Jersey: Not quite British - King John's legacy

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Advantages of remoteness

In the long ages before travel became easy and communications rapid, the inhabitants of small island communities usually enjoyed a particular and peculiar sort of advantage. They were remote from the centres of oppressive authority, and central governments tended to leave them alone to run their own affairs. That kind of freedom was reinforced in Jersey's case by the first of many fortunate chances.

It came in 1066 when the Island, as part of the Duchy of Normandy, found itself on the winning side. In due course the victor at Hastings, Duke William, died; and in the years that followed his heirs, while retaining control over their ducal lands, made what was to become England their permanent home. Things went well until King John took to the throne. By 1204, in one way and another, he had lost pretty well all the overseas territories, including that part of the Duchy of Normandy which lay on the Continent.  

Decision time

This posed serious problems for those barons who held land in the Channel Islands. Up to that point they had continued to pay homage to the man they knew as the Duke of Normandy. But by this time the Duke had become the King of a new country called England, from which an equally new country, France, had quite suddenly become separated as a result of John's losses to Philip II. So now the barons had to decide; should they side with Philip and France (and so retain what other territories they held on the Continent) or risk all and remain loyal to John and England — and in doing so, hold on to what they held in the islands?

For obscure reasons, although no doubt with their thoughts fixed firmly on their own likely advantage, the more powerful overlords of the Channel Islands, now situated within sight of a potentially hostile Normandy, decided to stick with the English Crown, distant though it was. It was a decision which enabled King John, through the allegiance they offered, to confiscate those other areas of land in the Channel Islands held by other and less powerful men still resident in Normandy who had decided to join the opposite side. Not surprisingly, he awarded them to his supporters. In that way, of course, he rewarded those who had remained loyal while at the same time guaranteeing the undivided fidelity of the people of this distant part of his kingdom.

The decision of the overlords to side with King John represents the first of many examples of the good fortune from which Jersey has benefited over the centuries. For had the decision gone the other way, the people of Jersey would almost certainly now be French and inhabitants of an island of little significance tied to the rule of the French government.

Loyalty repaid

While it does historical accuracy no great credit, the foregoing is at least a simple outline of the facts. But then matters become a little less clear. What seems obvious is that King John, either on his own account or through his officials, had little choice but to repay the loyalty the Channel Islands had shown in some practical way. He did so (tradition says, although some historians disagree) by granting them a specific constitution which gave them certain privileges and rights, including that of governing their own internal affairs and of trading with England without having to pay English duties. It was a wise move. The one gave them a welcome degree of freedom, while the other provided a vital bond between these distant islands and the British mainland.

If there ever actually was a Channel Islands Magna Carta, it disappeared long ago. Quite likely there was something written on parchment, for in 1248, 31 years after KingJohn's death, a Royal Commission was appointed to inquire into the islands' constitution and legal system. In point of fact these may have existed long before King John's time — even before the Normans invaded England — through slow development rather than through any decisive act by him. However it was, the commission decided — or reaffirmed the decision — that the islands should be free from all English military service, taxes and imposts and confirmed the constitution as it existed in the time of King John, which presumably included that of managing their own internal affairs.

Since then, of course, things have changed. The centre of power has moved from the Crown (the monarch, however, remaining titular head of state) to the Houses of Parliament. Paradoxically, while the islands remain dependencies of the Crown, it is not the Crown but Parliament — where the Channel Islands have no elected representatives — which now has the ultimate authority to act on their behalf in matters relating to the British Isles as a whole, or to interfere unilaterally and directly in local affairs should that be thought necessary.

Commission of Inquiry

The most recent judgment on that always contentious issue was made following a Commission of Inquiry into the Constitution of Jersey in the 1970s. The Commission concluded that 'so long as the United Kingdom Government remains responsible for the internal relations of the islands and for their good government, it must have powers in the last resort to intervene in any island matter in the exercise of those responsibilities'. So far, although pressures may have been brought to bear from time to time, that has never happened.

The fact is that the islands' relationships with the United Kingdom government are convoluted and defy any logical and simple explanation. As they currently exist, they could no more be incorporated into a written constitution than could a long- standing gentleman's agreement. They are based on an understanding of history, a mutual respect and a continuing, although now largely academic, allegiance to the Crown.

What emerges is that, throughout the course of the past 700 years and more, the constitution granted (or confirmed) in King John's time has remained unaltered. Within the limits of common sense (which is perhaps the essence of the thing) the islands retain their ancient right to trade with the rest of Britain without payment of duties, to the right to govern their internal affairs, to raise taxes and to pass their own laws (but always with the prior consent of the sovereign given during formal meetings with his, or her, Privy Councillors).

Whether the Channel Islands will be able to maintain unchanged that unique freedom in face of those judgments by the European Court of Human Rights which are all-embracing, and of the decisions of the European Community which are extended to the islands, is another matter. Be that as it may, the point is that there is nothing like belonging to a small, sea-girt community which has enjoyed such a high degree of immunity from outside control for so long a time to ensure an inborn sense of pride in that belonging, and a personal desire for independence from others. If that is true of the people as a whole, it must surely tend to be just as true of the individuals in it.

Vital outpost

The point has already been made that in former times the people of most distant communities were more or less left to themselves. But so far as the Channel Islands were concerned that was not entirely the case. Since they lived in vital southern outpost fortresses facing France, Britain's almost continual enemy, not only did the inhabitants need to be kept loyal by giving them special privileges, but the islands themselves, together with their excellent harbour facilities, also had to be defended. Even today the British authorities retain the responsibility for matters relating to the defence of the islands. Indeed, until quite recently they were heavily guarded at all times by garrisons of British troops and local defensive forces — citizens' militias — in both the Jersey and Guernsey Bailiwicks that had been in existence even before the Norman Conquest.

However, apart from its strategic position and its invaluable attachment to the Crown, Jersey was for centuries not a place of any particular significance in civil terms. The native, left to administer his own affairs, was allowed to plod on is way without too much direct interference so long as he did not cause trouble. There was certainly no reason why anybody, apart from the local population, should choose to live in the Island. The British troops, for example, did so only because they had to.

What need was there among those powerful Englishmen involved in the affairs of state, but above all with their own advancement, to consider a few thousand ignorant peasants who spoke some unintelligible lingo and who lived days and an uncomfortable sea journey away from the core of government, a proximity to the decision makers and the givers of favours? Typically, many of those appointed Governor chose not to reside in Jersey. Having received the honour — at some cost in return for this favour — together with the income that went with it, they then went on to engage some lesser person to take their place as Lieut-Governor to be resident in the Island, paying them a proportion of what they themselves received from the British government.

Walter Raleigh

Sir Walter Raleigh was a case in point. As one of Jersey's Governors (these days the most famous but by no means the best) he spent only two months in the Island during his three years in office; an appointment terminated abruptly when he was arrested in England, confined in the Tower of London and finally executed. Possibly the permanent loss of his head in 1603 was a fate he might have avoided had he remained contentedly in office in Jersey instead of swashbuckling about in the Americas.

Apart from a Governor, or his appointee, and the senior officers of the British garrisons stationed in the Island, there was no special advantage for anybody hopeful of advancement in taking up anything but temporary residence in Jersey. Nor, of course, for those concerned with trade. There was little enough of that and certainly not more than could be handled by local men of commerce noted for their business acumen. Jersey was regarded as something of a dead end.

Huguenot refugees

There were exceptions to this general lack of immigration. Among those who arrived and settled were the Protestant refugees, the Huguenots. Many fled from the oppressions of a Roman Catholic France both in the 1570s and the 1680s to a nearby haven where French was spoken and which had been greatly influenced by the kind of French Calvinistic Protestantism whose beliefs were the cause of the Huguenots' persecution. It was, moreover, an uncompromising, unadorned kind of religion that seemed to suit the character of the Island people and which undoubtedly played a part in their enthusiastic adoption later of Methodism and perhaps even in making the Jerseyman the kind of person he came to be.

Indeed, one wonders for a moment whether, given all the facts and allowed a vote, the ordinary people ofJersey really would have agreed to play host to that rich, distinguished and flamboyant royal refugee, Charles II, and his wealthy entourage, favouring instead the sober simplicity of the Royalists' enemies, the Parliamentarian Roundheads.

Many of the Huguenots settled in Jersey permanently. Most were men and women of severe conscience and considerable intelligence. They brought with them money, a degree of education and, as often as not, valuable craftsmen's skills. Jersey profited from their presence just as much as did the Huguenots from the protection it provided.

Immigration and emigration

Generally speaking, though, right through the Middle Ages and into Tudor times — and perhaps well beyond — the sea, the language, the way of life and the fact that apart from its maritime trade Jersey was a place which had not much to offer but subsistence farming, all tended to be barriers to immigration. There was little cause for English people to move to the Island and every reason why the neighbouring French should not. There must have been exceptions. But in the main — and despite the Island's international trade — its rural inhabitants remained remote from intrusions of any kind.

If there was a reluctance among the English to move to this distant and uncoveted part of the British Isles, there must also have been just as much of a desire among some of the more alert, spirited and intelligent natives to get away. Very probably a proportion of the brighter young men left the land to go to sea or to seek their fortunes in distant places. Others, expecting only a minor inheritance from the family smallholding, also decided to emigrate. After all, until quite recently in Island history there were no fortunes to be made from the land, no chance of adventure or excitement. Instead — as many of those who had little hope of benefiting from a parent's wealth may well have thought — there was the kind of pettiness and malicious gossip endemic in all enclosed communities, a lifetime composed of a dull, repetitive round and the suffocating restraints that come with living close to families and relatives.

Inherited qualities

In the absence of sharp historical or statistical fact, it has to be a matter of opinion what effects the general absence of non-native blood, the slow haemorrhage from the Island of some of the more enterprising, self-reliant natives, and inter-marriage among Island families, had between them on the inherited qualities of such an enclosed community and on Island society in general, in the centuries before the influx of English residents and the arrival of the tourist trade.

There are those who will argue forcefully, and with good reason, that it had none. As proof they will point (as examples) to the continuing vitality of the Jerseyman through the ages, his ability to adapt easily to change and to profit from it, and to the many Island-born men and women who became famous, or wealthy, or both. Degeneration, they will say, is not necessarily a consequence of isolation. On the other hand there are those who will argue with equal vigour, and on the basis of modern genetics, that the result of close breeding between families, human or otherwise, will usually lead to the fixing of certain attributes — some of which may be valuable while others, although not harmful in themselves, may not always be beneficial.

So complex and controversial a subject is one best left to the expert to investigate; but not one to be ignored here entirely for that reason. For if the people of the Island — that is, those with Island-bred forebears — have certain jointly-shared characteristics, some part of them must surely be due to inheritance. And if the effects of character and temperament are pervasive enough throughout a community, it must surely be reasonable to suppose that they tend to influence the kind of place Jersey is even now, and the atmosphere it has.

Relations with France

Trying to give an impression of affairs from late medieval times to the present day, even in a sketchy and imprecise way, is difficult enough; and not more so than attempting a brief but vital outline of the Island people's relations with mainland France.

At the time of the Norman Conquest and for a very long while afterwards they could hardly have bothered about the fine points of nationality since it was a concept that barely existed. So far as the Jersey peasant was concerned he knew exactly where he stood. He spoke the language of his kin, the neighbouring Normans. He had ancient family and trade links with Normandy.

The newly-conquered island to the north — once the land of the Anglo-Saxons, a quite different race of people — was a distant, foreign place. It lay somewhere over the horizon and just on the edge of understanding. It played no part at all in his life. If he owed allegiance to some person outside the sphere of his existence it was to the successors of Duke William of Normandy, no matter where they happened to live. By slow degrees, of course, that had to change. Jersey stopped being a part of the disintegrated Norman empire and became instead a possession of an English Crown often at war with what was turning into a fairly unified France.

Perhaps what made the people of Jersey most clearly aware of the fact that they were now detached from the nearby Continent came at those times when Frenchmen invaded the Island. After all, by definition he who invades becomes an enemy. Among those who did so with more or less success were Bertrand du Guesclin in 1373 and de Maulevrier in 1461. The latter succeded in taking Mont Orgueil, the one real bastion of local defence, announced that he was Lord of the Channel Islands and held some, or maybe all, of the Island for the next seven years. There was probably not much fighting and few deaths among the population. But by their action such men and their ragged armies became recognised as opponents to be hated and feared rather than as brethren.

However, these dramas, important though they were in their times, could have had little direct effect on the lives of the peasants. The average man and woman went on having a difficult enough task getting born, living for a while, procreating and dying without bothering too much about which side they were supposed to be on.

Well into the 1700s and certainly later, proclaimed enemy or not, it was with nearby Normandy that many of the Island's population continued to maintain the closest links. For a long time England remained a kind of terra incognita about which they knew little and cared less and never dreamed of visiting. It was Normandy, with its fairs and markets and its known language, that was the attraction. There one could buy and sell, meet friends or often distant relatives, enjoy oneself and quite probably get very merry in the liberal atmosphere of such events.

More French than English

For obvious reasons, then, little of whatever character and attitudes the English nation may have been developing through the Dark Ages and onwards rubbed off on Jersey's country people, even if they did on the seafarers and the better educated. They remained more French than English in their thoughts and their way of life. Maritime commerce and conflicts apart, France, through Normandy and a common tongue, continued to be the individual country dweller's chief link with the outside world. But of course matters could not rest there. By slow turns the whole of the Island's population and not just a section of it began to assimilate certain British ideas and start to recognise its Britishness as something permanent and complete. Maulevrier's invasion over, wars and dissensions on a larger European scale continued to encourage the slow growth of loyalty to Britain. The French, always at the doorstep and often threatening once again to land on Island soil, came — like the British nation of which they had grown to be a part — to be seen as a distinct and separate people.

It was a strange period in Jersey's history. On the one hand France was a foe. On the other, relations with Normandy, although not France itself, remained on a friendly footing. The people went on speaking a kind of French similar to that of the neighbouring enemy while English, the national language, continued to be barely understood. The attractions of old friendships and profitable business with nearby Norman ports and towns were set against the opposite forces of enmity and fear. Privateers made some part of their living by capturing enemy vessels, smugglers by means of friendly contacts. Both operated in the same stretch of water. Finally, of course, the slow accumulation of differences and a strengthening attachment to what was seen at last as the 'mother country' made it inevitable that even the most untutored and ignorant among the Island's population should lose whatever sense of dual nationality they may once have had.

By the start of the 19th century the Jerseyman was no longer Norman and certainly not French. He was British and either accepted the fact or was proud of it. Contacts with France and its people became looser and at a less personal level until the time came in the late 1800s when peasants from Brittany, then a poverty-stricken region largely ignored by the French authorities, began to arrive in increasing numbers. They became essential cogs in the Island's hugely prosperous and labour-intensive agricultural industry. For their part, they were only too pleased to earn money by helping with the potato, hay and corn harvests or as permanent farm workers. But they were regarded with a certain disdain, and not just because of their ragged appearance and clumsy manners. By this time the French were well and truly foreigners. To say that a man was French was frequently not a neutral statement of fact but rather a means of showing a reluctance to welcome him into local society. Even in recent times to marry a Frenchman was as much a disgrace in certain quarters as a Protestant marrying a Roman Catholic.

English immigrants

This apartness was reinforced during the 1800s by the increasing numbers of English immigrants and tourists. While Jersey-Norman French remained the language of the countryside, French itself was coming to be spoken less and less by a diminishing number of people in everyday life, and then it was usually for commercial reasons. Although many in the town were bilingual, there was neither much need for French nor any great desire to speak the language of a people who lived within sight of the Island but who had to be treated with caution.

Like those developments in the 19th century which did so much to forge even closer links with Britain, the introduction into Jersey in 1912 of compulsory education brought many benefits, especially for the children of some parents who could not afford to pay for private schooling and the offspring of others who continued to hold strong views on encouraging too much brain and not enough brawn.

At the same time it played a part, for good or bad, in breaking down a remarkable internal language barrier which had grown up as the result of the slow anglicisation of Jersey. There came to be two quite separate groups. On the one side there were those, mostly in the urban areas, who spoke English as their natural tongue. On the other there were those, mainly in the countryside, who were brought up from infancy to speak in Jersey Norman-French and knew little if any English. It is not stretching the point too far to suggest that the latter tended to be the true Island stock whose attitudes and temperament were those of their forefathers.

Foreigners in their own land

Despite that, for perhaps the next forty years many hundreds, and most probably thousands, of these country-bred youngsters started their education at parish schools where, at the outset, they were quite unable to understand the language used to teach them. They became, in effect, tiny confused foreigners in their own land. What in some respects was even worse was the fact that the country child who left school at fourteen often did so with only a limited vocabulary and accents which frequently led — as they still do — to taunts that they were by nature stupid and of a lower social standing.

Speaking Jersey Norman-French was forbidden both in the classroom and the playground. No formal attempt was made to teach those young pupils English and they were obliged to acquire it as best they could. They learnt history as seen through the eyes of the English and absorbed English traditions and culture; but none of Jersey's. From one point of view, although it was brutal, abrupt and insensitive in a way that would now be thought intolerable, judging by the needs and the less sophisticated standards of the day it could be said that there was no other choice. Although French remained the traditional language of the States and the Royal Court, English and Latin had for centuries been the languages of education in Jersey.

Reflecting the attitudes of the times, the Education Committee of its day could not have thought Jersey Norman-French to be other than the valueless, archaic tongue of peasants who needed to be dragged into the modern world. Anyway, there were not enough qualified teachers who were able to understand, never mind speak, the natural language of many of their pupils. From another point of view it was a shameful period in the Island's history. Wrong though such a claim must surely be, it was almost as though a considered attempt was being made by incomers to impose their language, their standards and their urban ways on the ignorant originaires.

Thus much of an ancient way of life was done away with by the simple expedients of ignoring the glue of language and of educating children in a way which took no account of their ancestors' past.

It has been said that the 'invasion' of the English, personified in particular by those who wrote so scornfully of the country dweller, did more harm to Jersey than did the Germans during the years of the Occupation. It is an absurd suggestion. But from one perspective not entirely so. The advent of English immigrants and English tourists and men of business among so isolated a community had a profound effect on the fabric of Island society. As with the Indians of the Americas, for example, or the Maoris of New Zealand, or the aborigines of Australia, a fragile social and cultural balance was upset. Lacking experience of resistance, the Jersey country man and woman slowly came to believe themselves to be inferior; were vanquished, subjugated and finally absorbed into a new order of things imposed by others.

English language imposed

It is no wonder that there were so few complaints over the imposition of the English language on those natives who could not speak it. Protesters would at best have been ignored, at worst accused of obstructing their children's education. Besides, while vanquished people will complain among themselves, they seem by nature to be unable to contemplate actual mutiny. No doubt the anglicisation of Jersey has been unavoidable. One cannot proudly proclaim that one is British and enjoy the benefits of being so yet not accept the facts and consequences of Britishness.

So — barring commercial activity — what had once seemed the Island's indissoluble links with France had been all but severed by the time compulsory education arrived in Jersey; to be restored to an extent, and in a quite different form, in more recent times by tourism, tolerance, personal friendships and a new sense of internationalism.  

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