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History of Guernsey

Neolithic Man

Les Vardes ancient monument

Like the rest of the Channel Islands, Guernsey is  steeped in history. Up to 6,500BC, the islands were in fact part of the French mainland until the Ice Age came to an end. Discoveries in the 20th century have shown evidence of mankind dating back to 5,000 BC (New Stone Age) when tribes, possibly from Spain moved here. All around Guernsey are traces of neolithic man, including defensive earth works, menhirs and dolmens. These are burial chambers built above the ground and several survive in remarkably good condition. The largest in Guernsey, La Varde Dolmen is near the 17th green of L'Ancresse golf course and measures 11 metres long by four metres wide and has a capping stone pile of five metres long and one metre thick. One cannot even start to imagine how early man could have moved such stones into position. Further dolmens can be found at Hougue de Dehus, which has a burial  Chamber of for 10 metres by 1.5 metres , Le Creux es Feies (the fairy grotto)  and Le Trepid near to Le Catioroc which Victor Hugo claimed was haunted by the cries of women waiting for their lover, the devil. As mentioned in the section on churches, human figures carved out of granite have also had survived from around 2500.  Celts probably from France and Germany, from around 800BC have also left their mark.

In January 2001, an excavation at La Route de Carteret has revealed two sophisticated arrow heads, thought to be at least 6,000 years old. They will go on display in the summer along with other material from the site, which will shortly be built on.

In June 2011, Delancey Park's Neothlithic grave will undergo a full excavation led by Dr George Nash from Bristol University. The grave is believed to date back around 4,500 years. Neolithic potter yand flint was found around the grave stones in 2010.

At the westernd end of the runway, excavations in 2009 revealed a considerable amount of pottery indicating either a workshop or a habitable area. Excavation commenced again in July 2011 and pottery described as a rare find in Guernsey have been dated to 4,500BC. More than 2,500 pieces os far have been discovered some 20cm in diameter and remenants of food and evidence that the pots have been hung over a fire, indicate that people had lived on the site. Pottery expert Helene Ploffet has been dating the pottery and says that this pushes the site back 1,000 years earlier that previously thought to early Neolithic age. Regretably the site will be covered over when the runway is extended in 2012.

See Ancient Monuments for more photographs.

Iron Age

Excavations at Jerbourg revealed Iron Age earthworks and elsewhere long swords spear heads and beads have been found in tombs. It is also known that at the Vale Castle site a fort dating back to around 550BC was built there.  


Several excavations in St Peter Port prior to rebuilding works in the late twentieth-century have confirmed that the Romans used the island as a trading base from around 56 AD and probably stayed here for around 250 years. A third century shipwreck discovered in the mouth of St Peter Port harbour 1n 1982 is known to be the Roman ship "Asterix"and is now on display in Castle Cornet. 

The most important medieval wreck site in NW Europe near St Peter Port Harbour mouth is larger than first thought. There may be as many as five or more wrecks dating back to 14th century. The find has been described as being of world-class importance because there is such a large concentration of mediaeval ship structures in one place.

Erosion and heavy sea traffic is resulting in the wrecks breaking up and timber is being washed away. Southampton University is engaged in analysing the timbers and if funds can be raised, the wrecks may be lifted.   

Guernsey was an important trading point between France and England. A large amount of pottery from the Saintonge region of France has been found, suggesting that the ship was carrying a consignment of earthenware.

Excavations in the Bonded Store area under Market street have also revealed medieval artefacts including pottery, ceramics, a Venus figurine and a small jewel called Intaglis. They have helped build up a picture back to Roman times. The Archaeology department hope to publish a book about Roman Guernsey in 2001.

A new archaeological dig in the marshy Belgrave Vinery site in the Vale got underway in June 2001. Early finds are promising with the discovery of a substantial standing stone that could date back to 4,000 BC.  The area is very low lying, has medieval drainage and is thought not to have been developed upon since the Duke of Richmond's map of 1787.  A major housing development is due to be built on the site.

The Romans named Guernsey as Sarnia. The ending on Guernsey "ey" is viking meaning island. The islands enjoyed a fair amount of independence although technically ruled from Lyons.

Christianity arrives

After the collapse of the Roman Empire, came the Dark Ages and history remains vague. Christianity was established in Guernsey in the 3rd and 4th centuries and St Sampson later established a church in the island. The Bretons moved to the island from between 600AD and 800AD.  Until the arrival of the Vikings these were relatively peaceful times.


The Vikings started to make their mark around the Seine and Loire areas. In 911 Rollo took control of Caen from the inhabitants of Breton and history tells us that it was ceded to him by Charles the Simple. This was the beginning of the Duchy of Normandy and William Longsword added the Cotentin pensinsular in 933. A Viking longhouse was found at Cobo.  

Norman Conquest

Islanders proudly state that their ancestors were part of the forces of Norman the Conqueror which defeated England in 1066. In fact since around 933, when Rollo's son William Longsword added the islands to the dukedom of Normandy, the inhabitants of these islands have been answerable only to the Duke of Normandy and his successors, the British sovereign. When Guillaume Duke of Normandy conquered England in 1066, he became King William I as well as Duke of Normandy. However when King John lost the territory of Normandy to Philip II of France, the Channel Islands remained loyal to the English crown. In return for this loyalty, King John granted to the islands, certain rights and privileges in 1215 which enabled them to be virtually self-governing, subject only to Royal assent and enactments through the Privy Council. In 1294 a large part of the Guernsey population were killed in French raids. In fact over the ensuing centuries, possession of the islands switched back and forth between the English and French six times. Large castles were built most of which still survive today.

Between 1338 and 1340, the French occupied Guernsey and seized Castle Cornet, holding on to it for six years. Raids continued up to the end of the 1400s and in 1480 Pope Sixtus IV declared the island to be neutral.

In 1481 the States of Guernsey had been formed and Guernsey was already exporting woolens.  

English Civil War

At the end of the English civil war, Guernsey petitioned the Monarchy pleading for a Royal pardon in 1660. This was granted and all previous rights and privileges were restored.

In the 1600's privateering became commonplace and considerable wealth started to build up in the islands. This was legalised piracy licensed by the Crown to seize foreign ships. During the Reformation ,the islands swayed between Catholicism and Protestantism. John Wesley visited Guernsey in 1787 and Methodism flourished.  

A painstaking reproduction of the 17th-century survey of the Channel Islands in a leather bound book has been published by The King's Survey of the Channel Islands has been produced using the three known copies of the Legge Report commissioned by King Charles II in 1679. The original work was commissioned mainly as a survey of the islands' military defences but also contained a raft of information about Guernsey society, geography and constitution. The new book contains 40 fold-out prints of paintings by Thomas Phillips and is priced at £1,250 (July 2011).


In the 1800's, wealthy French residents fleeing the revolution,  set up home in the islands and many of the Town houses one sees today were built during this era. Sixteen forts and 58 coastal batteries were also built to defend the island from the French prior to the Battle of Waterloo. The Bridge area at St Sampsons was also filled in to stop the north of the island from being separated.

The island's own naval hero Admiral Lord Saumarez had a long and distinguished career and fought alongside Nelson. A new monument is planned to be erected during 2009/2010.  Story to follow..

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, as a result of the Napoleonic wars, the trade of Guernsey was practically extinguished and the people were in despair. Unemployment was rife, the sea defences were breaking down, there were practically no roads, public buildings were in disrepair and, above all, a new market house, where the islanders could exchange their produce, was urgently needed. After much debate the States agreed to issue its own bank notes for the first time and 40,000 £1 notes were issued in 1816 - See interesting article

In St Peter Port, much of the harbour as we know it was extended between 1853 and 1870.  St Sampsons harbour was built between 1866 and 1870.

Roads started to be built or widened and St Peter Port installed drainage systems following an outbreak of cholera in 1832.

Stone export was big business and over 100 quarries were being worked. Gas lighting arrived and the population grew from 16,000 to 40,000.  See Quarrying in Guernsey for more details.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited in 1846 as there was considerable unrest linked to the unpopular Lieutenant Governor and in 1879 the island had its first tramway.

Although conscription has never featured in Guernsey, many Guernseymen served in the Guernsey Militia in the First World war and huge casualties were seen. It was later disbanded.

In 1926 the English language was adopted and the island's currency linked to the British Pound. Tomatoes were starting to outstrip Grapes as the main crop and the New Jetty was added to the harbour in 1928.  

German Occupation

During 1940-1945, Guernsey was occupied by German forces and huge numbers of defensive positions were built as part of Hitler's Atlantic Wall. Of the population of 40,000 17,000 were evacuated to England. St Peter Port Harbour was bombed on 28 June 1940 leaving 38 civilians dead. Occupying forces landed on 30 June and so began 5 long years of hardship.

When the British interned Germans living in Iraq, Hitler retaliated by ordering the deportation of mainly English citizens from the Channel Islands and again following a British commando raid on Sark. in February 1943. In total 2,192 people were deported to Germany, 1,003 from Guernsey. Most were English born mean and their families and those who had previously served in the armed forces. Also deported were families of men sentenced to hard labour by military courts, Jews and others who had committed acts of defiance against the Germans. Forty-five Channel Island deportees died in the camps, 16 from Guernsey. They are commemorated in Biberach. Free French forces liberated the camps in April 1945 and the surviving deportees eventually returned home.

By1944, most islanders were near to starvation and a Red Cross ship carrying supplies in 1944 was a very welcome sight. The islands were liberated in May 1945 and every year islanders celebrate their freedom on 9th May.

More details on Occupation

Post war, tourism started to really take off and around 250,000 people per annum were visiting Guernsey. The tax rate was reduced to 20% in 1959 and a large influx of wealthy UK individuals followed. Housing controls were brought in during the 1960s to try and control the population growth but with limited success.

In the 1970s the old harbour and Victoria dock were converted to marinas for local and visiting boat owners and in 1973 Guernsey became an Associate member of the EEC. At the start of the 1980s the North Beach marina and car park were built.  

Offshore Finance

Stable government and a lack of party politics has encouraged Banking and Finance generally, to be the main income earners  from the 1980's onwards and has brought huge wealth to Guernsey  and a respectable standing in the world of Offshore Finance centres. 

New Millennium

As with elsewhere in the World, fast technological change has been a feature of the 1980s and 1990s and as the new Millennium appeared, the island was gearing itself for e-commerce.



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