Elizabeth Castle - Declaration of Rights

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THE DECLARATION OF RIGHTS, 1331. The first happens to be one of the most important political events in the history of the Cliannel Islands and produced what may justly be termed a Declaration of Rights. The men of Jersey and Guernsey, in making this Declaration, were well aware of the peril they incurred, for their action, judged by the standard of the times, amounted to rebellion, if not to high treason against the King's Majesty. The late E. T. Nicolle, Viscount of Jersey, in his book " The Town of St. Helier " gives such an admirable summary of the affair, that I cannot refrain from quoting it. " The Assize Rolls of the Justices Itinerant of the reigns of Edward I, II and III are documents of great importance in the study of the early history of Jersey. They give a graphic picture of the condition of the islanders and of the exactions to which they were subjected. The Kings of England took care that these Justices visited the Islands at more than regular intervals, ostensibly for the purpose of rendering justice to poor and rich alike; but in perusing their proceedings one cannot fail to be struck with the fact that the King's revenues and profits were never lost sight of, and the great number of amercements and fines inflicted on the most frivolous grounds, fines which found their way, of course, into the Royal Exchequer, leads one to the inevitable conclusion that there existed under the Plantagenet Kings a very intimate connection between judicature and finance. . . . Money was extorted on the most trivial of pretences. Fines were paid to procure grants and confirmation of liberties and franchises of markets, fairs, free warren, for exemption from tolls, pontage, etc., to obtain justice and right, to delay trials in civil cases, for licence to trade, for pardons for crimes committed, and even for the compounding of felonies. Everything and anything was turned into a source of Royal revenue and profit. So harassed and exasperated were the Islanders with these exactions and with the disregard paid by the Itinerant Justices to their privileges and franchises, that they formed themselves into an association and pledged themselves at the peril of their lives to defend their liberties and rights. It was in 1331, just previous to the advent of the Justices. . that a unique gathering of some of the most notable and influential men of the Islands met in the Priory of St. Helier.. In the Priory Church they took a solemn and unanimous oath to defend their rights. Faithful to their oath, they presented themselves in Guernsey at the bar of the Justices to the number of five hundred. They put forward their complaints and pleaded their cause with a strong sense of the righteousness of their claims." Nicolle here groups the claims under no less than 17 heads, and continues: " In presence of such claims and of such a show of independence we must not be surprised that the Justices were somewhat taken back, and looking with great disfavour upon the proceedings, demurred to the demands put forward. The petitioners evidently perceiving this, shouted in the Audience-hall " Yes, Yes, Yes "—" in contempt " say the Justices, "of the lord the King, to the terror of the people, and what was perhaps uppermost in their minds at the moment, to the danger of their lives." However, the Justices do not appear to have lost their presence of mind and the Viscount was ordered to arrest the ringleaders as rebels. They were tried, but acquitted by the jury and discharged. The Justices however did not accept this as final and declared in their judgment that the matter was one of their own competence." The rebels were cited again to appear before the Justices in Jersey, but only one complied and he was duly fined. The arrest of the defaulters was ordered, but with what effect is not known. The actual result of this determined stand on the part of the Islanders, apart from the personal loss it may have caused to some of them, lies in the fact that on the l8th of July, 1341, Edward confirmed to the Islanders their ancient customs and privileges. The chief pride of the Jerseyman is his constitutional freedom. Nevertheless he has forgotten that the Islet is his Runnymede.

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