Elizabeth Castle - the coming of the Norsemen

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Elizabeth Castle -
the coming of the Norseman

AD 560 to 860


The Hermitage

This article is taken from a booklet written by Norman Rybot in 1934 covering various aspects of the history of Elizabeth Castle

Between the death of Helier and the next great invasion of sea-rovers into northern France, a period of about three centuries elapsed. The local history of this period, scantily recorded as it is, deals wholly with matters ecclesiastical and advances us from an age of silly miracles and unlovely faqirs into one of normal sequences and alert clerics.


The credit of introducing Christianity into Jersey has always been assigned to the spectacular and unwholesome Helier. The practical Marculf, to whom the credit is really due, has received none. No Jersey church or locality perpetuated his memory. And yet it was he who organised and founded the first monastic settlement in the Island. He planted it in the Islet, probably just after Helier's death. The extent and appearance of its buildings are unknown and no record tells us of the number of its congregation. It seems certain, nevertheless, that it functioned as an educational centre and played its part in spreading a doctrine which professed a kindlier outlook on life than that which had formerly prevailed.

The good Marculf died in the Islet in 558. Through the terror inspired by the Vikings his relics were transferred from Jersey to monastery after monastery on the mainland. They found a final resting place at Corbeny near Reims, where they vied with the Kings of France in curing people afflicted with scrofula or "the King's Evil". Nantes also claimed to possess his relics.

After Marculf came Maglorious, alias Magloire or Mannelier. This saint is noted for his connection with Guernsey and Sark, in which island he died in 575. To save his relics from the pillaging Northmen they were brought to Jersey, probably in the 9th century. Here, his memory, unlike that of Marculf is still gratefully preserved.

As Jersey in turn proved incapable of affording protection to the relics, they were removed in 857 to the Priory of Lehon near Dinan. In 973 they were finally translated to Paris, where they were housed in a great church dedicated to him. Here they lay in the odour of sanctity during the next 816 years, when the furious exponents of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity scattered them to the winds.


Before the end of the 6th century, the Islet became a place of refuge for its first political exile. Pretextat, Archbishop of Rouen, in serious trouble with the Court, was wounded and thrown into prison in 577. With the connivance of friends he escaped and was painfully hurried across Neustria "to an island of the sea near to the city of Coutances".

Romicer, (Saint Romphaire), Bishop of Coutances, was a party to the evasion and maintained close touch with Pretextat during his eight years exile in the monastery in the Islet of Saint Helier. Thus early did the connection between the See of Coutances and the islands originate. It matured in the 10th century, when the islands were parcelled out into ecclesiastical divisions called parishes, and endured till well into the 16th century.

Pretextat's sojourn in the Islet was undisturbed by his enemies, and in consequence, he was able to devote all his energies and experience to the elaboration of the work initiated by Marculf and Magloire. He even composed certain theological treatises there, which he caused to be laid before the Council of Macon, a Council notable for a declaration that the word "man" might be taken to include women. Pretextat, thinking that his position was by then secure, returned in 585 to Rouen and was promptly murdered in his own cathedral.

The next manuscript of importance to be written on the spot where Pretextat composed his treatise, was penned by Edward Hyde, the Lord Chancellor, 1,070 years later.

7th to 9th centuries

To follow the confused and tumultuous events which north-west Europe witnessed in the 7th, 8th and 9th centuries cannot here be attempted.

Four of them, nevertheless, may be mentioned:

  • The conversion to Christianity during the 7th century of the Anglo-Saxon kinglets of England who, when not fighting each other continued to wage war against the descendants of the Celtic Britons whom their forefathers had driven into the west.
  • The great victory of Charles Martel in 732 near Tours over an invading army of Musalmans from Africa and Spain. Tours is only 180 miles south-east of Jersey.
  • The administrative and military successes of the emperor Charles the Great (Charlemagne), the grandson of Charles Martel (768-814), who created and consolidated a vast empire and secured his land frontiers from the invasions of various fierce pagan Teutonic and other nations.
  • The general maintenance by the Celtic Armoricans of their hold on the Cotentin, the Channel Islands and Brittany.

The surviving records of all these momentous years contain only one direct reference to Jersey. This reference is to be found in the Chronicle of the Abbey of Fontenelle and runs as follows:

"The Abbot Gerald (Gerwaldus), was sent by Charles the Great on a diplomatic mission to Augia, an island inhabited by Bretons and adjacent to the coasts of the Cotentin, which latter country was then administered by a governor named Arnwarith."

In Gerald we see a type of cleric which was to become notoriously powerful in later days. This able Abbot served Charlemagne on many important diplomatic missions and was intrusted with negotiations demanding tact, skill and firmness. The object of his journey to Jersey is not stated, but it may be inferred that the Emperor desired first-hand information on this distant frontier of his dominions; the more especially as a recrudescence of the unwelcome visits of sea-rovers from the turbulent north was making itself felt along the coasts of the Channel.

As the 9th century grew older, the raids increased in ferocity and duration. Just as the Musalmans turned the western flank of Christendom by conquering Spain and invading France, so did the Northmen pierce the flank of the Empire by invading Neustria and Aquitaine. From every monastery standing within sound of the sea, the daily prayer: "From the fury of the Northmen, good Lord deliver us", rose fervently to the high heavens.

The trembling monks of the Channel Islands, finding prayer of no avail, removed their treasures and relics to the mainland while the going was good. Hence the exodus from the islands of the revered anatomical portions of departed saints, of which mention has already been made.

Of the actual destruction of the first Monastery of St Helier in the Islet, no details can be given. The ruins of its pillaged buildings must have persisted as shapeless mounds. The monks, we feel sure, perished at their posts.

Tradition alone outlived the calamity and on that tradition the Monastery of Saint Helier rose again from its ruins.

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