The smallest of the main inhabited Channel Islands, Sark has had quite the history when it comes to ownership of the island. Sark is considered one of the last independent feudal states in Europe, which only recently came to an end.
This island’s unique history dates back hundreds if not thousands of years, with evidence of the island’s existence dating back to the Stone Age. The island’s ownership and rule have changed several times over the centuries of documented history. The people have endured and triumphed over many complicated rules and have come out better than ever, living a simple, happy life on the captivating island of Sark.
A History of Sark and its Rule
The island of Sark has been mentioned throughout history, beginning with evidence of Roman rule amidst the collapse of the Roman Empire. It’s believed that with the spreading of religion around Europe. St. Magloire is said to arrive around 560 AD and founded a monastery in the northwest corner of the island, incorporated into the Celtic Diocese of Dol in Brittany as a base to spread religion to the surrounding Channel Islands. St. Magloire returned to Sark and established a community of around 60 monks building a chapel and living quarters.
The island had survived raids by Vikings throughout history until Norsemen settled on the island, with the first Duke of Normandy taking possession of the islands in 933 by Duke Rollo’s son William Longsword. Sark was presented as a gift by William of Normandy (William I, the Conqueror) around 1040 to the Mont-Saint-Michel Abbey.
The association with the English Crown began in 1066 when Guillaume, Duke of Normandy, conquered England and became King William I of England. He remained the Duke of Normandy throughout his rule and occupation of England.
Around a century later, the island was under the ownership of the Vernon family, lords of Nehou. They endowed the priory of St. Magloire as a dependency of the Abbey of Montebourg. Sark quickly reverted to the English Crown loyalty in 1204 when Richard de Vernon forfeited the island. Sark was granted rights and privileges to self-govern and was governed by a royal provost who presided over a court of six jurats.
In the 16th Century, the French captured the Channel Islands in 1549, used as a base by the French pirate Eustace the Monk, and suffered through many French raids. The community had grown to around 400 people who primarily fished, farmed, and occasionally pirated. The island was back under English control in 1558.
Sark was granted to Helier de Carteret, Seigneur of St. Ouen in Jersey, from Queen Elizabeth I as a fief in perpetuity in exchange for keeping the island free from pirates and allowing 40 of her English subjects. Helier leased 40 parcels of land, known as Tenements, to families under the condition that they care for the land and provide one-armed man as a defense for the island.
Because the tenements were occupied by families that came over from Jersey, the court was modeled after that of the Jersey courts. In 1675 the courts had changed to compose of seneschal, provost, tenants, Seigneur, Constable, and Vingtenier, with the Seigneur playing the primary role in the ownership of the island. Until 1732, the Carteret family was the seigneurs of the island and had changed hands many times until 1927.
In 1927, the Dame of Sark, Sibyl Hathaway, held the island until her death when her son took over, Michael Beaumont, was considered the 22nd Seigneur. During WWII, the Channel Islands were occupied by German forces from 1940 until it was liberated in 1945.
In 1990, a French nuclear physicist name Andre Gardes attempted to invade the island of Sark armed with an automatic weapon. Gardes arrived at the island a day prior, putting up posters declaring his intention, alerting the local Constable. When Andre Gardes arrived on the island on the day of his planned invasion, he was quickly apprehended and arrested. He tried once again a year later and was caught in Guernsey.
Who Owns Sark Island Now?
Sark Island isn’t under any one person’s ownership. It’s a self-governing jurisdiction under a degree of independence. The Island of Sark is a part of the Bailiwick of Guernsey with a relationship to the Crown as a Crown Dependency.
Sark is currently governed under a Chief Pleas, which once consisted of a chamber of 54 members. Those 54 members included the owners of the 40 tenements, the Seigneur, the Seneschal, and 12 elected deputies. The change to the system was brought to light by the Barclay brothers, billionaire brothers, who had purchased an island within the territory of Sark waters. The change was to advocate for compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights because the old feudal system favoured tenets to sit in Chief Pleas.
In 2008, the Chief Pleas was approved to reform to a 30-member chamber with 28 elected members of island-wide elections, including the current Seigneur and Seneschal of the island. Today, the Chief Pleas consists of a parliament of 18 elected representatives, known as Conseillers, under universal suffrage.
The Conseillers serve terms of four years, with elections being held every two years to re-elect any seats that may be nearing the end of their terms. Conseillers are residents of the island of Sark that have been living on the island for at least two years and are at least 18 years old.
The Chief Pleas manage the existing legislation and are responsible for introducing new legislation that may be introduced by Guernsey Law Officers. Any primary legislation is to be voted on by the Privy Council.
The Sark Estate