Balleine on Elizabeth Castle

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Elizabeth Castle


This article is taken from The Bailiwick of Jersey by George Balleine

This magnificent etching of Elizabeth Castle in 1786 shows how tantalisingly close to the St Helier shoreline the castle stands, but plans which existed at the time and have resurfaced on several occasions over the past 200 years to create a large, deep-water harbour linking the castle to the shore have never materialised. The unknown artist's work shows just how tiny the embryo St Helier Harbour was, and how isolated it was from the town it was intended to serve

Guillaume Fitzhamon

The Normans were great church-builders, and at some date, probably a little before 1150, Guillaume Fitzhamon, a knight who held land at St Maurice, near Carteret, decided to found an abbey for canons of the Augustinian Order. He had evidently been reading the sensational Passion of St Helier, for he chose as his site the islet near the rock on which the hermit was said to have lived, and dedicated his new foundation "to the honour of the Blessed Elerius".

He built a fine Romanesquc church (of which pictures survive) and the usual monastic buildings, and then began to collect endowments from his friends. He had been for years a close companion of Prince Henry, the future Henry II, and, when the latter became King, he conferred on the abbey the town mill and the marsh, the rich meadowland on which the town was beginning to spring up. Later he added 21 acres from the crown estates at Crapedoit, the name of one of the three fiscal areas into which the Island was divided at that time; Crapedoit probably comprised the four western parishes. Other benefactors followed suit and a prosperous future seemed assured.


But soon after Fitzhamon had settled his monks in their new home, the Empress Matilda, the King's mother, was caught in a storm in the Channel, and vowed to found a monastery if she came safe to land. She kept her promise by building the Abbey of Our Lady of the Vow at Cherbourg, and she too gave this to the Augustinian Order and appointed the Abbot Robert of St Helier to superintend the building operations.

At first Cherbourg seems to have been considered a daughter abbey of St Helier; but after Robert's death trouble arose. The jealousy was partly financial. A document at the time complains that it was unseemly for a knight's foundation to be three times as rich as that of the Queen Mother. There were also difficulties of discipline. The Augustinians at this time were split into two factions. Saint Helier sided with the Party of Artois, and Cherbourg with the Party of Paris. This led to such ungodly bickering that in 1179 the Archbishop of Rouen amalgamated the two abbeys, "that they may be one flock under one shepherd", and reduced St Helier to the rank of a priory, in which Cherbourg pledged itself to keep five canons in residence. Its life as an abbey had lasted only about 30 years.


For the next 200 years the tiny band of monks on their lonely islet must have led uneventful lives. They sang their daily Offices in the great abbey church. They collected the rents due to Cherbourg from local tenants. But in the 15th century things began to happen. One evening in 1406 raiders landed on the islet, 1,000 men-at-arms with a number of light armed troops and archers, under Hector de Pontbriand, a Breton knight, and Pero Nino, a Castilian corsair.

Next morning, as the tide fell, they advanced across the sands, where 3,000 Jerseymen under the King's Receiver had mustered to repel them. "Then you could see", wrote Nino's standard-bearer, "helm severed from breastplate, and arm-plates and greaves hacked off. Some grappled with daggers drawn. Blood flowed in torrents. Such steadfast courage did both sides show that all would have been slain had not Nino observed a white flag with St George's Cross, which, though many a standard had been battered down, still remained upright.

"So he called to Pontbriand: 'While yon flag flies, they will never own themselves beaten. Let us go and capture it.' with 50 men-at-arms they wheeled out of the melée to where the banner stood. The colour-party were doughty knights and the fight was hard; but in the first assault the Receiver was slain. I saw him lying at my feet. Then the Jerseymen began to fly; but the French were so fatigued that they could not pursue."

The defenders then withdrew with their families and cattle inside the great earthwork at Trinity known as Chastel Sedement. When Nino's captains reconnoitred this they realised that its capture would be costly. They heard, too, of Gorey and Grosnez Castles, and they knew that the English fleet was at sea. They may have made a final stand at the top of Grouville Hill, at the spot known as La Croix de la Bataille, now owned by the National Trust for Jersey. So they agreed to withdraw on payment of a ransom of 10,000 golden crowns, and, loading their ships with booty, they sailed away.

An early 19th century painting by D A B Gould

More monks arrive

Soon after this the empty buildings of the priory were filled to overflowing. The Abbey of the Vow was burnt to the ground, and the monks migrated to their daughter house on the islet, bringing with them the Abbot and some of the monks of St Sauveur le Vicomte, whose abbey had also been destroyed. But they had hardly settled in when a new blow fell. Under Henry V the Hundred Years' War flared up into new vigour, and the King's first step was to stop English money passing into enemy hands through the dues which alien priories were sending to parent houses in France. In 1413 Parliament ordered all the property of foreign ecclesiastics to be handed to the Crown.

This meant the suppression of the other Jersey priories; but Governors hesitated what to do about the priory on the islet, which was no longer sending money abroad as its parent house was destroyed. "The Kings of England", wrote the Abbot later, "sent Lords who wished to expel us. To obtain permission to stay, we agreed to make an annual payment of 40 livres. The Isles were then given to the Duke of Bedford, who remitted these 40 livres; but the Duke of Gloucester, who succeeded him, took away a great part of our income and forced us to pay 84 1ivres. When the Isles were given to the Earl of Warwick, he did us divers wrongs, but notwithstanding we remained in our Priory; but King Henry VI restored our revenue to us."

The names of these Govcrnors show that the Cherbourg monks must have occupied the priory for more than 50 years. When the French captured Jersey in 1461, the monks were again in trouble. They complained to the French King that those who governed the Island in his name had seized their property and forced them to beg for a living.

By 1464, however, the Abbey of the Vow was rebuilt, and the islet was left once more with only its five monks. As the Reformation drew nearer, the priory began to go downhill rapidly. Its endowments were used to provide incomes for people who never came near Jersey. John Carvanell, chaplain to the Scottish Queen, who was Henry VIII's sister, was made prior of the islet in 1517, though he continued to live in Scotland; and in 1536 the unspeakable Thomas Cromwell, Henry's most disreputable agent in the destruction of the monasteries, obtained a written promise from the King that he should succeed Carvanell.

Two views of Elizabeth Castle by Wenceslaus Hollar in 1651

But by 1540 the last English abbey had been suppressed, and before this St Helicr's priory had ceased to exist. The great church, however, remained standing for another hundred years, and is shown in two of Wenceslaus Hollar's etchings in 1651.

Bulwark ordered

A new use was now found for the islet. By Henry VIII's reign the invention of cannon had revolutionised the art of siege craft, and Mont Orgueil had become vulnerable. Moreover, the town of St Helier, which was the most important place in the Island, was entirely at the mercy of raiders. So in 1550 the Privy Council ordered the States to "make a bulwark" on the islet, and authorised the Governor to provide the necessary funds by selling the bells of the parish churches, leaving only one for each church.

But the States were busy building St Aubin's Fort, and for 40 years nothing was done. In 1590, however, the work began in earnest. Paul Ivy, a military engineer who had just completed the forts at Falmouth and two castles in Ireland, was put in charge. The Queen contributed £500, and every house had to provide four days' labour, and two Jurats were appointed to see that everyone worked from six to six.

The work was finished about 1600, when Sir Walter Raleigh became Governor, and he was the first to live in the new Governor's House. Life-size waxworks have now made the Castle look inhabited. In one room Ivy is showing his plans to Ralegh, and in another Charles II is seen giving the first grant of lands to be called New Jersey, to Sir George Carteret. Ralegh, with the fulsome flattery of the period wrote that he had presumed to christen the Castle Fort Isabella Bellissima, Elizabeth the Most Beautiful. This pretentious Latin name never came into general use; but an Act of the States in 1603 calls it le chateau Elizabeth. It was not yet, however, the size that it is today. Ivy only fortified the high rock on the south-west corner of the islet, leaving all the rest to the abbey ruins and the rabbits.

Sir Philippe de Carteret

The first big extension was in Charles I's reign, when Sir Philippe de Carteret trebled its size by enclosing the ground that contained the monastic buildings. This work took ten years (1626-36).

"The slothfulness of the workmen," he wrote, "doth impose on me intolerable trouble."

Nevertheless, it was well done, and when the Civil War broke out in 1643, it stood the test. Some Jerseymen supported Parliament, but Sir Philippe remained loyal to the King and withdrew behind the Castle walls, which were besieged by the Parliamentary Lieutenant-Governor Major Lydcott. The walls, however, proved impregnable and, as the Castle could be revictualled from the sea, the garrison could not be starved out. The militiamen lost heart and drifted away to their farms, and Captain George Carteret, Sir Philippe's nephew, recovered the Island for the King.

Meanwhile, in England the royal cause was losing ground. The 15-year-old Prince of Wales, the future Charles II, retreated from Cornwall to the Scillies, and in April 1646 he took refuge in Eliza¬beth Castle, Jersey being the only place in his father's domain where he could feel secure. His arrival caused tremendous enthusiasm locally.

Chevalier, our local diarist, gives a picture of the boy at dinner in the Governor's House:

"As he took his seat, a kneeling Squire presented a silver dish in which he washed his hands. On his right stood a Doctor of Divinity ready to recite the grace. The dishes with which the board was loaded, were placed before him one by one, and, when he had chosen, the Gentleman-Carver tasted a portion and laid it on the Prince's plate. His drink was broug~t by a page about his own age, who tasted the goblet, and offered It kneeling on one knee, holding another cup under his chin lest a drop should be spilt on his clothes."

Fortunately for Carteret's purse the visit lasted only ten weeks. Then the Prince and his 300 retainers left to join his mother in Paris.

New fort

Carteret now began to strengthen the Castle by building a fort at the opposite, the northern, end of the islet. This was finished in 1647 and named Fort Charles. In 1649 Charles returned, no longer as Prince but as King. Parliament had now abolished monarchy as "unnecessary, burdensome, and dangerous", and Jcrsey was almost the only corner of his kingdom that he could visit safely. This time he remained for 20 weeks, most of which were spent by his Council angrily debating whether he should try to regain his throne via Ireland or via Scotland.

But Elizabeth Castle now saw a strange ceremony. It was widely believed that a King's touch could cure scrofula, a skin complaint, and Charles was persuaded to prove his kingship by showing that he had this power. Eleven persons, certified as scrofulous, were brought to the abbey church, a corner of which had been fitted up as an Anglican chapel. Thc King touched them on the breast saying, "May God heal thee" - "and", says Chevalier, "all were cured".

Parliamentary army

Charles eventually chose Scotland; but his invasion of England with the Scots was overwhelmingly crushed at the Battle of Worcester, and Cromwell then had time to attend to Jersey. In 1651 a Parliamentary army, under the command of Admiral Blake, exhausted the local forces by decoys, and eventually landed in St Ouen's Bay, and Carteret withdrew behind his Castle walls. He boasted that he was provisioned for three years; but a bomb from one of the big mortars, which the invaders installed at the foot of the Town Hill, landed on the abbey, crashed through the roof and floor into the crypt below, where Carteret's powder was stored, and caused an explosion which wrecked the church and all the adjoining buildings and destroyed two-thirds of Carteret's provisions.

A granite cross now shows where the abbey stood. The soldiers clamoured for surrender, and even the brave Carteret recognised that he must give in. Thc garrison marched out with the honours of war, receiving generous terms and for the next nine years Cromwell's nominees lived in the Governor's House.


The Castle then had a quiet time for more than a century. It did not assume its present form till after the Restoration, when the whole islet was enclosed with walls and Fort Charles and the older buildings were linked together. Twice during the 18th century unpopular Lieut-Bailiffs and Jurats had to take refuge behind those walls to escape the wrath of the people; but the guns were not fired again in anger till de Rullecourt's raid in 1781.

When the French caught Corbet, the Lieut-Governor, in bed, and bluffed him into signing an order to all his troops to surrender, Captain Mulcaster, who was in command at the Castle, kept his guns firing to give the alarm, and, when de Rullecourt rode out with Corbet to insist on the order being obeyed, a cannon-ball took off the leg of one of the French officers and forced them to retire. Within a few hours the Battle of Jersey had decided their fate.

Laying the foundation stone for the castle breakwater in 1872

Modern history

The modern history of the Castle can be briefly summarised. The breakwater, which today joins the islet to the Hermitage and runs out 660 yards to sea, was part of a new harbour scheme of 1872. Another arm should have come out to meet it from La Collette; but three years running this was smashed to pieces by south-westerly gales, and the project had to be abandoned.

In 1922 the War Office handed over the Castle to the States as a historical monument no longer of any military value. The Governor's House, which had seen such stirring events, was in a poor state of repair, and had for some time been used as a garrison chapel. It was excellently restored. Nothing has survived of La Maison du Chancelier, the house in which Clarendon lived, and in which he wrote part at least of his Great Rebellion.

But when the Germans came, they had other views. With large gangs of Russian slave labour, they made a modern fortress, fitted it up with guns and searchlights and all the latest appliances, and placed in it a garrison of 100 men. After the Liberation it was again handed back to the States.

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