Gervold and Grouville

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This article by Charles Stevens was first published in the 1973 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

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One of the earliest recorded events in the history of Jersey is that during the reign of Charlemagne the Island was visited by Geruald, later known as St Gervold, when he was Abbot of Fontenelle near Rouen. But it was not until lately that we were able to study the manuscript which gives this information. For this our thanks are due to the erudite Dom Jean Laporte of Fontenelle Abbey (St Wandrille, Caudebec-en-Caux), who has kindly sent us a great deal of the material upon which this essay is based. The manuscript was beautifully written, in about the year 930, in straightforward Latin, and it tells a story which was probably first committed to writing in about 870, not long after St Gervold's visit. It contains points of remarkable interest to Jersey historians, especially in its opening sentences, which read as follows:

"DE GERALDO ABBATE PERICLITANTE IN MARl, SED SANCTI PATRIS SUFFRAGIO REPENTE EREPTO. ALIUD QUOQUE QUOD IN GERALDO huius coenobii patre gestum est, narretur miraculum. Is autem abba, iussu Karoli Augusti, quadam legatione fungebatur in insula cui nomen est Angia, quam Brittonum gens incolit, et est adiacens pago Constantino, cui tempore illo prefuit dux, vocabulo Anouuarith ".

This means:-

"OF THE ABBOT GERALD, IN PERIL ON THE SEA, BUT SUDDENLY SNATCHED THEREFROM BY THE AID OF THE HOLY FATHER (St Wandrille). ANOTHER MIRACLE, which was performed on Gerald, father of this Abbey (Fontenelle), must also be told. Now this abbot, by command of Charles Augustus (Charlemagne), was carrying out a certain mission in an island which is called Angia, inhabited by a race of Britons, and lies near the country of Constantine (Coutances), and at that time was under a chieftain named Anouuarith".

Poingdestre knew a slightly different version, based, it is thought, on a manuscript of Flemish origin now lost, which follows the above almost word for word, diverging only in spelling Geraldo as Gervaldo, Angia as Augia and Anouuarith as Amwarith.

The story continues, in translation:-

"Having satisfactorily carried out his work and achieved the objects which had been set him, a favourable wind blowing, he (Gervold) took to sea on his return journey; when suddenly a west wind began to blow most strongly, and a dreadful crashing of the sea arose, insomuch that the globes of the waves and the vast masses of water seemed higher than tall trees. And when all who were with him in the boat were in utter despair, and there was no hope of survival, and all men's faces were like masks of death, at length the venerable abbot, remembering that he had relics of st. Wandrille with him, clasped and kissed them devoutly; and his companions, and the men who sailed the boat, in tears with the most constant prayers, begged for Christ's mercy and the prayers of their holy patron (Wandrille); and made vows ... ,promising to fulfil them if by their aid they should be deemed worthy to be rescued from such a crisis. Whereupon ... an amazing calm was restored immediately, and the tempest of the sea dispersed. And with a happy voyage, all praising God together ... , they came to the haven where they would be.
"Thus God omnipotent, who once hearkened to the stricken Jonah in the belly of a whale, saved the venerable father (Gervold) with his companions through the intercession of his venerable confessor (Wandrille). Wherefore, all who were there at the time, and those to whom this story came, praised Christ the Son of God, who by the merits of his servant Wandrille performed such a miracle".


Having followed us thus far, the reader will expect answers to most of the following questions:

  • What date was this? Balleine thought 786, but it must have been rather later. Gervold was Abbot of Fontenelle from 788 till his death in 806. Charlemagne would have assumed the title Carolus Augustus when he was crowned Emperor in Rome in 800. Let us say Gervold came to Jersey between 802 and 804, and we shall not be far out.
  • What was Jersey called at that time? Angia, which is probably a slurring of Andium, the name by which it was known to the Roman Empire. Andium is perhaps the Latin form of a Celtic word meaning big, in which case it was a suitable name for the largest island in the group. The Poingdestre-Duchesne version gives Augia, but u's and n's are often as indistinguishable in manuscripts as they are in some of our own handwritings.
  • Who were its people? Britons, we are told, a name which includes the Celtic tribes of Wales and Cornwall, and of Brittany. British and Bretons, in fact.
  • And its government? Jersey was administered by a "Dux" named Anouuarith. It was not part of the Frankish realm but, as Poingdestre explains, Charlemagne maintained his influence in areas on his borders through local chieftains named Duces (dukes) or Comites (counts), and from time to time sent Legati (commissioners) to ensure that they were governing their people aright. In our manuscript, Anouuarith is a Dux, and Gervold's visit a Legatio, making it clear that Gervold came as a commissioner of Charlemagne to check up on the performance of our duke Anouuarith.
  • What is this strange name Anouuarith? Actually it is no stranger than Loyescon, another Breton name, or Boso, a Frankish one, both named elsewhere among the Dark Age rulers of Jersey. You can interchange u's and v's to make it Anovuarith or Anouvarith; or make the two u's into a w, and it becomes Anowarith. The o has been read as a d, to give Andwarith, which could be held to echo the name Andium. Poingdestre spelt it Amwarith. The second half, varith or warith, is probably from the Old Norse verb vartha (to hold, watch, protect), surviving in the English word 'ward'. The complete name, pronounced something like Anouvarith, seems to signify the protector of Anou, Andium or Jersey, and to be a title rather than a personal name, like Caesar or Pharoah; the predecessor, you might say, of the mediaeval title Gardien des Iles or Warden of the Isles.
  • What was Gervold's real name? Our manuscript says quite plainly "de Ger aldo" and "in Ger aldo" in two words, but there is a blur between them, where some busybody has erased a letter joining them, to modernise the name into Gerald. What was the missing letter? Probably 'o', for Poingdestre spells the name Geroald, Geroaldus. In his own day the saint probably answered to the name Geruvold, Latinised as Geruvoldus and later Geroaldus. The accepted form Gervold is a fair compromise, and our visitor would doubtless have looked up if you had uttered it in his presence. Gerald is a compound of two old Teutonic words, ger (a spear) and vald (to rule), and means a man who rules by the spear. The form Geruvold may have a similar origin.
  • Gervold is called a Saint. Then why cannot we find him in our Dictionary of Saints? In the early days, the award of sanctity was a local matter. A man's good deeds were recognised by the people among whom he did them, though his ecclesiastical superiors were unaware of them. Cornwall and Brittany are peppered with placenames recording holy men whose lives are not recorded in standard hagiologies. Thus, Gervold's godly life is recognised at Fontenelle, and in the diocese of Coutances, where he worked, but not outside them.
  • What else is known about Gervold? The answer is, a great deal, thanks to the Latin chronicles of Fontenelle, and to the diligence and scholarship of Dom Laporte and his colleagues in editing and explaining them. We now draw freely on this unique source of information.

Not a legend

Gervold was no mere legendary figure, but a man of flesh and blood, with human virtues and foibles which were recorded by men who remembered him. His father was Walcharius, his mother Walda. His date of birth is not mentioned, but he was an almost exact contemporary of Charlemagne the Great (742-814), King of the Franks, and Emperor from 800, and must have spent much time in his company. Entering the church, he was promoted to headquarters as chaplain to Queen Bertrada, who secured for him the bishopric of Evreux. In 787 Witlaic, Abbot of Fontenelle for the past 33 years, died, having nominated as his successor his relative Witbold. Witbold, however, was absent in Constantinople, trying to arrange a marriage between Charlemagne's daughter Rotrude and Constantine VI Porphyrogenitus, and was away so long that Charlemagne lost patience and appointed Gervold Abbot of Fontenelle, a post he held for l8 years (788-806). This was hardly promotion, but Gervold evidently realised that Fontenelle offered a surer avenue to political power than Evreux.

Charlemagne made full use of Gervold's talents, employing him as minister of finance, controller of customs and ambassador at large, relying upon him especially to maintain diplomatic relations between the Frankish kingdom and the British Isles. With headquarters at Etaples, the main port of call of Anglo-Saxon and Irish merchants, Gervold was responsible for the collection of tolls along much of the Channel coast.

In the course of this work he became a seasoned traveller, and a letter survives, believed to have been written by Gervold himself, in which he speaks of sending off his baggage animals, of eating by the path a meal he had brought with him, and of fishing from his boat as he crossed an estuary. He paid a number of visits to Offa, King of Mercia, and became a close friend of his. At the time the chronicles were written, the monks still had on their files letters from Offa in which he addresses Gervold as his "dear friend". When, in about 790, Charlemagne was planning to marry his son to Offa's daughter, Gervold was naturally chosen as match-maker.

Offa had no objection, but his provocative reply gave great offence to Charlemagne, who retaliated by ordering the closing of all his ports to British merchants. At the eleventh hour, Gervold interceded for Offa, and the order was never made. So experienced an envoy as Gervold was no doubt sent by Charlemagne to many other points across his borders. As we have seen, one of these was to Jersey, the story of which has accidentally survived because of the miracle with which it ends. He may well have visited other Channel Islands also.

Like other churchmen of his day, Gervold suffered from a handicap. He was not, the chronicler confesses, "too literate" (aliarum litterarum non nimium gnarus), and some of the monks of Fontenelle, as Pere Laporte puts it, could scarcely hold a pen. Finding that correspondence from this abbey was sub-standard, Charlemagne had ordered that the scribes should be better trained. Fortunately for Gervold, he had on his premises a hermit named Harduin, who had been to Rome and brought back with him a collection of manuscripts which included specimens of Roman uncials.

Teacher Harduin

Harduin spent his time transcribing the works of Augustine, Gregory, Bede and others, and in teaching his pupils the three R's, reading, writing and mathematics. He also made copies of the psalter and hymns as then sung in Italy, and the monks were taught to sing them by Gervold himself, who had had the advantage of a spell in the palace chapel, and what the chronicler calls a delightful singing voice (vocis excellentia ac suavitas). At his death in 811, Harduin bequeathed to Fontenelle no fewer than 58 scrolls of manuscript which he had written himself, including the Gospels, St Paul's Epistles, arithmetic, music, and the biographies of St Wandrille and others. Gervold had already enriched the abbey library with manuscripts he had acquired himself, including the Pentateuch and the Minor Prophets.

Gervold made important structural improvements to the abbey buildings. He roofed two churches with lead, some of which he seems to have obtained from his friend Fardulf, Abbot of St Denis. He restored the brothers' kitchen and infirmary, and installed central heating, after the manner of a Roman hypocaust, in their quarters. He added a sacristy to the church. But he failed to save church property from the depredations of the royal family and court, who seemed to feel at liberty to help themselves to anything which took their fancy.

In their presence, the chronicler ruefully admits, he never dared to say nay, lest he be deprived of his abbey. He did at one time obtain from Charlemagne an injunction that all church property wrongfully taken should be restored, but the chronicler reckons that in his day he surrendered more than even his predecessor had done, which was saying a good deal. He may also have had to pay conscience money to Witbold, whose place he had usurped. And no doubt Charlemagne's campaigns made inroads on the abbey funds. He stood, as churchmen always have, between two pressures, the Church and the State.

In June 806 Gervold fell ill at Pierrepont near Portbail in the Cotentin, where at the time Fontenelle had large estates, and died within the week, being buried in the church there. He was a wealthy man. He had already bequeathed to Fontenelle his gold and silver, which the chronicler lists in detail: crosses, cups, patens, censers and other sacramental vessels, including (unexpectedly) 3 pairs of earrings, possibly part of the normal apparel of some remote Frankish predecessor: and a large number of vestments, hangings and other fabrics. To this bequest he added, in his closing days, the lands he had acquired as Bishop of Evreux, at St Paer "on the river Ittone"; at Villarceaux, Francieres, Rumaucourt and elsewhere.

  • What was he sent to do in Jersey? The Latin words imply that his brief was to parley, and that he parleyed successfully. But although his business here was primarily diplomatic, churchmen of this period were also missionaries at heart, and he would have lost no opportunity to strengthen the Christian faith which had been established in the Island some two centuries previously.
  • Does any trace of Gervold's visit survive in Jersey? If it was brief, certainly not. If for months or years, possibly. We have a number of fields and areas named Fontenelle, but these mean no more than they declare, a little spring. Jerseymen would scarcely have named them after the remote abbey of a priest who happened to pay them a routine visit in 802-804. It is, however, rather striking that not very long after Gervold's time the island abandoned its traditional Roman name of Andium or Angia and adopted an entirely new name of quite different origin and similar to its present name Jersey.

Meaning of Jersey

Does the name Jersey in fact mean Gervold's island? It is common ground among writers on this subject that the termination -ey or -oy is the Norse for island. We are left with the first syllable, JERS, which could be interpreted in several ways:-

  • A slurring of "Gervold's"; "Gervold's isle".
  • "Gers", an old Frisian word meaning grass, mentioned by Balleine, "the grassy isle".
  • "Geirr's ", the Norwegian personal name Geirr, with the possessive suffix -s; "belonging to Geirr "; also mentioned by Balleine. It is understood that the G in this name is soft, equivalent to a J.
  • "Jarl's", Norse for "the Earl's"; "the Earl's island"; an interpretation which De Gruchy considered possible. A recent visitor from Norway, Lt Col Adeler, has submitted an interesting paper suggesting that Jersey, like its counterpart Jersoy in Norway, is derived from Jarl's oy. Our surest guide here will be the earliest form in which each name was written down. Jersoy (Norway) first appears as Jarlsoy c1200, and later as Jarsoy, Jaersse, to Jarssoy in 1440. Jersey (CI) is first written as Jersoi in 1025, followed by Giriacensis insula in 1053-66, Gersuz c1140, Gersui c1160, Gersoi c1170, Gerse 1172. It is noticeable that the 'l' in Jarlsoy appears in none of these CI forms, indicating perhaps that while Jersoy (Norway) means the Earl's island, Jersey (CI) means Geirr's island. The 's' in both is no doubt possessive.

Jerri, the Norman and Jersey French form of Jersey, discards this 's' and leaves us with Jerr, which seems to point to Geirr rather than to Gervold, gers or jarl, and until contrary evidence comes to hand we may take it that Jersey means "the island of Geirr", and that Geirr was a Norse invader who captured the island and ruled it in the Dark Ages. Such a man, whatever his name, might well have had the official title of jarl, as Col Adeler suggests, and his interpretation may in the long run turn out to be the right one.


  • Is that the end of the story? Not quite. Before we take leave of Gervold, it is worth examining the name Grouville. This first appears in documents known to us as Gerovilla in 1149-50 (and also unexpectedly in its modern form Grouville); in 1185-88 it is Grovilla or Grouvilla; in about 1200 it is Guerouvilla. Thereafter there is no vowel between the g and the r, and the name begins with Gro- or Grou- and ends with -vill, -villa or -ville. Thus we find Grovill in 1309; Grovilla in 1274, 1294-5, 1309, 1311, 1331; Groville in 1400, 1424; Grouvill in 1274; Grouvilla in 1255, 1274, 1291, 1315, 1331, 1435; and Grouville in 1315, 1318, 1400, 1424 (and 1149-50).

To get at the true origin of this name we can confine ourselves to the forms occurring before 1200. These are Gerovilla, Guerouvilla, Grouvilla, Grouville and Grovilla. De Gruchy adds that Geroldivilla, which sounds uncommonly like our abbot, sometimes occurs in continental Norman charters, but he does not quote his reference, and we have not yet met this form. But the forms we have would support a meaning of "the village of Gero, or Gerou". This is close to Geruvold, Geroald, the name to which St Gervold answered in his lifetime. Grouville may in fact mean Gervold's village, in the same way that Pierreville or Petrivilla meant the village of the monk Peter of St Clement.

If so, it seems possible that, after concluding his business with Anouuarith, Gervold spent some months in Jersey in establishing his "ville" near the east coast, in sight of his home port in the Cotentin, and in providing it with the basic requirements of a mission station; that is to say a simple oratory and a cottage for a priest to live in. Several units of this type existed in Jersey in the middle ages, and were given the rank of priory. With one exception they have all been located. The exception is the "Priory of Hillet on the fief of the Serans", which appears in Grouville parish in the Extente of 1274, and then vanishes without further mention.

The names Serans and Hillet are a puzzle. Serans seems to be the name of a family or group of people, but does not occur as a Jersey surname in mediaeval documents. Dom Laporte has considered the point, and comments that Serans is a pre-Celtic name of rivers, and that Serans is known in France as a distinguished family of Beauvais. Hillet is even more difficult, and in sources to which we have access the word is entirely unknown, except that, in the dialect of Couserans in the Pyrenees (a district named after the tribe Consoranni), Hillet occurs in vernacular hymns with the meaning of the Holy Babe.

It is not impossible that in the dim past a family from that area found its way to Jersey and brought this special cult with it. Old Jersey surnames show that our families were drawn from even further afield. Gallichan, for example, was the man from Galicia in north-west Spain. If Gervold did indeed find a Pyrenean cult in Grouville he would, as early missionaries so often did, have accepted it in the dedication of the priory he built at his "ville".

There is, of course, no trace of such a priory today. But in two 15th century documents concerning Grouville we find a clausum de Capella (chapel field) distinguished from a clausum de Monasterio (monastery or church field), and one of these two might be the lost priory. Again, in 1896, an ancienne maisonette, discovered near Grouville station and then destroyed, aroused the interest of La Société Jersiaise, as did the unearthing of ancient pottery nearby in 1907. It is conceivable that both these discoveries were vestiges of the Priory of Hillet, adopted by Gervold as part of his new township of Geroldiville near the east coast of Jersey in 802-804.

One must not, of course, stretch imagination too far, The cautious historian will be content to note that there was a ville of Gerold in Jersey three centuries after Gervold came here; at the same time remarking that Gerold was, and still is, quite a common name. But the Gervold-Grouville theory has the added advantage of solving an old problem which nobody has been able to answer. Why is Grouville, alone of the twelve parishes, not known by the name of the saint (in this case Martin) to whom its church is dedicated? Perhaps it has been all the time, without our realising it, the saint being Gervold, whose impact on that part of the island was such that his name survived on the mission station which he opened long before anyone thought of building Grouville Parish Church.

We are left with the storm at sea. This is almost a contemporary account, and seems as genuine as it is dramatic. Based perhaps at Grouville, and bound for France, Gervold waited for a westerly breeze, but as he stood out to sea it turned into a gale, and his fragile craft was unequal to the heavy water which bore down on it. Whoever coined the phrase undarum globi (globes of waves) to describe breakers turning full circle, must surely have been in the boat at the time. If this manuscript tells us nothing else, it underlines the difficulty of navigating light sailing craft from Gorey to Portbail or Dielette in a squall.

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