Nicolle history of St Helier - Chapter 5

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The general condition of the people

If we have no precise indications of the extent of the village of St Helier in those early days, certain sources exist, such as the Assize Rolls, from which we can obtain some idea of the condition of its inhabitants during the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries.


Fishing was the principal occupation of the population of St Helier of those days, and it is an undoubted fact that the Jersey fisheries were then in a more flourishing state than they are today, when the legislature has to intervene with the object of attempting to increase the supply of this kind of food. The sea around Jersey then gave a bountiful supply of all kinds of fish, but the most remarkable was the conger, which appears to have developed to prodigious size. Even in the days when Falle wrote his history of Jersey, the Islands were famous for the abundance and size of this fish.

"The sea about this and the adjoining islands," he says, "might be called the Kingdom of Congers, so great is the quantity taken and brought to market at all seasons, some weighing from 30 to 40 pounds".

As it was in Falle's time, so it was in Edward III's reign. But if on the one hand fish was plentiful, on the other the poor inhabitants had to pay besides a tenth part as a tithe to the Clergy, a royalty on all the fish they caught, and the most lucrative of the Crown dues, as appears from the accounts of some of the Wardens and Governors, was that resulting from the "Salerie des Congers". The "Esperkeria congrorum," or "Eperquerie" in the patois, was the place where the fish was brought to be salted and was so called from the poles on which the fish were hung to dry. It was the King's Custom house. The fish once salted was exported.

St Helier unfortunately did not in early times possess the advantage of a harbour with the result that the capital of the sister-island of Guernsey, where a pier was built as early as 1275, became the emporium of the merchants of Normandy, of the south of France and of Southampton. St Helier does not seem to have enjoyed a share with St Peter-Port in these early commercial relations. The Guernsey capital possessed great natural advantages for a good harbour. St Helier, on the contrary, until very recent times lacked that accommodation for shipping necessary for the development of trade. Even in the 17th century, when many Jersey vessels were engaged in the Newfoundland cod fishery, we must bear in mind they had to winter at St Malo, as St Helier could not afford them a haven of security.

Feudal system

The condition of the Islanders in the Middle Ages was none too bright. We have seen how they were compelled to pay tithes and a royalty on fish. The feudal system, the stumbling block of true freedom, of knowledge and of the development of commerce, obtained in Jersey. The people were dependent on the Seigneurs.

As tenants they had to cultivate their lord's land, cut and store his wheat and corn and perform many menial duties and services. A middle class did not exist and the population was thus entirely unprotected, and at the mercy of the Lords of the Manors. They remained poor, and it is not surprising if under such conditions the rise and development of the Town of St Helier was very slow, and that it is only in quite modern times that the commerce of the island assumed any magnitude.

Jersey had little intercourse with foreign countries. Even with the sister Island of Guernsey, the Jerseyman of the 13th and 14th centuries had little communication. Indeed a certain rivalry in those days seems to have stood in the way. In all ages and in all countries jealousies and dislikes have existed between neighbouring communities, and the inhabitants of Jersey and Guernsey were not exempt from these feelings.

An old adage, which translates ‘He who marries a Guernseyman or woman, will never live at ease’, says:

"Qui epouse Guernsiais ou Guernsiaise

Jamais ne vivra a s'n'aise"

But it is only right to say that the maliciousness of the adage was reciprocated and that Guernsey had its counterpart.

Assize Rolls

The Assize Rolls of the Justices Itinerant of the reigns of Edward I, II and III are documents of great importance in the study of the early history of Jersey. They give a graphic picture of the condition of the Islanders and of the exactions to which they were subjected.

The Kings of England took care that these Justices visited the Islands at more or less regular intervals, ostensibly for the purpose of rendering justice to poor and rich alike, but in perusing their proceedings one cannot fail to be struck with the fact that the King's revenues and profits were never lost sight of, and the great number of amercements and fines inflicted on the most frivolous grounds, fines which found their way, of course, into the Royal Exchequer, leads one to the inevitable conclusion that there existed under the Norman Kings a very intimate connection between judicature and finance.

Our countryman Wace has well pictured the condition of our ancestors in those days of judical exactions in the following graphic lines:

" Ne poent une heure aveir pain.

Tuz en jur sunt semuns de plaiz:

Plaiz de forez, plaiz de moneies,

Plaiz de purprises, plaiz de veies,

Plaiz de bies, plaiz de moutes

Plaiz de fautez, plaiz de toutes."

It was not only, therefore, from the fisheries that the Royal Exchequer was replenished. Money was extorted on the most trivial of pretences. Fines were paid to procure grants and confirmation of liberties and franchises of markets, fairs, free warren, for exemption from tolls, pontage, etc, to obtain justice and right, to delay trials in civil cases, for licence to trade, for pardons for crimes committed, and even for the compounding of felonies. Everything and anything was turned into a source of Royal revenue and profit.

Gathering at Priory

So harassed and exasperated were the Islanders with these exactions and with the disregard paid by the Itinerant Justices to their privileges and franchises that they formed themselves into an association and pledged themselves at the peril of their lives to defend their liberties and rights. It was in 1331 just previous to the advent of the Justices Robert de Scardeburg, Richarde de Westcote, and Robert Norton, that a unique gathering of some of the most notable and influential men of the Islands met in the Abbey or Priory of St Helier.

At their head were the Priors of St Clement and of the Vale in Guernsey. In the Abbey church they took a solemn oath: "unanimo assensu et una voce", to defend their rights. Faithful to their oath they presented themselves in Guernsey at the bar of the Justices to the number of five hundred.

They put forward their complaints and pleaded their case with a strong sense of the righteousness of their claims. The nature of these claims is instructive as showing the political condition of the Islanders at that period, and I will therefore set them out as briefly as possible:

  • The Election of 12 Jurats to hold office for life
  • These Jurats to have jurisdiction in all matters civil and criminal
  • The Itinerant Justices not to hold Assizes except in the presence of the Jurats as a consultative body
  • The Record of Judgments to be made in presence of the Jurats
  • Possession for a year to be unimpeachable except in the case of a grant from the King's Chancery
  • The Islanders not to be subject to any jurisdiction out of the Islands
  • Fines to be taxed by the Jurats
  • Banishment or outlawry not to involve, so far as heirs were concerned, the escheat to the Seigneur or Lord, of the goods and chattels of the outlaw
  • The outlaw pardoned within the year and a day to be reinstated in his land and property
  • The Islanders to be free of all levies, aids and contributions whatsoever
  • No one to be imprisoned in the Castle except for murder or serious assault and then with the assent of the Jurats
  • The Viscount and King's Granger to be elected by the inhabitants
  • The payment of money due to the Crown not to have preference over private claims
  • None but the Viscount to levy dues
  • No man obliged to plead before the Justices Itinerant until their commission be registered by the Court
  • The Justices' pleas not to last longer than three weeks
  • Homage only due to the King when he personally visited the Islands

In presence of such claims and of such a show of independence we must not be surprised if the Justices were somewhat taken aback, and looking with great disfavour upon the proceedings, demurred to the demands put forward. The petitioners evidently perceiving this shouted in the Audience hall: "Etiam! Etiam! Etiam !" - "in contempt", say the Justices, "of the lord the King, to the terror of the people, and, what was perhaps uppermost in their minds at that moment, to the danger of their lives."

Arrests ordered

However, the Justices do not appear to have lost their presence of mind and the Viscount was ordered to arrest the ringleaders as rebels. They were tried but acquitted by the jury and discharged. The Justices, however, did not accept this as final and declared in their judgment that the matter was one of their competence.

The rebels were cited to appear again before the Justices in Jersey at Longueville in St Saviour. Only one, Philippe de St Martin, put in an appearance and he was permitted to compound for his transgressions by the payment of a fine of 20 sols. The arrest of the defaulters was ordered, but history does not relate what happened to them. It is highly probable that Edward III, about to go to war with the French, was unwilling to alienate the sympathies of his subjects of the Norman Archipelago. On many occasions the Islanders had gently hinted their dangerous proximity to France and they knew well how to appeal to the King and his Council on this score.

They had bravely withstood every attempt to wrest from them their rights and liberties and a few years afterwards, on 18 July 1341 Edward simply confirmed to them their cherished customs and privileges. A heavy blow had been struck at the Royal Authority. By their persistence the Islanders had gained their points and had secured the foundations of their Constitution.

Nicolle: The Town of St Helier
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