History of Guernsey

Dehus dolmen

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 island’s 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.

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.

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. 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. They cannot be called for military service outside the islands, except to rescue the Sovereign if captured by enemies. However, islanders 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.

Exploring Historical Guernsey

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 in its many 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.

Occupation and Evacuation

One of the most significant periods in the Channel Islands’ history was the occupation by Germany during World War II. The Guernsey Occupation, between June 1940 and May 1945, cast a long shadow over the 20th century and shaped the islands - and their residents - into what they are today. It left a lasting legacy, both emotionally and literally.

On 19 June 1940, the Channel Islands were officially demilitarised and abandoned to the enemy by the British Government. As black smoke billowed from the coast of France, the Guernsey Evening Press' front page headline gave orders for the 'Evacuation of Children'. Mothers of infants under-five were allowed to accompany their children but all those of school age were to travel within their school groups, with only some mothers invited to act as helpers. Around 4000 school children were evacuated to the UK during this time.

On Friday 28 June that year, Guernsey experienced its first air raid which killed 33 islanders and injured a further 67. The harbour and fruit export sheds were targeted, with the Germans believing they were military installations and vehicles.

The Occupation of Guernsey began at around 8.30pm on Sunday 30 June, when five Junker troop carriers landed at Guernsey airport. The following day, German troops arrived and that afternoon the German flag was raised. More troops arrived later until the numbers roughly equalled that of remaining islanders.

Troops went about heavily fortifying Guernsey, building new reinforced bunkers as well as adapting existing fortifications and adding an array of light and heavy guns.

Today, the coastline still bears testament to this time. Punctuated with fortifications and bunkers - the occupation has not been consigned to the history books just yet. Many islanders still alive today can recall being evacuated from their island home and how different Guernsey was on their return. Those who stayed, talk of life under German rule, and the jubilation of Liberation Day, 9 May 1945 (10 May in Sark; 16 May in Alderney) when Guernsey was freed; an event still celebrated today.  The 2015 Channel Islands Heritage Festival will conclude with the Liberation celebrations

Maritime Heritage

Guernsey was built on its relationship with the sea.

From our impressive history of shipbuilding to producing some of the most famous seafarers in British history, our heritage is intrinsically linked to our coastal waters. In Roman times Guernsey was a major trading link with Iron Age Britain. Later, between 1815 and 1880 the island had over 20 boat building yards producing over 40,000 tons of shipping.

Shipbuilding was big business, particularly between 1815 and 1890 when as many as 200 or more ships were built in more than 20 shipbuilding yards, ranging from small domestic fishing boats to fully-rigged ships. The ship building industry brought hundreds of new residents to the island in the 19th century. Many arrived as seamen or shipmates of the schooners, brigs, cutters and brigantines, which were built in the island during this period.

The island's unique position left it perfectly placed to benefit from privateering and smuggling.

The island has always been a busy trading port and wrecks in the islands' waters are evidence of that - a shipwrecked Gallo-Roman ship, found in St Peter Port harbour, was featured on the BBC's Digging for Britain' series in 2010.

From tales of heroism and disaster, tradition and smuggling, Guernsey's maritime stories run deep.



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