Six thousand years of Sark history in two minutes
by Richard Axton
By 1400 BC grain farmers kept sheep and cattle, made clay pots and cast bronze. Their stone tools, little changed over the previous 3000 years, were shaped from Sark dolerite. Prehistoric traders put ashore and at least one refugee from the Gallic Wars buried his Dacian silver here (‘Sark Hoard’, discovered 1719 AD).
Good fishing, fertile soil and isolation attracted holy men. St Magloire is said to have arrived from Brittany in 565 AD to found a monastery with enclosures and a watermill above Port du Moulin. Vikings ransacked the Channel Island monasteries leaving only Norse place-names. From 933 AD as part of the Duchy of Normandy, Sark was resettled with feudal land tenures. Duke William’s accession to the throne of England in 1066 forged loyalty to the English Crown that survived many French wars and King John’s loss of Normandy in 1204. A thriving medieval community farmed and fished and paid taxes to the King’s Receiver.
Black Death and Wars of the Roses disrupted Sark, notorious in Tudor times for its pirates. Promising to protect the island from thieves and Frenchmen, Helier De Carteret persuaded Queen Elizabeth I to grant him Sark in 1565. He had to maintain 40 men for defence. His Jersey colonists were Presbyterians seeking freedom of worship as well as fresh lands. In 1583 Sark was granted power to make its own laws. By 1604 the Seigneur’s 40 tenants (‘quarantaine’) became an oligarchy, running Chief Pleas till 1921 and abolished only in 2008.
The lords of St Ouen remained lords of Sark until 1720. But Jersey laws and customs clashed with those of Guernsey (Sark’s bailiwick, its appeal court and nearest market). Over time, Sark turned gradually towards Guernsey.
England’s Civil War divided Channel Islanders between Crown and Parliament. Sark’s Seigneur declared for the King and fought with Jersey Royalists; in 1643 Guernsey’s parliamentarians responded by confiscating Sark and its revenues. Seigneurial rents had been protected by King James I’s Order of 1611 forbidding division of estates. With its Seigneur exiled, Sark was governed by Judge Jean Le Gros and his allies, staunchly Presbyterian and pro-Parliament. By lending mortgages to poor farmers and flouting Sark’s laws, the merchant Judge acquired more lands and rentes. By 1661, when King Charles II restored the Seigneur to an impoverished fief, Sark’s problems were rife. Twenty years’ litigation redressed some abuses but hostility between Anglican Seigneur and Puritan tenants escalated till 1675, when the King dismissed Sark’s juge and jurés and replaced them with a Seneschal. To remain solvent the last De Carteret Seigneurs sold off many manorial fields.
Judge Le Gros’ wealth enabled his grand-daughter Susanne Le Pelley to buy Sark in 1730. The family tenement at La Peronnerie became La Seigneurie, with a dovecote and new gardens. Sark houses were gentrified on profits from Guernsey’s privateers. But not all Sarkese prospered: by the 1780s rural poverty, alcoholism and revolutionary mutterings attracted concern from the Methodists. Threat of French invasion in the 1790s prompted Sark to fortify: new cannon came with artillerymen, and a 100-strong Sark Militia drilled on l’Eperquerie long into Victoria’s reign.
Seigneur Le Pelley modernised his burned-out mill, built a church (1820) and two schools (1828, 1840). Discovery of copper ore in 1835 started a ten-year mining boom. Cornish miners and families (over 200 people) made Little Sark an industrial landscape. Meagre quantities of lead and silver were extracted at crippling cost to the investors – including the Seigneur, who had mortgaged Sark for cash. In 1852 Dame Marie Collings, daughter of Guernsey privateer-tycoon Jean Allaire, foreclosed and bought the fief for £1600. Collings money and initiative improved the Seigneurie, farm and gardens, enlarged the church, rebuilt Creux Harbour. Regular steam boats brought visitors from Guernsey and Sark tourism grew with photography and hotels.
After the Great War (in which 18 Sark men died) minutes of Chief Pleas were written in English, not French. In 1927 Sibyl Beaumont inherited from her father W.F. Collings. She actively promoted Sark’s uniqueness before and after World War II, steering Sark through five years of German Occupation, past completion of the Maseline Jetty (1947) until her death in 1974. Michael Beaumont, her grandson, beautified the renowned Seigneurie Gardens over 40 years and secured them in trust for the future. The people of Sark have picked up the challenge of adapting Sark’s unique constitution and government to the modern world.