Nicolle history of St Helier - Chapter 2

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Saint Helerius

The Town of St Helier takes its name from St Helerius, a pious missionary, whose biography, legendary and exaggerated doubtless as it is in some particulars, I will briefly trace.

Until we arrive at the 6th Century the most profound silence surrounds these islands. What race of men inhabited these rock-bound coasts we know not with any certainty, but with the advent of Christianity, their history commences, and also that of the subject of this work.

That most of the names in these islands have their origin in the diffusion of the Christian religion points to the important fact that the monastic must have preceded the municipal institutions and that before the Islands became Christian they must have been very thinly populated, probably by a few fishermen or pagan anchorites and, generally speaking all but uninhabited. Had they contained a large tribal population, villages would have been brought into existence and the names of some of them would doubtless have come down to us. It was the rule in Roman Gaul for the tribal denomination to be that of its metropolis, as Vannes, Rennes, and Avranehes for the Venetes, Rhedones and Abrincates. No such traces, so far as I am aware, are to be discovered in these islands.

Early years

Saint Helerius was horn at Tongres, the son of a Pagan. Early converted to Christianity he became a zealous missionary under Saint Marculf, whose name is intimately connected with the conversion of these Islands to Christianity.

Many are the legends attached to the early life of St Helier. It is related how in early youth he was struck with paralysis and how Saint Cunibert cured him on condition that he should give himself up to God, how having grown to manhood he became a recluse and amused himself by gardening, but the hares got amongst his vegetables and made havoc thereof. So one day the Saint walked out with his cross in his hand and marked off a plot of his ground for the exclusive use of those wicked hares. Here he notified they might feast, beyond the limits they should respect his vegetables. No hare, it is related, ever over-stepped the boundary.

But hares were liable to be hunted, and one day a bold sportsman leapt over the line of demarcation on horseback. As he leapt the fence a bough of a tree caught his eye and blinded him. He was now at the mercy of the Saint. The merciful Helerius made a sign with the cross and the eye was restored.

Visit to Jersey

It was on the recommendation of Saint Marculf that Helerius visited Jersey. The population, it is said, only numbered then 30 souls. The Saint chose as his habitation, so the legend goes, a rock which was surrounded by the sea at high tide and communicated with the land by a natural causeway. There it is related he caused to be constructed the interesting cell which we know today as The Hermitage. Such is the tradition handed down to us.

The style of the masonry of this building and its nature hardly seem to belong to so ancient a period as that of the real Saint. It is more likely to be an oratory erected in memory of the martyred Saint at some later period in connection with the famous abbey of St Helier, of which more anon. Saint Helier gave himself up to his religious duties but the times were wicked. Sea-rovers were abroad and unhappily they came to Jersey. As they were landing the Saint stretched out his hand and forthwith their ships were all blown out to sea. Then they fought against each other; but still enough were left to effect a landing and to decapitate poor Helerius. So the legend runs.

After this begins the monkish history of his dead body, so mysterious that perhaps it is better not to attempt to unravel it. Saint Marculf, we are told, in memory of this holy man, founded a monastery near the Hermitage on the Islet, where Elizabeth Castle now stands, and in proximity to which was destined to congregate that population that had by then taken strong root in the soil and from which was to arise the Town of St Helier.

It is evident that neither Saint Marculf nor the first Christian missionaries foresaw all the results of the social and religious changes which they were instrumental in bringing about.

A monastery, it must be recollected, was not only an institution for Religious purposes, but as early as the beginning of the 7th century it became a force for the organisation of the people.

The monks opened schools and the children there received instruction. In Normandy for instance the school of the monastery of St Wandrille enjoyed an exceptional fame throughout the country. The monks of the Abbey of St Helier were probably no exception to the rule and took upon themselves the instruction of the youth of the Island.

The religions movement which Saint Marculf had started progressed in Jersey, as it did in the other islands, under the egis of Saint Sampson and of Saint Magloire.

In those early times, as on so many occasions in later history, Jersey was destined to be the spot where many an exile could find a safe refuge. There we learn that Pretoxtatus, Archbishop of Rouen, having quarrelled with the King of the Franks, betook himself to our shores and spent ten long years of his life in Saint Marculf's monastery on the Islet of St Helier. This ecclesiastic consolidated the religious organisation of the Islands and strengthened the bonds which attached them to the Cotentin and to the Diocese of Coutances.

Nicolle: The Town of St Helier
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