From the Vikings to Winchester

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St Brelade's Church - Not built in 1111AD as some guidebooks claim

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

When Vikings first descended on Jersey, they came as pagan plunderers, church burners, and monk slayers; but more than a century had passed before they settled in the Island, and by that time they had become Christians and enthusiastic church-builders.

Stone chapels

The earlier wooden churches had probably gone up in flames during the raids; but they were now gradually replaced by small stone chapels.

A question often asked is: When were the 12 old parish churches built? This is impossible to answer. Two, St Mary and St Martin, are mentioned as early as 1042, and eight others are named in an undated charter which William the Conqueror signed in Normandy before he became King of England, and therefore must have been built before 1066; but how long they had been standing before any surviving document happened to mention them no one can even guess.

One thing, however, is certain. The churches in which men worshiped in the Conqueror's reign bore very little resemblance to those we see today. They have been in constant use for over 900 years, and almost every generation has altered their shape and size, lengthening the nave, raising the roof, enlarging the chancel, adding a Lady Chapel here, a new aisle there, two transepts, a porch, a spire, putting up galleries and pulling them down, altering the position of doors and windows, adapting everything to the architectural fashions, the taste, and ritual of the day.

Speaking generally, it may be said that, though every church contains some 11th century work, the greater part of the present buildings dates from the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries, and in two cases there were great enlargements in the 19th.

Impudent forgery

One warning is necessary. The dates given in some guidebooks (St Brelade's 1111, St Martin's 1116, St Clement's 1117 etc) are derived from an impudent forgery. They first appeared in a local almanac for 1792 as A List of the Churches in Jersey with the Year and Day in which the Building was Begun, drawn from the Livre Noir of Coutances.

This title was impressive. The Livre Noir was the official Register of the Diocese of Coutances, of which Jersey formed part, and it was compiled by order of the Bishop in 1251. Any statement found in this should be authoritative. But when examined, it is found to contain the income of every church in the diocese, including the churches in Jersey, and the name of the patron who appointed its Rector, but it says not a word about the date of the foundation of any of them.

No one knows who foisted this bogus list on the unsuspecting editor of the almanac; but in 1898 the Committee of La Société Jersiaise visited Coutances and inspected the Livre Noir and all the other old registers, and reported: "We desire to make known that the dates of our churches given in this list are totally devoid of any known authority, and have not been taken from the Livre Noir, of which they never formed part."

A pre-Reformation font at St Clement's Church

Once every church had a peal of bells, but in 1550 most of these were sold to help pay for new fortifications, only one being left in each belfry.

The spires of Coutances Cathedral can sometimes be seen from the top of Mont Orgueil; so, while Jersey formed part of Normandy, it was natural that the Island should be included in that diocese. And, when the separation from Normandy took place, England shrank from provoking a conflict with the local clergy.

For years there was a dangerous pro-French party among the seigneurs. We constantly hear of estates being confiscated, because their owners "adhered to the French King". If the priests threw their influence on that side, it might mean the loss of the Island. To be cut off from the bishop who had ordained them, who spoke their language, who was almost a next-door neighbour, and be placed under some unknown, remote, English-speaking prelate, would have provoked deep resentment. So, till the Reformation, Jersey remained part of the diocese of Coutances,

Continental Reformation

The character of the Reformation which reached Jersey was Continental, though the actual Edict of 1547 naturally emanated from the English King. It was a reform full of fierce, fighting, anti¬-Catholic fury. The Pope was Antichrist. Everything connected with the old worship was a device of the Devil for the destruction of souls, and therefore to be stamped out without discrimination.

The old faith seems to have put up surprisingly little resistance. The innumerable wayside crosses were hewn down as being idolatrous. The chantry chapels were turned into cottages or allowed to fall into ruins. The parish churches were ruthlessly purged of altars, fonts, statues, wall paintings, stained glass, anything that might recall "the teaching of the Great Whore", and were transformed into austere, whitewashed Huguenot Temples with every seat facing the pulpit.

Most of the rectors were French Protestants in Presbyterian Orders, Huguenots who had taken refuge here during the French religious wars, a convenient arrangement for all concerned, as the Island needed French-speaking Protestant priests, and every church used the prayer book which Calvin had compiled for the French Huguenots. Jersey became as staunchly Calvinist as Scotland.


A carved Romanesque pillar at St Lawrence Church

Was it this Calvinist regime, one wonders, which frowned so severely on all superstition, that banished from the Island its folk music? We know that on winter nights the popular form of amusement was to gather in one of the old farm kitchens and spend the evening singing; yet hardly one of the songs has survived. Did a time come when nothing was sung but Marot's Metrical Psalms?

Jersey's Calvinism was responsible for another great immigration. When the savage persecution of the Huguenots in France drove thousands of them into exile, large numbers escaped to join their co-religionists in Jersey, and established families that added a valuable new strain to the Island's population; such names as Girard, Gosset, Dallain, de la Place, de la Taste, Hemery and Le Bailly, and many others, are among families who sought refuge here at this period, or, and this is even more striking, 100 years later, at the time of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which had given a temporary religious freedom in France.

Discipline resisted

But a time came when Calvinism provoked a revolt. It was not a revolt against its theology or against its form of worship. These remained for generations Jersey's ideal of religion at its best. But Calvin had laid down the maxim "Doctrine without discipline is a body without a backbone", and the constant attempts of the church courts to discipline the private lives of the people was something which the sturdy independence of Jerseymen would not tolerate.

James I, who hated Calvinism as he had known it in Scotland, took advantage of this discontent to force Anglicanism on the island. More than 100 years before, in 1499, Henry VII had obtained from that most bribable of Popes, Roderigo Borgia, a Bull transferring the Channel Islands to the Diocese of Winchester; but no one had taken the smallest notice of this.

For 50 years more the Bishops of Coutances continued to ordain, institute, and collect their episcopal fees. Then came Calvinism, which had no use for any kind of bishop, Anglican or Gallican. But now in 1620 the Presbyterian form of church government was abolished by the King in Council, and the Island Church placed definitely under the control of the Bishop of Winchester.

A French translation of the English prayer book was ordered to be used in every church, and a Dean was appointed to see that the new regulations were rigidly obeyed. But even so Jersey retained a certain amount of independence. The canons drawn up for the church in Jersey differ in many respects from those adopted in England. The first Bishop of Winchester to visit the Channel Islands was Bishop Robert Sumner, who came in 1829.

Apart from a brief revival of Presbyterianism under Cromwell, Anglicanism reigned without a rival till the Methodist Movement reached Jersey in 1783. This made many converts, and large Methodist chapels that catch every visitor's eye are a feature of the landscape in all parts of the Island.

The Roman Church regained a foothold in Jersey in 1803, when permission was given to the French Royalists, who had fled to escape the Revolution, to open a chapel in Castle Street. Today practically every denomination is represented in St Helier.

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