The Image at Hougue Bie: Catholic Deceit or Protestant Propaganda

Richard Mabon was Dean of Jersey from 1509 until his death around 1543; he was also, during this time, Rector of St Martinís Parish, and a landowner in St Saviour and Longueville. During this time, Mabon made a long and dangerous pilgrimage to Jerusalem, during which he visited the Chapel of the. Holy Sepulchre, where Christ was supposed to have been buried. This may have taken place during 1515, when Thomas Mallett is mentioned as Dean before the re-appointment of Mabon.

On returning, he restored the ruined chapel of Notre Dame de la Clarté on the top of Hougue Bie, and also built a new chapel by its side, dedicated to the Passion of Jesus, known as Jerusalem. He also built a little oratory resembling the Holy Sepulchre, so that it could be a place of pilgrimage for those who could not undertake the journey to Jerusalem themselves.

The Chronicler, writing in 1585, says the Dean "was an idolater and a great maker of images, who caused the poor to believe many lies and rascalities, so that they would bring him offerings. He made simple folk believe that the Virgin often appeared to him near the said Chapel" (1).

A later chronicler also speaks of a moving hand from the image of the Virgin, which took coins and was cunningly contrived to make a movement when the coin fell through thanking the donor. He writes that the people grew tired of making him rich, so he invented a new miracle, and hung candles by wires from the roof, and pretended that they were burning in mid-air. (2)

What credence do we give to these stories?

We know that in 1535, he gave over Hougue Bie and its Chapels with any adjoining lands as endowment to two priests to say Mass in the chapels, so in fact, he was giving away his source of revenue, which is an unlikely thing for a fraudulent impostor (as the Chronicler calls him) to do. It fits better with the picture of a pious man, concerned with the welfare of his soul, and not his bank account. (3)

Mabon died in 1543, before the Reformation properly hit the Channel Islands. In 1550, the Royal Commissioners arrived in Jersey with powers to confiscate and sell certain ecclesiastical property, and the foundation of Hougue Bie would have been confiscated for the Crown; in the Extente of Crown Revenues of 1607, there is a note that it had been sold by the Crown to Thomas Tanner, then resold to Innocent Quenault.(4)

The visit of the Commissioners in 1550 was to implement the provisions of the Act of 1547, which had been applied to Jersey and Guernsey in the Act of Uniformity of 1549. This was to take possession of obits and masses, superstitions, church bells (except one per parish), and close any chantry endowments. Images to which offerings or pilgrimages had been made were to be taken down, and candles before images were now forbidden.(5)

In 1548, in England, the Commissioners unearthed a propaganda coup - at Boxley Abbey, they found a mechanical contrivance in the Rood of Grace, which was moved with levers to make "the eyes move like a living thing", this was seized and exhibited, first in Kent, then in London, then destroyed. The story was written up and widely circulated, as far as Zurich by letters to the Reformer Bullinger; the tale grew in the telling, and a simple mechanical artefact becomes a marvel of pipes, where Christ "scowls with his eyes, distends his nostrils, turns away his face, bends his back", and in a later letter "foamed at the mouth and poured tears down its cheeks".(6)

We can note the following from this story. Firstly, there was a simple contrivance, which was exposed by the Commissioners, and the knowledge of which was widely disseminated throughout England also to the Reformers in Switzerland, of Calvinist persuasion. Secondly, the story grew in the telling, and the final result was a masterpiece of special effects not noted in the earliest accounts. Thirdly, this was the only fake mechanical device produced in the entire programme of examination by the Commissioners; there are no accounts of any others, so the Reforming party, under Thomas Cromwell, had to make as much of it as they could.

When we come to the Jersey account, we note that the language about Dean Mabon as a crafty money-grabber mirrors that in the letters to Switzerland; they "had made a great profit by deluding the people of Kent" who were "basely deceived by an idol" worked by "wicked impostors and knaves".(7)

But why did the Commissioners not reveal this imposture in 1550, when it would have been another great propaganda coup? Why is it not mentioned elsewhere in the public record, as with Boxley Abbey - after all, this is precisely the kind of propaganda coup that would receive widespread publicity, just as the burning of a pregnant woman did in Guernsey? Why is there no mention of it until much later, in 1585? That is the first of the question marks against the Chroniclerís account.

The second question mark is raised by Dean Mabonís surrender of the Chapel in 1535 as endowment to two priests. This is not mentioned by the Chronicler, and one must wonder why it is passed over in silence. Might it be because it weakens the idea of a greedy impostor? (8)

The third question mark is raised by the account of the deception itself. This seems to have undergone two versions, the second being a clear exaggeration, but also dates well after the story of Boxley Abbey, which could have reached the Island by a number of routes, particularly from the contacts between Jersey and Geneva. Bullinger in Zurich knew the tale, and we know he corresponded with Calvin in Geneva. Protestant Jerseymen had fled there in Queen Maryís short reign. Did the Chronicler, as is likely, know the story of Boxley Abbey? Was this the impetus for a Jersey version of the deceit?

So what are we to make of the stories. The most likely story is that Dean Mabon was a man of genuine piety, despite his involvement in politics (which was not uncommon for Deans in those days) who genuinely wanted to give some of his experience of pilgrimage to the people of Jersey. He was devoted to the cult of Mary, and may well have believed he had visions of her, and encouraged others to come themselves. At his death, we know he was building elsewhere yet another chapel, which is in keeping with the idea of a pious man, as is his surrender of lands and chapels at Hougue Bie. The portrait of Richard Mabon by Hans Holbein is that "not the face of a villain, but the face of a dreamer" (9).

The Chronicler, faced with someone who had crossed swords with the Protestant De Carterets, and who was, in his eyes, an evil Papist, contrived stories to destroy the good name of the Dean, making appearances of St Mary (which Mabon might well have believed or hoped for) into a mechanical device. It is noteworthy that the final version of the tale attacks statues as idolatry, and also the use of candles, thus attacking precisely that which Cromwell was so keen to prevent - candles before images. The fact that Mabon was an enthusiast for the cult of Mary would have also damned him in the Chroniclerís eyes as a wicked idolator. But as Balleine warns us, "charges like these were the stock in trade of the baser type of Reformers in their campaign against pilgrimage centres"(10)


1) "A Biographical Dictionary of Jersey" , G.R. Balleine, p.467

2) "A Biographical Dictionary of Jersey" , G.R. Balleine, p.467

3) Bulletin Societe Jersiaise, Vol. 10, pp. 187-188

4) Bulletin Societe Jersiaise, Vol. 10, p. 190

5) "The Channel Islands Under Tudor Government" (1949), A.J. Eagleston, pp. 36-37; on the general decrees, see "Religion, Politics and Society under the Tudors"(1993), Christopher Haigh, p.134

6) "Lollardy and the Reformation in England: An Historical Survey" (1908), James Gairdner, p124-128; This is one of the best sources for copious extracts from original source documents, and demonstrates how the tale grew in the telling.

7) "A Biographical Dictionary of Jersey" , G.R. Balleine, p.467

8) On the Chroniclerís tendency to omit, see "The Chroniques de Jersey in the light of contemporary documents", BSJ, A.J. Eagleston, pp.37-62

9) Bulletin Societe Jersiaise, Vol. 20, p.394-5, "The Portrait of Richard Mabon" by Joan Stevens.

10) "A Biographical Dictionary of Jersey" , G.R. Balleine, p.467