Jean Poingdestre biography

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Jean Poingdestre


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This article by John Poindexter Landers was first published in the 1964 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise


Earliest portrait?

This picture of Jean Poingdestre, scholar, Lieut-Bailiff, commentator on Jersey's laws and customs, is one of the earliest, if not the earliest, surviving portrait of a Jerseyman, and is in the possession of Miss M E Poingdestre of Teddington, Middlesex.

Painted in 1635, probably in England, it is believed to be the work of Edward Bower or Gilbert Jackson. It measures 24 by 29 inches. The subject is clothed in the sombre clerical and scholastic garb of the time, since he was then a Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford, and a deacon in the Anglican Church. Several rents disfiguring the canvas are attributed by family tradition to rapier thrusts inflicted by Parliamentarian soldiers who mistook the visage for that of Charles I, or who were searching the walls for hiding-places provided by royalist supporters.

The portrait is now darkened by age but upon close inspection an inscription is discernible in the top left-hand corner:

Ce que tu vois de l'home n'est pas l'home aetat 27

The painting hung for over two centuries at Grainville Manor, the ancestral home of the descendants of Jean. It was taken to England at the time of the first World War by Edward Clement Poingdestre.

Jean Poingdestre, or John Poindexter (or Poingdexter) as he styled himself in England, probably to avoid being mistaken for a Frenchman, was born in a house now called Swan Farm, in the parish of St Saviour, near Grainville Manor on land which had belonged to the male line of the Poingdestre family at least as early as the 14th century.

He was baptized at St Saviour's Church on 16 April 1609, the son of Edouard, by his second wife, Pauline Ahier. Jean's godfather was his elder brother Thomas, son of Edouard by his first wife, Marguerite Messervy. Edouard was Seigneur of the Fief es Poingdestres, which lies in the parish of St John, and was Deacon (diacre) of St. Saviour's parish.

The scene of Jean Poingdestre's early studies was very probably St Mannelier's grammar school, not far from his home, where his nephew, Philippe Poingdestre, was later regent. In 1626 he went to Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he took a Bachelor's degree in 1630 and received a Master's degree in 1633.

Fellow of Exeter College

Soon after the institution of the King Charles I Channel Islands Fellowships at Oxford, (later converted to scholarships and exhibitions), he became (in 1636) a Fellow of Exeter College.

He was also tutor to the children of the Earl of Pembroke and held a position in the office of Lord Digby, Secretary of State. In 1641 he was ordained Deacon at York.

Esteemed in the world of scholarship as in the realm of public affairs, Poingdestre possessed a knowledge of ancient and medieval history com¬pendious for the times, and he was especially well versed in the classics. He was outstanding for his Greek studies and renowned for his exquisite Greek penmanship.

He edited the works of Hesychius, the Greek lexicographer, with a view to publication but there is no record in the British Museum nor in the Bibliotheque Nationale to show that the manuscript was ever brought to press.

On account of his outspoken attachment to the royal cause, Poingdestre was expelled from Oxford by the Parliamentarians in 1648. He then returned for a time to Jersey, where he aided Sir George Carteret in the defence of Elizabeth Castle.

When the condition of the besieged royalists had grown desperate, Carteret sent Poingdestre directly to King Charles in Paris to seek his assistance. Finding the King entirely without resources and the French Court unwilling to help, Poingdestre returned to Jersey and helped to draw up the articles of capitulation at the time of the surrender of Elizabeth Castle in 1651.

Besides carrying out a royal mission in Ireland and spending some time in Jersey during the remaining years of the Parliamentary regime there, he probably spent a brief period around 1657 in Virginia, to which his nephew, George Poingdestre, had emigrated.

Jean's ability as a Greek and Latin scholar was so highly prized that in 1652 Sir Edward Hyde (who later became Lord Clarendon) considered employing him as Latin Secretary. In 1659 he married Anne, daughter of Laurens Hamptonne, Vicomte of Jersey, and at the Restoration he returned to Oxford for a time. In 1668 the Bailiff, Sir Edouard de Carteret, chose Poingdestre to be his Lieut-Bailiff in Jersey.

Constitutional crisis

Charles II created a minor constitutional crisis in then ordering the Royal Court to appoint Poingdestre to the office of Jurat, then a necessary preliminary to his appointment as Lieut-Bailiff.

The Royal Court contrived, however, to follow the usual procedure for the election of Jurats, whilst meeting the King's wishes. On 23 May 1668 it ordered an election to be held the following Sunday in each of the parishes at the end of Divine Service, and on 27 May Poingdestre was duly sworn-in.

Since the Bailiff did not reside permanently in Jersey, the responsibility for the administration of justice and the civil government of the Island fell upon Poingdestre, until his resignation from the office of Lieut¬-Bailiff in 1676. He remained a Jurat until his death 15 years later.

It was not surprising that Jean Poingdestre was steeped in Jersey's laws, customs, and activities, for his family had held high office down the years. Three of his forebears had held the office of Bailiff in the 15th century and an earlier Jean Poingdestre was Lieutenant-Bailiff in 1485.

He had three ancestors, all named Jean Poingdestre, who were Jurats in the later part of the I4th century. He appears to have spent much of his retirement in writing about the Island, bringing to bear upon his work the influence of his scholarship and learning.

He produced, in English, the first complete account of Jersey's economic life, laws, and privileges, entitled Caeserea or a Discourse of the Island of Jersey which, it may be deduced, he wrote or finished writing, in 1682.

He presented the manuscript to King James II and it is now in the British Museum. The work was published by the Société Jersiaise in I889. The Rev Philippe FaIle acknowledged his reliance upon Poingdestre for much of his own book An Account of the Isle of Jersey published in I694: "I must own that the foundation on which I build is his, and a great part of the materials employed in this work are his also." He describes Poingdestre as

" ..... a person of universal learning ..... (who) had an accurate insight into the laws, customs and priviledges of this Island, and had made such a collection of antiquities relating thereunto, as well from printed books as from original papers and records, especially those of the Tower and Exchequer (to which he had access in the time of his attendance on the Court during the reign of King Charles I) that I believe few things worthy of observation escaped his sedulity and enquiry".

Legal works

It is, however, his legal works that brought him the highest recognition at home. In the Preface to ‘’Les Commentaires sur l' Ancienne Coutume de Normandie’’ he deplores the uncertainty at that time in the laws of Jersey, arising from the confusion caused largely by changes made by the French in the ‘’ancienne coutume’’ and by the local adoption of English rules and regulations. This resulted, in his own words, en ces derniers temps des monstres de jugements. And he belabours those lawyers who in this state of affairs

trouvent ample matiere pour chicaner Ie droit et jeter de la poussiere aux yeux des Justiciers .... et font de presque toutes causes, tant claires soient-elles, des causes d'amy, par y apporter de l'obscurite.
II y a longtemps que cette consideration jointe au zele que j'ai pour le bien du public mais plus que tout l'impatience de voir de mes propres yeux ce renversement de cette horrible confusion me font souhaiter avec passion d'employer le peu de cognoissance que Dieu m'a donnee a y appliquer quelque remede . . . . . . Cependant en voicy un Eschantillon qui pourra servir de guide a ceux qui aimeront mieux devenir disciples de la verite que continuer maistre dans l'erreur"

The above work and Les Lois et Coutumes de l'Ile de Jersey have been published by the Societe des Gens de Droit of Jersey. Another work ‘’Remarques et Animadversions sur la Coutume Reformee de Normandie’’ is still unpublished.

Poingdestre more scholarly

Jean Poindestre died on 4 September 1691 and was buried in St. Saviour's Church where a monument bearing a Latin inscription composed by Philippe Falle, extols his achievements. Though Poingdestre's legal works were much less massive and were printed much later than those of Philippe Le Geyt (who succeeded Poingdestre as Lieut¬enant-Bailiff), handwritten copies in the hands of Jersey lawyers served to establish Poingdestre's more scholarly treatment.

In a biographical sketch by Advocate E T Nicolle, written for the publication in 1907 of the ‘’Commentaires sur L'Ancienne Coutume’’ a clear comparison of the two authors is made:

"Les Commentaires de Poingdestre sur les Lois et Coutumes de Jersey rivalisent avec ceux de son grand contemporain Le Geyt. Celui-ci souvent traite son sujet d'une maniere partielle; souvent il s'embrouille ou laisse la question non-resolue; celui-la jamais. Le style de Poingdestre est clair et concis ; il parle d'une maniere convaincante et avec autorite. Les ecrits de Le Geyt abondent en faits curieux et historiques et en anecdotes agreables. Les ouvrages de Poindgestre sont rigoureusement juridiques

This is an echo of a similar judgment by Advocate Robert Pipon Marett (later Bailiff of Jersey) in a lengthy introduction on the life and work of Le Geyt on the occasion of the publication by the States of Jersey (1846), in four volumes of Le Geyt's La Constitution, les Lois, et les Usages de cette lie. Marett pays this tribute to Poingdestre :

" M Poingdestre etait un homme d'un me rite singulier, dont le genie, naturellement fecond, s'etait enrichi par une culture assidue. Il s'etait nourri l'esprit et forme le gout par la lecture des ecrits que l'antiquite nous a laisses comme un legs precieux … Personne mieux que lui n'a connu notre histoire, nos institutions, les privileges dont nous jouissons, les lois qui nous gouvernent. 11 s'en etait occupe de bonne heure, et avec une assiduite qui ne ralentit jamais jusqu'au dernier moment de sa vie."
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