Mont de la Ville

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Mont de la Ville


Garrison artillery on Mont de la Ville before Fort Regent was built

This article by Philip Ahier was published in the 1970 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

La Montagne de la Ville, Le Mont de St Helier, La Montagne de St Helier, the Town Hill - all these appellations have been given to the site upon which Fort Regent stands; there was also La Petite Montagne de la Ville, now known as Mount Bingham.

Long history

La Montagne de la Ville had a long history before the British Government bought it from Les Procureurs de la Ville in 1800 for £11,280.

Its first mention in documents is in a Charter of King John, whereby, on 7 January 1207, he confirmed one formerly granted by him when he was Count of Mortain, to the Abbey of Bellozanne in France, whereby it received 20 livres of rente on the tenements situated at Le Mont de St Helier from the land of Guillaume de Surville on the north to the sea, and from the Chapel of the Manor of Bellozanne (La Chapelle des Pas) to the Manorial Stable. ["Cartulaire" pp 418-419, also Assize Roll of 1309, p 236]

From 1204 till 1468 there had been many invasions of Jersey by the French, to the extent that the Tudor monarchs were very zealous in strengthening the defences of the Island, particularly as their status as Kings of England rested on none too stable a basis. Henry VII was a de facto monarch and not a de jure one.

Titled and ennobled Governors were appointed to rule the Island in the name of the King and Council, hence, we find Sir Edward Seymour, later Duke of Somerset, brother to Jane Seymour, third wife of Henry VIII, the Governor from 1537 to 1550.

These years included that of the Reformation, 1548, when the Abbot of Bellozanne had his estates in Jersey confiscated to the Crown, and that is why His Excellency, the Lieutenant-Governor, takes the oath for that fief at the bi-yearly meetings of L'Assize d'Heritage.

Sir Edward Seymour, when Lord Somerset, may have visited Jersey, or if not, he heard of the deficiencies of the defences, and passed on the information to his nephew, Edward VI, who, after having beard of the foray tbat bad taken place on the heights of Bouley on 1 August 1549. wrote the following Ietter:-

"The French King, perceiving this, caused war to be proclaimed, and, hearing that our ships lay at Jersey, sent a great number of his galleys, and certain ships to apprehend ours, but they were forced to retire with loss of their own men". [Roxburgh Papers of 1857, p. 227.]

As a result of the above episode, uncle and nephew put their heads together, for, during the period of Seymour's Governorship, the following were contributions to the defence of the Island:-

  • Somerset Tower at Mont Orguei1 Castle in 1540
  • The first Seymour Tower off La Rocque

Defence needed

But his interest went further, and it was brought to his notice that the Town of St Helier needed defence against any possible invasion, seeing that Mont Orgueil was rapidly becoming a museum piece.

This was reflected at a meeting of the Privy Council dated 17 March 1550, when "Letters of thanks to the inhabitants of the Isle of Jersey for embracing His Majesty's Laws... " were to be sent and three other items for their consideration of which one was:-

"To contribute for the translating of the Town of St Helier unto the Hill above the same for their safety upon any invasion having so much desirable a place of strength as that being made strong." ["Acts of the Privy Council" 1549- 1550, p. 412.]

This was duly reinforced by Order-in-Council dated 15 April 1550 from Edward VI in Council, to Sir Hugh Paulett (Somerset's successor, Governor of Jersey 1550-1574) who received the following letter which was passed on to the States:-

"We have thought it good to require you ... for your own surety and commod¬ity and the retirement of your families ... to convey your town of st. Helier unto the Hill above the same, on which we are informed, the site may be strong and defensible". [OCI 26]

There were two ideas underlying this suggestion

  • To have shifted the town of St Helier to the top of the Hill, which would have been absurd.
  • To fortify La Montagne de la Ville and build barracks for the accommodation of troops

This last item was more feasible than the other, but it had to be abandoned, because at the time, no water was procurable. The trouble was that the engineers on the job did not dig far down enough.

Island opposition

The Islanders had been asked to help towards the "translation" of the town; but they did not feel disposed to contribute and got a severe chastening from Seymour in 1560:-

"Whereas I am informed that divers of the inhabitants there, neither regarding the duties of allegiance nor yet their own wealth, commodities nor safeguard, do, themselves, rather like brute beasts in refusing to be contributors, according to their rates and abilities ... " [O.c. 18]

The anonymous writer of "Les Chroniques de Jersey" gave another reason why the plan of "translating" did not take place:-

"The Duke of Somerset being the Captain of the Island was on the point ... of building a fortress and to initiate a town on St Helier's Hill, but due to the animosity which occurred between the Duke of Somerset and the Duke of Northumberland, the matter was not carried out". ["Chroniques de Jersey", p 84]

The part played by the Town Hill during the first stage of the Civil War is interesting: Leonard Lydcot, a Parliamentarian Officer, landed at Bouley Bay on August 26 1643, with the following contingent:- his newly-wed wife, his brother; his mother-in-law; his sister¬in-law; three captains; three lieutenants and 30 pieces of cannon. With this motley collection, he hoped to subdue the Island for the Parliamentarians, having been assured that the Islanders would support him. [Chevalier, "Journal" p 59].

The strategic position of La Montagne was noted by him and was strengthened by ramparts constructed in order to prevent those from Elizabeth Castle (the Royalist strong¬hold) getting a footing on it. Those there in Elizabeth Castle fired three cannon volleys to hamper the work. ["Journal" pp 69-70]

Chevalier was deeply shocked with the building of the Fort on the Hill on the Sabbath Day by the most "irreverent" Pierre d' Assigny, the Rector of St Helier. For, on 30 September 1643, d'Assigny had gone to the houses of the townsfolk with Parliamentarian sympathies, telling them to bring their spades the following day to cut the turf on top of the Hill to make a fortification to batter down Elizabeth Castle, which was bombarding the Town. Work on the new fortress commenced the next day, Sunday 1 October 1643, which is reported in great style by Chevalier:-

"After Evensong, before coming down from the pulpit, d'Assigny harangued the; congregation, telling those who had supported Parliament that they had to pro¬vide themselves with spades to cut the turf on La Montagne and to erect a fort on which to place cannon to bombard Elizabeth Castle, as there was no harm in de¬fending oneself on the Sabbath Day, seeing that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath".
"As soon as d'Assigny left the Parish Church, he took off his preaching gown, went straight to the Rectory, thence to Lydcot's temporary abode, took an armful of spades and shovels, and planted them at the spot where the folk were coming out of church. He made his parishioners take them, went to get some more, paying for them out of his own pocket. He climbed up the Hill, compelled his parishioners to work, not sparing them with his own home-brewed cider which he had caused to be brought up as an encouragement to get them 'cracking' ".
"But he could not get many supporters, as folk were disgusted at his desecration of the Sabbath and on a day when Holy Communion had been celebrated". ["Journal", p 78]
St Helier in 1709 with Mont de la Ville standing clearly above the small town

Cannons fired

On Monday, 2 October 1643, the Parliamentarian supporters resumed their work and trailed up a cannon. Those at the Castle, seeing them working, let fly five cannon balls which had no effect as the Town Hill was higher in altitude than the Castle, so that their cannon balls, for the most part, fell below it. Those from the Town Hill replied with their cannon (un demi-canon) which had been brought up to the Hill by the Town's women. [Was this in anticipation of the WAAC] D'Assigny's efforts did achieve something for, although three cannon balls were fired from the Hill, one fell below Elizabeth Castle while two others penetrated into it. ["Journal" p 81]

During the months of September and October 1643, the Town and the Hill of St Helier were subjected to intense gunfire from Elizabeth Castle, but the gunners there had little skill in artillery. Chevalier is at his best when he describes the cannon fire from the Town Hill:-

"The gunners there returned the attacks upon the Castle, three balls fell onto the Castle Green, but as to the fourth, no one knew where it landed, whether in the sea, or around the Castle".

then Chevalier dryly adds:-

"Those on the Hill must have forgotten to place the ball inside the cannon before firing it". [Journal, p 87]

Chevalier also tells of an episode which took place on the Hill on 5 November 1643, but in an ironical strain:-

"There came a stroke of fortune to those on the new forts on the Hill, an outbreak of fire occurred in their barracks, and burnt out two of them, besides 12 muskets, the soldiers' belongings, namely, their bandoliers and one drum. As the muskets were loaded with bullets, they would crackle once the flames reached them so that the soldiers dare not approach the conflagration, lest the muskets in the barracks exploded all at once".

The days of the first Parliamentary Occupation of Jersey were rapidly coming to a close. On 20 November 1643 the bellicose Pierre d'Assigny stood on top of the Hill, pistol in one hand, sword by his side. He was endeavouring to re-shape the fortifications thereon and rally his dwindling supporters. He gazed seawards and beheld the Armada of Royalist ships from St Aubin's Fort to Elizabeth Castle and heard the feus de joie from the vessels.

He left his sappers, shouted "Treason, Treason" and ran "hell for leather" down the Town Hill till he reached Lydcot's temporary abode at Le Havre des Pas, there on that Thursday evening he found the Parliamentarians ready to quit.

D'Assigny's work had not been entirely in vain as the tables were turned in 1651.

Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell, now the Protector of England, was determined to bring Jersey in line with Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man. Colonel Heane, commanding the Parliamentary forces, landed in St Ouen's Bay on 22 October and marched his troops to St Helier. Three places had to be captured before he could make himself master of the Island, St Aubin's Fort, Mont Orgueil Castle and lastly Elizabeth Castle, which was the toughest of the three.

In order to subdue the latter, Col Heane caused ramparts to be built on top of the Hill opposite to Elizabeth Castle, and also some bulwarks at the bottom of St Helier Hill. Col Heane brought three mortars and 300 grenades known as "bombs", 100 bombs for each mortar. These were placed at a site later known as the Cromwell Battery, where a building to house the headquarters of the IDC has been erected.

Improvements had now occured in artillery long range firing; the old methods of "Chitty Bang Bang" had been replaced by "Boom, Boom, a Bong Bong"! Even Chevalier noted that geometrical and trigonometrical methods were now being used to determine the height and range from which a bomb should be fired in order to reach its target.

On 9 or 10 November 1651, the date is uncertain, these three mortars were mounted inside the ramparts from which they were to hurl their bombs on to the Castle. At first, these bombs fell short because musket bullets had been mixed with the gunpowder to yield (so it was thought) better results. But the third bomb fell on the old Priory in the lower ward of Elizabeth Castle, pierced its vault, demolished it almost completely, besides destroying Sir George Carteret's foodstuffs and ammunition, eventually compelling him to surrender on honourable terms to Colonel Heane.

And so, to ante-date the words of the comic song, "Elizabeth Castle was one of the ruins that Cromwell knocked about a bit".

During the Governorship of Sir Thomas Morgan, invasion by the French was feared in 1666, but the Governor was equal to the occasion. He wrote to the Secretary of the Privy Council on 27 August of that year:-

"I have completed the Militia Troop to a 100 horse and my own to 60, all fully armed. If, however, Louis XlV attacks us, we shall make him a very handsome opposition. I have been on the summit of a high hill near the sea, and we keep strong guards of trained bands about the Island so that we are ready for any alarm".

The "High Hill" was La Montagne de la Ville while the trained bands were the local Militia.

Fortified camp

In 1756, the Duke of Cumberland, brother to George II ("Butcher Cumberland" the victor of Culloden,) sent over Thomas James, Captain in the Royal Artillery, to inform the States that it was necessary for the better security and defence of the Island to erect and fortify a camp near the landing bays. James Branham, an engineer, had been sent to Jersey and had decided that "La Montagne de la Ville" was the most suitable site for the proposed camp. The States approved on two conditions, first, that water could be found and, secondly, that the rights and prerogatives of the owners were to be maintained.

The idea fell through and nothing was done until after the defeat of de Rullecourt at the Battle of Jersey in 1781; the States were then really alive to the importance of erecting a fortification for the town. The Procureurs de la Vintaigne de la Ville were prepared to sell La Montagne de la Ville.

De La Croix, who lived some years later and had access to documents which, unfortunately, have disappeared, except those in print, tells what happened on 20 August 1781:-

"As General Conway, during his residence in the Island in 1781, proposed to erect a citadel or fortification on La Montagne à St Helier, and, in consequence of this proposal, the Assembly of the inhabitants of the Vintaigne (proprietaires a la fin d'heritage de la dite Montagne) in their zeal to serve His Majesty, with one unanimous voice, have agreed to cede as much land as will be necessary. As the boundaries have not yet been marked out, a number of gentlemen were asked to do so in confirmation of the above resolution". [De La Croix, "Ville de SL Helier p 47"].
The dolmen reassembled in England

Dolmen discovered

Work on the Hill commenced in the August of that year, and on 12 August 1785, while the workers were levelling the mountain, they discovered a colossal mass of roughly hewn stones, arranged in a circle whose circumference was 72 feet.

This was not strictly true, for Philip Morant had read a paper to the Society of Antiquaries in 1761 on this Dolmen.

De La Croix said it was a Druid's Temple. It is not, as everyone knows. Some of the stones were perpendicular to the ground and were covered by others placed horizontally. These blocks were some 7 to 8 feet above the soil. De La Croix, to his great credit, was of the opinion that they should be preserved.

However, instead of these monoliths being studied and further excavations effected, the Vingtaine decided to present them to Marshal Conway.

On 6 November 1787, at the house of Mr Lys in Library Place (now absorbed into Barclay's Bank), the inhabitants of the Vingtaine de St Helier passed the following resolution:-

"The Proprietors of La Vingtaine, appreciative of the good work that His Excellency, General Conway, their Governor, has always manifested to the prosperity of the Island, particularly towards the advancement of its commerce, and desirous of expressing their gratitude, beseech him to be so good as to accept the ancient monument which has been recently discovered on La Montagne de 1a Ville. They trust that His Excellency will not decline to accept this feeble but sincere tribute of their gratefulness".

At this meeting it was resolved that a plaque of marble have an inscription to be approved by the Vingtaine to this effect -

Ce ancient Temple des Druides decouvert le 12 Aout 1785

sur la Montagne de St Helier a ete presente par les habitants a son Excellence le General Conway Leur Gouverneur. Models were made to scale, one was placed in the Public Library and one is in the Museum. General Conway had the Cromlech shipped to his Park in Berkshire where it stands today.

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