Saint Helier the Martyr
St. Helier is the patron saint of Jersey, and gives his name both to the town and to the Parish Church. St. Helier's Day falls on July 16th and on the Sunday nearest to that date a pilgrimage is made to the Oratory and a short service held on the green immediately below the little building.
The most profound silence surrounds the history of Jersey until the 6th century, when St. Marculf introduced Christianity, and was instrumental in sending St. Helier as a missionary to the Island.
St. Helier born at Tongres in Belgium was the son of the Saxon Governor of that place, a pagan, The boy became a convert to Christianity, and after his conversion made his way, to the Abbey of Nanteuil in France where, under St. Marculf, he studied the Celtic language, until about 545 A.D. when he crossed over to Jersey. Here he took up his abode, so the legend goes, on a rock surrounded by the sea and communicating with the land by a natural causeway, which can be identified as 'l'Islet,' a rock south of the island upon which Elizabeth Castle now stands in St. Aubin's Bay. The cave in which he lived he converted into a cell with part of the rock hewn out to form his couch.
For fifteen years he worked amongst the inhabitants of the island, and his remarkable zeal and the holiness of his life made a great impression on the inhabitants who soon became converted to the Faith. At the end of this period Jersey was visited by a band of the dreaded Saxon pirates who landed without resistance, to whom St. Helier began to preach the Gospel in their own language urging them to abandon their life of pillage and murder. The inspiring manner and imposing visage of this holy man gave great spiritual force to his words, and the pirate chief fearing that his followers would be induced to give up their present life of piracy, raised his axe, struck the saint on the head, and Jersey's first martyr fell lifeless at his feet.
The Saxons became terrified at this awful murder, and although the weather was stormy, they immediately put to sea, but when nearing Noirmont their ship struck a rock and they all perished. The very spot where Saint Helier lived and died, with the Oratory built over the cell in the XIIth century, may be seen to this day. The present Bishop of Winchester when giving an address a few years ago at the Oratory, referred to Saint Helier as " the nobleman's son who met the enemy armed only with the Gospel."
So the legend runs. After which begins the monkish history of his dead body - so mysterious that it is better not to try to unravel it, beyond saying that his remains found their way to the Abbey of Lehon, there to be buried.
It is related that he caused to be constructed " The Hermitage." This seems doubtful, as chapels of that period are very rare today and the masonry of the fabric rather points to its being an oratory in connection with the second Abbey of St. Helier, probably erected in memory of the Saint.
St. Marculf founded an Abbey on the Islet, which took its name after St. Helier. The religious movement in Jersey progressed under the monks. St. Samson and St. Magloire visited the island, and Pretextatus, Archbishop of Rouen, betook himself in exile to the Monastery of St. Helier, after his quarrel with the King of the Franks. In the 9th century the Monastery appears to have been destroyed by the Norman invaders. Our countryman Wace tells of their pitiless ravages.
At the beginning of the 12th century, the Islet of St. Helier belonged to the famous family of the Barons of Thorigny and Creully, whose feudal castle between Caen and Bayeux exists to-day. A member of this family, William Fitz-Hamon, about the year 1125, rebuilt the Abbey of St. Helier, which was soon richly endowed. The Monks were of the Order of St. Augustine. For 60 years it flourished. About 1154, Henry II encouraged the liberality of Fitz-Hamon by giving the Monks the " Moulin de la Ville," " Le Marais de St.-Hélier " and the patronage of the Church of Trinity. Others and, amongst them, the De Carteret family came forward as benefactors; but, notwithstanding these liberal endowments, in 1184 by virtue of a charter of the same King the Abbey of St. Helier was annexed to that of Cherbourg and was reduced to the rank of a priory. Henceforth it became known as " le Prieuré de l'Islet."
So, very briefly, we have told the story of our patron saint and martyr, and of the great abbey which once stood in memory of him in the courtyard of Elizabeth Castle. Of that abbey not a stone remains in place, and only the little oratory seated on the summit of that wind-swept rock remains to remind the generation of to-day of the life and death of Saint Helier. And this island is fortunate in being able to point to the very spot in which he lived and died, kept in a state of preservation which is rare in monuments of antiquity which go back for 800 years.
Samuel Falle (1854-1937), Dean of Jersey
R'tou à la page d'siez-mé | Back to home page