Official history of St Martin's Parish Church

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From an official church history

Early days

Jersey had been Christian long before the Normans came; but of its earlier churches, which were probably of wood, we know nothing. The story of the present churches begins when the Normans annexed the Channel Islands in AD 933.

They had by this time become Christians and energetic builders. Each of the leaders, who divided between them what is now St Martin's parish, built a small stone chapel for his family and his serfs. There were Chapels dedicated to St Etienne, St Julian, St Barbe, St Medard, St Blaize, and St Margaret.

The Rosel estate still retains its own private chapel. The ruins of St Catherine's and St Agatha's were only demolished in 1852, when the road to the breakwater was made.

One of these chapels bore the name of St Martin, who about 500 years before had been Bishop of Tours. Everyone knows how he gave half his cloak to a beggar one snowy night. But his great work was to send the missionaries who evangelized north-western France. About a third of the Churches in Normandy had him as their patron, and among them our little chapel. Later for some unknown reason his chapel became the parish church.

The original building stood on the site of the present chancel. The date of its foundation is unknown. We first hear of it in a charter of 1042, by which William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy but not yet King of England, granted to the Abbey of Cerisy near Coutances, which his father had founded, "the Church of St Martin the Old in Jersey with its lands and a third of its corn-tithe”.

This shows that by 1042 the Church was already considered old (possibly in comparison with Grouville Church, which was also dedicated to St Martin), and that by then it was a parish church, for only parish churches received tithes. The Abbot of Cerise claimed the right to appoint its Rectors till the Reformation.

Middle Ages

Bit by bit the tiny chapel grew into the present church. First its west wall was pulled down and a nave added. Then, perhaps a hundred years later, two transepts were thrown out, giving the building the shape of a cross. When this was done, the tower, though not the spire, was built.

The next addition was the south chapel, placed, perhaps in the 14th century, alongside the chancel. Then, probably in the 15th century, the south aisle was added. The roof shows where the two parts meet, for the ridges are not quite level.

One enlargement of the church was never completed. Richard Mabon, Rector from 1514 till 1543, did many surprising things. He was Dean and also for some years Bailiff. He made the dangerous pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and on his return built the Jerusalem Chapel on La Hougue Bie. Towards the end of his life he began to add a chapel to his own church. It was to stand on the north of the chancel as the south chapel did on the south.

He planned it on noble lines, as the walled-in arch on the chancel's north wall shows; but he died before it was finished, and for 200 years it stood unroofed and unused.

The chancel and alter

Few relics of those pre-Reformation days remain. Two gargoyles, east and west, which act as water spouts, were meant to suggest the spirits of evil bursting through the walls to escape the holiness within.

Two human faces have been carved, one over the vestry window, one on the south wall, but whom they represent or why they are there, no one can say.

Inside, three recesses in the walls mark the sites of fraternity altars. Most medieval parishes had one or more fraternities - mutual aid societies - whose members were pledged to help one another in any hour of need. These were closely linked with the church. Each had its own altar, and a regular fraternity mass, which every member was bound to attend.

The Roman Service Book had the cleanly rule that, before celebrating, the priest must wash his hands publicly saying: "I will wash my hands in innocency; so will I go to Thine Altar."

And for this purpose, beside each altar there was always an alcove, called a piscina, containing a basin of water. There were four fraternities at St Martin.

St Catherine's held its mass in its own chapel: but the piscinas in the parish church show where the other three, the fraternities of St Nicholas, the Crucifix, and the Sacrament, had their altars. Those in the South Chapel are square and probably early. The one under the Annunciation window is ornate and later, and above it is a corbel on which once stood an image. The recess remains, which once held the piscina of the high altar, but the stonework has disappeared.

If we had entered the church before the Reformation, we might have found a thief or murderer lodging there; for the Norman Coutumier, which was the Law Book of Jersey, decreed: "If a fugitive from justice flee to a church, the lay power may not touch him. But, unless he be willing to surrender before the ninth day, the judge shall not allow any more food to be brought to him, unless he swear to leave the country never to return."

So from all Jersey Churches a sanctuary path, called the perquage, led to the sea; and so long as the culprit kept on that, he could not be arrested. The St Martin perquage followed the brook at the corner of the churchyard, till it met the stream that rises in the manor grounds, which it followed till it reached the sea.

The last to use it was Thomas Le Sceleur in 1546, who escaped the gallows by walking down it to a boat that took him to Normandy.

The Reformation

Till now the Services had been much like those still found in the Roman Church: but in 1550 the Reformation came in with a rush. The States received an Order from the Boy King, Edward VI, for "the removal of all crosses, idols, and images from the Churches, the sale of the bells, leaving one in each church, and the sale of all endowments for masses and other superstitions".

The appointment of Rectors now passed into the hands of the Crown. The Government intended the Jersey Reformation to follow English lines and the English Prayer Book was translated into French, and sent to the Islands in manuscript. But this was never printed. So, when copies became available of the Prieres Ecclesziastiques which Calvin compiled for Geneva, this book was adopted in Jersey, and the island Church became closely linked with the Huguenot Church in France, and the whole Presbyterian system was gradually introduced.

St Martin's Church was purged of all that could recall the old worship. Statues of the saints, pictures of their legends in windows or wall-paintings, altars, even the font, disappeared. One pathetic relic remains in the Museum, the smiling head of a girl saint that was found under the floor.

The Reformed Doctrines had for some years been filtering into the island from France, and must have made much progress, for these drastic changes met with little opposition. The only protest at St Martin seems to have come from a priest, perhaps a chaplain of one of the chantry chapels, who was ordered "to confess publicly in the church that he did wrong, when he caused a tumult and objected, while the Word of God was being preached."

The churchyard cross, however, remained for some years, for in 1606 the register records that Jeanne Vautier was "buried near the Cross”, though perhaps this was only its stump.

The church was now transformed into a Huguenot ‘temple'. (Calvinists insisted that a 'church' was built of Christians, not of stones. The place where the church met for worship they always called a 'temple'. And Jersey churches were called temples well into the 19th century).

At St Martin the chancel was boarded off to be the parish school, and the door by which the children entered can be seen in the outer wall. The hour-long sermons, which now became an important part of the service, caused the church to be filled with pews, all facing the pulpit.

The Lord's Supper was administered four times a year, a great event, preceded by a solemn week of preparation. A long, narrow table was set in front of the pulpit, and almost all adults in the parish stood round it to communicate. Five gallons of wine were provided for each occasion.

About this time the walls began to bulge with the weight of the stone roof, and massive buttresses became necessary. Priests' tombstones were ruthlessly used for this purpose, and one buttress was crowned with a magnificent heraldic device. Whose arms these are, and where they came from, has not yet been explained. Further buttresses had to be added in 1745. These are easily identified, being built of blue granite.

The lectern

In 1582 we first hear of a spire. The earliest surviving Constable's Account Book records: "Paid to Edmund Baudains for sundry missions that he undertook for the building of the spire: 4 nobles 18 groats.

Apparently he went to Normandy to secure timber. But whether this was the earliest spire or only a rebuilding is uncertain, for Jersey spires were often destroyed by lightning. In 1616 this spire was struck and broke off in the middle, as the people were coming into church. It was shattered again in 1837; but at last, when rebuilt, a lightning conductor was added.

Calvinists kept their churches plain, but they took good care of them. The accounts for 1657 show a restoration. All the interior was whitewashed: "13 barrels of lime were used". New seats were put in. The north roof was reslated. Broken glass was replaced. The churchyard wall was rebuilt.

The registers now become interesting. Instead of the usual bare list of names, the St Martin's clerks added gossipy notes about the people they mention, ranging from "She was an impudent woman" to "He was beloved by everyone".

Of one we are told: "He had acquired great wealth in Portugal"; of another: "He had fled to Normandy, because he was conscripted for the war with Spain"; of a third: "He once whitewashed the church spire." Of one bride we read: "She had previously been jilted by Jean Journeaux"; of another: "She had been betrothed to Gilles du Tot, but the contract had been broken by mutual consent in the presence of the Minister."

Susan Dolbel was "found dead beside her cow. It is thought that the cow kicked her." One Baptism took place in the porch "because the gravedigger had gone off with the key in his pocket".

Dysentery was a terror in those days. In 1639 Nicolas Baudains "died of the bloody flux, abandoned by his relatives and friends. His wife had to help to carry him to the cemetery". Elizabeth Michel "was brought to the cemetery in a cart led by her mother, as no one would carry her for fear of infection."

Again in 1652 the Register records: "This year there were 70 burials in St Martin's, most of them due to the bloody flux."

More surprising information is given. One clerk inserted a list of the lucky and unlucky days of each month. His successor burst into verse with a long, French, personal lament. One verse runs:

”By the sweat of my brow I toil, and yet I perish with hunger. For three days I have not tasted a morsel of bread. I planted, sowed, harvested, dunged, to provide food for my little ones. But, alas! all is eaten.

Dean Bandinel's effort in 1620 to introduce the Anglican Prayer Book failed, and it was forbidden under Cromwell; but in 1660, when the King regained his throne, its use was enforced in Jersey.

The Huguenot Prayer Book was replaced by a French translation of the English one, but otherwise few changes were made in St Martin's services.

The chancel remained boarded off; the long table was still brought in for the quarterly Communions; the Rectors continued to wear the black Geneva gown and not the surplice.

18th century

As the population increased, it became difficult to find seats for all. An act of the Assemblee Ecclesiastique in 1708 runs: "Seeing that the family of Thomas Lempriere has by the Lord's blessing become so numerous that one pew cannot hold them, it seemed reasonable to allot him a second pew." The problem was eventually solved by erecting two large galleries, one at the west end and one along the north wall."

In 1732 the sundial on the Tower was given by George Bandinel, the Vicomte.

In 1768 the present bell was bought. It was still the custom to name church bells. This one was stamped in French: "I, Martin, for St Martin, have been founded in London in 1768. Lester and Poch made me. I weigh 12 cwt 3 qr 18 lb" Lester and Poch's Whitechapel Foundry had a worldwide reputation. It sent bells to Russia, Germany and America. The 70 cwt bell for Canterbury Cathedral was made by them. The St Martin's bell has four coins of George II welded on it.

One scene, which would horrify us now, was not infrequent in those days. Churchwardens had to hale before the Dean's Court anyone guilty of immorality.

Here is a typical Act of the Court, dated 1730: "Elizabeth Le Brun has recognized the enormity of her sin and humbly asked pardon of God, and has promised as a salutary penance to kneel for two Sundays outside the main door of St Martin's Church, and ask the faithful, as they enter, to pray that she may be forgiven. She shall remain there till the Nicene Creed, when the churchwardens shall bring her into the church, where she will kneel in front of the pulpit, while the 51st Psalm is sung and the sermon preached. She shall then read aloud her confession. After this on the second Sunday the Rector may receive her back into the peace of the Church."

The last penance of this kind at St Martin took place in 1830.

In 1740 the churchwardens got permission from the Court to pull down Mabon's Chapel, "as it never had been, nor could be, used for Divine Service, its gable had recently fallen, and its ruins disfigured the church." The eastern half was then demolished, but the western end was preserved to house the Militia cannons.

One act of the Dean's Court provokes a smile. In those days the collection was taken by almoners holding large copper flagons at the door. In 1749 the churchwardens asked permission to wall up two of the doors, as they had four doors but only two almoners, and some people always left by doors that had no almoner. Permission was granted.

St Martin was long considered the most important of the country parishes, an idea dating, perhaps, from days when the Governor lived in Mont Orgueil. So the Rector received the largest stipend. A list drawn up by the Lieut-Governor in 1797 shows that the Rector of St Clement's received £50 a year, St Brelade's £60, St Lawrence, Trinity and St John's £70, Grouville, St Mary's, St Ouen's and St Peter's £80, but the Rector of St Martin's received £150. There was, however, one drawback. The same Report states: "The Rectory is quite unfit for habitation." A new rectory was finally built in 1830 — this rectory was refurbished in 1989.

Statue of St Martin donated by Lady Trent in 1936

19th century

During the 19th century the church was twice restored. The chancel was still boarded off for the day school, but in 1842 Dean Jeune suggested that, "out of respect for the temple and the place where their ancestors were buried," the school should be held elsewhere.

At first the assembly refused; but three years later it sanctioned a general restoration, provided that it cost the parish nothing." The school was moved, the partition pulled down, and the chancel restored to its former use with a communion table under the east window. A new pulpit and several stained-glass windows were given, and the present vestry made in the remnant of the Mabon Chapel, from which the cannons were transferred to the new arsenal.

When Le Neveu became Rector in 1875 he pressed for a further restoration. He invited Pearson Hayward, an Exeter architect, to inspect the church, and in 1877 presented Hayward's proposals to the assembly. There was opposition, and they were carried only by two votes; but a meeting a week later confirmed this decision by 53 votes to 34, and decided to pay for the work by printing parish banknotes to the value of £1,200, a form of finance still legal in Jersey; but, by the time the work was finished, it had cost £2.500.

Much of it, like the repointing of the walls, was essential, but not spectacular. The most noticeable internal changes were the removal of the west gallery, the placing of a font near the door, the provision of new pews of a uniform pattern, and the entire refurnishing of the chancel by William Lempriere, a retired clergyman, who was now Seigneur of Rozel.

His gift included choir stalls, communion rails, and a new east window. Other improvements followed. In 1881 a new organ was bought and placed behind the choir. In 1890 several more stained glass windows were given.

On one its brass plate declares that it was presented by the 23 churchwardens who held office from 1750 to 1890. How subscriptions were gathered from gentlemen who had been dead a century it does not reveal.

Le Neveu did not shrink from making changes. Realizing that his parish was slowly becoming English-speaking, he took the evening service in English, while keeping the morning service in French.

Puritan customs had lingered so long in Jersey that all his predecessors had worn the black Geneva gown in church; but in the eighties he introduced the surplice. And he carried his congregation with him. When Bishop Thorold of Winchester visited Jersey in 1895, he found a good deal to criticise; but St Martin's received warm praise. "Nothing”, he wrote, "could have exceeded the reverence and seriousness of the people, and the Church was crowded. The recollection of it abides with me."

Church plate

20th century

In 1903 three noteworthy additions were made to the church; a clock was placed in the tower to commemorate the coronation of Edward VII; the lovely west window in the south aisle, quite the finest in the Island, was given by Miss A M Amy; and the magnificent brass lectern, which is worthy of a place in any cathedral, was presented by Mr W A Sohier.

1927 saw the last of the French services. For some time English had been used in the morning and evening services; but on the second Sunday in each month there was still a French communion service. But in May that year there were only two communicants, and it was discontinued.

In 1939 the church had another thorough renovation. The walls were whitewashed, electric light replaced the smelly paraffin lamps, and Lady Trent presented an ancient, wooden statue of St Martin sharing his cloak with a beggar, which she had bought in the South of France.

The story of the parish under the Germans has been told in a booklet, A Jersey Parish during the Occupation, written by Canon Wilford, an aged clergyman, who was living in the parish after many years work in New Zealand, and took charge of the Church when Rector Le Sueur died.

In 1951 a new vestry screen was erected in memory of Le Sueur. The Lady Chapel screen was also given in memory of a former Rector when the whole of the south aisle was renovated and the Lady Chapel created.

The Lempriere Screen, the beautiful Jersey granite altar, the cross, vases and alms dish were dedicated by the Dean in September 1963. The cross, vases and alms dish all bear the Wedgwood coat of arms.

The following year the Rector dedicated the priest's stalls and credence table. 1965 saw the north aisle and vestry renovated and the pulpit, previously in the South aisle, moved to its present position.

New high altar rails were presented in 1969 and five years later the carved oak high altar was given to complete an almost total renovation of the church.

In 1989 a church treasury to display the church silver was placed in the south wall by the Little Chapel screen. It was given by two former churchwardens who between them had served for 84 years as church officers.

Another renovation was undertaken by the parish in 1996 when the electrical system, first installed in 1939, was improved and a new heating system installed. They also totally releaded and repaired the magnificent west window. The lovely little Bon Berger window in the north wall, marked for many years by a bullet-hole, was repaired in memory of a former Rector by his family in 1998.

The walls of St Martin's Church have now been consecrated by a thousand years of worship. Long may it remain a spot where the parish will meet its God.

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