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Last of England's French Possessions


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It was the battle of Hastings that brought about the first union between the Channel Islands and the crown of England. In that epoch-making struggle the hardy islanders fought under the banners of their own over-lord Duke William - they were ranged with the victors, not with the vanquished. It is said that on one occasion Thackeray asked Sir John Millais (who was of Jersey parentage) when it was that England conquered Jersey. "Never," replied Sir John, "but in 1066 Jersey helped to conquer England!"

All this explains why the Channel Islands occupy a unique position in the British Empire. They were part of the Norman dukedom of William the Conqueror, and when he assumed the Crown of England he retained them, not as part of his newly conquered kingdom, but as part of his ancestral heritage. During the stormy reigns of his successors there were periods when the Norman Duchy was separated from the English Crown; at such times the Channel Islands went with the Duchy, as a matter of course, for they were naturally part and parcel of it. But they always came back again, sooner or later, to the English king as the lineal descendant of Duke William the great Conqueror.

As the centuries passed, England acquired more and more territory in France - by gift, by heritage or by conquest - Maine and Anjou, Gascony and Guienne, Aquitaine and Brittany, Ponthieu and Calais, lie de France and Champagne, Picardy and Orleans. But the tide of conquest turned at last; province after province broke away, and when Queen Mary lost her beloved Calais only the Channel Islands remained - the solitary remnant of England's once vast dominions in France.

Geographically and geologically the Channel Islands are fragments of France rather than of England. No stretch of imagination can possibly include them in the geographical group of "the British Isles." Only a dozen miles of shallow rock-strewn water lie between Jersey and the coast of Normandy, and Alderney is but six miles from Cap La Hague; whereas the broad stream of the English Channel separates them from Great Britain. The Islanders, too, are not Saxons, but chiefly descendants of William the Conqueror's Normans; and to this day their mother-tongue is a patois of the old Norman-French of the eleventh century - -very unlike pure French, but totally different from English. This patois (to be strictly correct we should use the plural, for Jersey, Guernsey and Sark have each developed a patois of their own) is the language of the home life; but pure French is the language of the Courts of Justice and of the island parliaments. To-day most of the children speak the patois at home, but use English and French at school, and they pass from one language to the other with perfect ease.

The story of these little islands is full of romance. The more important of the group have relics of the stone and bronze ages, some of them exceptionally fine and not unworthy to rank with some of those in Brittany - probably they were constructed by the same peoples, for in those remote ages the islands were part of the mainland. Half-hidden in the gorse and bracken that cover the granite headlands are cromlechs, dolmens, kist-vaens and menhirs that delight the archaeologist, but unfortunately a good many have been destroyed during the last century. We have positive proof that Alderney, at any rate, was known to the Romans, who called it Aurigny. Roman remains have been unearthed, and in one of the bays there is a small fort containing undoubted Roman material.

Christianity was introduced in the fifth and sixth centuries, and S. Sampson, S. Helerius and S. Magloire are still counted as the patron saints of Guernsey. Jersey and Sark respect ively. On a detached rock in St. Aubins Bay, Jersey (now joined by a breakwater to Castle Elizabeth), is a tiny monastic cell of early date said by tradition to be the dwelling of the holy Helerius, after whom the capital of the island of Jersey is called St. Heliers.

Under King John the islands were finally attached to the English Crown in spite of the separation from Normandy, and special privileges are said to have been granted to them - privileges that our first three Edwards confirmed. But the islands were too near France to enjoy unbroken peace.

Several times during the Hundred Years' War the French seized opportunities to attack them. Even while that stout old warrior Edward III was on the throne they attacked Guernsey and besieged Castle Cornet - in 1343 and again in 1372. In 1374, and again in 1404, they attacked Jersey. But none of these attacks led to permanent success. Then came the Wars of the Roses, and to further her cause Queen Margaret of Anjou offered to give the islands to the Seneschal of Normandy if he would render assistance to Henry VI. As a result of this agreement, the seneschal landed a force in Jersey and captured the grand old castle of Mont Orgueil - then the chief stronghold in the island. From its massive ramparts he dominated a small area around; but he was held in check by the valiant Sir Philip de Carteret.

After a struggle of half-a-dozen years the English vice-admiral arrived with a fleet and, co-operating with Sir Philip, recaptured the castle and cleared out the French invaders. In those days it must have been no light task to reduce such a fortress as Mont Orgueil - designed with admirable skill upon a towering rock, with the sea on three sides. Its mighty walls were too solid to breach and too high to scale. Fifteen years later Edward IV persuaded the Pope to issue a Bull of anathema against any who should dare to attack the islands.

Foiled in their attempts to gain a foothold on either of the larger islands, the French turned their attention to the rock-bound isle of Sark, that lies between the two, and in the days of Edward IV they succeeded in capturing it. For half-a-dozen years that island was held by four hundred French soldiers, who, to strengthen their position, built three forts, the remains of which are still to be seen.

Sir Walter Raleigh, in his famous "History of the World," tells a thrilling story of the way in which, in 1555, the island was recaptured by strategy and the French expelled. A Flemish sea captain, subject of Philip of Spain, Queen Mary's husband, anchored his vessel in the rocky water just off the frowning cliffs of Sark. Pretending that their skipper was dead, the Flemings begged of the French permission to bury him in the little church of S. Magloire. The request was granted on condition that the Flemings came ashore unarmed. The supposed funeral party landed with the bogus coffin full of weapons, and in the seclusion of the church they armed themselves and successfully attacked the French. Meanwhile a party of Frenchmen had gone out to the ship to claim the promised payment; but on reaching the vessel they were promptly made prisoners.

For a time the island was left uninhabited. Then Queen Elizabeth bestowed it upon Helier de Carteret as a reward for his family's services to the Crown. To colonise his new possession, the new seigneur took over forty Jersey families and settled them on the island, and to this day it is divided into forty indivisible farms. On several of the bold headlands of Sark there may still be seen old cannon, a few of which were presented by Elizabeth to the first seigneur, and there are several particularly fine specimens in the grounds of the Seigneurie.

The hostilities of some five centuries served to alienate the Channel Islanders from the French and unite them more and more in spirit with the people of England. In the sixteenth century, for example, the islanders readily responded to the influences of the Reformation. "The Book of Common Prayer" was translated into French for use in the Channel Islands, and during the persecution under Mary the islands provided martyrs to the Protestant cause. In 1568 they were separated from the French bishopric of Coutances in Normandy and united with the English see of Winchester.

But though they presented a common front in this fight for Protestantism, Jersey and Guernsey were sharply divided by the great struggle of the seventeenth century. Guernsey declared for the Parliament, but Jersey, under other members of the great de Carteret family, remained loyal to King Charles. The Parliamentarian faction made a desperate bid for power, but Sir Philip de Carteret held Castle Elizabeth, on a rocky islet in St. Aubins Bay, while his wife held Mont Orgueil. After the death of Sir Philip in 1643 his nephew George de Carteret took up the task and purged the island of the foe.

In 1646 the Prince of Wales (afterwards Charles II) on fleeing from England found a refuge in Jersey, and remained two months in Castle Elizabeth. Three years later, eighteen days after the execution of his royal father, the prince was there again with his brother James, and on being proclaimed king by de Carteret, he signed the declaration of his claim to the throne of England. But with the Battle of Worcester, in 1651, the Royalist cause was lost; and soon a Parliamentarian fleet, led by Admiral Blake himself, attacked Jersey from several sides, and Sir George was at last besieged in Castle Elizabeth. After an eight weeks' siege a shell exploded the powder magazine and did so much damage that the valiant de Carteret was compelled to yield, but on such terms as permitted him, as the result of his stubborn defence, to march out with the honours of war.

Meanwhile, very different conditions prevailed in Guernsey. The whole island was Parliamentarian from the first; but the Royalist Governor, Sir Peter Osborne, shut himself up in Castle Cornet, the only strong fortress in the island, and for several years managed to defend it for the king. On the surrender of Sir George de Carteret in Jersey, further resistance was seen to be useless, and Castle Cornet capitulated. It was the last place in the kingdom to submit to the king's enemies. But the Guernsey people had suffered so heavily during the long years of struggle that they appealed to the Lord Protector Cromwell for sympathy and help on the ground that on his behalf they had lost "their ships, their traffic, and their trading."

For a century and a quarter the islands had peace. Then war broke out between England and France. In 1779, while the Spaniards were blockading Gibraltar and the English fleet was busy in distant seas, the French made an unsuccessful attack on Jersey. Two years later they made another attempt and came within an ace of victory. The story of this invasion is the most romantic in the islands' history, and must be told in detail.

One dark January night in 1781 a French adventurer, known under the assumed name of Baron de Rullecourt, without any previous warning, landed a force of 1,200 men upon the great reef of rocks at the south-eastern corner of Jersey. The tide was out, and they landed nearly two miles from the high-water mark. To effect a. landing at such a dangerous place at midnight was no easy task, and some few lives were lost in the adventure. But it was the necessary prelude to the surprise attack. After a short rest the invaders marched on the unsuspecting capital. When they entered the town, a while before daybreak, the people were still asleep. The sentry was killed and the guard overpowered, and the governor, Major Moses Corbet, was captured in his bed and compelled to sign a formal surrender of the island. French troops were posted in the Royal Square with guns so placed as to sweep the narrow streets, and de Rullecourt occupied the court house in triumph. The fallen governor was made to sign an order to the garrison to remain in their barracks. To all appearance the surprise attack had been completely successful.

But there were factors upon which de Rullecourt had not counted. Fortunately the island garrison was quartered outside the town, and the commanders were men of great spirit and courage. The governor was a prisoner, they said, and his orders to surrender were therefore invalid. Captain Ailwards absolutely refused to surrender Castle Elizabeth. Major Francis Peirson, a dashing young officer, only twenty-four years of age, assembled as many of the regulars and militia as he could collect in the emergency, and marched on the town. Somewhat startled at this unexpected move, de Rullecourt sent out a flag of truce, declaring that resistance was useless and could only bring ruin upon the town; he summoned Peirson and his men to come to the court house and lay down their arms. With a flash of scorn and defiance, Peirson replied: "Yes, yes, Monsieur Frenchman, we will bring our arms to the court house, but with fixed bayonets." He would only grant half an hour to carry back this message to the invader, and then, with all the men he could muster, he swept through the town.

It was a desperate attack, for the French had the advantage of position and had barricaded themselves in the Royal Square. In the very first charge through a short street leading to the square the gallant Peirson fell, shot through the heart. His men wavered for a moment, and then, mad with anger, swept forward and flung themselves upon the enemy with irresistible fury. In "the general melee de Rullecourt and the unfortunate Corbet were shot on the steps of the court house. For a while the French fought stubbornly, but they were overpowered; 130 of them fell and 500 were taken prisoners.

The rise of Napoleon Bonaparte to power created not unnatural anxieties in the Channel Islands, and preparations were made to resist possible attack. Numerous martello towers were built - there were over forty around the coast of Jersey alone - and larger fortifications were erected at special points of vantage. The most important of these is Fort Regent, on the precipitous granite rock above the harbour and town of St. Heliers. It took thirteen years to build and was completed in 1815 - the year of Waterloo. Nearly two millions sterling were spent on making it as nearly impregnable as possible.

About the middle of the nineteenth century Lord Palmerston's Government resolved to fortify the small island of Alderney as a naval base for the fleet, a sort of set-off to the French base at Cherbourg, which is only twenty miles away. It was even called "the key to the Channel," and a huge breakwater, nearly a mile long and costing over a million of money, was built to provide safe anchorage for the British fleet. On a hill above this great harbour was constructed Fort Albert, with accommodation for 2,000 men. A dozen other forts, large and small, were erected round the island with a view to making Alderney the Gibraltar of the Channel. But the fear of France gave place to increasing friendship, and the development of modern methods of warfare rendered the forts of Alderney of little or no value; the somewhat wild schemes were abandoned and the forts (with the exception of Fort Albert) have been dismantled.

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Pictures for Last of England's French Possessions

HIGH ON ITS ROCKY PROMONTORY STANDS MONT ORGUEIL CASTLE, NORMAN STRONGHOLD THAT BECAME TUDOR FORTRESS
HIGH ON ITS ROCKY PROMONTORY STANDS MONT ORGUEIL CASTLE, NORMAN STRONGHOLD THAT BECAME TUDOR FORTRESS >>>>
THE SARK LIGHTHOUSE
THE SARK LIGHTHOUSE >>>>
THE CASTLE ON GROSNEZ POINT: A RUIN WITHOUT A RECORD
THE CASTLE ON GROSNEZ POINT: A RUIN WITHOUT A RECORD >>>>
THE SALLE DES ETATS AND THE ROYAL SQUARE AT ST. HELIERS, JERSEY
THE SALLE DES ETATS AND THE ROYAL SQUARE AT ST. HELIERS, JERSEY >>>>
FAMOUS GUERNSEY DOLMEN, AND A FORTRESS THAT LONG RESISTED CROMWELL'S SOLDIERS
FAMOUS GUERNSEY DOLMEN, AND A FORTRESS THAT LONG RESISTED CROMWELL'S SOLDIERS >>>>
ALDERNEY AS A FORTIFIED ISLAND: FORT ALBERT OVERLOOKING THE HARBOUR
ALDERNEY AS A FORTIFIED ISLAND: FORT ALBERT OVERLOOKING THE HARBOUR >>>>
SHARK PRISON, AND A SMALLER PREHISTORIC BURIAL PLACE
SHARK PRISON, AND A SMALLER PREHISTORIC BURIAL PLACE >>>>
THE CREUX HARBOUR, SARK AND ALDERNEY CATTLE
THE CREUX HARBOUR, SARK AND ALDERNEY CATTLE >>>>
THE SEIGNEURIE AND SEIGNEURS OF SARK
THE SEIGNEURIE AND SEIGNEURS OF SARK >>>>
THE AUTELETS OF SARK, GIANT ROCKS ON THE ISLAND'S WESTERN SEABOARD
THE AUTELETS OF SARK, GIANT ROCKS ON THE ISLAND'S WESTERN SEABOARD >>>>

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