How Jersey got its name

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A Google Earth view of Jersey from space

The name Jersey has traditionally been said to derive from the Latin Caesarea, which in turn translates as Caesar's Island, but this view has been all but discredited by modern historians, although it lives on in popular culture.

Near Coutances

Jersey has had its present name, with various spellings, probably for over 1,200 years, and, some argue, for longer, but in early times it did not have a name at all. Early records show it called 'the island near Coutances'.

Before Jersey split in 1204 from Normandy and became a dependency of the English Crown, it was part of the Diocese of Coutances, a town on the nearby French coast, the spires of whose cathedral can easily be seen from Mont Orgueil Castle on a clear day. After administrative links with Normandy were severed, church links remained and it was to be many years before jurisdiction over the island's churches switched from Coutances to Winchester, where it remained until 2014.

Conquest

When the Romans conquered Gaul and moved through Normandy they will have seen Jersey from the Cotentin coast and undoubtedly made the voyage across to it, as well as the other islands. It must have seemed a beautiful place to them because they allegedly named it Caesarea after the Emperor Casesar and it is argued that this name was subsequently corrupted to Jersey. In AD 300 Emperor Antoninus is supposed to have voyaged south from Britain to Gaul, passing or calling at Riduna, Sarnia and Caesarea. These names have been assumed to be those of Alderney, Guernsey and Jersey.

Before the Romans conquered France, or Gaul as it was then known, it is believed that Jersey was known as Augia. Roman historians referred to 'the island close to Coutances' by this name. However, there is a problem, in that from around 500-800 AD, Jersey apparently continued to be known as Angia/Augia or Agna. If this is the case, it seems hard to believe that at some point it would have reverted to a name given it by the Romans.

In addition, the island appears as Jersoi in a 1025 charter of Richard II, which makes the leap from Caesarea to Jersey difficult to comprehend.

Other spellings

  • Gersey
  • Jerseye
  • Jarsey
  • Jarzé
  • Gerzai
  • Gersui


From Falle's history of Jersey

A comprehensive explanation of how Jersey got its various names is contained in the 17th Century An Account of the Island of Jersey by the renowned historian the Rev Philippe Falle

It cannot with certainty be said when, or by whom, this Island was first inhabited ; which will not seem strange to him who considers how dark and fabulous the History of the greatest Nations is, when carried up to times and ages too remote.
'Tis abundantly sufficient for the honour of this Island, in point of antiquity, that it was known to the Romans; who called it Caesarea, a name of distinction given to favourite places; and by that name the Emperor Antoninus lays it down in his Itinerary, among the Isles of the Britannic Ocean.
It makes so good an appearance from the neighbouring Continent, and the traject to it is so short, that 'tis not likely the Romans would pass it by without visiting it, as they carried on the war in these parts. Caesar himself relates how he brought under subjection the Unelli, the Lexobii, and other nations inhabiting this Maritim Tract, of which the adjacent Islands being members and appendages, doubtless he would not fail to reduce them with the rest. And accordingly we want not proofs of the Romans, if not of Caesar himself, coming amongst us.
Adjoining to Mont Orgueil castle, and having communication with it by a sally-port, there is an old fortification called to this day by immemorial tradition Le Fort de César.
Likewise at Rosel, in the North of the Island, there is a remarkable entrenchment by a like tradition bearing still the name of La Petite Cesarée. Near the Manor of Dielament, one sees the remains of an ancient work, in the known form of a Roman Camp. Coins also have been found here, but our people unhappily wanting a taste for such things, have neglected to preserve them. Nor did I myself make enquiry after them till lately, when three were put into my hands, viz. a grand Bronze (to speak in the style of the Medallists) of the Emperor Commodus, newly digged up in the parish of St Ouen; and two of Probus and Posthumus, of that sort which (as Patin observes) came to be struck in the impoverished and declining state of the Roman Empire.
The modern name of Jersey, or Gersey, is allowed after Mr Cambden to be but a corruption of that of Caesarea. For Ey, in the language of those Northern Nations who overran Europe about a thousand years ago, signifies an Island, as in the name of Anglesey, ie the Isle of the Angles ; and Jer, or Ger, and likewise Cher, is but a contraction of Caesar, as in the name of Cherbourg, an ancient sea port town in Normandy, so called from the Latin Caesaris-burgum Jersey is, as if one should say, Caesar's Island.
It is also sometimes mentioned in old writings and monuments by the name of Augia, which the learned Mr Poingdestre thought to be the original name of this Island, before the Romans were acquainted with it, and called it Caesarea; so that although they, in right of conquest, would needs give it a new name, yet still the old name remained among the natives and neighbours on the Continent, and was in use many ages after.
And that thus it has often happened to places and countries upon a conquest, is notorious from all histories; into which no small confusion and obscurity has been thrown by such plurality of names applied to the same place. By the above said name of Augia, Childebert King of France, son of Clovis, gave this Island to Samson Archbishop of Dol in Armorica, about the year 550 including in the same grant the other adjoining Islands; of which grant that accurate and diligent historian D'Argentré, attests to have seen authentic deeds and evidences.
But concerning that transaction I shall have a more proper opportunity to speak in the chapter of Religion, it being here mentioned only on account of this name of Augia, which we have under consideration. To pass therefore to another instance; in the reign of Charlemagne, Geroaldus Abbot of Fontenelle in Neustria, was sent hither with an imperial commission, which, though the occasion be not said, must have been of some importance, considering the quality of the person, employed before in great negotiations.
Is Abbas, jussu Caroli Augusti, quadam legatione fungebatur in Insula cui nomen est AUGIA, — & est adjacens Pago Constantino. Here the name of Augia occurs again, and the Island is described by its situation near the Pagus Constantinus, ie the City of Constance, or Coutance, as they now speak, and no other Island but Jersey will answer that description. Therefore Augia and Jersey must be the same.
Whereupon it may be proper to observe, that 'tis very usual with ancient authors, when they speak of this Island, to describe it by this very mark and character of its nearness to Coutance, instead of naming it by name. Thus Gregorius Turonensis, and Aimoinus Gaguinus and Paulus Aemylius call it an Island of the Diocese of Coutance ; and Papyrius Massonius, an Island of the shore of Coutance ; and these descriptions point to Jersey no less plainly than if its name was set down in capital letters.
The occasion of this Island being mentioned by them, was the banishment of Proetextatus, Archbishop of Rouen hither, in the year 577. Now two modern ingenious historians of Normandy speaking after them of the same affair, expressly call the place of his banishment Jersey; which shews how those authors are now to be understood. Indeed this Island is so near to Coutance, that they are in sight of each other. From the lofty towers of its beautiful cathedral it overlooks us, and the narrow Channel betwixt it and us' ; and the bending shore of the Pais Coutantin, reaching to Cap la Hague, does in a manner surround and inclose us on that side.
As for the city itself, glorying in some remains of the Roman greatness, as Aqueducts, etc. I have no farther concern with it at present.
Augia still is, and has been the name of other places. The Bodenzee, or lake of Constance in Swabia, has a noted Isle in it so called . In Normandy there is Le Pais d’Auge, which is a large district containing some Dioceses. And Homer speaks of more than one Augia among the Locrians bestowing on them the epithet of lovely.
But in regard to Jersey, this its primitive name is grown obsolete and quite disused, and Caesarea corrupted into Jersey has by length of time prevailed over it. I shall only add further, that this name of Jersey admits of some variations, caused by a change of letters into others of a sirnilar sonnd and pronunciation. Thus 'tis written indifferently Jarzé, Gerzai, Gersui etc by the French. In the records of the Tower and Exchequer it is Jerseye. And when others have gone about to latinize it, they have introduced the barbarous names of Gersoium, Grisogium, and the like, in lien of the true Roman name Caesarea, of which they were ignorant, and which our great British Antiquary has so happily revived and restored to us.
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