History of the Channel Islands - Pre-Civil War

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Any study of Channel Island silver would be incomplete without some understanding of the fascinating economic, political and sociological history of these islands. The intention is not to present an in-depth study, which can be found elsewhere, but to set the scene and introduce the events relevant to the study of Channel Island silver up to the demise of local production in the 19th century.


By the treaty of Saint Claire sur Epte in 911, Charles the Simple of France ceded the Dukedom of Normandy to Rollo the pirate chief of Rouen and in 931 Rollo's son William Longsword annexed the balance of Normandy including the Channel Islands. It was thus that these islands became a part of the Dukedom of Normandy. In the following century, the seventh Duke, William the Conqueror, invaded England.

The seigneural system came into being at this time, the land being divided into fiefs measured in caruées, bouvées, vergées and perches, measurements that are still used to this day. Some of the Fiefs were given to his friends and loyal followers as reward and on the understanding that men would be provided in time of war. Other fiefs were granted to monasteries and abbeys in Normandy. The head or owner of the fief was called a seigneur and all those living in the fiefdoms were known as ténants, even if they owned their own land. The ténants paid rent and dues to the seigneur who in turn paid taxes to the King. It would seem that many of the taxes were paid in kind as the Henry III Enquiry into the Customs Services and Liberties of the Channel Islands in 1248 refers to delivery of grain by the ténants in return for a feast at the King's expense. The ténants were subject to the Cours de Chef Pleads at which the seigneur presided as judge. The seigneurs were also entitled to the wreckage rights of ships wrecked on the shores of their fiefs.

In 1204, when King John lost control of Normandy, the seigneurs were forced to choose allegiance to either Normandy or England. The fiefs of those seigneurs who preferred allegiance to Normandy were escheated to the Crown.

The payment of dues to the French Abbeys resulted in much of the silver, gold and coinage leaving the islands and by the 14th century nine tenths of all tithes in Jersey were being paid to abbeys in Normandy.

The loss of Normandy resulted in many centuries of hostility with the French. In 1201 King John ordered a tax of one fifth of the feudal ténant revenues to be raised to enable the building and maintenance of a garrison at Mont Orgueil Castle. Despite these fortifications the islands were subjected to constant attacks by the French from 1214 until the 15th century. The effect was devastating. The attackers burned the houses, churches and crops, killed many islanders and stole all the valuables they could lay their hands upon.

The Papal Bull of Neutrality

These constant attacks were so debilitating that in 1483 Edward IV and Louis XI made an application to Pope Sixtus IV resulting in the issue of a Bull of Neutrality placing the island under church protection. It was thus that the islands theoretically became a neutral area enabling trade with both England and France even during times of war. This Papal Bull, which remained in force until the accession of William III in 1689, was one of the foundation stones of a period of economic prosperity: whilst the islands' neutrality was not respected at all times, it substantially reduced the attacks from the French.

Rather surprisingly, despite the loss of Normandy to the French, the islands had remained under the ecclesiastical authority of the Diocese of Coutances and therefore under the See of Rome. The ecclesiastical allegiance to the Bishop of Coutances was ended in 1496 when Henry VII obtained a Bull from Pope Alexander Borgia transferring the islands firstly to the Diocese of Salisbury and, in 1499, to Winchester. The general authority of the Bishop of Westminster was not, however, wholly recognised until the passing of an Order in Council in 1568.

The Reformation

In 1513, Henry V decreed in an act of confiscation that all French-owned properties in his dominions were to be confiscated. The final remnant of the old order had thus been broken and the crown took over the remaining fiefs still under the control of the French abbeys and priories.

The Reformation had a dramatic effect on the island. In 1547 Edward V1 acceded to the throne of England and the following year an order was issued by Lord Somerset, the militantly anti-Catholic, absentee Governor of Jersey, for the removal from the churches of all emblems of popery. The majority of the church fonts, piscinae, statuary and stained glass was smashed as were all the wayside crosses. Catholicism was therefore swept away to be replaced by the French form of Calvinism which the French-speaking population readily accepted.

In 1550 the five Royal commissioners acting for the crown sold all the previously confiscated church property including, the church ornaments, bells, orbits and other rents, for masses. This is an important event in the history of Channel Island silver as it accounts for the lack of all but a few pieces of prereformation ecclesiastical silver. De la Croix, however, states that many items of church property were sold into private hands and it is therefore possible that further pre-reformation local silver may yet be discovered.

The Tudor Period

During the short reign of Mary 1 (1553-1558) the islands briefly returned to Catholicism. The reversion to Protestantism on the accession of Elizabeth 1 was a relatively easy process as the people were by now Protestant at heart. However all those who refused to renounce the Catholic faith were forced to leave the islands. Calvinism gradually gave way to the Episcopalian doctrine as the influence of France faded. Episcopalianism remained as the predominant religious force in the islands until the visit of the Methodist John Wesley in 1787.

The Huguenots

Prior to the mid-16th century, foreigners had been discouraged from coming to live in the islands but attitudes had changed by the time the first French Huguenots arrived in 1572. For the twenty five years that followed, Huguenots of all classes flocked to the islands seeking religious freedom.

The passing of the 1598 Edict of Nantes granted religious freedom to Protestants in France and as a result many returned to their native land. But in 1685 this edict was revoked and the French Protestants were again persecuted. In the subsequent few years, many hundreds of artisans, ministers and merchants fled to the Channel Islands. Many of these families only stayed in the Channel Islands for a short time before moving on to other places such as England and America. These generally well educated men were well received, and the skilled craftsmen amongst them played a vital role in the manufacture and development of Jersey and Guernsey silver.

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