Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Deep History of the Channel Islands

At the end of our European trip, my wife and I spent four days on the Island of Guernsey, visiting family members who live near St Peter Port, the capital city of the Bailiwick of Guernsey. Guernsey is an island of 25 square miles, 30 miles west of France's Normandy coast. We also travelled to the islands of Herm and Sark, which are included within the Bailiwick of Guernsey.

Even the casual tourist can hardly avoid noticing the signs of the deep history of the Channel Islands. There are many prehistoric sites of human occupation dating back to the Paleolithic. The earliest human migration in this part of the world was shaped by climate and biogeography. The end of the last Ice Age brought rising sea levels that created Guernsey as a island. This deep history from prehistory to the present is surveyed at the Guernsey Museum, which is based on the natural history collection of Fredrick Corbin Lukis, who was the leading archaeologist of Guernsey in the nineteenth century. The work of Lukis is continued today by Heather Sebire and other archaeologists associated with the Guernsey Museum. Sebire is the author of The Archaeology and Early History of the Channel Islands (2005).

The political history of Guernsey is remarkable. In 933, Guernsey became part of the Duchy of Normandy. When Duke William II conquered England in 1066, Guernsey became a possession of the English Crown. Even today, Guernsey is not part of the United Kingdom. Instead, it continues to be a Crown Dependency. Queen Elizabeth II rules Guernsey as Duke of Normandy. Although Guernsey has been politically autonomous for centuries, its laws must be approved by the Privy Council, and its defense and foreign policy are managed by Great Britain.

One can see here the transition from feudalism to modernity. The Island of Sark has been the one remaining feudal state in Europe until last year, when a general election transformed Sark for the first time into a democratic regime. Previously, Sark has been governed by feudal laws dating back to Queen Elizabeth I. The island has been ruled by a Seigneur who holds it as a fiefdom from the Queen. The legislative body, Chief Pleas, has benn governed by the 40 heads of family descended from the original feudal landowners.

No motorized vehicles are permitted on this island of 2 square miles with 600 inhabitants. Except for some tractors, people travel around the island on bicycles. Visiting the island creates a strange feeling of going back in time.

Sark's feudal system was challenged in the 1990s when the Barclay brothers--Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay--purchased the island of Brecqhou from Sark in 1993. They discovered that the feudal laws of Sark required that they pay a 13th of the purchase price each year to Seigneur John Michael Beaumont, their feudal lord. They also discovered that under the feudal law of primogeniture, the landed property of the Barclay brothers on Brecquou would have to be passed entirely to the eldest son of the elder Barclay.

To overturn this feudal regime, the Barclay brothers launched lawsuits claiming that Sark's feudalism violated the European Convention on Human Rights. This eventually led to the adoption of a democratic constitution for Sark, which was put into effect last December with a popular election. But then, oddly enough, the election was divided between two factions--those supporting the democratic reforms proposed by the Barclay brothers and those supporting the old feudal ways. The majority of the voters supported the feudal landowners who warned that the political and economic development favored by the Barclay brothers would ruin the feudal traditions distinctive to Sark.

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