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History of Guernsey facts for kids

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The history of Guernsey stretches back to evidence of prehistoric habitation and settlement and encompasses the development of its modern society.


St Martin's statue menhir Guernsey
La Gran'mère du Chimquière, the Grandmother of Chimquiere, the statue menhir at the gate of Saint Martin's church is an important prehistoric monument

Around 6000 B.C., rising sea created the English Channel and separated the Norman promontories that became the bailiwicks of Guernsey and Jersey from continental Europe. Neolithic farmers then settled on its coast and built the dolmens and menhirs found on the islands today. The island of Guernsey contains two sculpted menhirs of great archaeological interest, while the dolmen known as L'Autel du Dehus contains a dolmen deity known as Le Gardien du Tombeau.

The Roman occupation of western Europe induced people to flee, including to the Channel Islands where a number of hoards have been found, including the Grouville Hoard. It later brought trade and Roman settlements. A 3rd century Gallo-Roman ship wreck was found in St Peter Port harbour. Trade was by ship down the west coast of Europe, silver from England, Breton pottery, wine amphorae, as discovered in the Kings Road excavation in St Peter Port. The Nunnery in Alderney, was a 5th Century Roman signal station fort.

Early history

The arrival of Christianity

During their migration to Brittany, Britons occupied the Lenur islands (the former name of the Channel Islands) including Sarnia or Lisia (Guernsey) and Angia (Jersey). It was formerly thought that the island's original name was Sarnia, but recent research indicates that this might have been the Latin name for Sark. (Sarnia nonetheless remains the island's traditional designation.) Travelling from the Kingdom of Gwent, Saint Sampson, later the abbot of Dol in Brittany, is credited with the introduction of Christianity to Guernsey.

A chapel, dedicated to St Magloire, stood in the Vale. St Magloire was a nephew of St Samson of Dol, and was born about the year 535. The chapel in his name was mentioned in a bull of Pope Adrian IV as being in the patronage of Mont Saint-Michel, in Normandy; all traces of the chapel have gone. While the chapel would probably be of a much later date, St Magloire, the British missionary, may well have set up a centre of Christian worship before A.D. 600.

Somewhere around A.D. 968, monks, from the Benedictine monastery of Mont Saint-Michel, came to Guernsey to establish a community in the North of the Island. The Priory of Mont Saint-Michel was a dependency of the famous Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel.

The Duch of Normandy

The history of the Bailiwick of Guernsey goes back to 933 when the islands, came under the control of William Longsword, son of Rollo the first Duke of Normandy, having been annexed from the Duchy of Brittany by the Duchy of Normandy. The island of Guernsey and the other island in the Channel Islands represent the last remnants of the medieval Duchy of Normandy. In the islands, Elizabeth II's traditional title as head of state is Duke of Normandy. (The masculine nomenclature "Duke" is retained even when the monarch is female.)

According to tradition, Robert I, Duke of Normandy (the father of William the Conqueror) was journeying to England in 1032, to help Edward the Confessor. He was obliged to take shelter in Guernsey and gave land, now known as the Clos du Valle, to the monks. Furthermore, in 1061, when pirates attacked and pillaged the Island, a complaint was made to Duke William. He sent over Sampson D'Anneville, who succeeded, with the aid of the monks, in driving the pirates out. For this service, Sampson D' Anneville and the monks were rewarded with a grant of half the Island between them. The portion going to the monastery being known as Le Fief St Michel, and included the parishes of St Saviour, St Pierre du Bois, Ste. Marie du Catel, and the Vale.

The loss of Normandy by King John in 1204 isolated the Channel Islands from mainland Europe. Each time England and France went to war over the coming centuries, trade to and from the Channel Islands was restricted or banned and even when not officially at war, the island was repeatedly attacked by continental pirates and naval forces.

Battle of Guernsey
Battle 1342

Fortifications were improved in the Channel Islands, manned by professional soldiers and the Guernsey militia who would help to defend the Island for the next 600 years. Service was compulsory in the militia for every man in the Island. At the start of the Hundred Years War, Sark was captured and using this as a base, the next year when, starting in 1339, Guernsey was occupied by the Capetians, holding the Island for two years and Castle Cornet for seven. The attacks would recur on several occasions.

It was 1348 when the Black Death reached the Island, ravaging the population. In 1372, the island was invaded by Aragonese mercenaries under the command of Owain Lawgoch (remembered as Yvon de Galles), who was in the pay of the French king. Lawgoch and his dark-haired mercenaries were later absorbed into Guernsey legend as an invasion by fairies from across the sea.

Ship building skills improved and trade to and from Guernsey increased with a growing number of ports, sometimes using trading treaties and sometimes avoiding paying duties. Guernsey ships in the 14th century were small. 12-80 tons with crews of 8-20 men. In times of war, ships could be seized as prizes, the practice continuing in times of peace, against all nationalities, as piracy.

The Reformation

Condemned Witches burning in St. Peter's Port (582x800)
The burning of the Guernsey Martyrs 1556

In the mid-16th century, the island was influenced by Calvinist reformers from Normandy. During the Marian persecutions, three local women, the Guernsey Martyrs, were burned at the stake in 1556 for their Protestant beliefs. Two years later Elizabeth I came to the throne and Catholicism faded in Guernsey.

The French and piracy were problems to trade with Guernsey in the 16th century, requiring English naval ships to keep them at bay. Guernsey and Jersey were given certain privileges as the English crown needed the Islands to be loyal, not least of which was the Islands neutrality, allowing trade to be pursued with France and England, even when these were at war. The trade creating revenue from taxes to pay for the Island garrisons.

Early modern history

Civil War

Castle Cornet Floodlit
Castle Cornet seen at night over the harbour of St Peter Port.

During the English Civil War, Guernsey sided with the Parliamentarians, while Jersey remained Royalist. Guernsey's decision was mainly related to the higher proportion of Calvinists and other Reformed churches, as well as Charles I's refusal to take up the case of some Guernsey seamen who had been captured by the Barbary corsairs. The allegiance was not total, however; there were a few Royalist uprisings in the southwest of the island, while Castle Cornet was occupied by the Governor, Sir Peter Osborne, and Royalist troops. Castle Cornet, which had been built to protect Guernsey, was turned on by the town of St. Peter Port, who constantly bombarded it. It was the penultimate Royalist stronghold to capitulate (in 1651)

17th and 18th trade and emigration

The Newfoundland cod trade was important to Guernsey until around 1700 when the small Guernsey ships, found that the smuggling trade could prove more profitable, with Island businesses established to buy in goods for sale to smugglers until smuggling declined at the end of the 18th century, when legal privateering took over as the most profitable business.

Wars against France and Spain during the 17th and 18th centuries gave Guernsey shipowners and sea captains the opportunity to exploit the island's proximity to mainland Europe by applying for Letters of Marque and turning their merchantmen into licensed privateers. It was very profitable. In the first ten years of 18th Century, the War of the Spanish Succession, 608 prizes were taken by Guernsey privateers. there was however a downside with about 50 ships being lost. To spread the risk, people would buy a share in a ship, (⅛ for instance) receiving a portion of prize monies after costs, if successful. Many Islanders became rich without ever setting foot on a sailing vessel. Ships became larger, with more crew and were better armed as more money was invested. Late in the 18th Century, during the American Revolutionary War which lasted for 8 years, Guernsey and Alderney privateers took 221 prizes worth £981,300 (in today's terms, about £100m). The Islands and Guernsey in particular provided an important element to the blockading of enemies of Britain.

During the latter 17th Century the grant by Charles II of England of an island to George Carteret the Bailiff of Jersey, which was renamed New Jersey, combined with the Channel Island trading ships visiting New England saw Islanders setting up businesses and settling overseas. By the beginning of the 18th century, Guernsey's residents were starting to settle in North America. Guernsey County was founded in Ohio in 1810.

Ordinary trade continued, fishing had always been an important business. Knitting was an important home industry, overseas shipping carrying such diverse goods as wood, sugar, rum, coal, tobacco, salt, textiles, finished goods, glass, emigrants and wine. Trading mainly with Europe, the West Indies and the Americas.

19th Century

Privateering during the Napoleonic Wars generated more profits, rolling on from the French Revolutionary Wars. London issued 5,632 letters of Marque of which Guernsey captains received 602, amongst around 70 ships varying in size from 5 to 500 ton. The Letter of Marque would set out which countries ships could be taken, by which ship, owned by which people. Ships also became stronger and better armed. The war saw the introduction of a series of UK Privateer Acts, to set out rules of valuation of prizes to reduce disputes in Court.

Fort George was a former garrison for the British Army. Construction started in 1780, and was completed in 1812. It was built to accommodate the increase in the number of troops stationed in the island in anticipation of a French invasion during the Napoleonic Wars. Le Braye du Valle was a tidal channel that made the northern extremity of Guernsey, Le Clos du Valle, a tidal island. Le Braye du Valle was drained and reclaimed in 1806 by the British Government as a defence measure. The eastern end of the former channel became the town and harbour (from 1820) of St. Sampson's, now the second biggest port in Guernsey. The western end of La Braye is now Le Grand Havre. The roadway called "The Bridge" across the end of the harbour at St. Sampson's recalls the bridge that formerly linked the two parts of Guernsey at high tide. New roads were built and main roads metalled for ease of use by the military.

In 1821 the population of Guernsey was 20,302 with over 50%, 11,173 living in St Peter Port. By 1901 the island population would double.

The 19th century saw a dramatic increase in prosperity of the island, due to its success in the global maritime trade, and the rise of the stone industry. Ships were travelling further to trade, one notable Guernseyman, William Le Lacheur, established the Costa Rican coffee trade with Europe and the Corbet Family who created the Fruit Export Company Shipbuilding also increased in the 1840-70 era, declining when iron ships were demanded.

The quarrying industry was an important employer in the 19th century, Guernsey granite was highly prized, with London Bridge and many important London roads being repaved in Guernsey granite, resulting in hundreds of quarries appearing in the northern parishes. Horticulture developed from the use of glasshouses for growing grapes to the growing of tomatoes, becoming a very important industry from the 1860s. Tourism during the Victorian era and the use of Guernsey as a refuge or retirement location brought money to the Island. Victor Hugo being one of the most distinguished refugees.

Light industry businesses would regularly appear and after a few decades would move on, such as the Dundee firm James Keiller, who set up in Guernsey in 1857 and lasting until 1879 to avoid the high taxes on sugar in the UK, with marmalade manufactured in Guernsey exported all over the world.

It was normal for the island to deport vagrants, criminals and anyone who had fallen on hard times who were not "local". Between 1842 and 1880 10,000 people were deported. This included local born widows and local born children of "foreign" men and people who, whilst not born in Guernsey, had resided in Guernsey for over 50 years. This reduced the burden on the parish requirement to look after their poor and discouraged France, England and Ireland encouraging their poor to emigrate to Guernsey.

At the end of the century, long resisted, the time had arrived for change, to schools, where English would be taught as a language, to the government, including the use of English as a language in Court together with voting reform, and some changes to the unfair treatment of non-locals as regards their deportation if unwanted and their summary arrest and detention for petty debt offences, it being almost impossible for an immigrant to ever be recognised as a local, irrespective of their wealth and the number of decades residing in Guernsey.

20th Century

World War I

During World War I, approximately 3,000 island men served in the British Expeditionary Force. Of these, about 1,000 served in the Royal Guernsey Light Infantry regiment formed from the Royal Guernsey Militia in 1916. In August 1917, Guernsey hosted an anti submarine French flying boat squadron, erecting hangars near Castle Cornet. The base is credited with having destroyed 25 German submarines. The Guernsey Roll of Honour includes 1,343 who were Bailiwick of Guernsey individuals or who served in the Royal Guernsey Light Infantry.

The economic depression in the 1930s also affected Guernsey. Unemployed labourers being given jobs such as building sea defences and constructing roads, including Le Val des Terres, opened in 1935 by Le Prince de Galles.

World War II

For most of World War II, the Bailiwick was occupied by German troops. Before the occupation, many Guernsey children had been evacuated to England to live with relatives or strangers during the war. Some children were never reunited with their families.

Guernsey July 2010 Plaque 50
Plaque to the memory of Guernsey civilians killed, particularly in the 28 June 1940 bombing raid.

The occupying German forces deported some of the Bailiwick's residents to camps in the southwest of Germany, notably to the Lager Lindele (Lindele Camp) near Biberach an der Riß. Among those deported was Ambrose (later Sir Ambrose) Sherwill, who, as the President of the States Controlling Committee, was de facto head of the civilian population. Sir Ambrose, who was Guernsey-born, had served in the British Army during the First World War and later became Bailiff of Guernsey. Three islanders of Jewish descent were deported to France and from there to Auschwitz, never to return. In Alderney, four camps were built to house forced labourers, mostly from Eastern Europe, two were handed for the SS to run. They were the only concentration camps run on British soil and are commemorated on memorials under Alderney's French name Aurigny.

Certain laws were passed at the insistence of the occupying forces. A reward, for example, was offered to informants who reported anyone for painting "V-for Victory" signs on walls and buildings, a practice that had become popular among islanders wishing to express their loyalty to Britain.

Guernsey was very heavily fortified during World War II out of all proportion to the island's strategic value, including by four 1911-vintage Russian 305 mm guns. German defences and alterations remain visible, including additions made to Castle Cornet and a windmill. Hitler had become obsessed with the idea that the Allies would try to regain the islands at any price, so over 20% of the materials used to construct the "Atlantic Wall" (the Nazi attempt to defend continental Europe from seaborne invasion) was committed to the Channel Islands, including 47,000 cu m of concrete used for gun bases. Most of the German fortifications remain intact and although the majority of them stand on private property, several are open to the public.

Starvation threatened the Island in late 1944 after the German forces were cut off and supplies could not be brought in from France. The SS Vega chartered by the Red Cross, brought Red Cross food parcels and other essential supplies into the Island.

The Island was liberated on 9 May 1945.

Post War

After 1945 the Islanders had to rebuild their lives, the return of evacuees, especially children who could hardly remember their relatives. Many properties had been damaged through wood being stripped from them for fuel, the Island had an enormous debt liability, tourism was destroyed and the growing industry was damaged. The amount of scrap metal collected is now regretted. Rationing continued as in the UK, until the mid 1950s.

Many traditional businesses, such as fishing and quarrying would not return. So the Islanders looked to other opportunities, the physical import/export of goods was difficult as the harbours were too small and freight cost too expensive, so control of trade was looked at, the right to supply Mateus Rosé to the UK was controlled by a Guernsey business and it became the top selling wine in the world.

By the 1960s the Island had recovered, tourism was important again, the horticulture industry was booming, 500 million tomatoes being exported annually, then came the crash. Cheap north sea fuel allowed the Netherlands to provide cheap heating to their growers, the Guernsey industry was undercut on price, which combined with rising fuel prices saw the complete demise of the tomato industry after 100 years by the end of the 1970s. Restrictions were introduced to make it harder and more expensive for people to move to the Island as there was a fear of a massive population increase.

During the 1970s and 1980s the Island began to boom in the finance industry. Not an easy transition for people from the growing industry to an office environment. Profits and salaries were good and the Island had revenues to support long term capital expenditure plans. Continuing through the 1990s with divergence to related industries, such as captive insurance and fund management have managed to keep unemployment low. Tourism fell into decline in the 1980s when the price of a holiday in Spain became much cheaper than coming to Guernsey, leaving the Island aiming to attract the higher end of the market.

Light industry businesses had continued to appear and operate for a few decades in Guernsey including electronic (Tektronix from 1957-1980's) and the current Specsavers which was established in 1984.

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