1847 guide - 912-1204

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Durell's 1847 guidebook

912 to 1204


This is the third chapter of the history section of The Picturesque and Historical Guide to the Island of Jersey, by the Rev Edward Durell, with lithographs by Philip Ouless, who also published the book in 1847.

  • Period of Norman Independence
  • Consequences of the Battle of Hastings
  • Dissensions in the fancily of William the Conqueror
  • Deviations in the succession to the Crown
  • Henry I and his son, Prince William
  • Regnault De Carteret
  • Tancrede de Hauteville
  • Abbey of St Helier
  • Matilda and the Abbey of the Vow
  • Henry II and his line of French Coast
  • Continental Normandy reconquered by France
  • National character of the present Channel Islanders
The Battle of Hastings, as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry

Norman independence

It is not perhaps generally observed that the period of Norman independence can be divided into two portions of almost equal duration. The former of these begins with the dismemberment of Neustria from the crown of France in 912, and comes down to the Battle of Hastings. It forms the first and most important epoch in the history of independent Normandy. It was then that the national character was fully developed; and that what they wanted in numbers and in resources, they compensated in energy and perseverance.

The latter is that from the Battle of Hastings to the conquest of Normandy by the King of France, and its final incorporation with that monarchy. The connection with England made that latter country the principal seat of power, and it had evidently a tendency to impair the nationality of the Normans, and to prepare them by degrees to acquiesce with less reluctance to submit to sink again into a French Province.

A period of 154 years elapsed from the establishment of Rollo to that of the Battle of Hastings, which placed William on the throne of England. That battle was indeed one of the most important that ever happenal in the history of mankind, and whose consequences have been, and are still felt, after almost 800 years, not only in the frequent struggles between Great Britain and France, but in the system of European politics in general.

During that period seven dukes reigned in Normandy, who were all distinguished princes, who successfully maintained their independence and aggrandised their dominions.

A new era began for the Normans, and for the islands in particular, who thus became firmly united to England, from which they have never since been separated. Nothing has been recorded of these islands during the reign of the Conqueror, in which they were exclusively concerned. But though all memorials of the fact are lost, it is but a fair presumption to suppose that many of the vassals from the islands followed their sovereign in his expedition against the Anglo-Saxons, and shared with him, more or less, in all the dangers and advantages of the conquest.

Brothers at odds

William, as is well known, was particularly unfortunate in his family, and perhaps there is no example in the whole range of history of brothers more ambitious, more unprincipled, or more unnatural, than the sons of William, The most valuable part of the patrimony of Robert, the eldest son, was usurped by his brother, William Rufus. Robert, a brave and warlike prince, entered largely into all the visionary schemes of the crusades. He repaired to the Holy Land, where after performing prodigies of valour, and materially contributing with his Normans to the success of the first Crusade, he might have been elected King of Jerusalem, had he not been particularly desirous of returning to his own country.

But misfortunes followed him on his return, and he was a second time prevented from succeeding to the English throne. His brother Henry had taken advantage of his absence, and had usurped his crown. It was in vain that Robert endeavoured to recover his birthright; for having been disappointed, his brother Henry stripped him of his remaining duchy of Normandy, made himself master of his person, and doomed him to a perpetual imprisonment in an obscure castle in Wales, where he lingered till his death for 28 years. It is said that to disable him from ever appearing again in the world, he had caused him to be deprived of sight. Such aggravated instances of the misfortunes of the great are seldom to be found, even in the annals of the blackest times, and cannot be read without the mingled feelings of horror and of sympathy.

A question would here arise, whether the reduction of Normandy, and the captivity of Robert by Henry I could be considered as a conquest of the latter province by England; and that in consequence the Channel Islands, with the rest of the duchy, became a conquered dominion annexed to that kingdom. But the idea of conquest implies an aggrandisement made at the expense of an independent state. But this could not be considered to be the case in the dissensions of the sons of William the Conqueror, which was a civil war, or rather a rebellion against the lawful heir; for such undoubtedly it would have been esteemed, had he prevailed.

Henry I

It could not also have been a conquest, as Henry I only brought over to him, either by force or by intrigue, all the dominions which had been held by his father. It is impossible at this distance of time to examine with accuracy the reasons which had led to those unnatural dissensions; but it is evident that according to the strict and unvarying rules of right, Henry I was an usurper of his brother's dominions, and that to palliate his wrongs, his flatterers might have subsequently set up a claim for him, which rested on conquest. But no ingenuity or adulation can ever hallow crime, or throw a veil over the imprescriptible rights of justice.

It is a peculiar feature in the history of England that, although its sovereigns since the conquest have all descended from the same dynasty, there have been frequent deviations from the regular line of succession, when princes of the royal blood have stepped into the enjoyment of the rights of some elder branch. This happened in the case of Henry I, who usurped the right of his elder brother; and a modification of the same principle occurs in the Act of Settlement, which set aside the claims of the House of Stuart to the crown.

Henry I

Henry I was now at the height of all his glory, being nearly the most powerful monarch of his time, and left without a competitor to dispute his usurpations. But the vengeance of Heaven, however slow it may be, is certain, and the evil days which awaited the descendants of the Conqueror were not yet exhausted. Prince William, his only son and heir, perished by shipwreck, near Barfleur in Normandy, on his return to England. In that young Prince the male line of the Conqueror became extinct; and Henry himself, who had never recovered from his loss, died a few years after — a signal instance of the just retributions of Providence, and of the perfect vanity of unprincipled ambition.

The reigns of Stephen, Henry II, and Richard I, were attended with many events, which though not of a political nature, naturally affected the islands. Some of them were the following:-

The celebrated Castle of Gouray, or Mont Orgueil, whatever might have been the date of its original foundation, its actual fortifications were decidedly Norman; though, as we have said before, it is not probable that a post, in those ages so apparently impregnable, should have been left unfortified by any of the ancient possessors of the island.

De Carteret

The first crusade in which Duke Robert distinguished himself introduces the noble name of De Carteret, which acquired afterwards so much merited celebrity in the local history of Jersey. Regnault de Carteret, who followed that chivalrous prince in his expedition to the Holy Land, had large possessions in Jersey, as well at the small town of Carteret, on the adjoining continent. Hence it is highly probable that several of the natives of Jersey went in the train of their feudal lords in that religious but chimerical enterprise.

It had not been many years before this, that Tancred, a Norman gentleman of Hauteville le Guichard, a village near Coutances, left Normandy with his twelve sons in search of adventures, in the course of which, having conquered the southern parts of Italy and the island of Sicily, they founded there what is now called the kingdom of the two Sicilies. The family of those chivalrous champions maintained themselves on that throne for about 150 years, or till 1195.

Empress Matilda


In 1125, William, the son of Hamon, founded the Abbey of St Helier, at the place where that holy man had suffered martyrdom from the Norman pagans 250 years before. It was built on the present site of Elizabeth Castle, and was liberally endowed with revenues in the island and on the Continent. It flourished for a period of 62 years, when it was annexed to the Abbey of the Vow at Cherbourg on the following occasion. The Empress Matilda, the mother of Henry II, having, during a voyage from England, encountered a violent storm, and being in danger of perishing, she vowed that if it should please God to preserve her, she would build an Abbey, and sing a hymn of thanksgiving to the Holy Virgin, on the first land that she might reach.

Soon after this the coast of Cherbourg appeared, when the pilot, in the exultation of the moment, addressed her these words—"Sing, O Queen, here is the land". The name of "Chantereine" has remained to the creek, in which she landed at Cherbourg, where she sang her hymn, and built the Chapel of St Mary of the Vow. That chapel, though often destroyed, was as often rebuilt, and is still used as a place for holy worship.

Matilda soon after founded an Abbey, which from its site, and the accomplishment of her vow, was named the Abbey of Cherbourg of the Vow. Many years afterwards, in 1185, Walter, the then archbishop of Rouen, and his brother Benjamin, then Abbot of Cherbourg, obtained a papal bull, and the king's permission to annex the Abbey of St Helier in Jersey to the former, though the latter was the more considerable of the two. Robert, the Abbot of St Helier, was preferred to Cherbourg; but that annexation was highly prejudicial to the Abbey of St Helier, which became in consequence a priory dependent on Cherbourg, and was not allowed to have more than a prior and five canons.

The connection between those two religious houses continued till the Reformation. But mark the instability of human affairs! The very ruins of the Abbey of St Helier have disappeared, and nothing but the small and solitary hermitage of its martyred patron now remains. The Abbey of the Vow has also been dismantled in the storms of the French revolution. It was there that Louis XVI lodged, when he visited Cherbourg in 1786. Who could have then thought that so soon it would be as the ruined Marius sitting on the ruins of Carthage? That venerable Abbey is now used for a naval hospital, and of all its ancient buildings, nothing remains but the hall and the refectory.

Henry II

Henry II

Henry II was the most powerful of all the Norman princes; but it does not seem that any of the English historians have remarked that his continental dominions included all the coast of France, from the frontiers of Spain to the utmost limits of Normandy; his subsequent acquisition of Brittany by the marriage of one of his sons with the heiress of that duchy being within that line. Perhaps that was thought to be of little consequence in that remote age, or that the possession of such a large extent of coast, with several seaports, would in future times secure to France a large naval preponderance. Could it have then been taken advantage of, as it would be now, the superior fortune of Henry would have stifled the growth of the French monarchy, which was yet in its infancy. But how transitory is human greatness! In less than 20 years from Harry's death, that mighty colossus of power had fallen to the ground, never to rise again.

We are now come to the inglorious and disastrous reign of John, which dismembered for ever continental Normandy from Britain. The distinct character of that pious, high minded, and warlike people is to be sought for in the days of its prosperity and independence, from Rollo to the reign of John. After that eventful period, the Normans became as aliens in the land of their fathers, their national pride and spirit left them, a few great families emigrated, the rest submitted. But the islands alone remained unsubdued.

It was thus that the great mass of the people lost their nationality, by adopting French manners and customs; while the gentry vied in subservience and adulation to their new sovereigns, who after 300 years had thus dispossessed the weakest and the most criminal of the descendants of Rollo. As a people, the Normans were now politically extinct, except in these diminutive fragments of them, which from that time began to form a separate community in the Channel Islands, which in their usages, their appearance, their laws, and their language, still showed a spirit of independence, and that rooted aversion to a French connection, which proved that they differed as much from that people, as they do from any other foreign European nation.

Norman heritage

The Jerseymen of the present age are the descendants of these vassals, who followed William the Conqueror to Hastings; of those knights who, with Duke Robert, expelled the infidels from the Holy Land, or of those chivalrous adventurers who accompanied Tancred to found a new kingdom in the south of Italy.

The present race of Islanders has not degenerated; though the enterprises of desolating warfare, and the individual exploits of romantic bravery, have been exchanged under better auspices for the more beneficial extension of commerce and navigation. Nor have they been less renowned than their ancestors for having produced the loyal, the brave, and the wise in such men as Sir George De Carteret, Lord De Saumarez, the late Duke of Bouillion, and the two Brocks.

A country that can produce such men may be proud of its nationality, and cannot but be eminently solicitous to continue in its distinct and separate state. So far then from being a conquered or dependent dominion, they may vie in nationality, with the Anglo-Saxon, or with any other people of Europe. That nation has now lasted for more than nine centuries, with a distinct language, and with a distinct permanence of jurisdiction, which has been guaranteed to them, by a long succession of sovereigns, as the reward of their inviolable and undiminished loyalty. And may that attachment to their British connection be for ever.

1847 Guide
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