A Brief History of Jersey

A Brief History of Jersey

Jersey History

As so often with small island nations, they are subjected to the whims and desires of other.  Bigger nations covet them as possessions and so small nations have to rely upon a friendly nation to provide their security and the stability needed for them to prosper.  Jersey is no exception. It has not remained a quiet backwater in European history.  Jersey’s position in the world today has been shaped by events within and beyond its control, and this produces an interesting and, in parts, dramatic history.

The earliest evidence of human activity in Jersey is about 250,000 years ago before Jersey became an island. Bands of nomadic hunters used the caves at La Cotte de St Brelade as a base for hunting mammoth and woolly rhinoceros.

When sea levels rose about 6,000 years ago, Jersey became an island. Even after this there is evidence of people living on the island during the Neolithic period and of trading links with Brittany and the south coast of England.

Roman and Early Middle Ages

There is very little evidence about the island during the Roman period or the early Middle Ages. Traditionally, it is believed that Saint Helier, who came from Tongeren in modern-day Belgium, brought Christianity to the island in the 6th century.

Origins of Island’s Name

The origin of the name Jersey is also not really known. It is thought that it may come from the Vikings in the 9th & 10th centuries when Norsemen founded Normandy. The “-ey” suffix in the name Jersey is common with other islands that were subjected to Viking activity like Guernsey, Alderney, Anglesey and Orkney. In old Norse this suffix referred to water or island.

The Normans

Jersey history really starts with the island being politically linked to Brittany. This was until 933 AD when William Longsword, Duke of Normandy added the Channel Islands to his domain.

In 1066, his descendent, Duke William II of Normandy defeated the English King, Harold at the Battle of Hastings to take the throne. However, he continued to rule his French possessions separately otherwise he would be, as a Duke, in breach of his sworn allegiance to the King of France.

The situation remained unchanged until 1204, when King Philip II of France (aka Philip Augustus) conquered the Duchy and took it from King John for himself.

But Pierre de Préaux, a Knight from Normandy in the service of the Plantagenets who was also Governor of the Channel Islands, decided to support King John and he ensured that the Channel Islands remained in the personal possession of the English king. The Islands’ situation, described as being “Peculiar of the Crown”, provides the foundation of Jersey’s modern-day self-governing constitution.

Despite King Philip II’s success in the wars against King John (1202 – 1214), he gave up his claim to the Channel Islands in the Treaty of Paris of 1259. His claim to the Channel Islands was based upon his position as feudal overlord of the Duke of Normandy.

King John of England who lost the Dutchy of Normandy’s lands in France but managed to retain the Channel Islands

The Feudal Age

After giving up his claim to the Duchy of Normandy, the King appointed a Warden (today called Lieutenant Governor) and a Bailiff to govern the island. The “Warden” was the King’s representative on the island, who at various times was called “Captain” and later became “Governor” of the island. His duties were primarily military with the power to represent the King and to appoint a Bailiff who was normally an islander.

Disputes were resolved locally or failing that, by appeal to the King who appointed Commissioners to handle the evidence and report back to him.
Like other Channel Islands, Jersey was never absorbed into the Kingdom of England. However the churches in Jersey remained under the control of the French Diocese of Coutances for a further 300 years.

Existing Norman customs and laws continued (with the King of England now head of the legal system) and there was no attempt to introduce English law. Instead the law was conducted through 12 Jurats, Constables (Connétable) and a Bailiff (Baillé) whose titles have different meanings and duties to those in England.

Mont Orgueil Castle was now built to act as a royal fortress and as a military base. The Island had had few defences and was open to suppression from just a small fleet as had demonstrated by a French exile called Eustace the Monk.

The Hundred Years War

This was, effectively, a series of conflicts waged from 1337 to 1453 by the Plantagenet Kings of England, against the House of Valois, rulers of France, over the succession of the French throne.

During the Hundred Years’ War, the island was attacked many times resulting in the formal creation of the Island Militia in 1337, which was compulsory for the next 600 years for all men of military age:

  • 1338: In March, a French army landed on Jersey, intent on capturing the island. Although the island was overrun, Mont Orgueil remained in English hands. The French remained until September, when they sailed off to conquer Guernsey, Alderney and Sark. The following year, the French returned with 8,000 men but again failed to take the castle and so, once again, left.

Bertrand du Guesclin, The Eagle of Brittany

  • 1373: In July 1373, Bertrand du Guesclin, nicknamed “The Eagle of Brittany”, a Breton knight and arguably France’s greatest military commander of the war who also served as Constable of France, overran Jersey and besieged Mont Orgueil. He succeeded in breaching the outer defences, forcing the garrison back into the keep. The garrison came to an agreement that they would surrender if not relieved by Michaelmas. With this agreement in place, du Guesclin sailed back to Brittany leaving a small force to carry on the siege. Fortunately for the defenders, an English relief fleet arrived in time.
  • 1406: On 7 October 1406, 1,000 French men at arms led by Pero Nino, a Castilian nobleman turned corsair, invaded Jersey, landing at St Aubin’s Bay and defeated the 3,000 defenders but failed to capture the island.
  • 1429: With England having captured most of northern France and the Burgundians much of southern France, on the 29th April Joan of Arc arrived at the besieged city of Orléans. She motivated the French troops to offensive action to relieve their city and thereafter she inspired France to evict the English from mainland France with the exception of Calais. Once again Jersey was now in the front line between England and France.

Indeed the French failed to capture Jersey during the Hundred Years’ War but, taking advantage of the split in England during the Wars of the Roses, they captured Mont Orgueil in the summer of 1461. Allegedly this was part of a secret deal between Margaret of Anjou and Pierre de Brézé to gain French support for the Lancastrian cause. The island was held by the French until 1468, when Yorkists and the local militia recaptured the castle.

Reformation and The Civil War

The Reformation and Henry VIII of England’s split with the Roman Catholic Church resulted in the islanders adopting the Protestant religion. In 1569 the churches were moved under the control of the now protestant Diocese of Winchester. Calvinism took hold on the Island leading to an austere way of life, strictly enforced laws, and severe punishment for wrong doers. However, education was improved.

Under Elizabeth I of England the military threat to the island increased. The use of gunpowder meant that fortifications had to be upgraded. So a new fortress was built to defend St Aubin’s Bay which was named Elizabeth Castle after the Queen by Sir Walter Raleigh when he was governor.

Sir Walter Raleigh

The island militia was reorganised on a parish basis and each parish had two cannon which were usually housed in the local church.

During this period, as a Crown Possession, Jersey managed to use its position to gain preferential trading terms particularly with the rest of the monarchy’s domain. One of the most favourable trade deals with England was in wool. This became so successful that the production of knitwear in the island reached such a scale that it threatened the island’s ability to produce its own food, so laws were passed to regulate the industry.

It is from this that the name Jersey became synonymous for a woolen knitted sweater. The islanders also became involved with the Newfoundland fisheries at this time. The boats left the island each February/March and would not return again until September/October. Through this, colonies were established in Newfoundland.

Civil War, Interregnum and Restoration

During the 1640s, England & Wales, Ireland and Scotland were embroiled in the War of the Three Kingdoms, also referred to as the English Civil War. The civil war also divided Jersey, and while the sympathy of islanders lay with Parliament, the de Carteret family held the island for the king.

The Prince of Wales, the future Charles II, visited the island in 1646 and again three years later after the trial and execution of his father, Charles I. In the Royal Square in St. Helier on 17 February 1649, Charles was publicly proclaimed king. However, two years later, Parliamentarian forces captured the island and seven weeks later Elizabeth Castle fell.

In recognition of the help George Carteret (Bailiff and Governor of Jersey) provided Charles II during his exile, he was granted land in the American colonies, which he promptly named New Jersey, now part of the United States of America.

Towards the end of the 17th century, Jersey strengthened its links with the Americas when many islanders emigrated to New England and north east Canada. The Jersey merchants built up a thriving business empire in the Newfoundland and Gaspé fisheries.

Sir George Carteret; Bailiff & Governor of Jersey; Supporter of the King; Founder of New Jersey Colony in America

18th century

The 18th Century was a period of British expansion. Conflict with European nations, especially France, was never far away. Round towers were built along the coasts to help protect the Island from French attack. Because of its position, Jersey was more or less on a continuous war footing.

By the 1720s, a discrepancy in coinage values between Jersey and France was threatening economic stability. The States of Jersey therefore decided to devalue the liard but this led to public riots on the island and the devaluation was cancelled.

A Chamber of Commerce was founded in 1768 which is the oldest in the Commonwealth and in 1771 the laws of Jersey were codified and from this time, the functions of the Royal Court and the States of Jersey were defined with sole legislative power vested in the States.

Methodism became strong by the end of the century, originally arriving through fishermen returning from Newfoundland. King George III maintained a policy of liberty of religion on the island. The first Methodist minister in Jersey was appointed in 1783, John Wesley preached in Jersey in August 1789 and the first Methodist church was erected in St. Ouen in 1809.

During the American Wars of Independence, two attempted invasions of the island were made. In 1779, the Prince of Orange William V was prevented from landing at St Ouen’s Bay. In 1781, a force led by Baron de Rullecourt captured St Helier in a daring dawn raid, but was defeated by a British army led by Major Francis Peirson at the Battle of Jersey.

The French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars which followed had the effect of changing the Island relationship with France for ever.

The Chamber of the States of Jersey – the Island’s Parliament

19th century

England during the late Middle Ages had adopted a written language of “English”. This was not taken up in Jersey. Here Norman-French continued to be used until the 19th-century. But English was being spoken by soldiers stationed on the island and there was a growing retired population from England who also spoke English. During the 1820s, English-speaking builders and labourers arrived from the mainland and with all these influences the island moved towards an English-speaking culture.

The livre tournois had been used as the legal currency for centuries. However, it was abolished during the French Revolutionary period. Although the coins were no longer minted, they remained the legal currency in Jersey until 1837, when dwindling supplies made trading difficult. As a result the pound sterling became legal tender and Jersey issued its first coins inder this currency in 1841.

Military roads constructed during the Napoleonic period to link coastal fortifications with St. Helier harbour provided much improved communications for farmers who were now able to get their crops swiftly to waiting ships. Making use of the island’s microclimate, produce from Jersey could now be dispatched via steamship and the French and British railways to the markets of London and Paris ahead of the competition. Jersey’s agriculture also became synonymous with quality; for example, Jersey Royal Potatoes and Jersey cattle which provide high quality dairy produce.

Jersey had become the fourth-biggest area in the British Isles for the building of wooden ships but this collapsed with the coming of steam and iron ships and it caused a Banking crash on the Island.

As the island’s population rose, St Helier expanded with many new streets and houses in the Georgian style. An extension was required to the harbour, and this was named Victoria Harbour.

Two railways, the Jersey Western Railway in 1870, and the Jersey Eastern Railway in 1874, were opened. The western railway ran from St Helier (Weighbridge) to La Corbière and the eastern railway from St Helier (Snow Hill) to Gorey Pier. The two railways were never connected.

Buses started running on the island in the 1920s, and the railways could not cope with the competition. The eastern railway closed in 1926 and the western railway in 1936 after a disastrous fire

20th century

The English language had been in general use during much of the 19th century but it was first permitted in debates in the States of Jersey in 1901, and the first legislation to be drawn up primarily in English was the Income Tax Law of 1928.

And with the rise in tourism, especially from Britain, becoming an important industry, English was universally adopted.

In 1914, the British garrison was withdrawn at the start of the war and the militia were mobilised. Jersey men served in the British and French armed forces. Numbers of German prisoners of war were interned in Jersey. The influenza epidemic of 1918 added to the toll of war.

In 1923, the British government asked Jersey to contribute an annual sum towards the costs of the Empire. The States of Jersey refused and offered instead a one-off contribution to war costs. After negotiations, Jersey’s one-off contribution was accepted.

The Jersey Militia who defended the Island during the First World War but were no match for the Germans in the Second World War

German Occupation 1940-1945

Following their withdrawal at Dunkirk the British also withdrew from the defence of Jersey. The British Government, lacking resources and believing the Channel Islands were of no strategic importance, demilitarised the islands and declared them ‘open’.

In response, the Germans first bombed Jersey and then on 30th June 1940 occupied the Island. German occupation lasted until 1945 with the Channel Islands being the only British soil occupied by German troops in World War II.

Indeed, the Channel Islands served no purpose to the Germans other than the propaganda value of having occupied British territory. But the Germans used Jersey as part of their Atlantic Wall with the occupying German forces and Organisation Todt constructed fortifications around the coast of Jersey like, for example, the observation tower at Battery Moltke and the alterations they made to Elizabeth Castle in St Helier harbour.

German troops of occupation march through St Helier

During the occupation about 8,000 islanders were evacuated; 1,200 islanders were deported to camps in Germany, and over 300 islanders sent to the concentration camps.

Following D-Day in June 1944, the occupying Germans found themselves cut off from German-held Europe as Allied forces advanced further into France from Normandy. As a consequence the islanders endured near-starvation during the winter of 1944-45 which was only avoided by the arrival of the Red Cross supply ship Vega in December 1944. Liberation came on the 9th May 1945 and Liberation Day is now marked each year as a public holiday.

Post-Liberation Growth

Since the Second World War, Jersey has developed one of the most thriving economies in the world. The growth in the finance industry on the island has been the catalyst, largely driven by international financial services and legal services, which accounted for 40.5% of the country’s earnings. Other sectors including construction, retail, agriculture, tourism and telecommunications which meant that by 2008 Jersey’s gross national income per capita was among the highest in the world.

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