Come on a journey with me…a short trip by ferry from Poole in southern England; the journey – back in time, to one of the larger islands within the English Channel – its layers of history will amaze and delight. The islands’ situation, so near to both Britain and France, has resulted in a unique blending of cultures and, at times, a shared history.
Guernsey’s position close to the shores of Brittany and Normandy in France made it a strategic stronghold luring traders and settlers from as early as the Iron Age period. Dolmens and strange statue menhirs dot the island. Beneath the harbour waters of the main settlement at St Peters Port, a Roman trading vessel rests. Early Britons, Celts and Christian missionaries, escaping Saxon raiding parties, soon called it home. Viking raiders followed and, when Normandy passed into the hands of the Northmen, the islands were annexed by the Duchy of Normandy. Since then, ownership of the islands has been held as a possession of England. However, in the 13th century, King John lost his Angevin lands in Normandy, whilst somehow retaining the Channel Islands. From around 1259, the islands have been governed – as possessions of the English crown but were never absorbed into the Kingdom of England.
At the entrance to the harbour of St Peters Port lies the medieval Castle Cornet which saw off an invasion by the French in 1338.
Edward III granted a charter confirming customs and laws and allegiance to the English crown. Richard II confirmed the charter which gave exemption from English tolls, customs and duties. Much later, during the wars between royalist and parliamentarian forces, battles and sieges took place, and the loyal islanders benefited from the confirmed economic rewards of freedom from external taxation.
n 1483, a Papal bull decreed the islands would be neutral during times of war and this neutrality allowed the islands to trade with both England and France up until the 17th century when it was abolished. The Channel Islands were caught up in the religious wars of both England and France. In 1556, three women were burnt at the stake for their religious beliefs, one even giving birth to a baby boy in the flames. Later a frenzy of witch trials and persecutions took place.
In the 1640’s, Charles II, exiled in Jersey, gave George Carteret, Bailiff and governor, a large grant in the American colonies, later named New Jersey. Exhibiting their strong entrepreneurial spirit, many of the islanders acquired business interests in the North American colonies as well as fishing rights in the rich Newfoundland waters. By the late 18th century, the islands gave refuge to wealthy French emigres fleeing the French Revolution. Aspects of French culture remain, particularly on Jersey.
Today, on Guernsey, those battles of old are commemorated with the daily ritual of a midday firing of a cannon by volunteers in ceremonial dress.
We enjoyed our time in the busy, elegant town of St Peters Port. A short walk along the harbour walls takes you to the castle and a delicious lunch. I loved the tomato soup – tomatoes being a major crop on the island.
Not too far away, a local museum explores the troubles experienced by the islanders in more recent times with the islands having been the only British territory occupied by the forces of Nazi Germany between 1940 and 1945.
Prior to the landing of enemy troops on 30 June 1940 after some indiscriminate bombing, young men hurried to leave the islands to join the Allied armed forces. Many children and women were evacuated to England and Scotland. Later, 2000 islanders – some of whom were Jewish or those involved in the local resistance movement – were deported to Germany by the enemy command. Alderney, one of the smaller islands was the only Nazi concentration camp on British soil. With the islands blockaded, and thousands of slave labourers brought in to build underground tunnels and buildings, hunger brought the local population to its knees, requiring ingenuity to survive the privations.
Eventually, a Red Cross ship made it to Guernsey relieving the dire strictures. For those left behind, the Guernsey shore still held many dangers. Post-war bomb disposal engineers dismantled some 69,000 mines. Even to this day, reminders of the war remain – huge concrete anti-aircraft structures still dot the landscape.
On 9/5/1945, the islands were liberated. After three years of separation, many of the evacuees returned but had difficulty reconnecting with families.
More recent history holds an interesting Scottish connection, when one of the major marmalade producers, moved their production to the Channel Islands for economic reasons. Once the sugar tax was removed, production returned to Britain.
Today, the Channel Islands benefit from its historical economic status, being part of, but separate from the United Kingdom. We were fascinated by the use of the donkey as a symbol of Guernsey – only to learn that it represented the people’s hardy, stubborn spirit.
I have just scratched the surface of this fascinating place. There is so much more to learn…