The parish of Belle-isle-en-Terre developed at the expense of those of Louargat and Plougonver. The town owes its current French name to its position at the meeting of the rivers Guic and Leguer. The name has nothing in common with its Breton name, “Benac’h” which seems to be made up of the Breton word, “ben” whose primary meaning is “foot” or “base”, followed by a variant of the Breton word “nah”. This latter word means “hill”. Thus Benac’h signifies “foothill”.
Local legend has it that Benac’h was originally located on high ground and that the town ended up at the bottom of a valley by an act of vengeance of Saint Ergat from whom a woman who lived in Belle-isle-en-Terre had stolen some bread. It’s possible that this saint’s name derived from that of Louargat.
Another version claims that the town of Belle-isle-en-Terre was originally located on the hill overlooking the Leguer. Saint Ergat’s vengeance, following the inhabitants of Belle-isle’s refusal to recognise him, was to induce a landslide dragging the town down to its present position.
Belle Isle’s beginnings date back to the 9th century, to the time when the town of Lexobie was destroyed by the northern barbarians. Lexobie was located in the same place as today’s village, Le Yaudet on the left bank of the mouth of the river Leguer.
It was at this period that a small group escaped the town’s destruction by following the river Leguer’s course upstream. They settled around the year 836 where the two rivers Leguer and Guic join. In those days, the name “Island” was given to any village situated at the junction of two rivers – hence the name Belle-Isle. Today there can no longer be any doubt that such is the case, in the light of recent archaeological excavations carried out when new building work was going on around the area known as the “mound”. The pebbles discovered in the subsoil would seem to prove beyond reasonable doubt that this “mound” was at one time, surrounded on all sides by water.
THE GALLO-ROMAN PERIOD
It is nevertheless somewhat surprising that the founding of the town should be attributed to this group of exiles. In reality, Belle-Isle’s origins could well date back much further. Mr DE LA KESSELIER notes that “the strategic position of a remote rocky hillock at the marshy junction of the rivers Guic and Leguer, could well have attracted the Amorican tribes”.
The commentaries of Caesar refer to it as a typical Gallic fortification. The Romans must have settled there, a fact borne out by the neighbouring settlement called “La Boissiere”. The box tree was brought to Gaul by the Romans. What’s more, the buxerale found in the Coat an Noz forest, is found in the exact spot where one of these Roman fortifications existed. If Roman soldiers did indeed settle in this area, it must have been the case that Belle-Isle already enjoyed a position of some importance.
THE MIDDLE AGES
The modern French name of Belle-Isle-en-Terre came from monks from Belle-Isle-en-Mer who founded a monastery around the 9th century at Loc Maria. Belle-Isle-en-Terre was therefore so called to distinguish it from Belle-Isle-en-Mer.
Count Eudon, brother of Duke Alain of Brittany who died in 1079, lived in the castle constructed on the feudal mound “ar vouden”. Presumably the castle already belonged to the Counts of Penthievre. Eudon inherited from his brother the huge earldom of Penthievre which included several fiefs such as Morlaix-Lanmeur, Treguier and Guingamp.
At the time of the Crusades, Yves du Largez, abbot of Daoulas and a native of Louargat, built Saint Catherine’s chapel and hospital for the benefit of pilgrims returning from the Holy Land, and to care for the sick travelling as pilgrims to St Jacques of Compostelle.
Belle-Isle’s coat of arms includes all these elements ;
- the colour red to signify it’s being part of the Penthievre earldom
- the Saint Jacques scallop in memory of the pilgrimage to St Jacques of Compostelle
- the crescent in memory of the Crusades
The seigneury of Belle-Isle formerly boasted privileged legal rights, a covered market, one open-air market and 6 fairs per annum. The seigneury also enjoyed the ownership of a communal oven, a mill and toll rights for crossing the bridge over the Leguer.
The lord claimed to be the founder of Saint Jacques church, Saint Catherine chapel and the hospital, the Chapelle du Bois and Loc Envel church.
This seigneury was ruled by the same lords as Beffou up to 1586 at which point Belle-Isle was transferred to Claude de Kerguzay, Lord of Guermorvan in Louargat. It was later transferred to the Goasbriand family, then to the Le Ray family ( in 1760 following the marriage of Marie Rosalie de Goesbriand to Joseph Le Ray), and then to the Suffren family (in 1785 as a result of the marriage of Joseph Jean Baptiste de Suffren to Louise Gabrielle de Goesbriand).