So much had happened since the great invasions of the Northmen descended on the Channel coasts in the second half of the 9th century, that in recording the resurrection of the monastery in the Islet of Saint Helier in 1155, we seem to be dealing with an entirely new world.
The virile Normans are now a mighty nation. Their Dulce is Henry II, King of England and Lord of a huge territory stretching from the Cheviots to the Pyrenees. For two centuries they have all been good Christians and have proved their firm belief in the faith by founding and endowing numberless religious establishments wherein priests mutter unceasing prayers for the welfare of their souls.
The new monastic buildings were situated on the flat ground under the lee of the mass of rock on which the Mount or Keep of Elizabeth Castle was eventually to stand. They consisted of a Church and a number of small contiguous structures which served as dwellings, stores and offices for the monks.
Probably also some of the poorer local people had their humble hutments in the Islet and served the Fraternity in menial capacities or helped them in their fishing and vraic cutting.
Of this long occupation no relics have survived. The entire surface of the Islet has been dug, re-dug and shifted during the course of fortifyings and sieges and no mediaeval pottery, coin, or implement appears to have been unearthed or preserved.
As there are not any springs in the Islet, the monastic water-supply must have been dependant on stored rainwater. When the Priory Church was blown up in the siege of 1651, the records state that certain cisterns were destroyed with it. There is every reason to suppose that they had originally been constructed by the monks.
It is fortunate that one year prior to this disaster an artist-engraver of considerable skill had come to the Castle with Charles II. This artist was a Bavarian named Wentzel Hollar and it is to him that we owe the only existing pictures of the Priory Church. Small as these etchings are, it is evident that they were made with care and considerable accuracy.
Two arches of the ruined Church survived till about 1730, when they were removed during the reconstruction of the fortifications. They appear in Thomas Phillips' drawing of 1680.
The documents from which the following short history of the Abbey and Priory of Saint Helier is compiled, consist mainly of Royal Charters, Papal Bulls and official letters preserved in various Departmental Archives in France and published by La Société Jersiaise in the Cartulaire des Iles Anglo- Normandes, 1924.
The founder of the new Abbey of Saint Helier was Guillaume, son of Hamon, otherwise William Fitz-Hamon, a lord of importance at the court of Henry, Duke of Normandy, who became Henry II of England. He attained high rank in the King's service. In 1166 he was Seneschal of Nantes and in 1172 Seneschal of Brittany. He died in or near 1176.
The compilers of the Cartulaire have assigned, on good evidence, 1155 as the date of the founding of Saint Helier's Abbey.
Fiz-Hamon's pious act, performed in honour of in obscure local saint who had perished six centuries previously, a date as far removed from Fitz-Hamon as we are from the battle of Crecy, provides us with a good example of the tenacity of tradition.
The Abbey was well endowed. In 1172, 'Henry, King of England, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, Count of Anjou' confirms by Charter to the Abbey and to the Canons who serve God therein, revenues derived from the Town Mill, the Marsh of Saint Helier and the patronage of the Church of the Holy Trinity.
In the same year, one Jourdain de Barneville sold to Benjamin, Abbot of St Helier, various lands in Jersey and on the neighbouring coast of Normandy. The deed of sale was affirmed in the Chapter of the Abbey by Maitre Marcher, and elsewhere by Fitz-Hamon and the Bishop of Coutances. Envious eyes were cast on these properties and endowments.
It seems that the Order of Saint Augustine had two sections or branches, one of Artois and one of Paris. The Abbey of Saint Helier belonged to the former branch, while the Abbey of Our Lady of the Vow of Cherbourg belonged to the latter.
he Empress Matilda, mother of Henry II, having decided to restore the Abbey of Cherbourg had appointed Robert, Abbot of Saint Helier, to carry out her wishes. His rule there being guided by the discipline of Artois, excited the displeasure of the Paris section and they, on Abbot Robert's death, had one of their own discipline appointed in his succession.
The unfortunate upshot of all this unseemly bickering was the amalgamation of the Abbeys in 1179 and the degradation of the Abbey of Saint Helier to the status of Priory. Our Abbey, though three times as rich as the Abbey of the Vow, thus became a dependency, its wealth being absorbed and administered by its superior, under the discipline of St Victor of Paris.
The event is thus summarised by the chronicler, Robert de Torigny:
- "Walter, Archbishop of Rouen was authorised by Our Lord Henry, King of the English, to affiliate the Abbey of Saint Helier in the Island of Gersoi, (which William, son of Hamon had founded), with the Abbey of the Vow near Cherbourg, built by the Empress mother of Henry the King."
The official authority for the merger — if such a vulgar expression be permitted — is set forth in Archbishop Rotrou's Charter of 1179. The Charter which is addressed to the Abbot and Brethren of the Monastery of Saint Mary of Cherbourg, expresses the opinion that that Monastery and the Abbey of Saint Helier are too poor to stand alone. He therefore decides to reorganise them as one flock under one shepherd. To give this effect, he promotes the Abbey of Cherbourg to the position of headquarters and reduces the Abbey of Saint Helier to the rank of Priory. Benjamin, Abbot ot Saint Helier, was then installed as Abbot of Saint Mary and thus became the first Abbot of the united Monasteries.
Papal Bull and Charters
On 13 May 1180 Pope Alexander III addressed a Bull to Benjamin, Abbot of Saint Mary of the Vow, confirming his appointment and taking the Abbey under his protection. In this document the sources of revenue are mentioned. They include the properties of Saint Helier's Abbey, already detailed, as well as others in England, Scotland, Normandy, Guernsey and Herm. About the same time an addition to local property is recorded.
Renaud de Carteret in his own name and in that of his father, gives and concedes to the Church and Canons of Saint Helier by charter, about one and three-quarter acres of land in the Val de la Mare "for the love of God and for the salvation of my own soul and the souls of my ancestors".
A series of Charters may now be mentioned which confirm the merger charter of 1179. First is the Charter of Walter, Archbishop of Rouen, confirming his predecessor's charter of 1179. It was issued about 1185. Its provisions demand the maintenance of at least five Canons in the Islet.
Second, about 1186, comes a Charter of Henry II.
Thirdly, on 24 August 1186, Pope Urban III confirms by Bull to the Canons of the Monastery of Saint Helier their various endowments.
Nine months later the same Pope addressed a Bull to the Abbot and Brethren of Notre Dame de Cherbourg confirming in turn their possessions, among which is the Monastery of Saint Heher.
Thus we learn that the religious establishment founded in honour of the blessed Helier in the Islet in 1155 only ranked as an Abbey for four and twenty short years. Thereafter as a Priory its importance waned. Served by half a dozen monks and remote from the world, it exercised no political and little spiritual influence. During the ensuing centuries documentary evidences of its existence become fewer and finally fail outright. Then at last, in a blinding flash, it emerges momentarily from its agelong obscurity, only to disappear for ever amid the crash of cannon and the groans of stricken men.
Nevertheless it is not right to infer that because succeeding generations of Islet monks have left no records, they passed their lives in peace and quiet. The truth is far otherwise. From the commencement of the 13th century, the wars between the French and English Kings brought untold miseries to the Islanders. Sudden and cruel raids were of frequent occurrence, and in these, the properties of the Church were often no more immune from pillage and destruction than were the dwellings and fields of the laity.
In addition to these military alarms, were the complications caused by the local ecclesiastical administration being in the hands of the King's enemies. This was a matter directly affecting the Islet establishment. The restrictions and confiscations enforced by Edward III and Henry V cannot possibly have been welcomed by the Prior and his Canons, despite the fact that they do not seem entirely to have ousted the influence of the Bishops of Coutances. It remained for the inimitable Henry VIII to settle that matter, and from that date the Priory Church in the Islet began to fall into further decay.