Jersey: 6 fascinating historical places to explore
For history buffs, Jersey is packed with fascinating stories from the past. If you choose to pay a visit to the island, here are six of the historical spots you can expect to see – from Neolithic burial chambers to castles from the Hundred Years’ War…
For an island that measures just five by nine miles, Jersey is a place steeped in history. Part of the Channel Islands, an archipelago that sits in the English Channel between the coasts of the UK and France, the island’s position means that it has been both a fortress and haven throughout times of conflict.
Though it lies just 14 miles away from the French coast, compared to 85 miles from Britain’s shores, today Jersey is a British Crown dependency (which means it has constitutional rights of self-governance and legal autonomy). Its legal history began in the Middle Ages, in AD 933, when Jersey and the Channel Islands were conquered by William Longsword of the Duchy of Normandy – the same duchy that later invaded England in 1066 and brought Norman rule across the Channel.
Through the following centuries, the trans-Channel possessions of England’s Norman kings were much contested, and in 1204 the duchies of Normandy and Anjou were surrendered to France by King John. Yet the Channel Islands remained under the English crown.
But the history of Jersey stretches back far beyond the conquest by 10th-century Norman lords. Take the island’s capital town, St Helier, which takes its name from the 6th-century ascetic hermit, Helier (also known as Hellerius), who hailed from a region in today’s Belgium. After many years wandering western Europe spreading the Christian word, he reportedly settled on high rock overlooking a tidal inlet of Jersey, watching for invaders and, so the legend has it, starving himself for 13 years. In AD 555, he was murdered by raiders, and his death was mourned by the people of Jersey. Traces of his legacy can still be found today; speakers of Jèrriais (the island’s traditional language, similar to Norman French) might still refer to little black clouds on the horizon as ‘les vailes dé St. Hélyi’ (‘sails of Saint Helier’), in memory of the hermit who once scanned the seas for approaching ships.
The first heavy fortification of the island occurred during the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453) between England and France, which resulted in the island becoming a first line of defence against French invasion (more below). And this was far from the only time the island was changed by conflict. From the tumult of the civil wars fought between Charles I and Parliament, to German occupation during the Second World War, Jersey would experience instability and hardship into the 20th century.
The island was even caught up in the 18th-century American War of Independence. During the 1781 Battle of Jersey, French forces attacked the island to remove the British threat posed to French and American shipping through the English Channel. Arriving in the early hours of 6 January, the French captured the island’s governor, Major Moses Corbet, and forced a surrender. British troops, led by Major Francis Peirson, easily outnumbered the invading French and quashed the attack; they took 600 French prisoners while sustaining just 15 losses. The battle is often cited as a key boost of morale in Britain’s fight against the colony and its allies – although of course, ultimately the 13 colonies went on to win their independence in 1783.
Jersey has also been a haven for many – from pirates and privateers seeking to evade capture or scrutiny during the Age of Sail, to royalty. The island sheltered the future Charles II during the 17th-century civil wars that wracked the Three Kingdoms. The royal was so grateful that when he later divided the lands of North America, the parcel of land gifted to prominent royalist Sir George Carteret was named New Jersey, in honour of the island’s loyalty.
For others, though, the island meant exile. During the reign of Napoleon III, French writer Victor Hugo became a political refugee. He arrived in Jersey in 1852, spending almost 20 years of his life in the Channel Islands, where he wrote poetry and explored early methods of photography. Taking inspiration from the island’s bays and rocky outcrops, many of his daguerreotypes were staged to cultivate the image of a banished poet watching France from the rocks of his island exile.
Much of this history remains in evidence today. Find out more about six sites that offer a window on to Jersey’s island story…
La Hougue Bie
A Neolithic ritual site which is believed to have been in use around 4000–3500 BC, La Hougue Bie is a preserved passage grave that offers visitors a window into what life was like more than 6,000 years ago, for the ancient communities who settled in Jersey.
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The name of the site originates from a Viking word (the word ‘haugr’ meaning mound) and while it was a tomb, it would have also likely served several other ceremonial purposes. Look out for the large upright stones and capstones in the tomb itself, which were sourced from the east of the island. Rollers and earth ramps would have been used to set these elements in place, and give insights into Neolithic building practices, while fragments of grave goods and vase fragments shed light on ancient burial rituals.
The site also shows the changing faiths of Jersey. In the 12th century, during Jersey’s Christianisation, a chapel was built on the summit of the mound, and revived as the Jerusalem chapel in the 16th century, by a Dean of Jersey who restored the building in thanks for his safe return from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Though it fell into ruin following the Protestant Reformation, it was rebuilt and reconsecrated in the 20th century.
La Hougue Bie has been a tourist hotspot since at least the Victorian era. One visitor in 1859 called the site “the wonder of the island's wonders”. Later occupiers of the island were not so reverent; when German forces occupied Jersey from 1940, as many as 70 trenches were dug in the grounds, causing extensive archaeological damage.
Mont Orgueil Castle
Built on a site that had been used for the island’s defences since at least since the Iron Age, Mount Orgueil – or Gorey Castle, as it was earlier known – can be found on a rocky promontory facing across the sea towards Normandy. At various times in its history, it has been fortress, prison and seat of government, and its commanding presence above the fishing town of Gorey is a reminder of the instability that has often dogged the island as a coveted jewel in the channel between Britain and France.
Constructed in the 13th century, the castle became home to a largely English garrison during the early stages of the Hundred Years’ War, and was of vital strategic importance, both as a line of defence and as a supply port. The island faced a significant attack by French forces in 1338, and though the island was overrun, Mount Orgueil held strong, weathering later sieges.
In further tumult, the castle was seized again by the French during the Wars of the Roses, who supported a Lancastrian claim to the throne. France ruled Jersey for seven years until, after a 19-week siege, a Yorkist militia expelled French forces from the island.
It’s lucky for 21st-century visitors that much of the fortress remains today. In the late 16th century, as cannon technology developed and the castle became in need of more sophisticated defences, it was suggested that Mount Orgueil should be destroyed, with the materials reused for a more modern fort. But the proposal was rejected by the island’s then governor, Sir Walter Ralegh, who said “t’were pity to cast it down”.
Paying the castle a visit today, visitors will want to save time for both the macabre Dance of Death statue hidden within the fort, and to climb the castle’s turrets to discover the story behind the famed medieval ‘Wheel of Urine’, a clock-shaped presentation of different coloured vials, which medieval medical practitioners used to diagnose health problems.
By the 16th century, warfare had modernised, which meant that Mont Orgueil – the ‘Old Castle’ – was now susceptible to attack from ship-mounted guns.
Construction on a new castle was begun in the 1550s on small rocky island in St Aubin’s Bay, and in the early 17th century the island’s governor Walter Ralegh – one of Elizabeth I's long-time favourites – named the castle after his queen.
Elizabeth Castle (or Fort Isabella Bellissima) went through much transformation over the following centuries and eventually came to straddle two small islands, which were joined together in the 1660s. It was first used in a military context during the civil wars, as the island’s authorities remained loyal to the future Charles II (the royal was proclaimed king in 1649 by Jersey’s governor Sir George de Carteret, despite the abolition of the monarchy in England). In 1651, Parliamentary forces landed in Jersey and attacked Elizabeth Castle, leading to siege; Carteret and his men held out for 50 days until a surrender was negotiated, and the Roundheads placed Jersey under military rule until the Restoration in 1660.
But while the tide that surrounded the castle was often of benefit in defending the fort, when the French invaded Jersey in 1781, the troops garrisoned at the castle could not take part in the defence of St Helier, as they were cut off by the tide.
These days, visitors can choose to time their visits to catch a ferry or walk across to the castle, depending on tides, and can expect live action history elements. On selected days an actor plays a gunner from the Royal Artillery Invalid Battalion, delivering an account of the 1781 battle of Jersey – plus the castle often hosts parades and re-enacted musket drills.
With the troops in Elizabeth Castle too easily marooned by the tide during the battle of Jersey, it was decided that another fortification was necessary.
Constructed in the 19th century during the Napoleonic Wars, Fort Regent became the main site of the British garrison on the island until 1927.
It sits high above the town of St Helier and these days, the fortress is mainly a leisure centre, with the former parade ground roofed in. But plenty of the site’s history can still be found on a walk around the historic ramparts, including siege guns that were discovered buried in the fort’s West Bastion, as well as the elevated views across St Helier and the bays.
Jersey War Tunnels
During the Second World War, the Channel Islands became the only part of Britain to be occupied by German forces, and Jersey still bears evidence of 1940–45, years which brought immense hardship to the people of the island.
As a vital cog in Adolf Hitler’s war strategy, during this time Jersey went through another period of immense fortification – the occupied Channel Islands used one twelfth of the reinforced concrete of the entire Atlantic Wall. Much of the work was carried out by enforced labourers who were transported to Jersey from countries including the Soviet Union and France.
While much evidence remains scattered around the coasts and valleys, testimony to the island experience of the Second World War, the first stop for many visitors to learn more about these challenging years is the Jersey War Tunnels.
A partially completed ammunition barracks and underground hospital complex in St Lawrence, the complex is a chilling reminder of the experience of the forced workers, but also tells the extraordinary story of life in Jersey during the character-defining occupation years. The site has exhibitions that draw on personal testimonies of tunnel builders, Jersey residents, and those who resisted the occupation. These are scattered in more than 1,000 metres of tunnels which visitors can explore, set into the hillside. For the puzzle-minded, since 2016 there has also been an on-site escape room, which presents teams with a mission to ‘break into’ the War Tunnels using a series of codes and clues.
Founded in 1959 by author and naturalist Gerald Durrell, Jersey Zoo (formerly Durrell Wildlife Park) holds a significant place in the history of conservation.
Born in 1925 in India, Durrell grew up in Corfu (some readers might have encountered a capering young Gerry in ITV’s 2010s historical comedy drama The Durrells). After working as a zookeeper for many years, Durrell began writing about his life (perhaps most famously in My Family and Other Animals, published in 1956), and soon afterwards was able to found Jersey Zoo, created on his principles of conservation and taking special interest in the island’s native wildlife.
Durrell became a keen advocate of endangered species, and he spent his career working to change zoos into tools for conservation, scientific research, and education. Today, the zoo is the base of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (founded after Durrell’s death in 1995) and its 32 acres are home to more than 120 species. It also hosts several training courses and internships for the conservation industry and is, in Durrell’s words, a “mini-university” of conservation practices.
Visitors can look out for the welcoming figure on the zoo’s gate – a sculpture of a dodo, which stands as a warning of the threat of extinction.