Guernsey was separated from the landmass of Europe at the end of the Ice Age as sea levels rose. Jersey remained attached to the mainland of modern day France for another 2000 years and the Islands' indigenous fauna and flora reflect this. However, it is Guernsey's safe harbour and its position between modern day France and England which has defined much of its history. Click here for more on archaeology and historic sites.
The evidence for human activity on the island dates from around 6500 BC. Les Fouaillages site on L'Ancesse is one of the oldest stone monuments in Europe. Hunting tribes established flint workings on Lihou Island and as time went on and travellers stopped off to replenish their supplies in Guernsey's safe harbour, many of them left behind pottery, tools and weapons. Others remained as settlers bringing elements of their cultures to the Island. The legacy of these early settlers remains today, with structures such as the Dehus Dolmen, standing stones and the Menhirs.
Later archaeological finds suggest that thriving communities developed as trade routes grew. The Channel Islands were part of the Celtic world. Objects found in the grave of an Iron Age Warrior for example, bear witness to their success. There is evidence of a Roman settlement in St Peter Port and remains of a Roman ship (nicknamed 'Asterix') were found in Guernsey's harbour in 1982. Business around the harbour flourished as trade routes within the Roman Empire expanded. Islanders in St Peter Port spoke Latin, worshipped Roman gods and generally made the most of the opportunities with waterfront warehouses and smelting works; even producing counterfeit coins (a coin mould is on display in the Maritime Museum).
After the end of the Roman Empire and the Frankish take over of Gaul, the Island established closer links with Brittany. Christianity was probably introduced to the Island in about 400 AD but it was not until around 525 AD that St. Sampson arrived to establish a more secure footing for the church.
In 933 The Channel Islands came within the direction of Dukes of Normandy and by 1028 Guernsey had been divided into two large fiefs held by two Norman Seigneurs. The invasion of England by Duke William of Normandy in 1066 brought Guernsey closer England though its laws and language continued to follow that of the Normans or Northmen. Guernsey became part of a realm that eventually stretched from the North of England to South Western France. By this time Benedictine monks had set up a priory in the Vale, and later on Lihou Island and the consecration of a number of churches during the 12th century established the 10 parishes of the Island. Click here for more on medieval times in Guernsey.
In 1204 Philippe Auguste of France won the Duchy of Normandy from his cousin King John of England who, for all sorts of reasons was failing to hold together the dominions over which he had control. Guernsey was under the control of Pierre de Preaux the Lord of the Isles, who surrendered his Norman holdings to Philippe Auguste at Rouen while managing to omit the Channel Islands from the terms of the submission. This was possibly a deliberate attempt to please King John as de Preaux had land holdings in England as well as in France. Guernsey remained with the English Crown.
King John recognised the strategic importance of Guernsey and plans were made to build Castle Cornet on the rock at the entrance to the harbour. At the same time sites such as the Chateau des Marais (also known as 'Ivy Castle) that had been mainly used as a refuge from pirates and local conflicts, were strengthened. The political separation of the islands from Normandy led to a series of continuous raids from the French and in 1294 the French attacked and killed 25% of the population of St Peter Port. The Bailiwick fell into French hands again in 1338 and Castle Cornet was taken on at least two occasions. Although in 1360 the French abandoned claims to the islands in return for British recognition of the Bishopric of Coutances the French threat continued. A local defence force, later known as the 'Militia' was set up but the island suffered until the mid 15th century as the raiders laid waste the countryside and attacked and killed scores of the population.
In the early 1300s the central market was moved to St Peter Port from the Castel and legal taxes were introduced to finance repairs to the harbour. The local economy relied on the wine trade and fishing and despite the loss of the markets in Normandy Guernsey continued to trade with Gascony (area of South West France). When Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry II, her lands had become part of the English holdings and with the loss of Normandy goods from the Angevin Empire had to be brought along the west coast of France. This was ideal for Guernsey who was en route to the South of England. Trade was further helped by the privileges given to Bordeaux merchants.
Ships such as the 'Mary' were built in Guernsey. She was launched in 1415 and used to ferry troops to France for Henry V. Guernsey traders also obtained special grants from Henry VI of Castille for safe conduct within his domains. This helped to offset some of the problems Guernsey faced as French attacks on the island continued. The fishing trade with Newfoundland began in the1460s when Jacques Cartier from St Malo who had Guernsey man Guillaume de Guernesey was amongst his crew discovered the Grand Banks and St Peter Port continued to grow.
Then in 1468 Guernsey merchants put up money for an army to help Jersey expel the French from Mont Orgeuil. In return they requested trade concessions from the King and a Royal Grant was obtained enabling the islanders to import wool. This was the beginning of a textile industry which was to become a mainstay of the Island economy, particularly for those living outside St Peter Port.
Finally in 1480 the misery and loss suffered by the islands from French raids and attacks was recognised by a Papal Bull which gave the islands the Privilege of Neutrality.
The religious confusion of the 1500s under the Tudors gave Guernsey one of its most tragic stories when Catherine Cauchés and her daughters were accused of heresy and burnt at the stake in St Peter Port in 1556. One of the daughters gave birth on the pyre and the baby, though saved by the Master Gunner of Castle Cornet, was thrown back into the flames by the Bailiff, (a Jerseyman), to perish with his mother. In 1559 Elizabeth I granted the Charter that confirmed the Privilege of Neutrality and other laws and customs established within the Island. The population were now exempt from restrictions and traffic with the UK increased. The knitting industry grew and stockings made by Guernsey knitters were worn by the very highest in the land (Mary Queen of Scots wore a pair during her execution).
Guernsey people traditionally spoke Norman - French and were culturally close to France but the more ambitious members of society recognised how important it was to be seen to be English. In 1563 Elizabeth College was established to educate boys in the English manner and to encourage them to become Protestant and Anglican Ministers. St Peter Port at least, was now firmly aligned to England and the English Crown.
On his succession in 1509 Henry VIII had introduced a programme to strengthen the defences around his realm and Paul Ivy, one of the best architects of his day, was commissioned to extend and rebuild Castle Cornet, a massive enterprise which continued well into the reign of Elizabeth I, much of it under the governorship of Sir Thomas Leighton.
Castle Cornet has been at the centre of the Island's history for almost 800 years. It was probably named after a family called de Cornet who held land in the area and has been extended and adapted over the centuries. In 1642 the Castle found itself not guarding the harbour and the town, but attacking it. When the English Civil War broke out the Island declared for Parliament. This was largely as a result of Sir Thomas Leighton's Puritan stewardship. An efficient but austere man, he was widely disliked by the populace. After three eminent Guernsey men who had been tricked into going to the Castle managed to escape, the die was cast. The Castle and the Island were at war. Sir Peter Osborne and his successors held the Castle for nearly nine years with only minimal help from Royalist Jersey and it was the last stronghold in Britain to surrender. Castle Cornet's role in the saga continued after the restoration of Charles II when one of Cromwell's most eminent deputies, Sir John Lambert, was imprisoned here. In 1672 an explosion ripped out the heart of Castle Cornet destroying the medieval buildings, the keep and members of the Governor's family. It was never again used a residence though its role as guardian of St Peter Port harbour continued until the 20th century.
In 1681 The Privilege of Neutrality was brought to an end and the age of Privateering began. There were continuous trade wars between the British and the French as they attempted to expand their empires world - wide. The Government, in part to free up Royal Navy ships, allowed people to apply for a 'Letter of Marque' so that they could seize enemy ships without being branded as pirates. So successful were the families involved that it almost became an island industry. It was estimated that Islanders made millions of pounds from the capture of French and American ships. An offshoot of Privateering was an increase in smuggling or 'Free Trade' as the islanders called it. Guernsey was in an ideal position between France and England and the quantities of wine and brandy stored in local vaults spawned a secondary industry for cask making. The islanders resisted all attempts to set up a customs house and those involved became the 'nouveau riches' whose Georgian Town houses can be seen around St Peter Port's boundaries. By this time over half of Guernsey's population lived in St Peter Port. A subscription was raised for the Town Hospital to be built as a refuge and support for the poor but this had more to do with Christian concern than the financial rewards from Privateering. Records show that a number of wives abandoned by the soldiers garrisoned in Castle Cornet as they moved on had reason to be grateful for this institution.
There was still a vast difference between those who lived in 'Town' and those who lived in the country parishes. Country people still spoke Norman - French and were largely involved in agriculture and fishing. They ventured into town rarely and country roads were appalling. A Militiaman based at Chateau du Rocquaine had no road to take him along the coast to the Vale Parade ground. Instead he had to make an arduous journey into town and out again.
The next decade saw Guernsey men and women involved in conflicts and adventures around the globe. Spanish treasure ships sailed regularly from Acapulco across the Pacific to Manila laden with gold and silver to buy spices. They were fair targets in this era of trade wars and Admiral Anson's Round the World voyage in 1740 aimed to exploit this. Guernsey man Philip Saumarez played a central role in this extraordinary four year journey that culminated in the capture of a treasure so vast it has never been superseded; despite shipwreck, scurvy and an almost total loss of crew.
Later his nephew James Saumarez also took to the sea - rising to become Admiral of the Fleet. He made an extraordinary escape from the French in 1794 when a local man, Jean Breton successfully helped him to steer his ships through a narrow passage between the rocks off Cobo to escape a superior French squadron. Another Guernseyman, Isaac Brock, became a Major General in the British Army and was instrumental in saving Upper Canada for Britain during the War of 1812. He was born in the building that is now Boots; there is a plaque there which simply reads 'he saved Canada'.
It was at this time that Methodism took hold in Guernsey when John Wesley spent a short period at Mon Plaisir, St Peter Port preaching to his congregations. You can see the John Wesley stone at the top of Valnord Road in St Peter Port.
Guernsey's strategic position continued to be of importance during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1803 the new Governor Sir John Doyle instigated an ambitious programme of reclamation and rebuilding as part of his defensive strategy against the French. He was responsible for the draining of the Braye du Valle, which joined the north of Guernsey to the rest of the island for the first time, he constructed roads (to enable efficient troop movements), including one along the west coast and built a series of loop - holed towers. This massive building programme helped the granite and quarrying industry and ships exporting granite returned with coal. In 1816 the first local currency was minted to finance a new market development.
The shipbuilding industry was at its height by the mid 1800s and shipyards were built along the coast from St Peter Port to St Sampson's. Guernsey - built ships brought tea from China and coffee from Costa Rica. William Le Lacheur had seen the potential for setting up a coffee business after early trade with Costa Rica and he brought his first consignment into London in 1843 establishing the coffee trade. He became a national hero in Costa Rica and is credited with transforming that country from being the poorest in Central America to the wealthiest, in less than a quarter of a century. His ships went on to feature on Costa Rican bank notes and postage stamps during the 19th and 20th centuries. Victorian Guernsey flourished and in 1851 Guernsey sent a number of items to the 'Great Exhibition' at Crystal Palace in London. The first postal Pillar Box was introduced at this time and still stands today in Union Street, St Peter Port. It is a symbol of the new and improved communications between the island and the outside world.
In 1855 the eminent French writer Victor Hugo arrived in Guernsey. Having escaped from France and then been expelled from Jersey for his political utterances, he settled for a number of years in Guernsey, writing some of his best known works and amusing the local populace with his unconventional lifestyle.
The advent of the steam railway in Britain encouraged people to take trips to the coast and soon passages to Guernsey and Jersey were being advertised. The first Tourist Guide was published in 1834 and when the Railway companies purchased their own boats and started the boat train service things really took off. The two companies involved were forced to race to get to the only convenient berth in St Peter Port, a situation that was not halted until the sinking of the 'Stella' in 1899. One hundred and five people died in the shipwreck, which is often called 'The Titanic of the Channel Islands'.
The development of the steamship led to the a radical change for Guernsey's industries. The shipbuilding industry declined but the export of perishable goods increased. The harbour was enlarged and the export of grapes and flowers grown in vineries around the island began. This was followed later by the export of tomatoes, which in the early 19th century were thought to be inedible. However, in the 1870s reports in medical journals suggested that the tomato had medicinal qualities and they became fashionable. Many growers changed from growing grapes to growing tomatoes and with the export of main crop tomatoes in 1884 the Tomato industry was born.
The 20th century brought new opportunities and further conflicts. The first Muratti football match between Guernsey and Jersey took place and still provokes strong feelings on both sides today. The last witchcraft trial took place in 1914 and the accused, Mrs Lake, was given 8 days for disorderly conduct.
Guernseymen fought bravely in the First World War, winning a commendation at Cambrai, but The Royal Guernsey Light Infantry suffered so many casualties at Lys in 1918 that it had to be disbanded and hardly a family in Guernsey was left unaffected. The period between the wars saw many new developments designed to bring Guernsey into the 20th century. A new jetty was built at the harbour, a reservoir constructed to provide the expanding horticultural industry with water, an airport established to speed up links with the mainland and cinemas opened, providing a new style of entertainment.
The outbreak of war in 1939 was of immense concern to the Islanders. As Germany moved through France it became clear that invasion was a real possibility. Arrangements were made to evacuate the population and many left for the UK abandoning their homes and businesses. Guernsey was demilitarised but unfortunately the lorries with tomatoes waiting to be loaded onto ships looked too much like ammunition trucks and in June 1940 the harbour was bombed with the loss of 29 lives. The island was occupied by the Germans on July 1st 1940 and five years of shortages and disruption began. The island became increasingly cut off from England and then France. Finally Germany was defeated and Guernsey liberated by British forces on May 9th 1945. Soon children and families returned from their enforced stay in the UK but many of them had lost their local language and culture.
There was an urgent need to rebuild the island's infrastructure after the war and in 1951 the Tomato Marketing Board was set up to get the industry going again. In the busiest week (June 1955), over 793,000 tomato chip baskets were exported. Horticulture was still the bedrock of the Island economy and remained until competition from abroad and rising oil prices forced a steady decline in the late 60s & 70s.
Light industry was introduced into the island when Tektronix brought its business to Guernsey in 1958 but it was the formation of the Investment Trust of Guernsey in 1959 that established the basis of today's economy as the finance industry was born.
Today the island still attracts tourists and flower and tomato growers remain but it is the Finance Industry that prevails. The Island's offshore status has encouraged unprecedented growth. The traditional way of life is gradually disappearing and with little legislation to protect its heritage the island has been left vulnerable. But with its beautiful scenery and long history the Island will doubtless survive, taking its place in the world and its affairs as it has done for thousands of years.