On the coast
The Hermitage, now connected to Elizabeth Castle by a breakwater, previously stood on a separate islet
Three hundred yards south of the Island on which Elizabeth Castle now stands is a high rock. Before the new breakwater was built, this was a separate islet, cut off from the Castle by a gully through which the waves rushed with such force that it was called Hell's Gate.
Helier the hermit
Here a hermit called Helier is said to have lived in the 6th century. This is by no means impossible. The hermit movement was then at its height, and islands round the Breton coast were dotted with hermits' caves. But St Helier himself is a very shadowy figure. Our knowledge of him comes from a Latin book called The Passion of St Helier, written at least 400 years after its hero's death, for it speaks of "Normandy", whieh did not receive this name till after the Normans had settled there. In this, stories borrowed from legends of dozens of other saints are fitted together as in a jigsaw puzzle to form a thriller full of murders, pirate raids, and miracles.
With memories of the Book of Samuel, it tells how a childless couple in Belgium begged a saintly hermit to pray that they might have a son, promising, if his prayers were answered, to dedicate the boy to God; so when Helier was born he was entrusted to the old hermit to train. Quite twenty per cent of the Celtic saints were brought up by hermits; so this was the obvious way for the story to begin.
He tended the hermit's garden; but the hares came and ate his cabbages; so he drew a line with his finger on the earth, and gave all on one side to the intruders, and not one of them ever crossed the boundary again. But the same story had already been told of St Antony and St Godric. A hunter broke through the hedge to kill one of the hares, but a branch pierced his eye and would have blinded him had not Helier restored his sight. Dozens of saints saved hares from hunters, who were injured when they tried to hurt them, but, when penitent, were healed.
A woman with an issue of blood, which no physician could cure, ate some of Helier's greens, and was at once healed, a story obviously suggested by an incident in the Gospels. A lad went to sleep with his mouth open, and an adder slipped down his throat. St Helier made the sign of the Cross, and the reptile crept out, much ashamed. Precisely the same incident occurs in The Miracles of St Hilary.
It is not certain, but more than likely, that our local saint was Helibertus rather than Hilerius. But there is much confusion about the name, which has continued throughout the centuries. Of his existence and influence there can be no doubt, and place names being as significant historically as they undoubtedly are, it is not without good reason that our town has, from the earliest recorded times, borne his name.
Helier's father now desired to recover his son; so he sent two of his henchmen, who cut off the hermit's head; but the boy escaped and went to Therouanne, south of Calais. Here, in a corner of a ruined church, he made a private torture chamber, in which he prayed day and night standing on jagged stones in icy water. This, if we can believe their legends, was a favourite form of discipline with many of the Celtic saints. St Cuthbert used to do it in the North Sea, and the porpoises swam ashore to thaw his toes with their breath.
The people now began to honour Helier as a saint, especially after he had raised from the dead the child of one of their nobles; so, as overmuch admiration is bad for the soul, an angel bade him go to Nanteuil in Normandy. On the way (like Elisha) he cleansed a spring by sprinkling it with salt. At Nanteuil he found St Marculf, who after three months' training sent him to Jersey (Gersuth) to be a hermit. On landing he healed a cripple with twisted legs, and traces of this miracle, it is said, can still be seen on the rocks. The man's name was Anquetil, the earliest record of a local family name.
He chose as his home a cave in a crag cut off at high tide. When three years later Marculf visited him, he wept to see how worn he was with fasting. During Marculf's visit 30 pirate ships from the Orkneys threatened the Island; but the saints prayed, and the pirates began to fight among themselves so fiercely that not one returned home to tell the tale. Exactly the same story is told of St Magloire in Sark.
Twelve years passed. Then barbarian pirates, probably of Saxon origin, arrived again, and discovered Helier's cave through the clouds of birds that surrounded it. St Fructueux's hiding-place was revealed in the same way. The pirates cut off Helier's head, and the bloodstain is still on the rock. Indelible bloodstains are pointed out on dozens of scenes of martyrdom. But Helier picked up his head in his hands and walked with it towards the shore, a startling feat which is attributed to 86 other martyrs, including St Denis of Paris and the British St Alban.
Boat drifts to Holland
Helier's "pedagogue", whoever he may have been, laid the corpse in a boat, and fell asleep for sorrow. When he awoke, the tide had carried the boat to Holland, where Willibrod, the Bishop, buried it in a noble mausoleum. This miraculous voyage is one of a large group of similar stories. The world-famous pilgrimage to Santiago was based on a belief that, when Herod beheaded St James, his disciples placed his body in a boat. "Then they fell asleep, and, when they awoke next morning, they found themselves in Spain" (Acta Sanctorum).
To doubt these stories is not to sneer at the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. Catholic writers like Father Delahaye warn us that hagiology is not history. The Catholic Encylopaedia, in its article on legends of the saints, says; "The stories were embellished by the people according to their primitive theological conceptions, and the legend became to a large extent fiction."
The Bollandists, the Roman Catholic fathers who specialise on legends of the saints, describe The Passion of St Helier as a legende peu sure, a legend on which little reliance can be placed.
St Helier's name has never been placed on the Roman Martyrology, the official list of martyrs recognised by the Roman Catholic Church. This book was obviously written for edification, not as sober history; but it had a fair circulation. So, while realising that much of the story of St Helier is legend, which has grown up around his name through the centuries, let us continue to revere our patron saint with humility and thankfulness.
In the 12th century the small oratory, now called the Hermitage, was built on the rock, and became a place of pilgrimage. When the breakwater was built in 1872, the first plan was to destroy the whole islet, and it was suggested that the little chapel might be rebuilt on Westmount; but the engineers relented and only half the rock was blasted away, and the chapel was spared. Dean Falle in 1923 revived the pilgrimage to the chapel, and processions of churchfolk march across the sands for a service at the Hermitage on St Helier's Day (July 16).
The Jersey Heritage Historic Environment Record website has this description of the Hermitage:
- 'St Helier (or Helerius) was born in Tongeren (now in Belgium). St Marculf baptised Helier and sent him as a missionary to Jersey, which allegedly had a population of only 30 at that time, due to the many pillages from Norman pirates. One legend relates to Helier's health as a seven year old. He was struck by paralysis and cured by St Cunibert on the condition that he gave himself to God. Other versions of this tale suggest that Helier's parents struggled to conceive and had turned to St Cunibert, and he blessed them with a son on the condition that they must give him over to God. Stories also tell of St Cunibert naming Helier.
- 'The story continues that Helier was tutored by St Cunibert and was able to perform miracles. Helier's father had St Cunibert killed. St Helier lived on an islet in St Aubin's bay, now the Hermitage at Elizabeth Castle. While St Marculf and St Romard were visiting Jersey in 555 AD to find a site for a monastery, there was a raid - possibly by Vikings. The tale goes that the islanders fled but the three saints did not. St Marcluf (or St Helier) made the sign of the cross and pointed at the invaders, who retreated back to their ships.
- 'A storm came and dispersed or engulfed many of the invaders' ships. St Marculf returned to Nateuil and during his absence the pirates who survived came back for revenge. St Romard retreated inland to help the islanders while St Helier remained at the Hermitage. The pirates beheaded him with an axe (hence the axes in the St Helier crest) and the legend goes that he was able to pick up his head and walk with it to the shore. St Romard discovered St Helier's body still clutching his head and sailed with the remains towards France. Guided by God they arrived at Bréville-sur-mer (Manche) and allegedly a spring arose where St Helier's body rested overnight. A church was built next to the spring. St Helier's relics were sent to the abbey of Beaubec and remained there until the abbey's destruction during the French Revolution.'
Click on any image to see a full-size version
A picture by Ernest Baudoux