A history of Grosnez Castle

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This article by Edmund Toulmin Nicolle and Norman Rybot was first published in the 1926 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

The ever recurring queries raised as to the origin and history of Grosnez Castle must be the excuse for returning to a discusssion of this subject, already dealt with by the late Colonel Le Cornu, in the Bulletin of this Society for 1897.

In attempting to arrive at some definite conclusions as to the origin of Grosnez Castle and the date of its construction, the subject should be examined from three points of view:

  • Architectural
  • Political and historical
  • Military.

Architecture

In describing the architectural details of the fortified area known as Grosnez Castle, it is impossible to avoid a repetition of much that has already been touched upon by Colonel Le Cornu. It is now found necessary to issue an amended plan of the castle, so that no confusion may exist in the mind of the reader as to the relative positions of its various component, parts which are mentioned or described in this paper.

Referring to this plan it will be observed that the area enclosed by the defences was roughly circular in shape, measuring some 75 yards along the major or north-and-south diameter and about 60 yards along its minor or east-and-west diameter.

The total length of the enceinte or perimeter wall would have been about 250 yards. This wall was the sole line of defence, for no interior or second line appears to have existed. Once therefore this line were pierced, victory would have sided with the attackers; unless the defenders had taken the ordinary precaution of forming a strong reserve force or inlying picquet, which, by a vigourous counterstroke, would have hurled the invaders back over the battlements before they had had time to consolidate their positions or stampede the remaining defenders of tho walls.

The similarities between the gatehouses at Grosnez and Mont Orgueil are remarkable

The strongest parts of the fortification are naturally to be found fronting or commanding those landward approaches along which organised assaults might be expected.

Here then we have a ditch or fosse cut across the col connecting the promontory with the mainland. The western edge of the ditch was provided with a barrier wall. Towering above the ditch is the great gatehouse with its drawbridge, portcullis, massive doors, and machicolated and battlemented roof.

Flanking the ditch and gatehouse, at point blank range, are two strong two-story towers or bastions, comparable with, but somewhat lower than the towers along the outer walls of [[Mont Orgueil]]. Their walls, six feet thick, were pierced with arrow slits, their roofs were flat and battlemented.

From these works, archers and arbalisters could rain down arrows and quarrels with deadly effect on any intrepid attackers whose élan had carried them as far as the ditch. Their discomforture would be further increased by the missiles hurled over the crenellations or shot down through the machicoulis by the defenders of the gatehouse.

While such an attack was in progress, one must imagine that a heavy “covering fire” or “barrage” was sweeping through the crenellations and over the walls, driving the defenders to their covered positions. Even there, complete safety would not be found, for every exposed loop-hole would draw upon itself a concentrated and well directed rain of arrows. Meanwhile, the attack commander, appearing to expend all his efforts against the gatehouse line, might have launched a flank attack to the west.

Here, on the sloping rock-faces down by the sea, a force could move round towards the rear of the castle. Once out of dead ground, its success would depend on its energy as well as on the influence the false or holding attack might have had in drawing off towards the gatehouse the men detailed to hold the north-western walls.

In the attack and defence of medieval castles we see those principles applied which have existed from the earliest times and will persist until the corps à corps combat and the intaking of strong places cease to decide the fate of nations.

At a time when we imagine Grosnez Castle to have been an asylum for harried country folk, these principles were being applied in this very island at Mont Orgueil Castle by one of the greatest captains of the age and his determined and versatile opponent.

In the case of Grosnez Castle the rains before our eyes tell us that the attack finally beat the defence. Were onrushing men or the mere passage of years victors in this contest? History makes no reply.

As comparisons have often been made between the second gate at Mont Orgueil and the gate of Grosnez, plans, elevations and sections of the two buildings are herewith given. A general similarity between the two obviously exists and though in many details differences are apparent, it is reasonable to classify them both as works of one determinable date.

The gatehouses show remarkable similarities in plan, height, and interior construction. The working arrangements of the portcullises and drawbridges are almost identical. The masonry of walls and arches is of one type. The lateral doors leading out from the portcullis chambers on to the curtain battlements, show that the architects of both castles were influenced by similar military requirements.

As regards the differences, we find:

  • At Mont Orgueil the gatehouse was left open to the rear, so that should the enemy obtain possession of it he would have no cover to protect him from the storm of projectiles that would come hurtling in from the second line of defence. There being no second line of defence at Grosnez, the gatehouse was built up foursquare and formed, as it were, the vital point of the castle. It was the strongest element in the line and with its fall the defence would have collapsed.
  • No traces of a machicoulis gallery have been found over the Mont Orgueil gate and possibly none ever existed, for the approaches to the gate are directly commanded as well as flanked by the lofty curtain wall to the north.
  • The postern at Grosnez has no counterpart at Mont Orgueil.

So many good clues and clear indications still exist in the ruins at Grosnez, that it is possible to claim some justification for the outline and general detail of the reconstructions shown in the drawings. A note of warning, however, must be uttered in connection with the machicoulis gallery, as well as with the postern. When the castle ditch was cleared, a dozen large and roughly sculptured corbel stones were found lying in the débris. Four of these blocks had double skewbacks, showing that arches sprang from either side, and two of them had left skewbacks only. The remaining six all had level upper surfaces.

In the case of Grosnez Castle the rains before our eyes tell us that the attack finally beat the defence. Were onrushing men or the mere passage of years victors in this contest? History makes no reply.

Politics and history

Geographically the siting of castles was always arranged on a definite strategic plan, as for example the series of castles along the Welsh Marches and the Scottish border. Obviously while Normandy and England were united under the rule of the same sovereign, it was not of vital importance that powerful castles should be constructed in these islands. They were not likely to be attacked, except by pirates or marauders, and in the case of such raids we may presume that the type of fortification known as castles of refuge would have been deemed sufficient.

But after the separation of these islands from the Duchy of Normandy the position became very different and was one of considerable danger.

A new political issue had arisen. Hitherto the frontier of the English dominions on the Continent had been a varying line in France. Henceforward the frontier was shifted from the land to the sea, to the English Channel. With the loss of Normandy the English began to realise the full import of their insular position.

These islands were for many years to come the centre of the drama, and their retention by the Crown of England through the great struggle between the nations is a certain proof of the abiding sea-power of England.

The English were fully aware that the possession of the islands was of paramount importance for the protection of their commerce and the trade route from Gascony and Aquitaine. The French realised the value of the possession of the islands as a naval base. They knew that their failure to bring the islands under subjection, like the rest of Normandy, was due to lack of naval strength, and it is not surprising if they clung to the hope that some day they might be able to capture them.

History records their many efforts to attain this desire and how the islands were incessantly involved in the mighty struggle between the two great nations. The Assize Roll of 1309 relates how King John had had on two occasions to reconquer the islands from the French.

The strategic frontier of Jersey was its eastern coastline, lying closest to Normandy. Hence the ever increasing importance of Mont Orgueil Castle and the haste with which its fortifications were pushed forward in the early years of the 13th century.

Here it may be useful to take a cursory view of some of the more important attacks on Jersey during the period under review.

  • In 1295 a most determined attack was made on the islands. The destruction was great. The churches were sacked and the islanders, who had suffered greatly, received compensation out of the goods and chattels of the Normans in Jersey. Orders were given that monks and others residing in the island, who were connected with the Norman abbeys, should be kept at a distance from fortified places.
  • In 1389 came the invasion of Admiral Behuchet, followed closely by that of Robert Bertram, Marshall of France. Guernsey was captured and held by the French until 1345. Messengers from Jersey were hurriedly despatched to the King for aid. In their petition they said that the Island was so near their enemies that they might come from Normandy to the Castle “from the rising of the sun before one o’clock.” They pointed out the danger of the “passage towards Gascony”, if the islands were in the possession of the enemy. Ten years previously John de Roches, in a letter to the King, had emphasied the importance of the islands as posts of refuge for the mercantile marine.
  • In 1356 Castle Cornet in Guernsey was once more in the hands of the French.
  • In 1372 there is the important siege of Mont Orgueil Castle by the famous Constable of France, Bertrand du Guesclin, which can hardly be accounted more than a lucrative diversion. The islanders had to pay heavy ransom to obtain a cessation of hostilities.
  • In 1380 the French Admiral Jean de Vienne attacked the islands with the assistance of the garrison of St Malo.
  • In 1406 we have the attack of Pierre de Pontbriand and Pedro Nino; another filibustering expedition, accompanied by tho usual ransom.
  • Lastly we come to the most serious of all, the permanent occupation of Jersey for seven years (1461-68) by the French under Pierre de Brezé and his son, Comtes de Maulevrier.

Judging by the petitions sent to the English Government by the islanders in consequence of these attacks it would appear that in all cases, with the sole exception of the occupation of Jersey by Maulevrier, the island was overrun and its inhabitants despoiled. Apart from Mont Orgueil Castle no resistance appears to have been offered, except on the occasion of Pontbriand’s attack, when the island forces were assembled and fought two actions, and the reason would appear to be that unless ample warning were given it was impossible for the feudal levies to concentrate in time to oppose a landing.

History

Now let us inquire what is known of the history of Grosnez Castle. As a rule the word “Castle ” is a focus of history and sovereignty, yet Grosnez, though it bears the name of Castle, is almost as mysterious as Stonehenge.

The earliest references are to be found in old maps. In Leland s map of the Channel Islands (c 1540), preserved in his Collectanea in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, the site of Grosnez Castle is indicated, accompanied by a conventional sign and the following legend:

Castrum Grosnes dirutum (the ruined Castle of Grosnes), in Popinjay's Platte (1563) the site of the Castle is marked by a conventional sign and the word Grounyshe. In Norden’s map (1595) we find a conventional sign and Gronesse ca. In Mercator’s map (1606), a conventional sign and Gronese Castel. In Speed's map (1610) a conventional sign and Gronesse Castle. In Coronelli's map (1696) a conventional sign and Gronese Castel.

It is not until 1607 that we find a local documentary reference to the existence of the castle and then it is stated to be in ruins. Stranger still is the fact that the Castle is not mentioned in any of the Extentes of the Crown properties; and yet it is inconceivable that it should have been built or held by a private indivi-dual without the licence of the Crown.

In 1607 Royal Commissioners, sitting in Jersey, were called upon to decide a suit brought by the Attorney- General against Philippe de Carteret, Seigneur of St Ouen, “for keeping his Court upon the Castle of Grosnes”. The Attorney-General claimed that the Castle stood on His Majesty's Fief called l’Etacq (a doubtful statement); that, being a castle, the presumption was that it belonged to the Crown; and that, as it could not be proved that it belonged to the Seigneurie of St Ouen, “a nullitie might be made of the Seigneur’s last Court“ kept in the said Castle and of his possession thereby taken”.

The Seigneur of St Ouen pleaded that the Castle was “but a heape of rubbysh and stones”, that it was on his fief and belonged to the Seigneurie of St Ouen, and that he and his ancestors had always been in peaceable possession thereof. The Seigneur produced witnesses, some very old men, who deposed that during all their remembrance the Seigneurs of St Ouen had been in possession of the castle, and that they had seen many courts held there. They further declared that they had never heard of a fief called l’Etacq.

The Commissioners found on enquiry that the castle was, in fact, but a heap of stones, estimated to be worth only twenty sols or thereabouts. Upon which they decided to leave the Seigneur of St Ouen in possession “ until better proofe shall be made on his Majesty’s behalfe".

It is difficult to see daylight through these conflicting issues. Les Landes de St Ouen, upon which the castle is built, did form part in the 13th century of the ancient domain of the Crown; but there was certainly no such fief as “Fief de l’Etacq”.

We know also that it was not until 1483 that permission was granted to Philip de Carteret to crenelate St. Ouen’s Manor. A plausible suggestion may be therefore advanced that before the Manor was fortified Grosnez Castle was used as the place of retreat for the Seigneur and his tenants in times of danger.

Poingdestre in Cæsarea (1682) describes the Castle as “a slight thing like a gate without castle within; but famous for having been a retiring-place to Philip de Carteret, Seigneur of St Ouen, and his party against Peter de Brezé, pretending to be absolute lord of this island in the latter days of Henry VI”.

The historian Falle repeats Poingdestre’s statement, but adds the well-known story taken from Les Chroniques that Comte de Maulevrier never succeeded in subjugating the six western parishes of the island, which were held by Philippe de Carteret with Grosnez Castle as his headquarters. We know now that this statement will not bear inspection. The manuscript discovered in the Musée Condé at Chantilly and published in the Bulletin of 1924, establishes the fact beyond dispute that the whole island during Maulevrier’s occupation was under his rule.

So far as Grosnez Castle is concerned it is clear that Maulevrier could easily have made himself master of it, had he desired to do so. He would hardly have failed to recognize that an observation post at Grosnez was of vital importance to him, not only for the transmission of messages to Mont Orgueil Castle of the approach of hostile ships, but also for the purpose of maintaining his authority over the western parishes. The probability therefore is that he did capture Grosnez Castle in the early days of his occupation of the island.

A reconstruction of the castle shows that it was a substantial structure

Grosnez Castle was probably in the possession of the French when Sir Richard Harliston arrived in the island in 1468 and expelled them. It may possibly have been demolished by his orders when its raison d’être would have largely ceased. We have seen that according to Leland's map it was in ruins in 1540. Indeed the excavations made by this Society went to show that the destruction of the Castle had been carried out designedly. The manner in which the corbels, arch-stones, debris and masses of stone were found in the ditch, clearly proved that its destruction was not the result of decay through the ravages of time.

Military importance

So much for the history or lack of history of the Castle. What can now be said as to its military importance and finally as to the date of its construction?

The approach of hostile expeditions issuing from the ports of the Cotentin in the daytime could always be observed from the heights of Mont Orgueil, but it was otherwise with the approaches from the English Channel. An observation post established at Grosnez would be a necessity. The position of this bold headland from a military point of view was not a bad one. It was open on the land side but with an approach both narrow and difficult, and it was protected by precipitous cliffs on the other sides. The dangers of surprise or of mining were small, such a post would need the minimum in the way of fortification and could be maintained by a small garrison.

Messages could be sent easily to Mont Orgueil Castle apprising the Governor of approaching vessels. If pirates or marauders landed in these parts of the island some refuge could be afforded within the enceinte to the fleeing inhabitants with their flocks and herds and the fortifications would be sufficient to hold out until the island and castle troops could advance to the relief. The countryside would be devastated but the looters would avoid strong places and be in a hurry to regain their ships while tides and fine weather served. But the castle could not have resisted a determined attack by superior forces.

We have seen that in Edward III ’s reign these islands suffered greatly from the continuous attacks of the French. In the second year of that King’s reign John de Roches was appointed Keeper with special instructions to repair the castles, much neglected during the governorship of Otho de Grandison. In that same year, 1328, the King issued an order to complete the fortification of Jerbourg Castle, near St Martin’s Point in Guernsey. This castle had been constructed by the inhabitants of the sister isle as a place of refuge, as they were unable to take refuge in Castle Cornet, which was surrounded by the sea. It had been built without the royal licence on the land of the Seigneur of Sausmarez, and a dispute arose as to its ownership. In 1330 Edward III granted it to Matthew de Sausmarez on condition “ that the men of the commonalty of the said island shall be received there with their goods and chattels in time of war”. Herein perhaps we may find an analogy which will help us to accept the suggestion already put forward that Grosnez Castle was used as a place of retreat in times of danger by the Seigneur of St Ouen and his vassals. Tradition connects the castle with the de Carteret family, who were certainly the predominant authority in the west of the Island, but who, on occasions of trouble were just as likely as not to find themselves cut off from the seat of government, Mont Orgueil Castle.

The evidence that the true role of Grosnez Castle was that of a place of refuge may be summarised as follows: —

  • Mont Orgueil Castle is in the extreme east of the island. Raiding parties operating in the middle of the island would cut off all refugees from the west, who would then be at their mercy. Grosnez Castle would alone have afforded them asylum.
  • Grosnez Castle dominates neither port, anchorage or village.
  • Having only one line of defence and no permanent water supply, the castle was clearly not intended for a lengthy occupation.
  • The Castle had no sally-ports to tho flanks, by which counter-attacks could issue. It was prepared for passive defence only.

Jerbourg was an observation post and a place of refuge, similar in type to Grosnez Castle. It played the same part as regards Castle Cornet as did Grosnez to Mont Orgueil. May it not then reasonably be concluded that it was during de Roche’s term of office (1328-30) that Grosnez Castle was built? This suggested date, as we have already seen, finds support in the architectural features of the remains.

The Castle of Grosnez is certainly primitive in structure, but in plan it skillfully embodies the most important military necessities of all time, which point to the Castle having been designed by a military engineer of full experience in the art of medieval warfare.

Though the research work carried out by this Society at the Castle in 1882-83 and in 1895-96 was extensive, there still remain some unexplored areas within the enceinte which might repay examination. The misleading heaps of stone in the centre of the enceinte and to the south of the ditch should certainly be removed and the ditch itself completely cleared, while some of the exposed masonry requires consolidation.

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