History of St Martin's Parish Church

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By George Balleine

An etching of the church in 1854


Jersey had been Christian for generations before the Normans came but at first there were no parishes. Each estate had its own wooden chapel for the family and its serfs.

When pagan Northmen overran the island, most of these chapels went up in flames, but the people did not change their religion, and in 911 the Normans accepted Christianity. Then knights who had seized the north-east of Jersey each built a stone chapel for his own estate. In the Middle Ages there were many of these in St Martin, and some may have been as old or older than the parish church. There was St Catherine's near Archirondel, which gave its name to St Catherine's Bay, and St Agathe's on the seashore (the ruins of both were demolished in 1852, when the road to the pier was made). St Etienne's, St Julian's, St Barbe's, St Medard's the Chapel of the Cross, and others. St Mary's in the Rosel grounds remains an example of a private chapel for an estate.

For some reason, which we cannot trace, of all these chapels one, dedicated to St Martin, grew to be the parish church. The chancel of the present church is the original chapel. The bogus list of church consecrations, to which we have often referred, gives 4 January 1116, as the date of its opening; but it is much older.

In 1042 William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, but not yet King of England, granted to the Abbey of Gerissy "the Church of St Martin the Old in the isle of Jersey with its lands and a third part of its tithe of grain". This shows not only that the church was standing as early as 1042, but that it was already regarded as old in comparison with St Martin's, Grouville. And the mention of tithes indicates that it was already a parish church. The Abbot of Cerisy appointed its Rectors down to the Reformation.

Bit by bit the church grew from a tiny chapel to the present stately building; but it has been pulled about so drastically in successive restorations that it is impossible to date dogmatically when the additions were made. First a nave was added to the chancel. Then probably two transepts were thrown out, giving the church the form of a cross. Next a south chancel was built, and then, perhaps a century later, a south aisle.

Look at the south wall of the church from the churchyard, and you will see that the eastern half is built of rough boulders from the beach, while the western half is of quarried stone, and the roof of the two halves is not quite the same height.

Rector, Dean and Bailiff

St Martin's used to be considered the leading church in the island, possibly because the Governor lived in the parish at Mont Orgueil. Its endowment was larger than any of the others, and its Rector was often Dean.

Of these Dean-Rectors one of the most vigorous was Richard Mabon (1514-43). For a time he was not only Dean but Bailiff. He made what was in those days the extremely dangerous pilgrimage to. Jerusalem, and on his return built an additional Chapel on the Hougue Bie in honour of the Holy Sepulchre. Toward the end of his life he began to add a new Chapel to his Parish Church at the north-east corner. He planned it on noble lines, as the walled-in arch on the north of the chancel still testifies, but he died before it was finished.

In 1611 Laurens Baudains, founder of the famous Don Baudains, left 100 crowns in his will to complete the chapel. But in 1740 the churchwardens applied to the Ecclesiastical Court for permission to pull it down, stating that it had never been roofed or used for divine service, that its gable had recently fallen, and that its ruins disfigured the church.

The eastern part was then demolished, but the western end was preserved to house the militia cannons. In recent years this has been transformed into an organ-chamber and vestry.


To return to the main building. The Reformation did its work thoroughly. No church in the island shows fewer traces of the old worship. Three niches in the walls mark the position of three piscinae, at which the priest used to wash the altar vessels, and there three fraternity side-altars probably stood. Four fraternities once flourished in the parish; the Fraternity of St Catherine had its altar in St Catherine's Chapel, but the fraternities of St Nicolas, the Crucifix, and the Sacrament would have had theirs in the church. Beyond these niches no reminder remains of pre-Reformation worship, save two bare brackets, on each of which once stood the statue of a saint.

The oldest document dealing with the church is the account book of Constable Payne, which begins in 1582 with the entry: "Paid to Edouard Baudains for sundry missions which he undertook for the building of the spire, 4 nobles 19 groats". Apparently the wood had to be bought in Normandy, for a subsequent entry runs: "Paid 19 reals to the Normans for an oak stair to the tower." Does this give the date of the building of the spire, or was it only a rebuilding after destruction by lightning? Jersey spires were shattered again and again before the invention of conductors.

These accounts show that as a rule 10 pots of wine (ie 5 gallons) were consumed at each quarterly Lord's Supper.

Interesting registers

No church has such interesting registers as St Martin's. Instead of being, as they usually are, a bare list of dates and names, St Martin's clerks acquired the habit of jotting down gossipy notes on the people they mention. These range from "She was an impudent woman of scandalous life," to "He was respected and loved by everyone in the parish". Of one we are told, "He had acquired great wealth in Portugal," of another, "He once whitewashed the spire of the church," of another, "He fled from Normandy, because he was conscripted for the war with Spain". Of one Bride we are told, "She had previously been jilted (delaissee) by Jean Journeaux", of another, "She had been betrothed to Gilles Du Tot, but the contract had been broken off by mutual consent in the presence of the Minister."

Susan Dolbel was "found dead beside her cow. There was a pint of milk in the can, it is thought that the cow kicked her." Georges Machon "left home to fish at La Vaulle, and was drowned on the Banc du Violet on the first day of summer vraicing. He had left the Banc, but returned to help some who were cut off by the tide. He helped to rescue several, and then went back to save others, but was cut off with Jean Vic and his wife and a man named Baudains from St Saviour's. The four bodies were recovered the same evening.”

In 1639 a panic was caused by an epidemic of dysentery. Elisabeth Michel "was brought to the cemetery in a cart led by her mother, because no one could be found to carry her for fear of infection" .

More surprising information than this is found in these registers. In 1590 the clerk inserted a list of ‘’Lucky and Unlucky Days’’, from the which I learn that in March the lucky days are 1st and 8th, while the jours perilleux, on which it is wise to mind your step, are the 4th, 6th, 10th, 16th and 17th.

In 1622 his successor suddenly burst into verse with a long pathetic lamentation, partly in French and partly in Latin. One verse runs:

By the sweat of my brow I toil, and yet I perish with hunger.
For three days I have not tasted a morsel of bread in my home.
I have planted, sowed, gathered, dunged, to provide food for my little ones
But alas! all is eaten.
The pulpit with a stained glass window behind

Our glance through the church registers has carried us to the 18th century. We must now look back a little. The Pre-Reformation perquage, the path by which criminals who had taken sanctuary in the church could pass un-arrested to the sea, crossed the north wall of the churchyard by a stile, skirted the old Rectory, plunged down the valley to the brook, followed its course till it met the stream that rises in the manor grounds, and then followed this till it reached the shore near Archirondel Tower. It was last used in 1546, when Thomas Le Seelleur escaped the gallows by walking down it to a boat, which took him to Normandy.

Few churches can have more buttresses than St Martin's. Soon after the Reformation the weight of its stone roof caused its walls to bulge outwards ominously. The first set of buttresses were built then, and priests' tombstones, as can still be seen, were ruthlessly used for this purpose. Another stone has an elaborately carved coat of arms, which no one has yet identified.

In spite of the Reformation the churchyard cross, or at least its stump, remained for many years, for in 1606 the register records that Jeanne Vautier was "buried near the cross", and in 1610 Tomasse Feret was "buried near the stone of the cross".

In 1616, on a Sunday morning, as the people were going into church; the spire was struck by lightning, and broken off in the middle. The same thunderstorm destroyed also St Peter's spire. This caused widespread panic, for it was taken as a warning that the wrath of God was about to smite the island. Did not the Bible say: "Judgement must begin at the House of God?"

St Martin's, however, rebuilt its spire in 1618, Three years later an odd entry appears in the records of the Royal Court: "Pierre Sohier, who has long been a prisoner in the Castle for having confessed his sin, the said imprisonment may count as part of his punishment, and in addition he must pay 10 francs, half to the poor and half to the King. Moreover he is ordered to ask pardon of God, the King, and the Royal Court for his idolatry, and is sent back to the church to make such satisfaction as shall be found suitable'

One wonders what he had done. Was he guilty of some form of witchcraft, or had he relapsed into Catholic ways, and offered a candle before a niche in which once stood the statue of a saint ?

17th and 18th centuries

During Cromwellian days the church was thoroughly restored. In 1658 it was re-seated and whitewashed, the north side of the roof was slated, the broken windows repaired, and a new churchyard wall built.

Churchwardens in this century seem to have been strangely remiss about opening the poor box. At Christmas, 1639, we read: ."The poor box was opened by the parish officers, and there was found in it 8 crowns, 4 sols, 1 double. It was three years since it had been opened", and again in 1671: "On a dark night the box outside the church was broken open and its contents stolen. It had not been opened for more than two years."

Throughout the 18th century, as the population increased, the church assembly found great difficulty in providing pews for everyone. An act of 1708 runs: "Seeing that the family of Thomas Lempriere has by the Lord's blessing become so numerous that his pew in the South Chapel has become too small to hold them, it has been found reasonable to allot to Sieur Lempriere a second pew, which formerly belonged to Mons Le Hardy". Soon, however, the erection of two large galleries became necessary, one at the west end and one along the north wall of the nave.

In 1732 the sundial was given by Georges Bandinel, the Vicomte. In 1745 the north wall began to bulge again and fresh buttresses were added, which are easily distinguished from the older ones, because they are built of blue granite.

In 1749 we find an amusing instance of Jersey thrift. In those days the collection was taken by almoners at the church doors. The churchwardens petitioned the Ecclesiastical Court for permission to substitute windows for two of their doors, stating that they had four doors and only two almoners, and that, at whichever doors they stationed these officials, many of the congregation would leave by one of the others. Permission was granted.

Public penance was still frequent. A typical case is that of Elizabeth Le Brun, for adultery. "For this," says an Act of the Ecclesiastical Court, "she has humbly asked pardon of God, and as a salutary penance has promised to kneel for two Sundays outside the principal door of St Martin's Church, and ask the faithful, as they enter, to pray that God may pardon her sin. She shall remain there till the Nicene Creed, when the Rector will send the churchwardens to bring her into the church. She will then kneel in front of the pulpit, while one of the Penitential Psalms is sung, and remain kneeling during the sermon. She shall then read her confession aloud in the form that shall be given her. After which the Rector may receive her back into the Peace of the Church". The last public penance of this kind took place in 1830.

In 1837 the spire was again destroyed by lightning, but this time, when it was rebuilt, a lightning conductor was added. The Admiralty now listed the spire as a sea mark, and insisted that it should be kept whitewashed.

The old chancel was still boarded off as the schoolroom of the parish school. In 1842 Dean Jeune suggested that "out of respect for the Temple and the place where their ancestors were buried" the parishioners should move the school elsewhere; but the Parish Assembly would not hear of this. Three years later, however, it sanctioned a general restoration of the church, "provided that it cost nothing to the parish".

The school was removed, the partition pulled down, and the chancel restored to its former use with a communion gable under the east window. A new pulpit and several stained glass windows were given, and the present vestry made in the remnant of the Mabon Chapel.

The financial value of pews can be seen by a sale at this time. Dr Bandinel, who was then librarian of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, sold his family pew in St Martin’s by auction, and it was knocked down for £67 sterling.

The next restoration took place in 1877, when Thomas Le Neveu was Rector. A strong party opposed it, and it was eventually carried in the assembly only by two votes. But the work was done thoroughly, and the cost covered by printing banknotes, a form of finance much in favour in the island at this time.

William Lempriere, a retired clergyman, who was now Seigneur of Rosel, generously undertook the entire refurnishing of the chancel; choir stalls, altar rails, and east window were his gift, and in addition he presented a new font and lectern.

The chief glory of St Martin's is its stained glass. No church in the island has finer. Most of these windows were added from this time on-ward.

Recent years

Concerning recent improvements, the most notable is that of the restoration of the south aisle and side chapel. Although mooted long before, the work started seriously in April 1963, inspired by a generous gift of £400 for the purpose of erecting a stone altar in Jersey granite. This gift encouraged the Rector to appeal to all parishioners and friends to play their part generously. Within 15 weeks the appeal had reached its target of £1,000, and to encourage this restoration the municipality voted a further £1,000.

Many additions and furnishings have been given in recent years, notably the Lempriere screen, the priests' stalls, and the altar ornaments. The Bishop's chair at the east end was a thank offering by parishioners and friends for the Liberation in 1945. It is interesting to note that carved on the altar riddel posts and imprinted on the silver ornaments is the Wedgewood Pottery coat of arms.

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