History & Heritage
History is always close to hand in Jersey.
It is because of its history that the Island has been able to develop as an international finance centre upon which Jersey’s prosperity is largely based. Ancient privileges given to Islanders by successive monarchs over the centuries gave the Island the right to tax its own people. Jersey is not a recently created tax haven. It is a community that has been able to live for centuries on low tax rates, and it is this that has subsequently attracted outside business.
That is why the Island, which has few natural resources, has been able to prosper despite being in a fairly remote location in the Bay of Mont St. Michel.
Jersey has been an Island for approximately 8,000 years, although 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. Settled communities in the Neolithic period – builders of the ritual burial sites known as dolmens – replaced the nomadic bands of hunters. Even in those days, Jerseymen were trading with Brittany and the south coast of England.
The Island was known as Angia until the Vikings arrived in the 9th century when it became Jersey. Very little else is known about the Island until the 11th century.
The Channel Islands were 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, allowing the Islanders to joke that England is Jersey’s oldest possession! Even today, the Loyal Toast in the Island is often to “The Queen – our Duke” and acknowledges the fact that Jersey’s relationship with England is through the Monarch.
The Island remained part of the Duchy of Normandy until 1204 when King Philippe Auguste of France conquered the duchy from King John of England. However, Islanders remained loyal to the King of England and Jersey was recognised as the personal possession of the Crown.From 1204 onwards, the Channel Islands ceased to be a peaceful backwater. It became a potential flash point on the international stage where England and France were competing against each other. 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 occupied by the French for a couple of years in the 1380s. Because of the Island’s strategic importance to the English Crown, Islanders were able to negotiate a number of benefits for themselves from the king. During the War of the Roses, the French occupied Jersey for seven years (1461- 1468) before Sir Richard Harliston arrived to claim it back for the English king.
During the 16th century, Islanders adopted the Protestant religion and life became austere. The increasing use of gunpowder on the battlefield meant that the fortifications on the Island had to be adapted and a new fortress – named after the queen by Sir Walter Raleigh when he was governor – was built to defend St Aubin’s Bay.
The Island militia was reorganised on a parish basis. Each parish had two cannons, usually housed in the church. One of the St. Peter cannons can still be seen at the bottom of Beaumont Hill.During the 1640s, England was split by Civil War and hostilities spread into Scotland and Ireland. Jersey was also divided. While Islanders’ sympathy lay with Parliament, the de Carterets held the Island for the king. The future Charles II visited Jersey in 1646 and again in 1649 following the execution of his father. In recognition of 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 17th century, Jersey strengthened its links with the Americas after many Islanders emigrated to New England and Northeast Canada. The Jersey merchants built up a thriving business empire in the Newfoundland and Gaspé fisheries. Family companies such as the Robins and the Le Boutilliers set up thriving successful businesses.
The 18th century was another period of political tension between Britain and France as the two nations clashed as their ambitions grew. Because of its position, Jersey was more or less on a continuous war footing.During the American War 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. Two years later in 1781, a force lead by Baron de Rullecourt captured St. Helier in a daring dawn raid but was defeated by the British army led by Major Peirson. The peace was short lived.
The French Revolutionary War and the Napoleonic Wars changed Jersey forever. The number of English speaking soldiers stationed in the Island and the number of retired officers and English speaking labourers who arrived in the 1820s saw Jersey gradually moving towards an English speaking culture.
Over the years, the Island’s economy has proved to be resilient. At one stage, the production of knitwear reached such a scale that it threatened the Island’s ability to produce its own food, so laws were passed regulating who could knit when and where. Islanders had also helped to develop the Newfoundland fisheries. Boats would leave Jersey in February/March (following a service at St. Brelade’s Church) and they wouldn’t return until September/October. The Island therefore became one of the largest shipbuilding areas in the British Isles, building more than 900 wooden vessels.In the late 19th century, local farmers benefited from the development of two products – the Jersey cow and the Jersey Royal potato – both of which are still popular today.
The 20th century was dominated by the Occupation of the Channel Islands by German troops (1940-1945), which saw about 8,000 Islanders evacuated, 1,200 deported to camps in Germany and more than 300 sentenced to the prison and concentration camps in mainland Europe. Twenty died as a result. Liberation Day – May 9 – is still marked as a public holiday.Immediately after the Occupation, the tourism industry began to grow and eventually reached huge proportions with nearly a million visitors attracted to the Island each year.
In the 1960s, the finance industry, which was to have the most impact on the Island, started to develop and today the finance sector is the largest employer and by far the largest contributor to the exchequer. Compiled with the help of the Jersey Heritage Trust.