The cultural landscape of Jersey and its Norman style farmhouses, the narrow winding lanes and small fields, the French street names and cuisine, all reflect a fascinating and complex history that has entwined the island in the fate of two great nations – Britain and France, for over a thousand years.
Even Jersey’s prehistoric period produced a rich legacy of artefacts. Remnants of a great French forest that existed over 10,000 years ago, when the island was part of the continent can still be seen today at St. Ouen when there is a low tide. Flints and crude stone tools were left by hunters in La Cotte a la Chevre (Goat’s cave) now perched 60 feet above the sea level on the north coast of St. Ouen and La Cotte de St. Brelade is one of the most important Palaeolithic sites in Europe. La Hougue Bie is another very impressive prehistoric burial chamber some thirty feet long, four feet high and roofed with flat, rectangular capstones. Made of earth, limpet shells and rubble it houses a Neolithic passage grave built about 3000 BC.
While Christianity likely came to the island in Roman times, it was Jersey’s own hermit and martyr, St. Helier who put Jersey on the Christian map in the sixth century. St. Helier lived and preached at a site just south of Elizabeth Castle and was probably murdered by Saxon pirates. Six hundred years after his death, the oratory, now known as the hermitage, was built on the rock to honour the saint.
While Jersey’s size and location had always made the island vulnerable to pirates of one kind or another, it was the Viking marauders from the north, or Normans as they were called, that were to have the greatest impact. All through the summer months of the ninth century Norman pirates would plunder the island during the summer months. The French King decided the only way to stop them was to bargain with their chief known as Rollo. So in exchange for peace, Rollo got the lands around Rouen later known as Normandy. Thus was forged an important link in Jersey’s connection with France for it was Rollo’s son William who, when he became Duke of Normandy, incorporated the Channel Islands into the duchy. Much of Jersey’s laws, landscape and customs date back to the period of Norman rule between 933 and 1204. It was the same William who conquered England at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and thus created the link with the English Crown.
Norman rule prevailed until 1204 when a descendant of William, King John decided to war with France and lost. In 1204, the Channel Islands were given a choice to pledge their allegiance to England or France. England won!
This pledge of allegiance came with a price over the centuries as England and France were often at war with each other. Not only was the island in danger because of its own proximity to the French mainland but also a first line of defence against a French invasion of England. So fortifications against the French can be seen all around the island. Mont Orgueil Castle was built by direct order of King John himself to guard the approaches to the island’s east coast; Elizabeth Castle named after the Tudor English Queen was built in the sixteenth century to defend the growing town of St.Helier and, later on in the 1770’s, the coastline was literally littered with a series of “Martello” towers designed to protect the island from Napoleon’s advances.
These defences were penetrated by the French on several occasions. In 1461 French troops seized Mont Orgueil Castle itself and from it ruled the island with great severity for 7 years. In 1781 a French expedition managed to land at La Rocque one January night and march right into St.Helier without a shot being fired against them. It was only the bravery of an English officer, Major Pierson, that prevented further French occupation.
The relationship between the British Island of Jersey and the American state of New Jersey can be traced back to the English Civil War. During that war, King Charles II twice took refuge in Jersey, first as Prince of Wales and then as exiled King of England. The Island’s loyalty was rewarded when King Charles gave Smith’s Island and some neighbouring islets off Virginia to Sir George Carteret with permission to settle. Sir George renamed them New Jersey. The original venture failed but a grant from the Duke of York in 1664 gave Sir George Carteret, Lord of the Manor of St Ouen joint ownership of the territory which is now known as New Jersey.
But if there was an occupation that was to leave the greatest mark on the Jersey landscape and etch a deep furrow in the Jersey psyche it was the German occupation that lasted between 1940 and 1945. Despite gallant and heroic acts of bravery shown in rescuing British troops at Dunkirk, Churchill determined that the Channel islands could not be defended and declared them demilitarised. Once again, Jersey islanders had to make a terrible decision whether to evacuate to England leaving homes and loved ones behind or stay and face a very uncertain future. In round figures some 10,000 did leave, many to join the armed forces, and some 40,000 stayed. The moving story of that occupation is most effectively told at the German Underground Hospital.
Under Hitler’s direct order an elaborate system of fortifications were built on both Jersey and Guernsey, the remains of which are very much in evidence today. These fortifications were built by slave labour from countries as widely dispersed as Spain, Russia, Poland and the Ukraine. They lived under the most appalling conditions and islanders who sheltered them, when they escaped, faced punishment as severe as that meted out to the prisoners themselves.
Today, Jersey is a thriving island. Whilst still retaining it’s unique charm, medieval buildings, leafy lanes and stunning beaches, it is also a bustling financial centre with modern, stylish architecture, clubs, restaurants, luxury hotels and a world class marina.
Text courtesy of Jersey Tourism