Elizabeth Castle - the coming of Christianity

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Elizabeth Castle -
the coming of Christianity

535 AD to 560 AD


The Hermitage

This article is taken from a booklet written by Norman Rybot in 1934 covering various aspects of the history of Elizabeth Castle

The complete occupation of Gaul by the Romans had been established barely two centuries when the sea-power of various Germanic peoples from the east and south coasts of the North Sea began to make itself felt in the Channel. Powerful on land as the forces of the Roman Empire were, they failed to control the northern seas. As early as 287 AD Saxon and Frank sea rovers ravaged the coasts of Belgium and Armorica.

Increasing raids

With the passing of years the activities of the raiders increased. The shores of Roman Britain were assailed. Raids for booty were succeeded by invasions for settlement and conquest. In spite of their lack of organisation and cohesion, these northerners were destined to smash into irreparable ruin the unwieldly edifice built up by the southerners and to plunge most of the then known world into anarchy and barbarism. By the fifth century a colony of Saxons had long been established in Bayeux and other places in the midst of the Romanised Gauls; while in Britain, Angles, Saxons and Jutes began to overrun the southeastern and southern coastal districts.

Contemporary with the earlier raids, another invasion ot a totally different character had been insinuating itself into Gaul and Britain. Rome, while losing her temporal empire, was unknowingly establishing a spiritual one.

At the very moment when Saxons and Angles were brutally pursuing their policy of blood and iron, converts to a new faith were patiently proclaiming a message of peace and goodwill to their fellow men. The new religion, founded by a humble carpenter from an obscure village of a remote Levantine province had, in the slow course of three centuries, spread north-westwards through the Roman Empire.

In an easterly direction it had little or no success, for among the teeming populations of southern and eastern Asia at least two great religions and a social philosophy had long since obtained dominion. In the diametrically opposite direction, belief in the old Greco-Roman gods and their local equivalents was in the wane, and Christianity steadily gained followers among the various Romanized Celts of Gaul and Britain.

Scarcely, however, had the new faith established itself in Britain, when the triumphant forces of barbarism ruthlessly assailed it and drove back its surviving Celtic adherents into the fastnesses of Cornwall, Wales and Ireland.

The Franks, whose victorious advance through northern Gaul carried them to the borders of Armorica, seem to have been of milder mood than their fierce cousins across the Channel, for they maintained the civic government implanted by the Romans and viewed with no special disfavour the activities of Christian devotees.

Haven for Christians

Hence, British Christians fleeing from the wrath of the Saxons found many a haven of rest and refuge along the rugged shores of Armorica. The man who was chiefly instrumental in bringing Christianity to Jersey was a Saxon from Bayeux named Marculf. Born about 483, he began his career as missionary in 511, after being ordained priest by the Bishop of Coutances. With the permission of Childebert, King of the Franks, he established a religious settlement at Nanteuil on the east coast of the peninsula of the Cotentin. His learning and lovable personality attracted numbers of converts, with one of whom we are specially concerned. This was Helier, destined to be the patron saint of Jersey.

After baptizing Helier, Marculf selected Jersey's a suitable place for a self-centred recluse to dwell in, and sent him there in the charge of an attendant or keeper named Romard, The two embarked at a little port in the Bay of St Michael somewhere about 540 AD and sailed over to Jersey.

Though the island was said to have then been inhabited by but 30 families, it was too crowded for Helier, who therefore installed himself on what is now known as the Hermitage Rock. Here was an ideal domicile for such a man, and here Romard left him. On hearing Romard's report, Marculf decided that the islet would be an admirable site on which to plant a centre of propaganda or monastic colony, so hither, after a few years, he journeyed with Romard.

By this time poor Helier had reduced his vile body to such extreme emaciation and misery that Marculf wept on beholding him.

Soon after this painful meeting, a fleet of sea-rovers hove in sight. The "thirty families" of Jersey, inspired by the energetic Marculf, beat off the leading invaders and the remainder, overwhelmed by the fierce uprising of a sudden storm, perished in the Bay. Two polychrome glass beads of the VIth century were found at low tide near the Islet. The faithful are invited to recognise in these objects tangible proofs of St Marculf's victory over the rovers and true relics of the first recorded invasion of Jersey.

Helier's death

Having satisfied himself that the Islet would serve his purpose, Marculf returned with Romard to his headquarters to consider ways and means. Then, with his plans matured, he sailed over once more to Jersey. Sad news awaited him. In his absence more rovers had arrived. A companion, leaving the completely enfeebled Helier hiding in a fissure in the rock, had hastened ashore to join the islanders and had thus escaped with his life.

The Saint was less fortunate. Attracted by the cries of scared sea birds, the raiders are said to have discovered the wretched recluse cowering in the cranny and to have murdered him there, but the statement that the companion discovered the decapitated body on the Islet, seems to imply that the Saint also had attempted to escape.

Though geologists have another explanation for the ruddy tint of the Hermitage rock, pious pilgrims for many a succeeding century ascribed it to the blood which was so cruelly shed when Helier gained a martyr's crown.

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