Caesarea - fact or fiction

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A map based on the Antonine Itinerary, or Antonini Itinerarium, which covered the whole of Roman occupied territory, possibly early in the 3rd Century AD. The British section was called Iter Britanniarum, and also listed 15 offshore islands around Britain, which has led some to believe that the Romans called Jersey Caesarea

Jerripedia editor Mike Bisson joins in the age-old argument about how Jersey got its name

Generations of Jerseymen have been taught that the island's name is of Roman origin, having been identified in early documents as Caesarea. But is there any truth in this connection? Was Caesarea a name given by the Romans to the largest of the Channel Islands, or was the name meant to identify one of the other islands in the area?

Myths and legends

The problem is that so little has actually been written about Jersey's early history - nothing at all until Poingdestre and Falle in the late 17th century - that modern-day 'historians' cling to every word there is, and myths and legends are perpetuated as facts.

There is, in truth, nothing factual on which to base the suggestion that the island now known as Jersey, derived that name from Julius Caesar. Even Charles Stevens' suggestion that 'the word Jersey is acceptable as a lazy way of saying Caesarea' seems to be stretching etymology to its limits. If the syllables in the island's name are reversed there is a greater affinity between the two words: if Caesarea really does mean Caesar's island, as Falle suggested in his book, which, it must be remembered, was written to enhance the importance of the island in the eyes of the monarch of the day, William III, does Jersey mean the island of Caesar?

Perhaps, but if Caesarea to Jersey seems something of a jump, it should be recalled that in a 1025 charter of Richard II, the island was described as Jersoi, an even bigger leap.

If it is to be argued that the Romans did name the island they saw off the French coast, and may or may not have visited, after their commander, and that its present-day name is a derivation of the Roman word Caesarea, one has to consider the names of the other Channel Islands. Charles Stevens suggests that of the 15 offshore islands listed in the Antonine Itinerary, seven were Channel Islands, including Andium and Caesarea. Others suggest that only five of the islands listed in the Itinerary, which is a document of unknown date, listing Roman settlements and other places in Britain and the distances between them, are Channel Islands.

The five are named as Sarnia, Caesarea, Barsa, Silia and Andium, none of which really corresponds particularly closely with Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, Sark and Herm, which are the largest of the Channel Islands. The other two inhabited islands are Brecqhou and Jethou, which are both smaller than Grande Ile, Chausey, which was considered part of the Channel Islands when the Duchy of Normandy and England were under joint control between 1066 and 1204, and may even have been administered from Jersey for some time after that.

It is not impossible that the five islands in the Itinerary were actually Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, Sark and Chausey, and given that the name of the Normandy town of Cherbourg is thought to mean Caesar's Town, Chausey might be a better match for Caesar's Island, and Jersey would corrsepond with Andium, which translates as 'largest', and could well have progressed to Angium/Angia/Augia.

Sarnians and Caesareans

So where does this leave Guernsey, Alderney and Sark? None of the five names could remotely be said to be an etymological match for their present-day names, but Guernsey has adopted the Roman name Sarnia for as long as Jersey has adhered to Caesarea. Alderney, however, is linked with the Roman name Riduna, and islanders call themselves Ridunians in the same way that Guernseymen are known as Sarnians and Jerseymen as Caesareans. Others suggest, however, that Riduna was not Alderney, but a much smaller island called Tatihou on the other side of the Cotentin peninsular.

The simple answer is that nobody knows how the names the islands are known by today originated. There seems little doubt, based on the Antonine Itinerary, that the Romans did call them something, although which island had which name is open to conjecture. It should come as no surprise that Roman and subsequent names do not match, because among other places listed in the Itinerary were Eboracum, which we now know as York, and Durolipons, which is today called Cambridge.

If Jersey is not derived from Caesarea, what else could its origins be? That no other suggestions have been put forward is often given as an argument, albeit not a very convincing one, for accepting the Caesarea connection.

Variations

The fact is that the island we call Jersey can be found in various historical documents as

  • Andium 4th C
  • insula Gersoi 1022/1026
  • insula Gerseii, var Gersey, Gersei, Gersoii 1042
  • Gersus 1070
  • insula de Gerzoi 1080/1082
  • insula de Gersoi 1066/1083
  • insula Gersoi 1066/1083
  • l'isle de Gersui 1160/1174
  • in Gersoio 1223/1236
  • Gersuy 1339
  • Gersui 1339
  • insula de Jersey 1372
  • insula de Jereseye 1372
  • insula de Gersey 1386
  • insula […] de Jersey 1419
  • Iarsay [lire Jarsay] 1585
  • Jarsey 1693
  • Jerzey 1753
  • Isle de Gersey 1753/1785
  • Ile de Jersey 1854

Several of these names sound more like Guernsey than Jersey, and none of them sounds like Caesarea.

Guernsey

Guernseymen are unlikely to abandon their traditional link with Sarnia and stop calling themselves Sarnians, but recent research has suggested that it might actually have been the Roman name for Sark.

An article about Guernsey in the BBC's on-line encyclopedia suggests that the Channel Islands were known to the Celts as the Lenur Islands, and that Guernsey was called Lisia and Jersey Angia.

Over more recent history, Guernsey has been known to the French (and still is) as Guernesey, and because the inhabitants of the second largest of the Channel Islands would struggle with any attempt to establish an etymological connection between Guernsey and Sarnia, they appear to accept that their island's name is of Norse origin, ey being Old Norse for 'island'. The full name has traditionally been thought to translate as 'green island', and green is Guernsey's traditional colour, worn by their football teams and others. Others suggest that the 'Guerns' element is derived from a Viking personal name, possibly Grani's.

Alderney

Alderney is known to the French as Aurigny, which is variously supposed to be a Germanic or Celtic name. It may be a corruption of Adreni or Alrene, which is probably derived from an Old Norse word meaning "island near the coast". Alternatively it may derive from three Norse elements: alda (swelling wave, roller), renna (strong current, race) and oy or ey (island).

Endnote

If the suppositions for the origins of Guernsey and Alderney are correct, probably Jersey is of Norse origin, too. But, if so, quite what the 'jers' element means is anybody's guess: Geirr's has been suggested. If today's name dates not from Roman times but from the invasions of the Vikings in the 10th and 11th centuries, followed by the creation of Normandy in 911AD and control of the French offshore islands switching some time after this from Brittany to Normandy, that would explain the change from Angia to Jersey.

But is the Roman link still alive in the supposed progression from Andium to Angia?

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