroom themselves serving at the tables. For some time all went well. Comorre's nature seemed altered; his prisons were empty, his gibbets untenanted. But Triphyna felt no confidence and every day went to pray at the tombs of the four wives.

At this time there was an assembly of Breton princes at Rennes, which Comorre was obliged to attend. Before his departure, he gave Triphyna his keys, desiring her to amuse herself in his absence.

After five months he unexpectedly returned, and found her occupied trimming an infant's cap with gold lace. On seeing the cap, Comorre turned pale; and when Triphyna joyfully announced to him that soon he would be a father, he drew back in rage and rushed out of the apartment.

Triphyna saw her ring had tuned black, which betokened danger and she knew not why. She descended into the chapel to pray. When she rose to depart, the hour of midnight struck, and suddenly a sound of movement in the silent chapel chilled her to the heart. Shrinking into the recess, she saw four tombs of Comorre's wives open slowly, and the women all issued forth in their winding sheets.

Faint with terror, Triphyna tried to escape, but the spectres cried, "Take care, poor lost one! Comorre seeks to kill you."

"Me", said the Countess. "What evil have I done?"

"You have told him that you will soon become a mother; and, through the Spirit of Evil, he knows that his child will slay him. He murdered us when we told him what he has just learned of you."

"What hope then of refuge remains for me?" cried Triphyna.

"Go back to your father," answered the phantoms.

"But how will I escape Comorre's dog guard in the court?"

"Give him this poison which killed me," said the first wife."

"But how can I descend yon high wall?"

"By means of this cord which he strangles me," answered the second wife.

"But who will guide me through the dark?"

"The fire that burnt me," replied the third wife.

"And how can I make so long as journey?" returned Triphyna.

"Take this stick which broke my skull," rejoined the fourth spectre.

Armed with the poison, the rope, and the stick, Triphyna set out, silenced the dog, scaled the wall, and miraculously guided on her way through the darkness by a glowing light, proceeded on her road to Vannes.

On awakening next morning Comorre found that his wife had fled, and pursued her on horseback. The poor fugitive seeing her ring turn black, turned off the road and hid herself till night in the cabin of a shepherd, where there was only an old magpie in a cage at the door, and here her baby was born.

Comorre, who had given up the pursuit, was returning home by that road, when he heard the magpie trying to imitate her complaints and calling out "Poor Triphyna!" Guessing that his wife had passed this way, he set his dog on the track.

Meanwhile Triphyna felt she could proceed no farther and lay down on the ground with her baby boy. As she clasped the child in her arms, she saw over her head a falcon with a golden collar, which she recognized as her father's. The bird came at her call, and giving it the warning ring of St.Gildas, she told it to fly with it to her father.

The bird obeyed, and flew like lightning to Vannes; but almost at the same instant, Comorre arrived. Having parted with her warning ring, Triphyna, who had no notice of his approach, had only time to conceal her babe in the cavity of a tree when Comorre threw himself upon her, and with one blow from his sword severed her head from her body.

When the falcon arrived at Vannes, he found the Count at dinner with St. Gildas. The falcon let the ring fall into the silver cup of his master, who recognizing it, exclaimed: "My daughter is in danger! Saddle the horses, and let St. Gildas accompany us." Following the falcon, they soon reached the spot where Triphyna lay dead.

After they had all knelt in prayer, St Gildas said to the corpse: "Arise take thy head and thy child, and follow us". The dead body obeyed, the bewildered troop followed; but, gallop as fast as they could, the headless body was always in front, carrying the babe in her left hand, and her pale head in the right. In this manner they reached the castle of Comorre.

"Count," called Gildas before the gates, "I bring back thy wife such as your wickedness has made here, and thy child such as heaven has given it thee. Wilt thou receive them under thy roof?"

Comorre was silent. The saint three times repeated the question, but no voice returned the answer. Then Gildas took the new-born infant from its mother and placed it on the ground. The child marched alone to the edge of the moat, picked up a handful of earth and throwing it against the castle, exclaimed: "Let the Trinity execute judgement." At the same instant the towers shook and fell with a crash, the walls yawned open, and the castle sunk, burying Comorre and all his partners in crime.

St. Gildas the replaced Triphyna's head upon her shoulders, laid his hands upon her and restored her to life, to the great joy of her father. Such is the history of Triphyna and Comorre.


Reliquaries

On the porch of Tréneur, the son of the notorious Comorre, there is one of the largest collections in Brittany of small boxes with heart shaped openings that contain a skull. the name upon the box is the date of death, and a charitable prayer for the repose of that person's soul.


Murals discovered in the vault of the Eglise de Bieuzy, Morbihan

Also a re-telling of the story.

A certain Count Conomor was fond of matrimony, but was not desirous of being troubled with the consequences; so whenever his wife-gave signs of being likely to become a mother, he made away with her. He was a widower for the fourth, or as some say for the seventh, time, when be sought the hand of Triphyna, daughter of Count Guerech, of Vannes, a young lady of great beauty, who had been educated under the eye St. Gildas.

Both the father and daughter would willingly have declined the proffered honor, but Count Conomor, who was Childebert's lieutenant in Brittany, and had powerful friends at court, insisted in His suit, and gave it to be understood that if his demand were not acceded to he was quite ready to enforce it at the point of the sword.

St. Gildas, wishing to avert a disastrous war, undertook to intercede, and was successful in bringing about the desired alliance, on the condition, however, that if Conomor should get tired of his wife he should send her back to her father.

The wedding was kept at Vannes with great pomp, and Conomor carried off his bride to his own castle, but before many months had elapsed, the countess, who was far advanced in her pregnancy, perceived that her husband's manner towards her was entirely changed, and, fearing the fate of his former wives, resolved to take refuge with her father.

Watching her opportunity, she mounted one morning on a fleet horse, and, accompanied by a few faithful followers, galloped off in the direction of Vannes. Her husband was informed of her flight, and pursued her. As he gained upon her, and perceived that her capture was almost inevitable, she threw herself from her horse and endeavored to conceal herself in the deep recesses of a forest, but she was discovered by her brutal lord, who, with one stroke at his sword, severed her head from her body.

St. Gildas, on being informed of what had happened, hastened to the spot, replaced the head on the body, and by his prayers restored the lady to life.

She was shortly afterwards safely delivered of a son, who was baptized by St. Gildas, and called by his name, to which, by way of distinction, was afterwards added that of Trech-meur or St Tremeur.

Such is the legend as told by the Breton hagiographers Pere Albert le Grand and Dom Gui Alexis Lobineau. But now comes a fact, as related by M. Hippolyte Violeau, in a work entitled Peterinages de Bretagne, which renders it almost certain that Perrault's tale is founded on the legend. He says that in January, 1860, in repairing the vault of the chapel of St. Nicolas de Bieuzy in Morbihan, some ancient frescoes were discovered with scenes from the life of St Trephine:

If these frescoes are really of the early date assigned to them, they probably represent the popular form of the legend, with some additional incidents which have not been thought worthy of record by the hagiographers, and there can be no doubt whence the nursery tale derives its origin. (Edgar MacCulloch, Guernsey)
(Notes and Queries:, William White (1871) Fourth Series, Vol 7)


Interesting Observations

The fact that Gildas was used for the miracles reflects on the common public's perception of his great knowledge and saintliness when in fact, judging from his De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, which is a sermon in three parts condemning the acts of his contemporaries, both secular and religious, he is curmudgeon. What is important about his appearance in this story is that, since he was a contemporary of St. Samson of Dol; it does put the story in the right timeframe. Also, the murals in the chapelle of St. Nicolas de Bieuzy also confirm the timeframe, since he followed Gildas to Brittany from Wales.

That Gildas was involved in this is unlikely, as the defeat of Conomor was engineered by St. Samson of Dol and assisted by St. Pol de Leon and St. Armel (Arthmael) (shown to be King Arthur, having become a saint). They called themselves the "Trinity" and this is the word that St Tremeur, the son of St Trephine, shouts out before the castle of Conomor falls.

It is humorous that Conomor is called a "giant", when in fact he should have been called a "dragon", but "dragon" must have seemed absurd to the storyteller. All Celtic rulers, who distinguished themselves in battle, were called dragons, thus Arthur, Ambrosius, and Uthur.

You will note that each one of the three saints have all met and conquered dragons or serpents and that the method of defeating them is to first fast and pray and then to wrap a stole or mantle around their necks to tame them and lead them away. The was actually an excommunication. You will note that as soon as Childebert gave Paul permission to depose Conomor, he defeats a dragon. (Later on, the writers of the lives of other saints made up stories of defeating dragons, but they thought it was a reference to St. Michael and the dragon.)

The ridiculous story of replacing a head has been borrowed from the story of one of the most revered female saints in Wales: St. Winifred, who also lived after the time of Arthur. Thus this story of Conomor was clearly written or embellished after her fame was known. When St. Winifred refused to submit to Caradog who desired her, he beheaded her, but St. Bueno quickly restored her head. This ridiculous story, often repeated by rational people even today, is a confusion between "head" and "maidenhead" (hymen). Since Beuno did not perform surgery, he probably signed the cross over her and in God's eyes she remained a virgin. This would be totally irrelevant to St Trephine who had just delivered her child. Therefore one must assume that her father reached her just in time to bind up her wounds.

Another image borrowed from Welsh folk history is "The Story of Branwen", the daughter of Lyr. She is married off to an Irish King by her brother Bran the King of Wales, but when she is mistreated, she tames a starling and sends message to her brother, who goes to war against Ireland. Bran means raven and the magic of her ring turns to the blackness of a (crow) raven to alert her. In this case it is falcon, who carries this ring as the message of her plight to her father.


Passages from "The History of the Franks" by Gregory of Tours (539-594), translated by Earnest Brehaut (1916)

History of the Franks, Gregory, Saint, Bishop of Tours (1916)

These excerpts show that Chonomor (Conomor) was a Count in Brittany during the reign of Childebert (511-558), King of the Franks in Paris. Clotilda, the wife of Clovis, who was instrumental in the conversion of Clovis to Christianity, died in 545 in Tours.

III-1.

Now on the death of king Clovis, his four sons, namely, Theodoric, Chlodomer, Childebert and Chlothar, received his kingdom and divided it among them in equal parts.

III-18.

While queen Clotilda was staying at Paris, Childebert saw ­ that his mother loved with especial affection the sons of Chlodomer, whom we have mentioned above, and being envious and fearful that they would have a share in the kingdom through the favor of the queen, he sent secretly to his brother king Clothar, saying: "Our mother keeps our brother's sons with her, and wishes them to be kings. You must come swiftly to Paris, where we will take counsel together and discuss what ought to be done about them, whether their hair shall be cut and they be treated like the rest of the common people, or whether we shall kill them and divide our brother's kingdom between ourselves equally." And Clothar was very glad at these words, and came to Paris. Now Childebert had spread the report among the people that the kings were meeting for the purpose of raising the little ones to the throne. And when they met, they sent to the queen, who was then dwelling in the city, saying: "Send the little ones to us, that they may be raised to the throne." And she rejoiced, not knowing their treachery, and giving the boys food and drink, she sent them saying: " I shall not think that I have lost my son, if I see you occupy his place in the kingdom." And they went, and were seized at once, and were separated from their servants and tutors, and they were guarded separately, in one place the servants, in another these little ones. Then Childebert and Clothar sent Arcadius, whom we have mentioned before, to the queen, with a pair of scissors and a naked sword. And coming he showed both to the queen, and said: "Most glorious queen, your sons, our masters, ask your decision as to what you think ought to be done with the boys, whether you give command for them to live with shorn hair, or for both to be put to death." She was terrified by the news and at the same time enraged, especially when she saw the naked sword and the scissors, and being overcome with bitterness, and not knowing in her grief what she was saying, she said imprudently: " It is better for me to see them dead rather than shorn, if they are not raised to the kingship." But he wondered little at her grief, and did not think what she would say later in less haste, but went swiftly, taking the news and saying: "Finish the task you have begun with the queen's favor; for she wishes your design to be accomplished." ...

When they were killed Clothar mounted his horse and went off, making a small matter of the killing of his nephews. Ánd Childebert retired to the outskirts of the city. And the queen placed their little bodies on a bier and followed them to the church of St. Peter with loud; singing and unbounded grief, and buried them side by side. One ; was ten years old, the other seven. But the third, Clodoald, they were unable to seize, since he was freed by the aid of brave men. . He gave up his earthly kingdom and passed to the Lord's service, and cutting his hair with his own hand he became a clerk, busied with good works, and as a priest passed from this life. The two kings divided equally between them the kingdom of Chlodomer. And queen Clotilda showed herself such that she was honored by all; she was always diligent in alms, able to endure the whole : night in watching, unstained in chastity and uprightness; with a generous and ready goodwill she bestowed estates on churches, monasteries, and holy places wherever she saw there was need, so that she was believed to serve God diligently, not as a queen but as his own handmaid, and neither her royal sons, nor worldly ambition, nor wealth, raised her up for destruction, but her humility exalted her to grace.

IV-1.

Queen Clotilda died in Tours and was buries in the Church of St. Martin in Tours next to her husband. Saint Guinivere is also buried there.

IV-4.

Chanao (Conan - See V-16, count of the Bretons, killed three of his brothers He wished to kill Macliavus (Malo) also, and seized him and kept him in prison loaded with chains. But he was freed from death by Felix, bishop of Nantes. After this he swore he would be faithful to his brother, but from some reason or other he became inclined to break his oath. Chanao was aware of this and began to attack him again and when Macliavus saw that he could not escape, he fled to another count of that district, Chonomor by name. When Chonomor learned that Macliavus' pursuers were near at hand, he hid him in a box underground and heaped a mound over it in the regular way leaving a small airhole so that he could breathe And when his pursuers came, they said: " Behold here lies Macliavus dead and buried." On hearing this they were glad and drank on his tomb and reported to his brother that he was dead And his brother took the whole of his kingdom. For since Clovis's death the Bretons have always been under the dominion of the Franks and their rulers have been called counts, not kings. Macliavus rose from underground and went to the city of Vannes and there received the tonsure and was ordained bishop. But when Chanao died he left the priesthood, let his hair grow long, and took back not only his brother's kingdom but also the wife whom he had abandoned when he became a priest. However he was excommunicated by the bishops. What his violent end was I shall describe later.

IV-20.

King Childebert fell ill and after being bedridden for a long time died at Paris. He was buried in the church of the blessed Vincent which he had built. King Clothar took his kingdom and treasures and sent into exile Ulthrogotha and her two daughters. Chramn (nephew of Childebert) presented himself before his father (Clothar), but later he proved disloyal. And when he saw he could not escape punishment he fled to Brittany and there with his wife and daughters lived in concealment with Chanao count of the Bretons ... Now king Clothar was furious with Chramn and marched with army into Brittany against him. Chramn was no afraid afraid to come out against his father. And when both armies were gathered and encamped on the same plain and Chramn with the Bretons had marshaled his line against his father, night fell and they refrained from fighting. During the night Chanao, count of the Bretons, said to Chramn: "I think it wrong for you to fight against your father; allow me tonight to rush upon him and destroy him with all his army." But Chramn would not allow this to be done, being held back I think by the power of God. When morning came they set their armies in motion and hastened to the conflict. And king Clothar was marching like a new David to fight against Absalom his son crying aloud and saying: "Look down Lord, from heaven and judge my cause since I suffer wicked outrage from my son; look down, Lord, and judge justly, and give that judgment that thou once gavest between Absalom and his father.' When they were fighting on equal terms the count of the Bretons fled and was slain. Then Chramn started in flight, having ships in readiness at the shore; but in his wish to take his wife and daughters he was overwhelmed by his father's soldiers and was captured and bound fast. This news was taken to king Clothar and he gave orders to burn Chramn with fire together with his wife and daughters. They were shut up in a hut belonging to a poor man and Chramn was stretched on a bench and strangled with a towel; and later the hut was burned over them and he perished with his wife and daughters.

V-16.

It is hard not to conjecture that this story is somehow related to that in IV-4 where Macliavus is sheltered by Conomor which is seemingly unlikely given his deceptive and evil reputation. Gregory of Tours would have been working from hearsay when it comes to the Bretons. Here in V-16, Macliavus, who one would have assumed gained his throne on the death of Chanao in IV-20, is now breaking an oath to protect the son of his rival should that rival die. You would think that Macliavus would understand how it feels to the son whom his father's rival wants to kill.
My attempt to unravel the jigsaw puzzle is to make this section V-16 here to be after IV-4 but still before Childebert's death. I conjecture that Macliavus in IV-4 is really Hoel (son of Budic and father of Judicael) who hid in the burial mound when Chanao (Conan) now equal to the real Conomor tries to kill him, and then escapes to Britain. Then later by the intercession of Samson with Childebert, Judicael gets permission to take his father's kingdom back, thus in V-16 here, he would have the part Theodoric and Macliavus the part of Conomor.

Here's what happened in Brittany. Macliavus and Budic, Counts of Brittany had mutually sworn that the one who would defend survive the son of another as his own. Budic died leaving a son named Theodoric, Macliavus, forgetting his oath, drove him from his country and took away the states of his father. He remained long in exile as a fugitive, but at last, however. God took pity on him. Macliavus gathered a band of Bretons, attacked Macliavus and killed him and his son Jacob and returned possession of this part of the country that had been possessed by his father. Waroch son of Macliavus kept the other.


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