Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Why all the Ermine?

The ermine (Mustela erminea) a.k.a. stoat or short-tailed weasel is the national emblem of Brittany.Its much sought after white winter coat was used for the cloaks, crowns and caps of the aristocracy.
The eleven 'ermine spots' which form the pattern in the top left corner of the Breton flag represent the way the black-tipped tails were hung on the white fur. This heraldic ermine canton was a feature of the arms of the Dukes of Brittany. 
Breton flag with ermine canton

The story goes that Anne de Bretagne, the last independent Breton ruler and the wife of two successive French kings,  saw a group of hunters chasing after an ermine. When the ermine reached the edge of a muddy lake the ermine decided to stand up to his attackers rather than risk soiling his beautiful white fur. 
Anne, it appears, was so impressed that she saved the ermine and adopted it as the emblem of her dynasty along with the motto:
Plutôt la mort que la souillure.
It is better to die than to get dirty.

And I thought cats were supposed to be the closest to cleanliness!


  1. Ermine as a symbol of Brittany is much older than Duchess Anne. She was descended from Count Stephen of Treguier, youngest brother of Count Alan Rufus (1040-1093) who was always depicted with Ermine spots on his flag and coat of arms. The use of Ermine by European royalty can in each case be traced back to descents from Stephen. In England the main road from London to York was renamed Ermine Street in the middle ages: it ran through the Honour of Brittany.

  2. In fact, on the Bayeux Tapestry you can see a Breton ship and the Breton cavalry with white shields that have arrays of black spots. Alan’s shield has 12 spots, the same number as Duke William.