A brief history of Guernsey

Guernsey is a Crown Dependency, loyal to the Queen of England but with its own government. How this came about is a long story...

Humans first lived in Guernsey around 10,000 BC, leaving tools of 'Upper Palaeolithic' type behind. Guernsey became an island when sea levels rose after the end of the last ice age, around 9,000 BC. Farming took hold in the Neolithic and through the Bronze Age. Impressive prehistoric monuments include dolmens (burial chambers), standing stones and statue-menhirs.

Iron Age tribes left behind 'warrior burials' and evidence that they had been boiling salt and farming. The Romans conquered Gaul in 56BC and at some point in the next century also brought Guernsey into their empire. Guernsey was probably called 'Lisia' by the Romans, and a small town and port grew up in St Peter Port.

After the fall of Rome, the islands were ruled by the Franks, the Bretons and ultimately the Normans. The name 'Guernsey' is probably of Viking origin, meaning something like 'Green Island'. In 933 the Normans took control, bringing their language, their laws and many of the institutions which survive to the present day. When the Normans invaded England in1066, Guernsey became linked to 'The Crown' (the King or Queen of England).

The French captured Normandy from the English in 1204, but the Channel Islands remained under control of the English 'Crown'. This was confirmed by the Treaty of Paris in 1259, but this did not stop the French from attacking the islands several times during the Hundred Years' war. Two hundred years of Peace came with a 'Papal Bull' of 1481 making the islands neutral and its shipping immune to attack.

During the later Middle Ages, the institutions of the island took a form we recognise today: the Bailiff (chief Law Officer), the Governor (representative of the Crown), the 12 Jurats (the Royal Court) and the 'Etats' (the island's 'parliament'). Guernsey's history increasingly followed the fortunes of England as the islanders remained loyal to the Crown. Successive Kings and Queens granted charters to the island guaranteeing its rights.

The Reformation in the 16th century brought about tension in the islands. Henry VIII's break with the Catholic Church led to the break-up of estates and priories owned on the island by French Abbeys. The island also saw an influx of protestant Hugenot refugees fleeing persecution in France. Persecution also occurred in Guernsey as sympathies switched between Protestant and Catholic Causes. During the English Civil War, Castle Cornet remained loyal to the King but Guernsey declared for Parliament. The Castle was under siege from 1642 until its surrender in 1651.

Guernsey became prosperous from the late 17th century. St Peter Port became an 'entrepot' for goods being shipped from the continent to Britain, although this 'free trade' was regarded as smuggling by the English. During England's wars, Guernsey ships armed themselves as privateers and many local fortunes were made through what was virtually legalised piracy. The Wars with France saw Guernsey in the front line, so the island was re-fortified with gun batteries and towers.

Peace with France after 1815 and the ending of privateering and 'free trade' brought about a recession. Guernsey then became a major ship-building centre, until the coming of iron ships finished the industry at the end of the 19th century. The quarrying of granite and growing tomatoes were the major industries from then until the mid-twentieth century. The island prospered in the Victorian era and the population boomed. The influx of many English-speaking settlers however began the decline of Guernsey's Norman language.

Both World Wars hit Guernsey hard. During the First World War, 1914-1918, one man in twenty was killed and a quarter saw action in the British forces. From June 1940 to May 1945, the forces of Nazi Germany occupied the islands and constructed massive fortifications which still dominate the coasts. Tourism was the mainstay of the economy either side of the War, gradually giving way to international finance as our main industry in the 21st century.

From Guernsey Museums & Galleries Website