The perquages or percages of Jersey
This article was read by La Société Jersiaise president G F de Gruchy on 12 July 1933 at an outing to inspect the perquage running alongside Beaumont Marsh. It was then published in the Annual Bulletin the following year
Right of sanctuary
Though the perquages or sanctuary roads of Jersey would appear to be peculiar to this Island, the right of sanctuary - that is, the right of criminals and persons accused of crimes to escape arrest and punishment whilst they were in certain holy places, was very ancient and widely spread in Europe.
The legendary origin of Rome herself was such a sanctuary. Christianity took over the right of sanctuary with many other of the privileges belonging to the temples of the old gods, and throughout the Dark and Middle Ages the Church exercised this right with the consent of the civil power.
The result in some countries was the growth of protected communities of criminals which became a menace to good government. Though the old rights of sanctuary fell into disuse at the Reformation, they survived for many years in the rights of exemption from arrest claimed by embassies for residents in their purlieus. It was at times convenient for the French and Spanish Ambassadors in London to have at call a band of desperadoes who were dependent on their favour, yet whose acts could be repudiated.
It is characteristic of the administration of the Duchy that Norman legislators took stringent precautions to prevent the right of sanctuary from leading to such abuses as the growth of criminal communities. The following translation of the Latin text of Chapter LXXXI of the Ancienne Coutume de Normandie clearly explains the Norman practice.
On condemned men who flee to a church
- "If any condemned man or fugitive shall escape to a church, or to a cemetery or a holy place, or seizes a crucifix, ([The French text adds "fixed to the ground") by "ecclesiastical privilege he should be left alone by the lay power, if it may not lay its hands upon him. But the lay justiciar should place guards, so that he may not flee thence, and unless within the ninth day he shall be willing to surrender to the lay justiciar, or to forswear Normandy, on the ninth complete day, the justiciar shall not allow thenceforward any victual to be brought to him, until he shall surrender himself to the justiciar, who shall make order in respect of the surrendered man according to the nature of the crime; or (until) he shall have offered to forswear the country. And he shall forswear in this form with his hand extended over the Holy Gospels:
- ”That he will go away from Normandy, never to return into It; and that he will never procure that any harm be done, on account of past events, to the country or to persons by himself or by another; and that, until he has left Normandy never to return, he shall not sleep in any town except for one night.
- ”And his going away should begin on the spot, he having stated previously towards which parts he shall have wished to take his way in so leaving the country, and day's journeys having been allotted to him in his going away, in proportion to what the possibility of persons and places and the distance shall require. And if, at the end of the term given to him, he shall be found in Normandy, or if he shall return backwards one league, he shall carry his sentence with him. For if he has gone against his oath of forswearing the country, on that ground the Church should not extend further protection to him."
One essential point to be noted in the Norman practice is that the fugitive had to forswear or abjure the country in order to benefit by his right to sanctuary. When, towards the close of the 13th century, contemporary evidence of the conditions ruling in the Norman Islands is available, we find that abjuration is still a condition precedent to the release of the fugitive, though in other respects the Island practices were diverging from the strict rules of the ’Ancienne Coutume.
Fear of prison
In fact we find in the Rolls of Assize and other documents of that period that many Islanders resorted to this desperate expedient of abjuration when accused of crime. Grave reasons alone can explain why numbers of home-loving people, many of whom were clearly innocent, should abandon family and property to become outcasts in foreign lands. It may be conjectured that one of the main reasons was the evil of long imprisonment of men awaiting trial, combined with the horrors of the gaols.
These evils were intensified during the terrible oppression of the Islanders under the absentee government of Otto de Grandison. The Extente of I274 gives two instances of innocent Jerseymen held in gaol, Guillaume Rocelyn until he lost the soles of his feet and Nicolas fils Morout until he lost his feet altogether.
Under the threat of such horrors it is no wonder that innocent men abjured the Island and from their place of exile petitioned the King for pardon, or for leave to go before a jury. Examples of such petitions survive. It is clear that the Island practice was that a man recovered the lands held at his abjuration if the King gave him peace within the year and day.
From the contemporary evidence it would appear that the taking of sanctuary was an essential preliminary to the right to abjure, though in practice an abuse had been tolerated by which persons had abjured without taking sanctuary. Also it would appear that fugitives from gaol could take sanctuary as well as accused persons.
The chief way in which the practice of the Islands had diverged from the Ancienne Coutume was in a restriction in the number of sanctuaries. Guillaume Dumaresq, sueing for the King against the Commonalty of Guernsey in 1309, claimed: "No one ought to abjure the Islands excepting those who have arrived at the refuge of a Church". The Commonalty in its reply was less definite: "No one ought to abjure the Islands except from a place of refuge and acknowledging the felony".
But it would appear that the other sanctuaries approved by the Ancienne Coutume, such as chapels, priories and crucifixes, were losing, or had lost, their privilege. It seems certain that only the parish churches retained the privilege of sanctuary in Jersey at the time of the Reformation.
The system of allowing accused persons to abjure their country may have been a convenient way of ridding any district of its criminals, but there is no doubt that it was a curse to Europe as a whole. It created a dangerous class of vagrants, without ties of allegiance or country, whose only support was begging or robbery. The attachment of such ruffians to mediaeval armies, whether as mercenaries or as camp followers, added to the horrors of war.
Though we have a good amount of information about the right of sanctuary in the Islands in the Middle Ages, it is curious that - so far as I am aware - we have no contemporary allusion to those sanctuary roads which are peculiar to Jersey alone. It is of course possible, if hardly probable, that they originated only in the later Middle Ages, the records of which are scarce. What is certain is that we would know very little about these roads had not Lieutenant-Bailiff Poingdestre, in whose youth the traditions of pre-Reformation times were still fresh, left an account of them in his Caesarea. This account is so important that I will quote it in full.
- "There was very lately with us another way of farre different use called Perquage, of the same bredth as the High Way in Normandy, which is of six (? four) toises, each toise containing six Foot, and soe of foure and twenty foot in all, which was the just breadth of our Perquage, called so of the word perque (pertica) which contains likewise foure and twenty foot. These wayes began at every Church and by the shortest and most direct line went on to the Sea, so that it did commonly passe through boggs and between hills along streams of water. For it had noe other knowne use but to conduct by it such as having committed capital Crimes did take sanctuary in those Churches ; which was then a very ordinary course to doe. There they had priviledge to remaine untouch't for the space of nine dayes, having still a guard upon them, and in that time they might if they pleased, which they seldom failed to do, forsware the Island, that is to say, swear that they would leave it and never return to it or be subject to the penalty of theire crimes. This was done in the presence of the Judge and some of the Jurats. Whereupon they might come out of Sanctuary and be led to the seawards by the said wayes, which were still a kind of Sanctuary to them; for if they chanced to stray never soe little out of them, they were taken and executed as having forfeited the priviledge of Sanctuary. I never heard of such wayes anywhere else: for albeit the custom of taking sanctuary and forswearing the country were the same with that of Normandy, yet the olde Custome Booke sayes only that those who had forsworne were to be conveyed along the highway from Deanery to Deanery until they were out of the confines of that Province. And soe I thinke I may place this kinde of wayes among the Singularities of this Island.
- "Although by the abolishing of Sanctuaries at the Reformation the sayd wayes remained uselesse yet they were still visited yearely in their course, [Note. Reference is to the Visite Royale] ; till His Majestie disposed of them by Letters Patent to Sir Edouard Carteret, who has made conveyances of the parcells thereof to those persons who had lands bordering thereon, and by that means quite razed and extinguished them as if they had never been."
It is quite clear from this account that the perquages were not in themselves sanctuaries except for persons escaping from a sanctuary to the sea. Poingdestre elsewhere, in his Lois et Coutumes, expresses his opinion that the perquages were included with the other public roads, not used solely for the passage of fugitives.
The Letters Patent of the grant to Sir Edward de Carteret are printed in the volumes of ‘’Ordres du Conseil’’. This grant is typical of the abuses committed by the Stuart Kings in converting public trusts to the private benefit of favourites. Its terms gave rise to trouble for long afterwards, in fact until the time of the Royal Commission of 1859, as Advocate Le Cornu has kindly pointed out to me.
It would be most interesting work for one of our members to trace out and map the perquages. Sir Edward de Carteret having lived when the land registry was in existence, it would be possible to trace to their present owners his sales of portions of the perquages.
This is not quite such a formidable task as it might seem to be, since if a few sections were traced the rest could then be mapped in. What little we do know of the course of some of these roads does not bear out Poingdestre's statement that they went by the shortest line to the sea, but they did seem to follow running water.