Defence of the Channel Islands 1627

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This article by J C Appleby was first published in the 1983 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

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A memorandum on the defence of the Channel Islands, 1627

The problem of defending distant islands against foreign aggression has often posed difficult questions for English governments both in the past and present. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the defence of the Channel Islands, "those little outlying fragments of the King's dominions" as they were described in 1635, raised similar questions to those later provoked by the acquisition of more far-distant islands, which were made more difficult by the long-standing antipathy between England and France, with whom "they are more nearly situated".

The islands, explained Philip Falle in 1685, "are to be considered as a frontier or advanced guard towards an enemy's country". Jersey, it was declared in 1543, was little more than "a rock in the sea, within sight of their enemies and far from succor"; while in 1627 Guernsey was said to be a "remote place wherunto there cannot be often any certeyne or safe passage".

During the Middle Ages, especially after the French monarch had annexed Normandy in 1204, so increasing the strategic significance of the islands as potential launching pads for English raids on the coast of France, both Jersey and Guernsey had been subject to French attacks of varying intensity and success. Occasionally, as in the case of Guernsey from 1338 to 1340, the islands were occupied by French forces. In 1483, however, the monarchs of England and France agreed that during war time the island of Guernsey was to be regarded as neutral territory; an agreement which was shortly after confirmed by a papal bull, and was soon extended to include Jersey."

In theory, at least, this should have settled the problem of defending the islands: here, Camden wrote of Guernsey, there "is as it were a perpetual truce; and the French and other nations in the height of war may go and come, and carryon their trade ... in perfect security". According to Jean Poingdestre, the islands were surrounded by a "Mare Pacificum" in which a "perpetuall peace" reigned, and "where there can be noe warre at all". Thus, even in the "greatest heat of the war about Rochel and the Isle of Rhe", during the 1620s, Falle claimed that "the hosiers of Paris and Rouen had free access to these islands, and carried off many bales of stockings." Seemingly secure behind their neutral status, the islands neglected their defences, relying instead on their "privileges from England, patents from France, and bulls from Rome" to preserve them from invasion.

Precarious neutrality

In practice, however, the neutral status of the islands rested on precarious foundations, and depended on the mutual advantages to be derived from it by England and France. During the 16th century there were growing fears within the islands of the possibility of a French invasion: "notwithstanding our neutrality", Samuel Bonamy later wrote in 1749," that faithless nation has attempted several times to invade us". As early as 1522 it was rumoured from Guernsey that the French vice-admiral intended to "demand tribute of them, or burn the island". By 1567 the islanders on Guernsey were "in vtter dispaire of their goodes and Lyves" at the possibility of war between England and France, as the French "have practised oflate dayes to ynvade these Isles". If they did, "there is no hope", advised the commissioners appointed to survey the defences of the island, "that these poore fysshermen with all their Ordenaunce and Munycion shalbe able to defende their lytill weake Isle against the force of the Frenche".

Little came of these threatened descents on the islands and for the rest of the century, as Dicey pointed out, "the French were too much distracted and embroiled in civil wars, to give any disturbance to their neighbours". The outbreak of the Anglo-French war during 1627, however, reawakened doubts about the position and status of the islands, especially as France threatened retaliatory action in response to the English expedition to the Ile de Rhe to support the Huguenots in La Rochelle. On 4 July 1627 Sir John Peyton, the governor of Jersey, informed Sir Edward Conway that "Our neighbours being much incensed against us", had "cutt of all trade with Us, which Wee in former Warres have still enjoyed according to our Priviledges|".

Seven weeks later, on 25 August 1627, Henry de Vic informed Conway that the islands were faced with the "danger of utter ruin" because of the "stoppage of their traffic with France in stockings". This was accompanied by more alarming news from Guernsey, suggesting that the French were making "great preparacions to take revenge, and make good the losse of the Island of Rhe, upon the Isles of Jersie and Guernsey and their dependances".

Propositions to King

It was against this background, within the context of continued uncertainty about the status of the islands, that Sir Philippe de Carteret, recently appointed bailiff of Jersey, presented a number of propositions to Charles I, "in the behalfe of the Island of Jersey", early in July 1627. As such, they were presumably the result of discussions in the island between the Governor, Jurats and Bailiff, concerning the problem of defending the islands against possible French attack; they were evidently not of Carteret's own making. Two copies of these propositions survive among the State Papers in the Public Record Office: one, dated July 1627, was probably that which was presented to the King; the other, undated, copy was for Sir Edward Conway. It is the former copy which is printed in full below.

The propositions stressed the greater danger facing the islands in the 1620s than in former times. This was linked to the rise of Richelieu who, it was claimed, because of his "hatred of the Religion" and his determination to achieve "some exploit worthy" of his recently acquired office of Admiral, intended "an attempt upon the Islands". While some of this, especially the alleged Jesuit hopes for a "Collony" in the islands, seemed rather fanciful, the possibility of some French action against the islands could not be lightly dismissed. As John Chamberlain, the fanner of Alderney, informed the Duke of Buckingham in March 1628, "our times give no hope to presume further than may be warranted with force and careful prevention".

In defending the islands two alternatives were open to the English government. The "safest" alternative was by "a strong and powerfull assistance from England"; but this would be costly and raise serious logistical problems, especially during the "winter season" when the supply of the proposed forces on the islands could be disrupted and made hazardous by the weather. The other alternative was to follow the "pollicy of former ages" and allow a "free entercourse of English and French Marchants in these Isles by way of traffique"; although it would not "bee safe to rely wholly upon it", it was claimed that this was the "more sure way of keeping the Islands from Invasion".

Powerful arguments were adduced to support this latter proposal. Retention of the islands' neutral status, and their accompanying privileges, would be profitable to the English crown both in economic and political terms. The customs "upon the export and import of Marchandize ... will", it was claimed, amount to a "good summe"; the main overseas markets of the West Country cloth industry, in Normandy and Brittanny, would be maintained; the islands would benefit "in the vent of their owne comodityes and gaine by the entercourse of Marchants"; and, finally, valuable "intelligence" could be "attayned thereby of the frenchmen repairing to the Isles".

Essentially, these arguments repeated those made by Sir Amyas Paulet, a former governor of Jersey, in 1587; indeed, the appreciation of the value of the Islands as centres for the acquisition of intelligence about the French is almost identical to Paulet's comments, and must have been derived from them. To these rather obvious points, however, the propositions of July 1627 contained a more subtle argument which revealed an astute appreciation of the ambiguous French attitude to the Channel Islands: for by allowing merchants from St Malo, Rouen, Caen and elsewhere to resort to Jersey and Guernsey "in tyme of warre", this gave them an interest in maintaining the privileges of the islands, even, it was suggested, against possible attack by their own government.

No doubt the power and influence of these merchants, especially at the French court, were exaggerated. Nevertheless several Norman gentlemen showed the potential value of this policy by giving "notice of the dainger to their friends in the Islands" in August 1627; moreover, as the propositions point out, despite attempts by the French King to prohibit trade with the islands, there were always some merchants who "for luker sake, and for the uttering of theire commodities will make meanes to trade thither, if ... they may bee free to goe and come". Consequently the islands seemed to face as much danger from the unruly depredations of English privateers, some of whom plundered and seized French vessels in the supposedly neutral waters about the islands. As a result of these depredations, "all accesse" with France "hath bin cut off'.

Following the presentation of these propositions to the King, the Privy Council was ordered by Secretary Conway to meet and discuss the matter, with Carteret in attendance." On 3 August 1627 he informed Conway that they "have ben approved by many of the lords but referred to further consideration".

There, however, the matter seems to have rested; the Council issued no formal recognition of the islands' neutrality, and with the ending of the Anglo-French conflict in April 1629 the issues raised in the propositions were no longer as pressing. These issues were not to be finally resolved until 1689, when William III abolished the neutral status of the islands.

The Memorandum

"It is humbly offered to the consideracion of his Matie: That the Islands of Jersey and Guernezey &c beeing parcells of the duchy of Normandy are the auncient Inheritance and Patrimony of the Kings of England, whose undoubted clayme and right to the whole Province is still continued by a possession of a part.28
"That in defence and preservacion of the said Islands his Mats honor is to bee highly valued, the Inhabitants auncient fidelity to the Crowne cherished and assisted; and Gods true Religion professed there by all possible meanes mainteyned.
"That those Islands stand in theise tymes exposed to more daunger then formerly is apparent, as for many weighty reasons; soe alsoe that the mallice and envy oftheire Enemyes is more deepely rooted then in ages past.
"That at this present it is given out by many men of worth and foresight among the French Nation, that the Cardinall of Richelieu in hatred of the Religion, and that hee may doe some exploit worthy his new office of Admiralty, his wings beeing too short to fly as farre as England, and his mediations too lowe to reach to soe high a pitch, intendeth an attempt upon the Islands.
"That the Jesuites will undoubtedly solicite and further the action, having of late years in tyme of peace sought to perswade the same, and in alllikleyhood wishing (if soe bee they could bring it to passe) to plant a Collony oftheire owne society in those parts.
"That it is probable that the attempt may bee suddaine, those of St. Mallos beeing ready to sett out fower strong shipps of good burthen, besides other shipps and Patashes; Souldiers beeing alsoe now leavying thereabouts and in Normandie neere unto the Islands, all the Townes villages and perticuler Gentlemen beeing rated to sett out a number of armed men in 24 howres warning upon greate penalties.
"Theise considered it is humbly referred to his Matie:
"That the meanes of defence and preservacion of those Isles (they beeing weake of themselves in respect of the puissance of Normandy or Brittany) is either by a strong and powrefull assistance from England, able to represse all attempts whatsoever or ells by a small strength joyned with the poll icy of former ages (viz') a free entercourse of English and French Marchants in those Isles by way of traffique.
"That a strong and powrefull assistance is the safest way of defence is most certaine, but in it theise things may bee thought considerable. That this strength consisting necessarily in some number of shipps, Mariners, and Land souldiers, as it drawes with it a greate charge upon his Matie, soe alsoe a continuall and constant charge; for that the Islands beeing soe neere unto France, and farre from England, it is needefull that those forces should bee continually residing in them, which cannott bee well effected in the winter season, theire Roades and harbours beeing unfitt and daungerous for shipps of burt hen , and yet that tyme of the yeare popitious enough for the French to assault them, seeing that in one faire day and fower or five howres saile they may come over.
"The other meanes of preserving the Islands; As it may not bee safe to rely wholly upon it: soe hath the wisdome of former ages conceaved and experience shewed it to bee the more sure way of keeping the Islands from Invasion.
1 In that the Commerce beeing there betwixt the two Nations by a continuall concourse of Marchants it doth interest the French with the interest of the Islands, for that upon any attempt they loose the hope of future benefite and theire goods and marchandizes remayning there are equally exposed to the violence of souldiers theire owne Countrimen, as those goods of the Inhabitants are.
2 Theire Persons and goods are there as Cautions of the fidelity of themselves and countrimen.
3 The Marchants resorting to the Islands in tyme of warre beeing the chiefest of the Townes of Roan, Caen, St Mallos, Reines, Mourlais, &c are both as beeing exceedingly wealthy and powrefull in the French Court able and willing noe doubt for theire owne benefite to breake any attempt should bee intended against the Islands; at least to afford their shipps in such an occasion soe slowely and to delay it soe long; as alsoe to give secrett advertisement either by word or by the withdraweing of themselves and theire goods as may easily bee prevented.
4 The Company of English Marchants resorting to the Islands must needes bee a greate strength to those places upon any occasion beeing bestowed to the keeping of the Castles without any charge to his Matie.
"The profitts arrising by this trade are theise.
"His Mats yearely customes upon the export and import of Marchandize which will amount to a good summe; the mainteynance ofCloathing in the west part of England consisting especially in serdges and kersies, which have noe other vent then in Normandie and Brittany. The furniture of the Realme in necessary comodityes as Dowlas Lockerams, Vittres, Alloms, Poldavis, and other British and Normandie Canvas; besides the inritching thereby of the Islands in the vent of theire owne comodityes and gaine by the entercourse of Marchants.
"To those may bee added the intelligence that is attayned thereby of the Frenchmen repairing to the Isles which although it may seeme to bee somewhat countervailed towards them by such intelligence as they learne from the English, yet with good order and poll icy the same may bee, and by experience hath bin more benefitiall to the English then to the French who have continually much more intelligence of our State by Flaunders from London then can bee had this way by any meanes.
"If it bee objected that the French King hath by his Edict prohibited all trade with his Mats subjects and consequently with the Flaunders. It is answered that notwithstanding the Edict the French Marchants, for luker sake, and for the uttering of theire commodities will make meanes to trade thither, if according to the priviledges of the Islands and former Presidents they may bee free to goe and come. And in this manner have those of St Mallos and other places resorted to the Islands, till now that by the English men of warre all accesse hath bin cutt off.
"All which in the behalf of the Island of Jersey is humbly offered to his Mats Royall wise dome and consideracion that his Princely pleasure beeing made knowne unto us in theise wee may apply ourselves thereunto; beeing ready to expose our Lives and goods in his Mats service."
"July 1627 Proposicions concerning trade betweene France & the Islands of Jersey and Guernesey."
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