1847 guide - St Helier and Rollo

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Durell's 1847 guidebook

St Helier and Rollo


This is the second 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.

  • Martyrdom of St Helier
  • The cession of Neustria, the establishment and conversion of the Normans
  • The Government and character of Rollo
  • The Normans become a separate nation
  • The Clamour or Invocation of the name of Haro
  • Small political value of the Channel Islands then
  • The descendants of Rollo still on the throne of England


As Jersey had long before been converted to Christianity, it was there that the Pagan Normans left a signal instance of their ferocity. There lived then here a holy man, who had long been distinguished for the piety, and the austerity of his life. The name of that meek recluse was Helier, whose little solitary cell, which he had chosen for his retreat from the world, is still to be seen on a rock near Elizabeth Castle, and still retains, after so many ages, its primitive name of the Hermitage.

They put this holy man to death under those aggravated circumstances of cruelty, which gained him the reputation of a martyr and a saint. The anniversary of his martyrdom, according to the ecclesiastical calendar of the Cathedral of Coutances, happens on 17 July. The island itself became famous in after times, on account of this undaunted and devoted man; and still more so, when after a long interval, a Norman nobleman, of the posterity of those who had murdered him there, founded an abbey on the spot, which had been hallowed by his martyrdom, and dedicated it to his memory, by calling it the Abbey of St Helier. It was then, also, that on the neighbouring shore, and in the sight of the Hermitage, was laid the first foundation of the town of St Helier, which has in the present age become a large, commercial, and important seaport.



After the Normans had continued a predatory kind of warfare for about 80 years, the king of France, Charles the Simple, finding that all his efforts to repel those merciless invaders were unavailing, sought to make a compromise with them, and by making a cession of some part of the kingdom, to save the rest. Rollo, who was afterwards so celebrated, was then the leader of the Normans. The Archbishop of Rouen was sent to him with the overtures of a treaty. The emphatical words of the prelate on that occasion have been preserved by the contemporary historians.

"Will you, mighty Chieftain," said he, " be at war with the French, as long as you live? What will become of you, should death surprise you? Do you think that you are a God? Are you not a mortal man? Remember what you are, and will be, and by whom you must one day be judged."

After this solemn exordium he proposed the terms of an accommodation, by which part of Neustria, containing all the fine tract of country which extends 200 miles in length along the British sea, with a corresponding breadth, should be ceded to Rollo, and his successors for ever, to hold by fealty and homage to the crown of France, under the title and dignity of Dukes. It was further proposed to Rollo, that if he would embrace Christianity, the King of France would bestow his daughter Gilla upon him in marriage, as a pledge of sincere amity, and of perpetual peace between the two nations. The proposals were accepted, and the treaty was ratified by an interview between the two princes. Rollo was baptized, and his authority and influence, induced his followers to follow his example.

Those events happened in 912, when the Channel Islands were thus irrevocably severed from the French monarchy. Many vestiges of that ancient connection have remained, and though they may have been weakened or diminished during a long succession of ages, enough has continued to establish a distant approximation to French habits. The Normans soon coalesced with the general mass of natives into a powerful and independent nation, the rival of France, and the principal check to all its schemes of aggrandisement.

It is at that period, that the Channel Islands may be said to have begun their new and permanent era, which may be still divided into two periods, the former of which continued as long as continental Normandy existed, as a great and powerful state, till through the incapacity and misrule of King John, it was subjugated by France. It had been separated from it for about 300 years, half of which had elapsed since William had by conquest ascended the English throne. The latter period of the Normans is from 1204 to the present day, when the great mass of their duchy has been merged again in the French monarchy, and with their national independence they have also lost their national character. Hence, it may be said, and that too with the proud conviction of truth, that the only remnant of that enterprising people cannot now be discovered anywhere, except in the Channel Islands.


This short account of the early history of those noted Islands may not be unacceptable to the general reader of this little work, and it may also correct the notions of a few individuals who might perhaps pretend that the present brave and loyal inhabitants are but a race of half foreigners, and little more than the population of some conquered territory recently incorporated into the empire. It is a striking feature in the history of the Normans that as soon as they had obtained a territorial settlement, the greater part of them immediately embraced Christianity, and in time became the most zealous supporters of that beneficent religion, by their munificence in the erection of churches, and by the large endowments, which they bestowed on religious houses.

The Normans became a quiet and orderly people, governed by good laws, many of which are still in force. Though some of them might not be calculated for our times, as a whole they were quite sufficient for the exigences of the people, for whom they had been designed. The feudal system which the Normans established, and which extended in all its ramifications from the Duke to the lowest vassal, was the best which could have been introduced under actual circumstances. Among a people where the sovereign had not the means of keeping up a regular army, he was thus enabled to provide himself with a military force by the divisions, and sub-divisions of his territorial resources among his retainers, who in their turn were bound by their tenures to assist him in repelling any hostile aggression.

Such armies indeed had but little discipline, and were but indifferently qualified for distant expeditions, or for protracted campaigns; but they were the only ones which could be raised by sovereigns without revenues, whose nobility contributed in war nothing beyond their personal service, and when the commonalty was yet too poor, and too unimportant, to increase the strength of the state, and render it independent of the nobles by their productive industry, and their consequent ability to bear the heavy load of accumulated taxes.

When Rollo was baptised he had assumed the name of Robert, in honour of his sponsor Robert, Count of Paris, and one of the principal lords of Charles the Simple. He is, however, generally known under that of Rollo, an appellation under which he had acquired his former celebrity, and which could not be changed or eclipsed by the assumption of any Christian name.

Coutances Cathedral


Rollo was the commander of the largest of the Norman invasions, the result of which was the cession of Neustria in 942. The beneficial consequences of it, however, were not immediate in the diocese of Coutances, in which our island was then situated; for some of the Norman chiefs, who had settled in these parts, had continued to be pagans, and it was even many years after, that the country had still much to suffer from an incursion of Haigrol, one of the Kings of Denmark. The reader may not be sorry to have the following quotation from the pen of the learned M Le Canu, in his history of the Bishops of Coutances:

"The country might have expected better days after the conversion of Rollo. His example could not fail to have been highly influential, and in fact it had been so; but that was but slowly produced in our diocese of Coutances, for it appears from the registers of the Cathedral that for more than 100 years afterwards, the bishops could not come there but clandestinely to discharge their functions. It is not improbable that it was in consequence of that hatred to Christianity, that Count Riout armed the inhabitants of the neighbouring districts of Cotentin, and marched them to Rouen in 931 to attack the Duke of Normandy. The Normans of the Cotentin, though of the same nation as Rollo, reluctantly received him for their lord, as they had been settled in the country before him, and were independent of him. He therefore either dared not, or was unable to compel them to become Christians at the same time as his other subjects. He was in consequence obliged, to prevent the extinction of the Church of Coutances, to call its bishop near his person, and to grant him a place of worship in which he might officiate. During the seven days that the prince kept the white garment after baptism, he made splendid grants to several particular churches; his largesses extended even to the Convent of Mount St Michael; but Coutances had nothing, because that church was not then in a situation to receive any of those munificent grants.
"Those proud infidels, however, bowed their necks in the end under the yoke of faith. It was truly wonderful how those men were converted with all the sincerity of their hearts. Soon were they seen to lend a helping hand to repair the misfortunes, which had either been caused by themselves, or by their ancestors. They rebuilt the churches, raised the monasteries from their ruins, recalled the monks and the priests, and enriched the churches and convents. In less than a century every thing was not only restored to its former state, but was even improved.
"The country had indeed changed its masters; but it had not changed its usages, and the Norman lords who had replaced the French lords followed exactly the same course. In their civil institutions, they strictly adhered to the laws of the feudal system; and with respect to religion, they built churches near their castles, or else they erected chapels in their very castles, where the priests whom they appointed there were provided for at their own expence. It was there that everything in Normandy was moulded after the example of France.
"The etymology of the names of most of our country parishes is referable to the tenth and eleventh centuries. Neither before that period is it possible to trace out any property belonging to any particular church, such as tythes, or any revenues appropriated to the repairs of the sacred buildings.
"Every one of those lords annexed a provision to the church which he had built either for himself, or for his vassals. When they granted lands in fee, they retained the quit-rents for themselves, and the tythes for their chapels. The parochial priest or the chaplain, had to apportion that endowment into three parts ; the first for the fabric of his church, or for its repairs and maintenance, the second for the relief of the poor, and the third for the supply of his own personal wants.
"We have said perhaps too little about ecclesiastical discipline. One example will suffice . Till the twelfth century, baptism, except in cases of necessity, was not administered except on Easter Eve and at Whitsuntide. The neophytes, or the newly baptised wore during eight days a white garment, and a veil on their heads, which was called the chrismal. This became afterwards the perquisite of the church, and was used by the clerks for pmviding themselves with surplices:"

It is from that period of independence and prosperity that the Normans are to be considered as a distinct nation, and the rival of France, till subsequently by their great victory at Hastings they laid the foundation of a mighty empire, which has continued to aggrandise itself even after their political existence on the continent had been extinguished, and all the recollections of their departed greatness were only to be traced in the page of history. The Channel Islands have alone remained as a broken, but interesting wreck of that warlike people, and have continued through the viscissitudes of so many ages, to be faithful to their sovereigns, and unconquered; a possession long anterior to the conquest of Britain, and the most ancient of all the jewels which now adorn its crown.

Clameur de Haro

The name of Rollo has descended to posterity, not only as that of a great warrior, but as that of a quiet and benevolent prince, at once the conqueror, and benefactor of his new country. Some of his institutions have survived, and are still flourishing after the lapse of 1,000 years. One of them, the Clameur de Haro, has in some measure been invested with an air of romance, as if a charm had attached to the sacred name, and as if protection could issue from the ashes of that virtuous prince, to preserve the weak from injustice, and to avenge the wrongs of the oppressed.

It was a kind of solemn protest from anyone who thought himself aggrieved, which was made in this form of words "Haro! O my prince, aid me for I am wronged". It had the immediate effect of stopping all proceedings, till the matter could be accurately examined by a judicial investigation. A remarkable instance of this happened about 170 years after, at the funeral of his descendant, William the Conqueror.

That clamour is still the common mode of proceeding in Jersey when either of the parties imagines that the other is encroaching on, or deteriorating his real property. The matter is afterwards argued before the Royal Court of the island, and if the appellant cannot substantiate the aggression, of which he had complained, he is fined, as a punishment for having causelessly invoked, and profaned the sacred name of Haro.

Weakness and poverty

It is not to be imagined that, at this early period of Norman prosperity, these islands were of the value and importance which they have since acquired. They had no trade or resources, and their population was yet scanty and dispersed. They had, however, the invaluable advantage of being incorporated with those Normans, an heroical people, with whose national character they were identified, and in all whose triumphs they had had their adequate share.

In the absence of more positive evidence, it is a strong presumption of their weakness and poverty that when the adjoining continent was daily being covered with the most magnificent, and the most expensive ecclesiastical foundations, the islands remained in their former insignificance, and had no other places of worship than small and rude chapels, which had been built in different parts of the country. The division by parishes did not yet exist; and St Brelade, the oldest parish church in Jersey, is not of a higher date than of the beginning of the 12th century. Previous to this the public worship was celebrated in a great number of small chapels spread over the surface of the island. All these have gradually disappeared, some of them not yet many years ago, so that the only one which yet accidentally remains in rather a perfect state, is that in St Brelade's churchyard.

Another fact not often attended to, is that the dynasty of Rollo still exists, and that his lineal heirs are still on the English throne. Many royal houses have indeed reigned in England; but they have all derived their right through females, who represented in direct descent the Norman blood of their illustrious progenitors. The salic law is a mere accidental mode of conveying inheritance, and where that law has not been adopted, the female who inherits continues the Royal race; for it would be ridiculous to pretend that such an interruption in the male line did constitute a change of dynasty.

Under that point of view, the family on the throne of England is the first Royal House in Europe, and even more ancient than that of France, as on a reference to dates, it is evident that Rollo had already been acknowledged for a sovereign prince before Hugh Capet had become, by election, or rather by usurpation, the first king of the third race of the sovereigns of that country.

1847 Guide
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