1847 guide - Elizabeth Castle

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This is the third chapter of the section giving a contemporary view of St Helier in The Picturesque and Historical Guide to the Island of Jersey, by the Rev Edward Durell, with lithographs by Philip Ouless, who also published the book in 1847.

  • Extent of the castle
  • General description
  • Charles II
  • Lord Clarendon's history
  • The armoury
  • Abbey
  • Alien priories
  • Destruction

The next morning, as the weather continued to be fine, our travellers left their lodgings to visit Elizabeth Castle, the Hermitage, and Fort Regent. The road to the two former places lies over a wide ridge of shingle, which has been formed by the opposing tides, and is called the Bridge. It is about a quarter of a mile long and leaves the communication open from the Castle to the mainland at half-tide, twice in 24 hours. It is a place that ranks high in the military annals of Jersey, and is still of much importance from its having the command of the bay, and because no invader, could approach the harbour and town of St Helier without having first passed within the range of its guns.

The castle in the 1840s

Ancient site

The site of the Castle is of high antiquity, and is further remarkable for the various mutations it has experienced, about which we shall give a few particulars in their proper places.

Mount Orgueil Castle at the east end of the island had been for ages deemed impregnable, and indeed it was so, while the art of attacking fortified places was yet in its infancy; but as it is commanded by a lofty hill, which nearly joins it, it soon became evident that it could not be defended against a regular battering train. At length it was surveyed by some professional engineers during the reign of Elizabeth, who made a report to her of its utter uselessness as a place of defence. This happened in 1586, and from that date Mount Orgueil Castle was suffered to decay, till it has become little more than a gigantic pile of ruins, which is still deeply interesting by the recollections of its fallen greatness, and of the hostile bands who were so often repulsed from its walls.

In consequence of that survey it was then necessary to look out for some more efficient means of defence, by the construction of another castle which might be sufficiently strong to arrest the progress of an invader. The small and then deserted island of the Priory of St Helier in St Aubin's Bay was soon selected for that purpose, and measures taken by the Queen's orders to carry it into effect. The building of the new castle was soon commenced, and very properly received the name of its Royal foundress. But as it was built progressively and in detached parts, and though it stood an obstinate siege in 1651, it was not completely finished till the reign of Charles II, in 1670. During all these progressive changes the ruins of the Abbey of St Helier have so totally vanished that not the slightest vestige of them has descended to our times.

The principal entrance into this castle is at the north end. The enclosure is a large one, as the walls surround the whole of the small island, which is about a mile in circumference. It would be superfluous to give any detailed description of the several batteries, or of the various spots which have been particularly fortified to prevent the approach of an enemy. That might indeed claim the attention of the professional engineer, but could afford no entertainment to the general reader. The main guard stands on a rock, which rises singly within the castle, and though it is not very elevated, it commands a view of the whole of the place, and of the adjoining sea.

The castle drawn by Ouless in 1852

Like an English town

The castle has several barracks, stores, and other necessary buildings, but as these have the appearance of private houses, it might be easily mistaken for a small English town. In time of peace a very small garrison is thought sufficient for its protection. The interest of the place is diminished, from the spot being unknown which Charles II and his brother James inhabited during their temporary residence within the fortress. It is probable, however, that it was in one of those houses which were since pulled down to make room for the present barracks. The spot also where Clarendon wrote his history cannot now be recognised, but could it be found, it would be more hallowed in the recollections of posterity, than because the exiled monarch had once resided there.

Charles found indeed an asylum in Jersey in his distress, and he became in better times the benefactor of its loyal population. It is not therefore surprising if his name has been cherished with enthusiasm by an ardent and grateful people. It is here that tradition has handed him to successive generations, as if he had been a hero, or a patriot king. The stains with which his character is tarnished in English history are unknown here, and though the memories of princes, after they have once departed from the scenes of human existence, become the property of history, and are treated with indifference, and even with acrimony, the gratitude of Jersey forms a pleasing exception in the case of Charles II.

The Castle consists of two wards, of which the upper one was built by Queen Elizabeth, and has received the name of that Princess; the lower ward is that of Charles I, and was erected in the early part of his reign, and Charles Fort was added by Sir George Carteret during the Civil Wars. The Green, as it is now called, was taken into the inclosure some years after the Restoration, in 1670, and completed the walling-in of the whole of the island of St Helier. It is not a regular fortification in the strict sense of the word, as the walls which form the inclosure have been obliged to follow the curves and the projections of the ground, to prevent the possibility of an enemy being ever able to form a lodgment near the walls.

The nearest land from which the walls could be attacked was on the Town Hill at the distance of almost a mile, where batteries might be erected. But even if a practicable breach should be effected,the assailants could not attempt it but at half-tide, after a march of nearly a mile over the wet sands, and having been exposed to the fire of the castle. If, however, they should find a protracted resistance, they would be forced in a few hours to retreat, or else they would be overwhelmed by the return of the tide. Thus far one might imagine that the Castle was impregnable, which is not the fact, for it is so completely commanded by the Town Hill and Gallows' Hill that it could not be tenable against the fire of an enemy who had entrenched himself upon those hills.

1651 siege

The importance of the Town Hill was already felt during the siege in 1651, from the circumstance that the Parliamentarians had erected a battery upon it, from which they cannonaded the castle for some time, but without effect, perhaps owing to want of skill, and to the great distance, till at length a shell having fallen into the powder magazine, and burst there, it occasioned an irreparable damage, in which 40 persons of the garrison perished. It may therefore be presumed that if the castle should be again exposed to a siege, and had to struggle against a cannonade, it would in a very short time be compelled to surrender. It has been, therefore, to guard against such a perilous situation, that the Town Hill has been fortified, and that Fort Regent has been rendered the chief stronghold in the country.

An early 19th century view

The armoury is the only place in the castle which is worth attracting the notice of the visitor, on account of a fragment of that shell, which caused so much mischief during the siege, having been preserved there. As no journal of the siege has come down to us, it cannot be now ascertained on what day that fatal shell fell. The siege lasted from 23 October 1651, to 15 December following. The shell was a 13 inch one, and 2 inches thick, being the largest size which was then in use.

There is also another piece of curiosity kept in that armoury, a large pair of antiquated military boots, said to have belonged to Charles II. They are in good preservation, and exactly correspond with those still observable in paintings which relate to that period. But what an inconsistency in the human mind. The veneration paid by the Catholics to the relics of their Saints and holy men is treated with derision by the Protestants, and yet we go with a kind of loyal superstition to handle an old piece of leather, because it had once been worn by a king of very equivocal character, and whom many historians have represented to have been a profligate and a tyrant.

After having taken this hasty survey of Elizabeth Castle, it may not be uninteresting to give some account of the small island upon which it is built. There is a tradition that at some remote period it had formed a part of the main island, from which it had suffered a disruption by some violent convulsion of nature. The fact is extremely probable; but in the absence of any positive historical record, it cannot be satisfactorily established. Several other parts of the coast of Jersey as well as of the neighbouring continent discover frequent traces of the encroachments of the sea. The formation of the Bay of St Michael in Normandy, and the separation of the isle of Chausey from the mainland took place, according to the learned Abbe Manet, during a violent storm about the year 600 of the Christian era. If a conjecture could be safely hazarded, it would be that the small island in question, and as it now appers, was severed at that time from the coast of Jersey.

Swampy shore

If we admit that previous to that time the external line of coast ran from the southern point of the hill of St Helier to the present Hermitage, the walls of Elizabeth Castle, and St Aubin's Tower, the bay, which now is, would have then presented a large extent of a flat and swampy shore, which when once that coast barrier had been broken through, would freely receive the flowing in of the tides, till in a few years the country would assume the appearance, which it has since permanently retained.

The light superficial soil would soon be washed away by the waves, while successive storms would soon cover the bottom with sands, or blow clouds of it towards the shore, which would gradually accumulate into downs and hillocks, till they had formed a new coastline. It adds weight to this supposition that the water is shallow between the castle and the main island, and that a large extent of surface is still left uncovered by the tide. It is further observable that not far from Elizabeth Castle there are some beds of marle discoverable at low water, and that quite recently, when some workmen were examining the ground for laying the foundations of a wet dock, they came to a bed of peat, which led at once to the inference that this spot had been once a swamp.

In process of time this little island had assumed the name of the holy martyr Helier, and it had been further consecrated by its having been made the site of a celebrated abbey. When a grant from the then archbishop of Rouen united it to that of Cherbourg during the latter part of the reign of Henry II, the marsh and mill of St Helier are mentioned among its possessions. That does not, however, by any means lead to the inference that the islet still made a part of the main land.

Another 19th century view of the castle

The very ruins of the Abbey of St Helier have vanished, nor can its exact site, or even extent be now ascertained. It is not, however, probable that the whole of the ground had been built upon. The constant tradition is that subsequently to the martyrdom of Helier, and in better times, Guillaume de Hamon, a Norman noble founded this abbey, as a sort of expiation for the guilt, which his pagan ancestors had incurred in shedding the blood of that holy martyr. The date of that foundation is the year 1125, only 17 years before that of the Abbey of the Vow, at Cherbourg by the Empress Maud, in 1142.

Empress Maud

The former abbey, on account of the circumstances which had led to its foundation, was held in high veneration by the inhabitants, and continued to flourish for a short time in a separate and independent state, with regular Canons after the rule of St Austin, till an unexpected occurrence occasioned its decline. The Empress Maud, or Matilda, the daughter and heiress of Henry I, having been overtaken by a violent storm at sea during her wars with King Stephen, when on her return from England to Cherbourg, vowed in her distress that if it should please God to preserve her, she would sing a hymn in honour of the Virgin, and found an Abbey where she might land. It is said that the master of the vessel was the first to discover the shore, and that on seeing it, he ran up to her in the exultation of the moment calling out "Sing, Queen, here is the land", Chante Reyne, Vechy la terre.

The words were ominous. The Abbey of Cherbour, was named the Abbey of the Vow, the name of Chante Reyne, was given to a chapel, where the royal dame had landed, and the point of land which had been first seen by the pilot, has ever since retained the appellation of Vechy.

Matilda had a particular affection for her abbey, and spared no efforts to promote its prosperity and to increase its endowments. The Abbey of St Helier was then in a flourishing state, and in high repute for the sanctity of its inhabitants. She sent, therefore, for its Abbot Robert, to take charge of the newly founded Abbey of the Vow, and Algar, the then Bishop of Coutances, sent her, at her orders, a supply of Canons regular after the rule of St Augustine, for the supply of that establishment.

From that period of short-lived prosperity, the Abbey of St Helier began to decline. It is true that her son, Henry II, increased its revenues, by a donation of the mill and marsh of St Helier, but it was of little avail. The partiality for Cherbourg still prevailed, and that monarch was present at the consecration of the Abbey Church in 1182, the ceremony of which was performed during the vacancy of the See of Countances by Henry, Bishop of Bayeux, by the Bishop of Avrances, and by the Joceline Bishop of Bath and Wells.

It was at this time that Henry II united the Abbey of St Helier, to that of the Vow at Cherbourg, on the ground that the two had not revenues sufficiently large to exist in a separate state. This was done, as it was alleged, at the solicitation of the Archbishop of Rouen, or rather as the consequence of some intrigue to favor the Abbey of Cherbourg. The allegation tends, however, to establish that the Abbey of St Helier could not have been richly endowed, or been thought of much importance, as otherwise that union would not have taken place at the expense of the latter without some plausible pretence.

Cherbourg given precedence

It was, therefore, declared by a Royal Charter of Incorporation, that Cherbourg should in future be the chief seat of that monastic establishment, or in other words, that St Helier should yield the precedence to the Abbey of the Vow, of which it was to become a priory, and in reality be but a humble appendage. Its establishment was limited to five resident regular canons, subject to the regulations and the government of the Abbot of Cherbourg, who was further intrusted with the adminstration of all the revenues.

Such a grant was not only prejudicial to the Abbey, or rather Priory of St Helier, but it must have nearly annihilated it; and though it has often been ostentatiously described by the local historians of Jersey, it scarcely ought to have been referred to, unless it had been to prove that in Catholic times, Jersey had also its monastic establishments.

From that period nothing is known about the Priory of St Helier, except the probability that it lingered in obscurity among the great number of small establishments of the kind, which had then overspread the British dominions. The Alien Priories, or the ecclesiastical property of foreign abbots was granted by the Pope to Henry VI. That sort of property had for a long time been very insecure to the owners, so that the confiscation of it could not have occasioned them any very serious, or unexpected loss. Henry granted soon after with them the other sources of his Royal revenues in Jersey, to his uncle, the celebrated Duke of Bedford, on his being appointed Lord of the Norman Islands.

It is therefore evident that those revenues were vested in the Crown, but it is not altogether so plain whether those priories were, with the change of their patrons, entirely stripped of their means of support, and consigned to immediate ruin, or whether they were still allowed to retain some pecuniary allowance. The latter would seem to be the most likely supposition; but as no proofs of it can be adduced as far as the Island is concerned, it must be left as a matter of doubt whether the Priory of St Helier was deserted by its Canons under Henry VI, or a century later, when the Reformation was attended with the suppression of all those Religious Communities.

The other lands and rents which belonged to the foreign abbots, and which were not affected to the maintenance of any of the priories were involved in the Confiscation, which immediately accrued to the Crown on the suppression of those priories.

Ruins demolished

After it had been decided, in 1586, that the site of the priory should be that of the future Elizabeth Castle, the ruinous buildings of the former were rapidly demolished to make room for the exigencies of the latter. The old abbey church was, however, the only part which escaped the general destruction, and continued to serve as a place of worship for the garrison till the siege in 1651. Some vaults under it happened to be then used for a powder magazine. During the bombardment a shell, having fallen into it, and burst there, it did infinite mischief, and killed about 40 of the garrison by the explosion. The venerable church was utterly ruined, and with its demolition has disappeared the very last vestige of the so long famed Priory of St Helier.

It is singular that the ruins of the Abbey of the Vow and of its adjunct, the Priory of St Helier, have met with the same fate. The former has disappeared to make room for the Naval Improvements at Cherbourg, and the former has not the least remnant of itself left in the fortifications of Elizabeth Castle. What a melancholy reflection on the instability of all human affairs! How very justly did Juvenal express it:

Quandoquidem data sunt ipsis quoque fata sepulchris.
1847 Guide
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