La Hougue Bie
The legend of the serpent
Article from The Bailiwick of Jersey by George Balleine
Meaning of name
Haugr is early Norse for "a mound", and when French became the language of the Islands, this was softened to Hougue. Jersey abounds in Hougues: La Hougue Boëte, La Hougue Mauger, La Hougue de Forêt, Belle Hougue Point, Les Hougues de Millais, etc. Guernsey has even more. Wherever Vikings saw a conspicuous mound, they called it a Haugr or Hougue. The origin of the Bie is more doubtful. It may be a contraction for Hambie, for a legend connected this mound with the Castle of Hambye in Normandy.
Folklore is full of serpent-slaying heroes. Some were saints. Cerisy Abbey stood where St Vigor was said to have killed a serpent. St Lô, Bishop of Coutances, delivered his diocese from another. More often the slayers were knights. And one of these legends became linked with La Hougue Bie. It was said that a serpent in the marsh of St Lawrence wrought great havoc in the Island, till the seigneur of Hambye came from Normandy and cut off its head.
But his servant murdered the seigneur, and returned, boasting that he had slain the monster after it had killed his master, and that his lord's dying wish had been that his widow should marry his avenger - "which for love of her husband she did". But the varlet talked in his sleep, and the lady learnt the truth and had him hanged. She then, so the legend declared, raised tne great mound over her husband's grave, and built on the top a little chapel, where masses could be said for his soul. This romance may have caused the mound to be known as La Hougue Hambye, which could easily be pruned to La Hougue Bie.
One grain of truth may perhaps lie behind this story. Hambye was the ancestral home of the powerful Paynel family, one branch of which held land in Jersey. So La Hougue Bie may have been on Paynel property, and the older of the two little chapels on the top may have been built by some lady of Hambye. This tiny sanctuary, only 20 feet long, was dedicated to Notre Dame de la Clarte, our Lady of the Dawn, a dedication found in several parts of Brittany. But by the fifth century it was falling into ruins.
In 1509, however, Richard Mabon became Dean of Jersey. He owned the property on which La Hougue Bie stood, and, as a thank offering for his safe return from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, he restored the old chapel, rededicating it to Our Lady of Loretto, the Assumption, and St Michael. Against the east wall he added a second small chantry, which became known as Jerusalem, in which Masses could be said for the souls of his own family.
Some of the paintings that he placed on the walls can still be dimly discerned, and appear to represent the Annunciation. In the crypt beneath he made "an imitation of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem, so far as he could remember it", ie of the rock-hewn tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and pilgrims passed before it, entering by one door and leaving by another.
The eve of the Reformation witnessed a revival of pilgrimage, but our only knowledge of what went on in Mabon's chapels comes from hard-shelled Calvinists, to whom every Catholic priest was a rogue. Writing 40 years after Mabon's death, the author of Les Chroniques said: "This Priest was an idolater and great maker of images, who persuaded poor people to believe a pack of lies and rascalities to induce them to bring him offerings."
Another writer of the same school declared: "He placed an image of Notre Dame in an oven-like recess, and the people passed down a covered arcade to make offerings to the idol, whereby this impostor gained great booty. The head of the image rested on one arm, while it held out the other to receive gifts, which Mabon did not fail to collect for his own pocket. The hand had a hole, through which the coins fell on a spring, which caused the arm to move as though thanking the donor, whereby the superstitious were still further seduced."
This simple mechanical device may have encouraged offerings, but few in the sceptical 16th century can have regarded it as a miracle. His accuser goes on to assert that, when offerings began to fall off, "this insatiable Priest proclaimed a miracle. He hid in the wick of candles a very thin wire, which he fastened to the roof of the Chapel. The smoke from the flame made the wire invisible, and the candles seemed to float in mid air, and people believed that they were held up by the virtues of Our Lady." But slanders like these were the stock-in-trade of the baser type of Reformers.
Only four years after Mabon's death the Reformation ruined all his plans. In 1547 every chantry chapel was confiscated by the Crown, and Mabon's were sold to a Thomas Tanner. They changed hands frequently in the next two centuries; but in 1759 the property was bought by James Dauvergne, Adjutant in the Household Cavalry. Though his duties kept him most of the year in London, he spent a small fortune on his new possession. The grounds, which had been completely bare, were laid out with blue hydrangeas and trees. He made the winding path to the summit of the mount; but when he carne to the chapels, he proved himself a veritable vandal.
He threw the two into one by pulling down the dividing wall. He paved the floor with blue and white marble, and coated the walls with marble-like stucco. He replaced the narrow Norman west window by a large, sham Gothic one filled with gaudy glass. He turned one of the altar alcoves into a fireplace. And then he smothered the chapels with a great brick tower, a kitchen, a library, and two round rooms, and then a flat roof, from which one could see almost all the Island.
It is a marvel that the weight of this did not bring the whole building down. For years he collected curios for his chapel, the most interesting being a double font, now in Grouville Church, which had been thrown out of the town church during the Calvinist regime. A diary of 1818 says, "La Hougbie now belonging to General Gordon. The spot is very elevated on which stands this beautiful tower, and is encompassed all around with all kinds of deciduous and evergreens. From the bottom of the declivity to the top you ascend gradually through a winding path of about three feet broad, till you reach the top from whence the prospect around is charming. . .. The old Castle (ie Mont Orgueil) is very visible from thence. There are five rooms in the tower beautifully and elegantly done up with fine sophas and chairs." In I792 he transferred the property to his nephew, Captain Philippe Dauvergne RN.
Philippe had been adopted by the Duke of the midget principality of Bouillon; so he became known as the Prince de Bouillon, and the tower as the Prince's Tower. As he commanded a small flotilla for the protection of the islands, he used the tower to keep watch on the enemy's fleet. On his death the property was sold. In 1830 a visitor wrote: "The building is untenantable through dampness. A year ago some tons of lead were stripped from the roof and rolled up like a sheet by the wind."
In 1835 a tavern was built in the grounds with a dance-hall, skittle alley, and all the fun of the fair, and one guide-book declared: "The cell of superstition has become the Temple of Taste!" But fashions change; customers fell off; Methuen's Little Guide described the tower in 1910 as "a damp neglected place with little interest".
But in 1919 it was bought by La Société Jersiaise, who thereby showed wisdom and foresight. Nothing could be done till a lease expired; but in 1924 the restoration of the chapels was begun. Dauvergne's tower was entirely demolished. The dividing wall between the chapels was rebuilt. They were roofed with old tiles, and a small belfry replaced one that had been struck by lightning. Doors and windows were as far as possible replaced as in Mabon's day, and a mediaeval piscina, of extremely simple design, was discovered in the wall.
- Prince’s Tower - a Jersey Heritage article
Later an ancient altar-stone with five consecration crosses, which had been used as a gun platform at Mont Orgueil, was brought to Notre Dame de la Clarte as an altar. In 1931 the chapel was "reconciled" by the Bishop of Winchester. Recently the floor, previously of earth, was paved with granite setts for convenience and cleanliness.
But all this time the mystery of the mound remained unsolved. It was obviously no natural formation. Why should men have toiled to throw up such an enormous erection, which is 40 feet high? In 1682 Poingdestre suggested that it was a look-out to keep watch for pirates "that the inhabitants, discovering their ships from afar, might have time to hide."
But by the 18th century archaeologists had discovered that artificial mounds often covered prehistoric graves. In 1837 Durell had written: "It is a pity that the Hougue Bie has never been dug into."
Digging commences in 1924
In 1924 the Societe began to dig, and after ten days a great stone was uncovered. Those present have described the tremendous and dramatic thrill of excitement they felt when this discovery was made. Further investigation disclosed what proved to be one of the finest Neolithic tombs in Europe.
This must have been the grave of a very great chief. Seventy huge stones had been selected, most of which, as they are seaworn, were evidently lying on the shore. The moving of these gigantic blocks, some weighing 30 tons, in days before the invention of wheels, must have been a stupendous task. Hundreds of labourers must have toiled, with the aid of rollers, to drag them up the hill, where even today the modern road is known as Rue Crevecoeur or Heartbreak Hill.
When they reached the site selected, 53 of the stones were manoeuvred into sockets in the earth, so that they stood upright, forming a long narrow passage leading to a larger chamber with (to use modern ecclesiastical terms) a side chapel on the north and south. Beyond, on the west, was a smaller room, which might be called the chancel, and beyond that, like the Lady Chapel in a cathedral, a square cell.
All was then buried under a mound of tightly packed earth, so that the cap-stones could be levered up, and placed as a roof on the whole; and, when that was done, the gaps between the stones were filled with dry-walling, and the tomb was ready for use. When it was opened, the Société found scattered bones of eight persons, of whom at least two were women; so, if we like to give play to a romantic imagination, we may picture the Chief's favourite wives being sent with him to the Spirit World with some slaves to wait on them.
The tomb was then buried beneath the present enormous mound. This is only a baby compared with Silbury Hill in Wiltshire, which is 125 feet high; but La Hougue Bie is 40 feet, and the rubble of which it is composed weighs at least 18,000 tons. To carry this more than a mile from Queen's Valley, from which most of it seems to have come, can have been no light task. Whether it was done out of reverence for the dead or out of fear of his ghost, no one can say.
These chamber-tombs were probably built, between about 2200-1800 B.C., by the pre-Celtic folk who are generally called Iberians, and the size of the work suggests that this was not one of their early efforts.
The Great Chief slept in peace for 3,000 years or more. Then came the Vikings. They knew that prehistoric tombs often contained treasure. Beowulf describes how one party dug into an English barrow and found "rich ornaments and vessels of gold". In an Icelandic saga the hero opened the barrow of Karr, and, though the skeleton of the dead warrior drew his sword to defend his treasures, the Viking got away with the loot. This probably explains why, when the Sociéeteté got inside La Hougue Bie, they found nothing but two beads, some fragments of pottery, and the bones already mentioned. The Vikings had been ahead of them.
One find, however, was interesting. Built into the wall of the north "side chapel", in such a way that four-fifths of its marks were invisible, was a stone with twenty "cup marks" on it. These are still one of the unsolved problems of archaeology. They may be the heraldry of primitive man, boundary marks to indicate the territory of a tribe, or the earliest step towards writing, a code conveying a message. The stone walling round it has now been removed to show the whole stone, which must be older than the tomb, for it was used merely as building material.
During the German Occupation La Hougue Bie was fortified with barbed wire, trenches, and machine-guns; a timber observation tower, 26 feet high, was built on the top of the mound, and a large concrete dug-out made in the grounds. This has been turned into an Occupation Museum, showing samples of things left behind by the enemy and other exhibits illustrating their five years in the Island, and this is a most popular feature among visitors to Jersey. An Agricultural Museum of old farm implements has been built in the grounds, painstakingly labelled with their Jersey-French names, thus preserving for all time knowledge which might otherwise have perished.
Editor's note by Mike Bisson:
- "The treatment of La Hougue Bie since its acquisition by La Société Jersiaise has been highly controversial. Some, including George Balleine, who wrote the original of the article above, believed that it was right to restore the buildings on top of the mound to their situation before d'Auvergne's tower was constructed. Others believed, and still do to this day, that the demolition of the tower was as much an act of vandalism as its original construction. The same arguments have raged over work undertaken at Mont Orgueil Castle. If it is right to undertake work to prevent further deterioriation of historic monuments, is it right to revert the structures to a particular point in time, and who should make such decisions?
- "Further controversy surrounded La Hougue Bie in the 1990s when Société archaeologists initidated the clearance of soil from the mound to reveal its stonework structure beneath. There were fears that this might lead to damage of the neolithic tomb itself. Eventually the earth covering of the mound was reinstated."
- Hougue Bie, a further article
Click on any picture to see a larger version
Restoration of the chapel under way, photographed by Emile Guiton
Work on opening the tomb
These three photographs were taken inside the tomb shortly after it was discovered in 1924