A Brief Glimpse at the History of Jersey…
For this edition we thought we would share with you a brief glimpse at some of the historical and dramatic events that have shaped the destiny of Jersey and its people. It is they who met the challenges of our past and laid the foundations of our future. But first we must go back to the very dawn of Jersey’s creation. The granite rocks that make up the Channel Islands are unimaginably old; perhaps a thousand million years ago they were thrown up from the very depths of the earth’s core.
Mammoths and Rhinos
Prehistoric hunters lived in caves 250,000 years ago, they killed the woolly mammoths and rhinos for food by driving them off the cliffs. In those days Jersey was part of the same land mass as England and France until the sea level rose and Jersey became an island. Early settlers to Jersey included the Romans who named the island Caesarea. Then for nearly 500 years Jersey disappears from the history books as Europe entered a dark age of pagan and barbarian rule.
England or France?
The Vikings raided Jersey, murdered and took many of the inhabitants as slaves. Many of the vikings stayed and made the island their home, owing their allegiance to the Duke of Normandy they paid Norman taxes, spoke the language and obeyed Norman laws, many of which have survived until the present day. In return for land they were obliged to pay military service to the Duke and some sailed with William the Conqueror’s Norman army to invade England in 1066. In 1204 the landowners of Jersey decided that their loyalties lay with the English, not the French King and King John was forced to give Normandy back to France. Castles were built at Mont Orgueil and Grosnez to defend Jersey from French attacks. In 1438 the Pope declared the Channel Islands neutral to spare them further misery.
Early Trade and Industry
The dawn of the Elizabethan age created a lot of challenges and bought prosperity to many Jersey men. The governor, Sir Walter Raleigh, named Elizabeth Castle ‘Fort Isabella Bellisima’ as a tribute to his Queen. Merchant adventurers and explorers sailed out in search of fame and fortune; some went in search of cod off the grand banks of Newfoundland. A lucrative trade developed carrying stores to Newfoundland, dried fish to the Americas, sugar and spices to the Mediterranean and wind and fine goods back to England and the Channel Islands. This became known as the ‘cod triangle’.
Ship building and knitting became important industries on the island. Sailors needed warm clothing, to keep out the cold and wet, so the women folk knitted thick sweaters, or ‘jerseys’ as they became known, using wool from the local fourhorned sheep. Elizabeth the First wore Jersey Stockings and Mary Queen of Scots went to the scaffold wearing a light blue pair, decorated with silver.
Smugglers and Pirates
Jerseymen reaped another, more profitable harvest from the sea through smuggling and even piracy! Privateers committed acts of legalised piracy, they could attack French and other foreign ships in the name of the King. One Jerseyman, Sir George Carteret played his part in these events, he was appointed by King Charles to sell off captured ships in order to buy munitions for his army to fight Oliver Cromwell. He assembled an invasion force to recapture Jersey from the Roundheads. The Prince of Wales, and his entourage, escaped to Jersey and Sir George Carteret gave them refuge in Elizabeth Castle. It was during his stay that the news reached the Island that the King had been beheaded, so the people of Jersey were the first to proclaim the young prince ‘King Charles the Second’. The newly crowned King rewarded the peoples loyalty by presenting them with a silver gilt mace and lands in Virginia, America, which was renamed New Jersey. Cromwell’s forces recaptured Jersey in 1651.
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries Channel Island privateers kept attacking French shipping. In 1779 France and Spain plotted an invasion of Jersey and 22 Martello Towers were built to strengthen the Island’s defences. Soldiers of fortune also prepared to invade. One Baron de Rullecourt, set sail from Granville, France and navigated his tiny invasion force through the treacherous tides and reefs. It was midnight on January the 6th 1781, the local guard at La Rocque were celebrating Twelfth Night. Senior English officers garrisoned on Jersey were on Christmas leave in England because no one believed the French would attempt an invasion in the middle of winter.
The Battle of Jersey
De Rullecourts’ plans were succeeding. By daybreak he had led 600 men into St Helier. He surprised the Governor in his bed and pretended that he had landed 4,000 troops with 10,000 more on the way, the Governor surrendered. However Baron de Rullecourt had not anticipated the spirit of the Jersey people, one young English officer, Major Francis Peirson, took command, he rallied the Jersey militia and British soldiers declaring that he would rather die than surrender. Peirson led his men on foot into the Royal Square. The French were hopelessly outnumbered and within half an hour had surrendered. Both Peirson and de Rullecourt were fatally wounded. You can still see the bullet holes on the side of one of the buildings in the Royal Square. The Battle of Jersey was the last land battle to be fought in Britain. It wasn’t until the defeat of Napoleon in 1851 that the long struggle with France was over.
Queen Victoria, along with Prince Albert, were welcomed to Jersey on their State Visit in 1846 – the first monarch to visit the island in over 600 years. The visit only lasted three hours but the people made the most of every glorious second. On seeing St Aubin’s Bay the Queen said ‘I never saw a more beautiful deep blue sea. Quite like Naples.’ During Queen Victoria’s reign overseas travel became fashionable and steamships operated regular ferry services to popular destinations, including Jersey.
Lillie Langtry was the toast of London Society in the late 1870s, she was adored by aristocrats, poets, painters and royalty – all dazzled by her beauty. Lillie is buried in the graveyard of St Saviours Church, close to where she was born, grew up, was married and where her father preached. She was born Emilie Charlotte Le Breton. Aged 22 she married Edward Langtry and he took her to London. Edward Prince of Wales asked to meet her and they became lovers but it nearly ended in tears when Lillie put a spoonful of ice cream down his neck. He was not amused. Lillie Langtry went on to become a successful actress. She retired to Monaco where she died in 1929, but her heart remained in Jersey.
During the early 20th century tourism in the Island started to boom and aeroplanes landed on the beach in St Aubins Bay as everyone came to enjoy themselves. However the euphoria was not to last asonce again war threatened.
Unwelcome Visators and Liberation
Hitler wanted to show that he could occupy British territory, on June 18th 1940 the Island was demilitarised, on June 28th the Germans bombed the Island and on July 1st the ultimatum demanding surrender was sent and the first German troops started to arrive in the Island. The Bailiff lowered the Union Jack in surrender.
Anyone not born in Jersey was liable for deportation to internment camps in Germany. In 1942 there were 1186 English persons evacuated to Germany. Jersey was completely cut off. The Jersey people spoke the local patois so the Germans couldn’t understand them, food and medicine nearly ran out, the people nearly starved and the Germans suffered too with meagre rations. Towards the end of the Occupation there were very few cats and dogs left on the Island. On the 9th May 1945 Jersey was liberated by British Forces and people flocked to the Royal Square to hear Winston Churchill declare “…. and our dear Channel Islands are also to be freed today….”
Past to Present
After the liberation people soon picked up the pieces of everyday life. St Helier became the bustling capital and a financial centre of world importance. Tourism once again flourished. Beneath the apparent Englishness of Jersey lies a thousand years of Norman tradition. Some Jerseymen still speak the same Norman French dialect that William the Conqueror spoke almost a thousand years ago. Today’s government and legal system are still enshrined in charters granted by King John some 800 years ago.
The above information has been kindly supplied by ‘The Jersey Experience’, the award winning historical special effects show from Jersey’s Living Legend. For more information visit www.jerseylivinglegend.co.je