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May 15, 2007

In the Channel Islands, Feudalism is for the Birds

Plenty of green grass on the Channel Island of Sark

Feudalism is dead and long gone, a hilariously primitive system of law and order that vanished, along with plague and chivalry, with the Middle Ages. This is what most people will tell you, and they are wrong. Feudalism is alive and living in quiet, tax-sheltered comfort on a grass-covered chunk of granite in the middle of the English Channel called Sark, though lately it's been doing a bit of soul searching.

Sark is what's known as a Channel Island, along with Guernsey, Jersey, Aldernay and a few others. Contrary to popular belief, however, the Channel Islands are not part of the United Kingdom. Originally, they were part of William the Conqueror's lands in Normandy, but unlike the rest of Normandy they were never lost to the French. Today, they are not part of the United Kingdom but are what's known as British-dependent islands. When the queen is toasted during dinner here, she is referred to as "the queen, our duke." There are even local wags who talk about "our" invasion of the mainland in 1066.

Old habits die hard in this unusual corner of the world, but that's not to say nothing ever changes. People may not drive cars on Sark, but tractors are okay. (Someone did bring over a car once, but was only permitted to use it on the condition that it be pulled by horses.) Lately, however, tractor numbers have been rising. You might see as many as three in a row driving down the hill towards the harbor, so the Sarkese have said, That's enough, no more tractors. At the moment, there are 77 tractors and they won't allow many more. Inhabitants number 600 all together, and everyone else has to make do with a horse or bicycle, either of which sounds pretty good to me.

Sark parking lot

Nice views

Sark afternoon

Feudalism is something else that's taking rather a long time to catch up with modernity on Sark. The entire island belongs, technically, to a former engineer from Bristol. He is known as the Seigneur of Sark, a title that's commanded respect in these parts since 1565 when Queen Elizabeth I granted Sark its charter. Land ownership is one among many perks the Seigneur enjoys. For example, no one but the Seigneur is permitted to keep pigeons. Also: any and all debris washed up on Sark's shores belongs to him. (Debris, for the most part, is overrated.)

But to say that the whole island belongs to the Seigneur is to misunderstand how Sark works, and how it has worked for almost half a millennium. It is divided up into 40 chunks of land called tenements, which are owned by tenants--feudal landholders in the oldest sense. Still, the situation for the Seigneur is pretty good. If a tenant sells his land, the Seigneur gets a chunk of the value. And if someone dies and there is no heir to his or her land, ownership reverts back to the Seigneur. This very thing happened just a few years ago.

The present Seigneur is Michael Beaumont, a gentleman in the old-world sense, and the kind of considerate and intelligent fellow who would be extremely out of place in, say, Monaco. His family's claim to the title dates back to 1852. At that time, the then Seigneur of Sark decided to invest in silver mining. To do this, he borrowed a large sum of money from a family on Guernsey who'd made quite the nut plundering French and Russian ships during the Napoleonic wars. The Seigneur lowered shafts into the Sark granite and found that there wasn't much in the way of silver down there. The mine failed. In lieu of bad debt, the pirates from Guernsey received Sark as payment. It may be the 19th century's grandest cases of money laundering. It's been in Michael Beaumont's family ever since.

Michael Beaumont, the Seigneur of Sark

I met with the Seigneur at a pub where he told me about life as the Seigneur. To a small degree, he is still bound by the duties laid out in Sark's original charter. Every year, he pays an annual sum to the crown, though the amount has barely budged since 1565: last year it was a little over three dollars. Historically, the Seigneur collected taxes from the residents but was obliged to make sure there was a mill, a church, a preacher, that the island was defended, and so forth. These days, he collects no tax and his job, as he puts it, is "to make sure everything runs alright." This includes the hiring and supervising of two police constables, a charge that is not as easy as it may sound. "Occasionally, something goes wrong," the Siegneur told me. "It's not good to have a constable who keeps going out and getting drunk." He continued. "We had one that vanished one night and turned up in the United States. Had a nervous breakdown." The Seigneur paused for a moment and said, "I don't have much to worry about."

Lately, the talk on Sark has been about political reform. Sark's version of parliament is called the Chief Pleas because back in the day this is the place people would go to meet with the Seigneur and make their plea. The chamber is made up of 12 elected deputies and the 40 tenants (now 37, due to consolidation). Most people on the island think the number of deputies should far exceed 12 and resentment towards the tenants, whose political power is tied directly to the fact that they own land--very feudal--is growing, partly because in recent years outsiders have been buying tenements and getting up in the Chief Pleas and telling the islanders how to run their island.

The tenants, as simple math shows, outnumber the deputies by more than three times and it has been a surprise to no one that they've blocked various attempts at taking away their power. If you press a local long enough, they will eventually lay blame at the feet of the Barclay Brothers, the supremely wealthy but mysterious duo who own London's Daily Telegraph newspaper. Since 1993, the Barclay brothers own a private island called Brecqhuou, a tenemant of Sark, and inhabit a grand, fog-shrouded castle that towers over the rocky shore in a living arrangement that can't help but smack of extreme deviance.

All this business about democracy has come as close to dividing the small island as anything can. There have been harsh words. Some people refuse to eat in other people's restaurant, or buy supplies from their store. As yet, there have been no suicide bombings. "The time has come for universal franchise," he told me, and it was plain that he was not trying to fashion a soundbite. "We'll get there eventually."

The Seigneur and I left the pub and started walking deeper into the island. He was expected at a lunch. I asked him about his pigeons. Was it true that he was the only one on the island allowed to keep them? He told me that in olden times if everyone kept pigeons they would eat all the corn, and there wouldn't anything for people to eat.

"Do you have pigeons now?" I asked.

"Oh yes."

"How many?"

"Five at the moment. There were more, but they suddenly went into decline."

"Do you eat them?"

"No, no." He seemed mildly shocked by the insinuation." They're purely for show," he went on. "We did bring in some fantails once and that was a disaster. They can't fly very well and can't get out of the way."

What the fantails couldn't get out of the way of was sparrow hawks and falcons. The Seigneur was preceded in his position by his grandmother, who was known as the Dame of Sark. Years ago, one of the Seigneur's cousins brought in some tumbler pigeons for the Dame. "As soon as they were released they all flew back to Nottingham. They weren't a great success," he said.

The Siegneur's present flock won't be around for much longer, and when they're dead, the Siegneur plans on bringing in some new ones. It is, after all, his right.

Posted at: N 49 25.991 W2 21.228



what a quirky little place.

I'm starting to look forward to these articles each day at work, beautiful pictures, and fun pieces. Sark looks heavenly.

Are you saying Patrick is NOT a "gentleman in the old-world sense"?

I hope they don't change. Just because modern sensibilities want them to is no reason. It sounds like a wonderful place. I wouldn't want to live there but I am glad there are still people in this world that do.

Are you mad!? I'd love to live there. Tractors, brews, what more can you ask for?

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