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The defence of Jersey

Posted in Historical articles, History, Sea, Ships, War on Tuesday, 31 May 2011

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This edited article about Jersey originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 954 published on 3 May 1980.

Jersey. picture, image, illustration

A French force landed in 1781 but was routed in St Heller; inset, St Quen’s, the Carteret Manor House. Pictures by Harry Green

Jersey is the largest and the most southerly of the Channel Islands. Oblong in shape, it measures 16 by eight kilometres roughly and covers an area of about 116 square kilometres.

Thanks to the influence of the Gulf Stream, Jersey enjoys a mild climate, which enables it to have a thriving agricultural industry as well as flourishing tourism. And its rocky strata are a factor in its other major industry – quarrying. The pleasant climate is reflected in the sunny nature of the people. Although they are fiercely independent, they retain a determined loyalty to the Crown.

With the passing years, Jersey began to find its feet as a nation. During the reign of Edward I, the king’s wars with Wales, Scotland and France, and the unrest of the archbishops and barons, provided Jersey with an era which reflected these troubles. But there was an improvement when Edward III came to the throne. He was generous to the islanders and fully recognised their rights.

Jersey was not to be left in peace for long, however. In 1337, David Bruce, the deposed Scottish king, attempted to take Jersey. He was resisted successfully and, to keep further invaders at bay, the island’s defences were strengthened. A French commander, Du Guesclin, accompanied by the Duc de Bourbon, invaded Jersey. With a strong force, he besieged Gorey Castle in 1373.

The warden of the castle made a pact with the invaders, to the effect that if he was not relieved by Michaelmas, he would hand over the keys. The French sailed away, leaving a small covering force behind them. Fortunately, the English arrived before the stipulated date – and the castle was saved.

Pero Nino, a Spanish soldier of fortune, raided the island in 1406, heavily defeating the Jersey militia. He freed the island on payment of a heavy ransom.

In 1461 Gorey Castle was surprised and taken by a French force under Jean de Carbonnel; and quickly the whole island fell under French occupation, which lasted for some years. A respite from these perils commenced in 1483 when a Papal Bull of Neutrality excluded the islands from wars between France and England.

By the reign of Henry VII, Jersey and Guernsey each had a separate governor in place of an overall warden, and a bailiff, who was in charge of civil affairs, and who was also regarded by the governor as a threat to his power. A Jersey governor called Baker produced a false letter insinuating that the bailiff was offering to betray Gorey Castle to the French. However, the efforts of the bailiff’s wife, Margaret de Carteret, saved him. She hastened to London and persuaded the Privy Council to prevent his trial and remove Baker from office.

The governor of Jersey from 1537 to 1550 was Edward Seymour, Jane Seymour’s brother. As relations with France were once more hostile, he devoted much money and effort to strengthening the defences. This was timely, as in 1549 the militia drove off another French invasion, inflicting heavy losses.

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth, Jersey had a famous governor, Sir Walter Raleigh. It was during her reign that the castle that bears her name was built on an islet off St. Helier.

By this time, most of the people of Jersey were compelled to follow the Crown’s lead in breaking with Roman Catholicism. Had it not been for the powerful de Carteret family, Jersey might have gone wholly with the Parliamentarians during the Civil War. Sir Philippe de Carteret, as bailiff of Jersey, wanted neutrality while still being a royalist. However, his nephew, Sir George de Carteret (a royalist naval officer) ran munitions from France via Jersey to the West Country.

Sir Philippe refused to stop this trade and was brought before the island parliament. His defence was that “the island had nothing to do with parliaments but only with the King in Council.”

However, two of his rivals, Michael LempriËre and Henri Dumaresq, called out units of the militia and Sir Philippe was forced to take refuge in Elizabeth Castle, while his wife took over Gorey Castle. Sir Philippe turned his guns on a Parliamentarian ship pursuing a royalist frigate, thus abandoning his neutrality.

An attempt by de Carteret to take St. Helier was repelled by a combined effort of citizens and the militia. Sir Philippe was later to die in an epidemic which decimated his garrison. Even so the islanders despaired of taking either of the two castles, which were well supplied from the sea.

A Royalist force was sent from St. Malo under Sir George de Carteret and the island fell after little resistance; but his efforts to recruit for the Royalist cause among the islanders were not very successful.

In April, 1646, Charles, the young Prince of Wales, took refuge in Jersey and roused the flagging interest of the islanders and further entrenched the royalist de Carterets in power. When news of the execution of Charles I reached Jersey, de Carteret at once had the young prince proclaimed King.

Ultimately, the Cromwellian forces were ready to deal with Jersey and quickly overwhelmed the island. Sir George, under siege in Elizabeth Castle, negotiated terms so successfully that he retained all his property. Shortly afterwards he left for France and became an admiral in the French navy. He received from the king, in recognition of his loyalty, lands in America which he called New Jersey. The Restoration was generally welcomed, even though it meant the supremacy of the unpopular de Carterets.

One of the most famous military actions was what is now known as the Battle of Jersey, of 1781. A French force of a thousand men landed on the east coast under Baron de Rullecourt. They reached St. Helier unchecked and dragged the Lieutenant-Governor, Moses Corbet, from his bed. Accepting that the French were present in overwhelming numbers, he surrendered the island. However, a twenty-four-year-old major, Francis Peirson, rallied a force and routed the French in an action at the Royal Square in St. Helier.

The islanders were active in their opposition to the French revolution; and the ensuing Napoleonic wars afforded them splendid opportunities for privateering. However, peace made them turn to developing their industries.

Although great breeders of sheep, so great was their output of knitted goods that they had to import wool. So keen were the islanders on knitting for their export market that they even knitted during the church services. For a while there was a flourishing cider-making industry and many of the old stone presses still exist.

The First World War did little to affect the general prosperity. The inter-war years saw great developments of the tourist industry. However, there was an ever-lengthening shadow. With the rise of Hitler’s Germany many a Jerseyman foresaw the likelihood of war and the possibility of France’s defeat. If France fell, so would Jersey. This fear was to become a frightful reality.

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