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History of Guernsey

Guernsey has a story to tell around every corner, down each alley and tucked away in its forts and castles, ruins and ancient tombs.

The islands' position means it is perfect for history holidays, with fascinating stories from smuggling and ship-building to being caught in the crossfire over the years between the UK and Europe's tumultuous relationship. Each period of its past has left its own unique and socially important legacy on the island.

The Arms of Guernsey derive from the Arms of England and a seal was granted by King Edward I in 1279 for use in the Channel Islands. Each of the Channel Islands has its own unique flag, the Guernsey ensign was commissioned more recently in 1985.

The island pledges its allegiance to the Crown but is considered independent. It has its own equivalent of Parliament - the States of Guernsey - and its Deputies pass legislation which broadly follows that of the UK, but is not committed to doing so.

Guernsey is constantly evolving. Tomorrow's history is being built today.

Guernsey flag and arms Exploring historical Guernsey Constitution

Guernsey flag flying from one of the island's towers

Independent islanders are proud to fly their own flag.

It provides an historic link to the time when Guernsey was part of the Duchy of Normandy, governed by William the Conqueror. But also reflects the Island's present-day independence and its long constitutional relationship with the English Crown.

The red Cross of St George with an inlaid gold cross was first flown just over 20 years ago - prior to that, Guernsey used a simple Cross of St George. However, this led to confusion with its use as the English flag - at the Commonwealth Games English and Guernsey teams used the same flag, leading other competitors to believe England had two teams.

In 1985, the States of Guernsey commissioned a new flag. A Committee was set up under the chairmanship of the then Deputy Bailiff, Sir Graham Dorey.

After much research, it was proposed that the Cross of St George continue to be used, but with the gold cross, shown on the gonfanon (banner) of William the Conqueror, which appears on the Bayeux Tapestry.

Her Majesty The Queen granted a Royal Warrant for the flag. Its Blazon (official description) is:

'Argent a Cross Gules thereon a Guernsey Cross (being a representation of the Cross on the banner of William of Normandy) Gold.'

The new flag was first flown on the 9 May 1985 - the 40th anniversary of the island's Liberation from the Occupation of WWII.

The red Cross of St George also forms the basis of the Alderney and Sark Flags, and therefore provides a common theme for the flags used in the Bailiwick of Guernsey.

Although Guernsey's own flag is generally used, the Union Flag is flown from public buildings on designated days, such as the Queen's Birthday. And it is also flown every day from the top of Castle Cornet, to signify the Castle's historical connections with the British Army.

Guernsey crest The Guernsey flag

The Guernsey Ensign

The gold cross of William also appears on a special Ensign for use by Guernsey residents who are British subjects. They may fly the Ensign on vessels which are registered or certificated in their own names, regardless of where they sail. Companies which are registered and have their principal place of business in the Island may fly the Guernsey Ensign on their vessels, when operating in waters adjacent to the Channel Islands.

The Blazon of the Guernsey Ensign is:

'Gules in the Canton the flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and in the Fly a Guernsey Cross (being a representation of the Cross on the banner of William of Normandy) Gold.'

The Ensign may be seen on many Guernsey boats, and it is also flown on Fort Grey Shipwreck Museum when it is open to the public.

The Arms of Guernsey

The Arms of Guernsey derive from the Arms of England and a seal was granted by King Edward I in 1279 for use in the Channel Islands . The Guernsey shield is distinguished from the English Arms by having a sprig, which originally formed the stop marking the division between the beginning and end of the motto 'S'Ballivie Insule De Gernereye', (The Bailiwick of Guernsey) which ran around the shield.

The Shield is commonly, but incorrectly, referred to as the 'Guernsey Crest'. Guernsey's 10 parishes also have their own shields.

Dehus dolmen, Bordeaux

With castles older than the Tower of London and ancient burial sites and ruins dating back to the Neolithic period Guernsey has a wealth of history waiting to be discovered.

The Islands' unique geographical position has resulted in a fascinating heritage which can be experienced first-hand around its coastline or at museums including Castle Cornet, Fort Grey and the German Occupation Museum.

From the windswept Priory of St Mary, on Lihou Island to the ancient dolmens and tombs, the intricate representation of the island's history in the Guernsey Tapestry to the fortifications and towers, wherever you are, you don't have to travel far to find the past.

To the north:

Le Dehus Passsage Tomb

Le Déhus Passage Tomb
This passage grave is near Bordeaux Harbour in the parish of the Vale. The mysterious rock carving representing a hunter with his bow and arrows in the inside chamber is known as the Guardian of the Tomb.


Les Vardes Passage Grave
This is the largest chambered tomb on Guernsey and is situated on L'Ancresse Common.


Les Fouillages
This Neolithic burial mound is thought to date back to around 4,500BC and is unlike any other found so far in Western Europe. Over 35,000 artefacts have been unearthed such as flints, ornaments, tools and pottery.

Vale Castle
This ancient fortification looks out over Herm and Sark. Originally built by the father of William the Conqueror, the oldest parts of the castle are older than the Tower of London and it is believed that the site was occupied as early as 500 - 600BC.


Fort Doyle
Built in the mid-19th century, the Fort would have protected the north approaches of St Peter Port with three heavy guns.

Fort le Marchant
A Napoleonic fort, thought to have previously been a military site.

Out west:

Le Trepied Megalithic Burial Chamber St Apolline's Chapel

Le Trépied Tomb
Le Trépied is thought to date from slightly later than the larger tombs on the island. It figures in accounts of the 17th century witch trials as a Friday night rendezvous for witch's covens when the Devil, disguised as a black goat, sat enthroned on the capstone while his disciples danced around, shrieking his praises.


Mont Chinchon Battery
The Napoleonic gun battery, armed with two artillery pieces, was built towards the end of the 18th century as the threat of possible invasion from France increased during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793 - 1815). It was one of over 60 coastal batteries in service in Guernsey at the time. 

Les Creux és Faies Passage Tomb
The ancient chambered tomb sits on a hillock opposite the island of Lihou on Guernsey's west coast.


St. Apolline's Chapel
The tiny chapel of Ste. Apolline, patron saint of Dentists, is the church most untouched by time. It stands at the roadside in St Saviour's almost exactly as it was when built in 1394. A former rector of St Saviour's launched a scheme to restore the building and the medieval frescoes found inside.


Priory of St. Mary - Lihou Island
The Priory on Lihou Island is believed to have been established by Benedictine monks from Mont Saint Michel in Normandy in the 12th century. The Priory is now in ruins. Archaeological excavations have been carried out by the island's archaeology officer to find out more about the structure of the Priory and its associated buildings, and the life of the monks. The site was first excavated by the famous local antiquary F C Lukis in 1868 and the priory has also appeared on BBC2's Meet the Ancestors.  

Lihou Island is accessed via a cobbled slipway along the seabed at low tide. Check the Guernsey Press for daily crossing times and be careful to cross back within plenty of time to get back to the Guernsey shore.


Fort Hommet 
The Victorian fortification was built to defend the islands against the French. It was added to in 1942 by the occupying Nazi forces.

Down south:

 Fort Pezeries

La Gran'mère du Chimquière
A 4000-year-old statue-menhir is situated at the gate of St Martin's parish church. It is thought to bring good luck and fertility to newly-wed couples, who place a floral wreath around its head when they get married.

Batterie Dollamnn
The restored battery houses the last French, 10-tonne, 22cm gun of its type in Europe.

La Table des Pions
From Norman times until the 19th century the fairy ring, as it is affectionately known, was used by officials as a resting place whilst inspecting roads and sea defences. This site has beautiful views and is a walkers' paradise on the southwest coast of the island.  

Fort Pezeries
A Napoleonic fort situated on Guernsey's beautiful south west coast, it is reached on foot by coastal path. The fort contains a powder magazine and stone platforms for three 18lb Napoleonic guns.   

Over east:

Brehon Tower Displays a larger version of this image in a new browser window

Brehon Tower

The tower sits on Brehon rock in the middle of the Little Russel between Guernsey and Herm and was built from Herm granite between 1854 and 1856. It originally housed five 18lb guns mounted on top and 35 artillerymen.

During WWII, the occupying forces mounted an anti-aircraft gun on the Tower.


Clarence Battery
Built in 1780, this is what remains of Fort George - the Island's principal fort during the French Revolution and home to the German Luftwaffe early warning service during WWII.

St Peter Port
There is little doubt that St Peter Port was an important trading post in Roman times, but it is from the early part of the 13th century that the town began to develop around the parish church and quayside. Building was confined to a narrow strip of land within town walls ordered for its protection by the king in 1350, and later marked by les barrières de la ville ­ six incised stones erected in 1700 to define the town limits. It was during this first period of development that the island prospered from the lucrative wine trade with Gascony, the levying of duties on goods and the supplies of ships passing between England and the ports of south-west France.

Parish Churches
Stonemasons from regions across France and England's West Country give each of the island's parish Churches their own identity.
Prehistoric statue menhirs at St Martins and the Castel act as reminders that the sites were often used for pagan worship long before the advent of Christianity, and they remain today, a focal point in every parish.

pdf icon Parish Church [1Mb]

There are many ways to explore the island, including guided walks with an accredited guide, self-guided walks and a selection of literature to guide you to the best sites.


For more information go to our Walking page

Castle Cornet

1066


When William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, defeated King Harold and seized the English Crown in 1066, the Duchy of Normandy and England became one. The Channel Islands have formed part of that Duchy since the mid-10th Century.

Guernsey's historical link with the English Crown began in 1204, when England's unpopular King John lost Normandy to King Philip Augustus of France. The English withdrawal left the Channel Islands dangerously exposed, presenting islanders with a stark choice: to maintain their allegiance to the continent, or to side with the English Crown. They chose the latter, which was probably the most significant event in the island's history.

Pierre de Preaux, Norman 'Lord of the Islands' since 1200, owned land on both sides of the Channel. He fought for King John against France but was defeated by King Philip, at Rouen. Rouen was the centre of the Norman government and, with de Preaux's surrender on 24 June 1204, his Lordship of the Channel Islands technically passed to France. Subjects of the King of France were already occupying the Islands, which then briefly belonged neither to John's England nor to Philip Augustus's conquered Duchy of Normandy. Guernsey's constitutional, administrative and cultural evolution had begun and the island's unique identity had been born.

1205

The Channel Islands had become a strategic prize in the cross-channel power struggle. Sensing their economic and military value, Eustace 'the Monk' successfully attacked with some 30 ships, reclaiming the Channel Islands for England in September 1205. Guernsey's fortification began, with the building of Castle Cornet at the entrance to St Peter Port harbour. However, the French soon recaptured the islands, followed by a steady, well-planned English recovery in July 1206. King John appointed Philip d'Aubigny warden of Guernsey in 1207, and also of Jersey five years later.

Meanwhile, Eustace had fallen out with King John and settled in Sark. D'Aubigny drove him from the island in 1214, only for Eustace's brothers to occupy all the Channel Islands from 1215 to 1216. Eustace was finally defeated by d'Aubigny, at a sea battle off the south coast of England, and beheaded. An Anglo-French treaty forced the brothers to return the islands to England.

One reason for King John's desire to retain the islands' loyalty was their value as a base for a possible future invasion of Normandy. In order to cultivate this loyalty, he granted the Islands certain rights and privileges they had enjoyed under previous Dukes of Normandy and, just to make sure, took hostages from some of the leading local families. In return, he continued to govern in his capacity as Duke of Normandy. In 1254, Henry III granted the Channel Islands to his son, the future Edward I, on condition they should never be separated from the English Crown, and so the legitimate King of England came to be the legally recognised ruler of Guernsey. By the Treaty of Paris of 1259 his possession of the Islands was confirmed. This remains the position today.

1481

But Guernsey's remarkable constitution has also been shaped by forces far from the English Channel. Continued French harassment led to the grant of a Papal Bull in 1481 which directed against attacks on the island. This made St Peter Port neutral which was beneficial for trade. This led to a long period of relative peace and, on 15 March 1560, Queen Elizabeth issued a grand charter confirming Guernsey's constitutional status quo set out in previous charters. The Grand Charter is one of a series of English charters and other documents which have safeguarded Guernsey's judicial, economic, and administrative autonomy, which it has enjoyed since the Middle Ages. Today it forms the bedrock of the island's special constitutional relationship with the United Kingdom. The Grand Charter can be seen in the Greffe (Guernsey's ancient records office).

One right that Guernsey no longer enjoys is the Privilege of Neutrality. It was surrendered in 1689, when islanders turned enthusiastically to licensed plundering of enemy shipping, known as privateering. Such was Guernsey's success in this new industry that, in 1800 alone, Guernsey ships seized French and American vessels and cargoes to a current value of £100m. Their assistance to the Royal Navy was so substantial that Westminster declared that Guernsey was almost entitled to be called 'one of the great naval powers of the world'. Privateering was succeeded by smuggling, or 'free trade' as islanders referred to it, leading to confrontations between the Guernsey's government and British Customs.

Guernsey's Court House The island's historic Court Room, where States of Guernsey meetings take place

Modern day

This intricate evolution of Guernsey's constitution has had some intriguing results: islanders pledge their allegiance to the Crown, but not to the British Government - where they have no representation. They cannot be called for military service outside the islands, except to rescue the Sovereign if captured by enemies or to conquer England again. However, they elected to serve their King in two World Wars and fought with courage and conviction. Guernsey is in the Commonwealth but is self-governed, with its own traditions, taxation, laws, money, Norman-French language and character.

Despite their rich Norman heritage, Islanders are proud to fly the Union flag - if only to remind them that England, since 1066, has been one of their oldest possessions - and, 800 years on from the historic events of 1204, Guernsey and England are still the closest of friends.

The mechanics of modern politics

The States of Guernsey is the parliament of the British Crown dependency of Guernsey.

When constituted as a legislature it is officially called the States of Deliberation. When constituted as an electoral college it is officially called the States of Election.

The States of Deliberation consists of 45 People's Deputies, elected from multi- or single-member districts every four years. There are also two non-voting members being the Law Officers of the Crown - the Procureur and the Comptroller both appointed by the Queen. The Bailiff presides over the States. Two Deputies are appointed by the States of Alderney to represent Alderney's interest in matters delegated by Alderney to Guernsey under the 1948 Agreement. The Alderney Representatives are full members of the States of Deliberation but are unpaid, and are chosen from the 10 members of the States of Alderney after an Alderney-wide vote.

All legislation by the States of Guernsey applies to Herm as it is owned by the island. Some laws and ordinances approved by the States also apply to Alderney and Sark, known as 'Bailiwick-wide legislation'.

Until the General Election of 2000, there were 33 Deputies elected with three year mandates, and 12 Conseillers representing the Bailiwick, serving terms of six years, with half being elected every three. The Conseillers were not originally directly elected by the people (although latterly directly elected by Bailiwick-wide vote), and the office has now been abolished. The 10 Douzaine representatives (representing parish authorities) were removed from the States in the 2004 constitutional reform.