Nicolle history of St Helier - Chapter 3

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The early inhabitants and the influence of the Church

Towards the end of the 8th century Jersey was visited by Gervold, Abbot of Fontenelle, sent by no less a personage than Charlemagne. The object of his visit history does not relate, but the Registers of the Abbey of Fontanelle tell us that the Island was then inhabited by Bretons and was governed by a chief called Amwarith.

Breton origins

Now it is today generally accepted as true that the original inhabitants of these Islands were Bretons and doubtless the object of Charlemagne's mission was to undermine the Breton influence in the Island, for it must be remembered that that Monarch never completely succeeded in subjugating Brittany.

The same Registers of Fontenelle Abbey inform us that Gervold succeeded in his task. The Bishops of Coutances had henceforth an undisputed jurisdiction over the Islands.

And now the Normans appear on the scene. Of their exploits all that concerns us here is the fact that they pillaged and ransacked the Monastery of Saint Helier. Our countryman, the poet Wace, in the Roman de Rou, tells of the pitiless ravages for which these hordes of barbarians were responsible, but notwithstanding, civilisation had progressed. The Church had succeeded in establishing a system of government, primitive though it may have been.

From an examination of ancient charters which have been handed down to us we may take it as conclusive that from the latter half of the tenth century the parishes existed in the Islands as we find them today. We may therefore safely conclude that the Danish influence on the ecclesiastical and parochial organisation in the Channel Islands was practically nil.


The ancient Monastery of Saint Helier founded by Saint Marculf and, as we have seen, destroyed by the Norman pirates in the tenth century, was not immediately rebuilt. The Islet of St Helier, where its ruins stood, belonged in the 12th century to the illustrious family of the Barons of Thorigny and Creully, whose interesting old feudal castle between Caen and Bayeux may be seen today in an excellent state of preservation.

A member of this family; William Fitz-Hamon, about the year 1125 built on the ruins of the Ancient Monastery an Abbey which assumed the name of Saint Helier as its patron, and which soon became endowed with considerable land and property. The monks were of the order of Saint Augustine and it flourished for several years. The King of England encouraged the liberality shown by Fitz-Hamon in giving to the monastery the Moulin de la Ville (Town Mill), the Marais de St Helier, and the patronage of the Church of Trinity.

Others and among them the family of the De Carterets, came forward as benefactors of the Monastery, but notwithstanding these liberal endowments, towards the end of the very century which saw its foundation, or to be more precise in the year 1184, by virtue of a Charter of Henry II it was annexed to the Abbey of Cherbourg, and thus reduced to the rank of a priory, it became known as Le Prieure de l'Islet.

The transactions relating to this transfer exercised, I think, a considerable influence on the history of Jersey. It will be useful therefore to examine their nature and effects.

The Empress Matilda desiring to restore the Abbey of Cherbourg had confided the work to Robert, Abbot of the Monastery of Saint Helier. Two branches of the order of Saint Augustine at that period vied with each other for supremacy, that of Saint Victor of Paris and those who followed the discipline of the parent monastery in Artois. The Abbey of St Helier belonged to the latter and the followers of Saint Victor showed signs of disapproval when the Abbot of St Helier attempted to govern the Abbey of Cherbourg according to the discipline of Artois.

New Abbot

The Abbot of St Helier dying, the Victorians seized the opportunity and obtained the appointment of one of their body as his successor at Cherbourg.

But the new Abbot disagreeing with the Canons of Cherbourg, the Archbishop of Rouen appointed a certain Benjamin, the successor to Robert as Abbot of St Helier, as Abbot of Cherbourg. Unfortunately for St Helier the idea of uniting the two Abbeys under one head now occurred to the Empress and Henry II. Benjamin died and the Archbishop appointed his own Chaplain Richard Martin, a canon of St Victor, to the vacant office. The new Abbot at once insisted that the two Abbeys should be subjected to the discipline of Saint Victor.

The monks of St Helier vigorously opposed the affiliation of the monasteries and they had good reason for so doing, for we must bear in mind that the Abbey of St Helier was richly endowed, much more richly indeed than that of Cherbourg.

The Abbey of St Helier is termed in a contemporary deed "ingsignis Abbatia", an imposing building and the presence of these monks in Jersey had brought about certain elements of prosperity to the small community of St Helier.

But all efforts to avert the disaster were unavailing. Henry II by his charter, to which we have already alluded, determined that the Abbeys should be united, for which two reasons were given: that the monasteries had not sufficient revenues to exist as separate institutions, and that the headquarters of the community would be more conveniently situated at Cherbourg than in a lonely and isolated island.

Saint Victor of Paris therefore triumphed and the Abbey of Saint Helier was henceforth known as Le Prieure de l'Islet and it was stipulated that five monks at least were to reside in Jersey.

The Abbey of Cherbourg was enriched at the cost of that of St Helier, without compensation of any kind being afforded to the Monks of St. Helier, an example of right having to give way to might, of how those responsible for the government of the Norman archipelago in those days neglected the political interests of the smaller community.

Subservience to Dukes

And herein is the importance of this little episode. It shows how subservient the lot of these islands would have been to the whims of their Dukes had not circumstances brought about their separation from continental Normandy. The separation, of course, took place in 1205 [Editor’s note: generally accepted as 1204], only 20 years after the Charter of Henry II had united the Abbeys of Cherbourg and St Helier.

These facts will, I think, in part explain the readiness with which the islanders received an event that gave promise to them and to their country of an independence and of an enjoyment of liberties of which they had for long years despaired and it will also explain how they steadfastly resisted all attempts to rob them of the privileges they had thus gained, of their individuality, and of their autonomy. From the date of the separation the Islands became a distinct and separate community.

Nicolle: The Town of St Helier
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Saint Helerius The early inhabitants The priory

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