In 1199 King John became King of England and Duke of Normandy on the death of his brother, Richard I. Within five years he had lost Normandy and most of his French possessions to the King of France, Phillipe Augustus. John headed back to England having surrendered Normandy, Maine, Touraine, Anjou and Brittany.
In late June 1204 the city of Rouen surrendered to a French army – the 138-year link between England and Normandy was broken and the Angevin empire was split in two. With the loss of mainland Normandy, the Channel Islands were left in a state of limbo, because less than 150 years after the Duke of Normandy, William the Conqueror, won the Battle of Hastings and added England to his territories, the islands had remained very much part of Normandy.
However, Jersey and the other Channel Islands opted to stay with England as King John paid for fortifications against the French, the majority of which are still in existence. He commissioned the construction of what came to be known as Mont Orgueil Castle to guard the approaches to the island's east coast. He built castles, posted garrisons and used the latest naval technology, all at the expense of the Crown and not the islanders.
When the French laid seige to Rouen it was Pierre de Préaux who surrendered on behalf of King John, after which the two may have fallen out. There is some suggestion that he came to the Channel Islands, but it is probably more likely that he went back to England. His role in the islands was taken by Hasculf du Suligny, who, together with de Preaux is shown in some lists as Warden of the Isles, although it is unlikely that either actually held that title. He is credited, however, with overseeing the construction of Mont Orgueil Castle, first known as King's Castle.
From 1204 to 1206 the islands were under threat of French invasion as Breton forces moved east into Normandy, capturing Mont St Michel and Avranches and joining up with the French king, Philip Augustus. Then King John sent a fleet of five galleys and three large ships to secure the islands and signed a truce with Philip Augustus which recognised that the Channel Islands remained under John's control.
When there was a divergence of loyalty on the part of someone who held lands in England from the king and lands in Normandy from the duke, the duke invariably confiscated the land of those who remained loyal to the king. This in turn meant that the duke had new land to reallocate and in the Islands this resulted in both Guernsey and Jersey having their own Vicomtes responsible to the Seneschal of Normandy.
It was also during a time of divergence that the Islanders were granted an exemption from military service outside of their Islands unless it was to help the Duke of Normandy to recover England - but even then only if the Duke went in person.
Separation from Normandy resulted in the Channel Islands' unique constitutional status but life went on much as before. Many islanders had relatives in Normandy and the sea was no barrier to their visiting the nearby mainland.
The islands had previously been ruled by a Duke who lived overseas; now they were ruled by a King who lived even further overseas.
John was obviously unsure of the loyalty of the Islands because in 1205 he allowed a group of mercenaries, lead by Eustace the Monk, to ravage the Islands and he took hostages from the leading Island families to ensure good behaviour. These were only released in 1214 when a force of Jerseymen recaptured Sark from Eustace’s men who were by now in the pay of the French king. In a revenge raid Eustace captured the Islands for the French in 1215 only to see them returned by the peace treaty in 1216.
Not all Islanders were loyal to John, there was a sizeable pro-French faction in both major islands. This is understandable if one considers what was at stake - land and feudal obligation. Should they accept the rule of their ultimate feudal superior, or remain true to the Duke. The choice had important consequences for if one remained loyal to John then the result was land on mainland France was confiscated, swear allegiance to France and lose land in the Islands. Obviously the choice was made on hard headed, economic grounds; which land was the most valuable. Many of the lesser landholders saw in it a magnificent opportunity to get rid of feudal obligations to mainland superiors.
Some families kept a foot in both camps by dividing their French and Jersey properties between sons, hoping that Jersey and Normandy would again become united, and meanwhile travelling between one part of their estate and the other, although the time islanders were permitted to stay in France would become strictly controlled.
The Church remained aloof, as it was supposedly above earthly politics, and so the Islands became a religious anachronism for they remained part of the diocese of Coutances - a peculiar state of affairs that lasted until 1569.
Having decided that the Channel Islands were worth holding on to, John treated them as his personal possession, and did not include them in the kingdom of England. This was a practice carried on by his successors. Over the next two centuries the laws and government of the Islands developed and there was no attempt to introduce English laws, weights, measures or currency, therefore, the laws were based upon old Norman law and the government evolved from "ancient liberties and customs" tempered by necessity. Obviously the Islands were in a strong bargaining position as the Kings of England needed them more than they needed the Kings of England and so it is not beyond our imaginations to see some very new "ancient liberties and customs" appearing as the process evolved. Of course, these were not written down. However, in 1218 Henry III, wrote to Philippe d'Aubigné, Warden of the Isles: "It is not our intention to institute new Assizes in the Islands at present, but it is our will that the Assizes, which were observed there in the time of King Henry our Grandfather, King Richard our Uncle, and the Lord King John our father, should be observed there now".
In 1221 Henry III wrote to the new Warden Philippe d'Aubigné the younger "Rule the Islands by right and due custom, as they have been accustomed to be ruled at the time of our ancestors, Kings of England"
In 1248 Henry III called upon the people of the Islands to declare what these customs were which they claimed to be governed by. They declared that King John instituted twelve Coroners, sworn to hear law cases and rights pertaining to the Crown; and that for the security of the Island the Bailiff held law cases without the King’s writ. This system of the 12 Jurats appears to have been in existence before the reign of King John; he merely formalised it. It was important for the Bailiff and Jurats to be able to try cases without the King’s permission because it was becoming increasingly difficult for the King to send Justices to the Island. This was because his English Justices knew nothing of the language or the laws of the Island. So in effect Henry III was creating a complimentary, parallel system to that of England to replace an earlier system lost with the Duchy.
In 1254 Henry granted the Islands to his son, the future Edward I, but at the same time stipulated that the Islands were never to be separated from the English Crown.
Successive French monarchs did not give up on trying to get the islands back and several battles were fought over the centuries, particularly on Jersey soil, as they tried in vain to recover what they believed were their islands.
The islands retained the French language and customs. They had French names until the 19th century and French was the language of the States of Jersey and the courts until the 20th century. Even today new roads in Jersey are usually given French names as islanders cling to their ancient heritage.
The loss of Normandy did not signal the end of an English presence in France. The two countries fought, on and off, for over 300 years until the French recaptured the last English stronghold of Calais in the reign of Mary Tudor.
- 1204 to 1217: The story continues
- History of Jersey