A history of Elizabeth Castle

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A history of Elizabeth Castle


First published in The Islander in 1939

The islet

Elizabeth Castle, as its name suggests, dates from the days of the great Tudor Queen. But its site had long previously been associated with events of local importance, the earliest of which might well be termed legendary rather than historical.

Here, about the year 540 AD, came Helier, the Christian anchorite after whom our town is named. He chose as his habitation a lonely spume-sprayed rock south east of the islet, where his reputed bed, a rough niche in the rock, may still be seen. In the same place, some 15 years later, he was discovered by a band of marauding sea-rovers and put to the sword, thus earning a place in the Calendar as Jersey's first Christian martyr and patron saint.

The Hermitage, or oratory, which encloses his cell was erected at a much later date, probably in the 12th century.

St Marculf

St Helier was a pupil of St Marculf, to whom is chiefly attributed the conversion of the islanders to Christianity. As the population of Jersey then numbered, we are told, only 30 families, the task was not quite so formidable as it sounds.

But the benefits conferred by these pioneers of Christianity were material as well as spiritual. The monasteries which they founded invariably attracted settlers to the district, agriculture and the rudiments of education were taught, and an impetus given to civilisation generally.

Shortly after the death of St Helier, St Marculf established a monastic settlement upon the islet, and the agglomeration of peasants' huts which, as a consequence, sprang up in the near vicinity, formed the foundations of the future town of St Helier.

After the death of Marcuif in 558, his work was carried on by St Magloire or Mannelier. In 577 Pretextat, Archbishop of Rouen, as the result of a quarrel with the Frankish King, fled to Jersey and took refuge in the Monastery of the islet. He was the first of the host of political exiles who, throughout history, have found shelter and security on our shores.

Jersey's inclusion in the Empire of Charlemagne is disclosed by the records of the Abbey of Fontenelle, which state that the Emperor sent Abbot Gerwold on a diplomatic mission to Augia, as it was then termed, in 790.

Towards the end of the ninth century, Norse raiders again descended on the Islet and St Marculf's Monastery was laid in ruins.

The castle floodlit

Abbey of St Helier

In the 12th century, the islet emerges from the obscurity of tradition into the light of documented history. In 1155 William Fitz-Hamon, member of the powerful family owning estates both in Jersey and the Cotentin, founded, on the long-deserted site of Marculf's Monastery, a new abbey, which was named in honour of the hermit who had perished so miserably 600 years before.

The Abbey of St Helier was soon richly endowed, the King himself bestowing revenues from several royal holdings in Jersey and various of the island lords following suit; chief among them de Carteret of St. Ouen.

But in 1179 St. Helier's abbey was annexed to that of St Mary of the Vow, near Cherbourg, an institution not a third part as wealthy or important. Nevertheless, Cherbourg henceforth became the headquarters of the abbot, and the Jersey abbey was accordingly reduced to the status of a priory.

Jersey's Magna Carta

The Priory Church was later the scene of a historic event, the political significance of which has never been properly recognised but without which we should scarcely have attained the constitutional freedom that is the Jerseyman's greatest pride.

It is recorded and generally accepted that our constitution is based upon a Charter granted us by King John. Yet it would seem that, towards the middle of the 14th century, the special rights mentioned therein were already being ignored. The Plantagenet kings frequently sent their itinerant or travelling Justices to the Channel Isles. But these officials, instead of dispensing impartial justice to high and low alike, were apparently more concerned with filling the Privy Purse, and seized upon the most frivolous pretexts to impose heavy fines.

At last the islanders decided that these oppressions could no longer be borne. In 1331, just before the next visit of the Justices was due, the chief men of Jersey and Guernsey met together on the Islet. And there, before the High Altar of the Priory Church, they solemnly swore to defend their ancient rights, if need be at the cost of their lives.

It was a grave occasion for, in defying the King's authority, they could be accused of rebellion or even of high treason. True to their oath, the island seigneurs, 500 strong, appeared before the King's Justices in Guernsey to plead their cause.

The special rights which they claimed were 17 in number, the more important of them being that 12 Jurats should be elected for life, that the Itinerant Justices should hold Assizes only with the cooperation of the Jurats, that the Jurats should have the taxing of fines, and that Jersey should be exempt from all aids and levies.

The ringleaders were arrested and tried, but the jury acquitted them. The Justices, by no meens satisfied with this, ordered them to appear at the next Assize, to be held at Longueville in Jersey. Only one attended and he was fined 20 sols. The arrest of the others was again ordered, although history does not record what happened to them.

Whatever they may have suffered at the time, they eventually gained their ends, for in 1341 Edward III confirmed by Charter the cherished rights and privileges which they had claimed. As he was then on the eve of war with France, Edward probably perceived the wisdom of retaining the Channel Islanders' allegiance.

There are some curious anomalies in Jersey history. King John, from whom the English barons obtained Magna Carta only by armed force, apparently granted us a similar document quite freely and voluntarily. Edward III, who, if not altogether a beneficent ruler according to modern standards was certainly popular in the England of his day, was precisely the monarch from whom we had to wrest a recognition of our rights by rebellion

Hector de Pontbriand 's invasion

On an October morning in 1406 a mixed force of Breton, Norman and Castilian soldiers landed on the islet, in search of martial glory and, as it subsequently transpired, a trifle of booty by the way.

Such visitations were frequent during the 14th and 15th centuries, but this raid was different from the rest in that the islanders offered a spirited, albeit vain resistance. Also, as one of the invaders, Gutierre Diaz de Gamez, Standard-Bearer to the Castilian knight Pero Nino, wielded the pen with as great dexterity as the sword, we have been left a particularly full account of it.

Pero Nino had come adventuring out of Spain with his galleys in the previous year and, joining forces with the French Admiral Charles de Savoisy, had spent a profitable summer raiding and pillaging along the south coast of England. Turning homewards, he had fallen in with the Breton knight, Hector de Pontbriand, who, with his charming neighbours, was then planning a descent upon Jersey.

The chronicler Gamez enthusiastically credits his master with the leadership of this expedition, but actually it belonged to Pontbriand, who engaged the assistance of Nino and his ships.

The following morning the invaders crossed the causeway to find an army of islanders awaiting them on the sands, in battle array. A desperate fight ensued. At first it seemed that the invaders would be overwhelmed, until Nino, espying the Banner of St George, cried "Friends, so long as that flag flies the Englishmen will never surrender."

Then Pontbriand, calling about him some two score brave knights, charged across the battlefield, fell upon the standard's defenders, and tore it down. Resistance slackened. The leader of the islanders was killed: "With my own eyes I saw him, lying at my feet," says Gamez dramatically. Soon the Jersey forces were scattered and flying.

The victorious army retired to the Islet for a council of war and a night's rest. Next day they again crossed the bridge and marched inland. To prevent their further depredations, the unfortunate inhabitants were obliged to buy them off with a heavy ransom. Twenty thousand crowns in gold was demanded and part of it collected on the spot, four hostages being taken for the remainder; with the curious stipulation that an additional tribute of 12 lances, 12 battle-axes, 12 bows with arrows, and 12 trumpets, should be paid annually for the next ten years.

Having concluded this very satisfactory arrangement, the invaders sailed off. But this was not the end of their little adventure. When the ship carrying the hostages reached St Malo, Robert de la Heuse, Governor of that town, refused to accept Pontbriand's safe-conduct, and arrested the Captain, one Jacques Devinter, and the four hostages, from whom he attempted to extort another ransom. The Jerseymen indignantly taxed Devinter with breach of faith.

Then Pontbriand stepped in and rescued his Captain and de la Heuse promptly brought an action for the recovery of his prisoner. In March 1407 de la Heuse was forced to release the hostages by order of the Parlement de Paris, but it was not until two years later that another decree of the same body finally settled the vexed question of the Jersey ransom.

The last Prieur

Henry V's parliamentary Act confiscating the possessions of alien priories does not appear to have been so rigorously enforced in Jersey as in England, and the Priory of the Islet, although bereft of its main sources of income, continued to exist until the beginning of the 16th century.

The last Prieur de l'Islet was appointed in 1517, his sole duty, presumably, being to conduct services in the Priory Church, for the monastic buildings had already fallen into disrepair. The Royal Commissioners of 1531 reported that the Priory of St Helier was then en grand decadence, and in 1536 Henry VIII settled the matter by dissolving the smaller monasteries.

The islet fortified

The introduction of firearms and the increasing use of cannon had by now rendered mediaeval fortifications obsolete, and under the Tudor monarchs Jersey's defensive system was entirely reconstituted.

In 1550 the Council ordered the strengthening of St Aubin's Fort, (commenced in 1542) and the construction of a similar battery on the Islet. Six gunners, maintained by the 12 parishes, were to be posted at each battery. At the same time, all the church bells, save one in each parish church, were taken down and sold, half the proceeds being devoted to the new bulwark on the Islet and half to the remodelling of Mont Orgueil Castle.

The Orders with regard to the Islet were not immediately put in effect, for Popinjay's Platte of 1563 shows it as still unfortified. But the failure of the attempt to adapt Mont Orgueil to the use of cannon made some further measure of defence an urgent necessity, and in 1594, as the result of a conference between the engineer Paul Ivy and Governor Sir Anthony Paulet, the Islet was chosen as the position best suited to modern warfare.

Fort Isabella Bellissima

Paul Ivy was put in charge of the work on the new fortifications, to which Her Majesty contributed "the summe of five hundred pounds, besides four hundred pounds in value of workmens wages to be bestowed by the inhabitants".

In October 1600 Sir Walter Ralegh, then Governor of Jersey, wrote to the Secretary of State:

"May it please your honour to receive the knowledge from the bearer, Mr Paule Ivey, what wee have determined for the fort Isabella Bellissima in the Ilett where we have left workmen to finishe as much as this season of the yeare will permitt, and the rest to be don in March following; the charge whereof will be exceeding great, as Mr Ivey uppon his consciens can wittness ... but, however it succeed I will never think of any perry receite till that peece of work be finished, and past the recovery of any enemye, be it but for the name sake wch I have presumed to Christen it by, being before without any demonination at all."

It was some time, however, before Elizabeth Castle became generally known as such: the islanders continuing to refer to it as the New Castle or le Chateau de l'Islet.

As originally completed, in 1601 it comprised the Keep, built high upon a rock and its surrounding enclosure, now known as the Upper Ward, which contained houses for the Governor and Captain. The arms of Queen Elizabeth, carved in red granite, adorn the entrance gateway. By 1603, a further extension, to cover this gate and command the approach to St Helier's haven, had been added.

The castle from the north showing the Hermitage

Additions to the castle

Apart from sundry repairs no further work was undertaken at Elizabeth Castle until the reign of Charles I, when, in consequence of the Duke of Buckingham's attack on the Isle of Rho, the French threatened reprisals on the Channel Islands. Accordingly, in 1626 Orders were issued for the fortifying of the land below the Keep, the site of the ancient Priory.

This work was supervised by Sir Philip de Carteret, Seigneur of St Ouen, who was soon to take a prominent part in defending the walls which he had built. De Carteret had been knighted by James I at the palace of Whitehall in 1617. He became Bailiff of Jersey in 1626, and in 1634 the Governor, Sir John Peyton, nominated him as his Lieutenant.

Despite the efforts of the Governor and his Lieutenant, and their frequent appeals to the Council for aid, it was ten years before the Lower Ward, as it is termed, was completed.

Within its stout walls stood all that remained of St Helier's Abbey, the Priory Church, referred to in a report of 1635 as "an old Chapel, very much ruined, but which may be made useful for store-houses."

Whilst the Lower Ward was being constructed, a tall and imposing Watch Tower (since demolished) had been added to the Keep, and, to complete the picture, we may add that the ditch between the Gateway of the Lower Ward and the Castle Green which is now the Outer Ward but at that time was unfortified) was spanned by a light wooden bridge.

Prelude to battle

The stage is now set for the bitter strife and daring deeds of the Civil War, in which Elizabeth Castle, as the seat of government and tactical centre of insular defence, played so high and gallant a part: a small stage it is true but one that did not lack for players, for across it in the next 20 years moved a host of illustrious personages; royalty and statesmen, noble lords and mercenary soldiers, painters, poets and foreign emissaries, with all the busy intrigue of an exiled court and all the noise and colour of the 17th century .

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