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History of Jersey

The island of Jersey and the other Channel Islands represent the last remnants of the medieval Dukedom of Normandy that held sway in both France and England. These islands were the only British soil occupied by German troops in World War II.

Jersey lies in the Bay of Mont St Michel and is the largest of the Channel Islands.  It has been an island for approximately 8,000 years and at its extremes it measures 10 miles east to west and six miles north to south. The earliest evidence of human activity in the island dates to about 250,000 years ago when bands of hunters used the caves at La Cotte de St Brelade as a base for hunting mammoth.  There was sporadic activity in the area by nomadic bands of hunters until the introduction of settled communities in the Neolithic period, which is marked by the building of the ritual burial sites known as dolmens.  Archaeological evidence shows that there were trading links with Brittany and the south coats of England during this time.

Although part of the Roman world we know very little about the island until the eleventh century.  Various Celtic saints such as Samson and Branwaldr were active in the region and Charlemagne sent his emissary to the island which was called Angia in 803. The island took the name Jersey as a result of Viking activity in the area between the ninth and tenth centuries.  The Channel Islands remained politically linked to Brittany until 933 when William Longsword, Duke of Normandy seized the Cotentin and the islands and added them to his domain. In 1066 Duke William II of Normandy defeated Harold at Hastings to become king of England however he continued to rule his French possessions as a separate entity. The islands remained part of the Duchy of Normandy until 1204 when King Philippe Auguste of France conquered the duchy from King John of England.  The islands remained in the personal possession of the king and were described as being a Peculiar of the Crown.

From 1204 onwards the Channel Islands ceased to be a peaceful backwater and was thrown into the spotlight as a potential flashpoint on the international stage between England and France.  Mont Orgueil was built at this time to serve as a Royal fortress and military base.  During the Hundred Years War the island was attacked many times and was even occupied for a couple of years in the 1380s.  Because of the island's strategic importance to the English Crown the islanders were able to negotiate a number of benefits for themselves from the king.  During the Wars of the Roses the island was occupied by the French for seven years (1461-68) before Sir Richard Harliston arrived in the island to claim it back for the English king.

During the sixteenth century the islanders adopted the Protestant religion and life became very austere.  The increasing use of gunpowder on the battlefield meant that the fortifications on the island had to be adapted and a new fortress built to defend St Aubin's Bay.  This was named after the queen by Sir Walter Raleigh when he was governor.  The island militia was reorganised on a parish basis and each parish had two cannon which were usually housed in the church - one of the St Peter cannon can still be seen at the bottom of Beaumont Hill.  

The production of knitwear reached such a scale that it threatened the island's ability to produce its own food  and so laws were passed regulating who could knit with whom and when. The islanders also became involved with the Newfoundland fisheries at this time. The boats left the island in February/March following a church service in St Brelade's church and they wouldn't return again until September/October. During the 1640s England was split by Civil War and hostilities spread into Scotland and Ireland as well.  Jersey was divided and while the sympathy of islanders lay with Parliament the de Carterets held the island for the king. 

The future Charles II visited the island in 1646 and again in 1649 following the execution of his father.  The Parliamentarians eventually captured the island in 1651 and in recognition for all the help given to him during his exile Charles II gave George Carteret a large grant of land in the American colonies, which he promptly named New Jersey. Towards the end of the seventeenth century Jersey strengthened its links with the Americas when many islanders emigrated to New England and north east Canada.  The Jersey merchants built up a thriving business empire in the Newfoundland and Gaspé fisheries.  Companies such as Robins and the Le Boutilliers set up thriving businesses. 

The eighteenth century was a period of political tension between Britain and France as the two nations clashed all over the world as their ambitions grew. Because of its position Jersey was more or less on a continuous war footing. 

During the American Wars of Independence there were two attempted invasions of the island.  In 1779 the Prince of Nassau  was prevented from landing at St Ouen's Bay but two years later in 1781 a force lead by Baron de Rullecourt captured St Helier in a daring dawn raid but was defeated by a British army lead by Major Peirson.  A short lived peace was followed by the French revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars which when they had ended had changed Jersey for ever.  The number of English speaking soldiers stationed in the island and the number of retired officers  and  English speaking labourers who came to the islands in the 1820s saw the island gradually moving towards being an English speaking culture.

Jersey became one of the largest wooden shipbuilding areas in the British Isles building over 900 vessels around the island. In the late nineteenth century island farmers benefited from the development of two luxury products - the Jersey cow and the Jersey Royal.  One was the product of careful and selective breeding programmes the other being a total fluke.

Emotionally, the twentieth century has been dominated by the Occupation of the island by German troops between 1940 and 1945 which saw about 8,000 islanders evacuated, 1,200 islanders deported to camps in Germany and over 300 islanders being sentenced to the prison and concentration camps of mainland Europe.  20 died as a result.  Liberation Day - May 9th is marked as a public holiday.  The event which has had the most far reaching effect on us today is the growth of the finance industry in the island from the 1960s onwards.