Constitutional petition of 1331

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petition of 1331


King John

By Jerripedia editor Mike Bisson

Much has been written about Jersey's constitution, or lack of it, and the various claims can be summarised as follows:

  • King John, some time after 1204, possibly during a visit to the Channel Islands in 1212, laid down in eight clauses how the government of the islands was to be conducted in the wake of their separation from Normandy.
  • A document comprising these eight clauses was sent from the islands to Westminster in 1248 when John's son Henry III, ordered Warden of the Isles Drouet de Barentin to ascertain what laws his father had instituted in the islands.
  • In 1331, when the islands were faced with the fifth visit in 22 years by the King's Itinerant Justices and were exasperated with the frequency of these visits, the fines being exacted from them to boost the Royal Treasury, and the disregard paid to what they believed to be their privileges, Jersey and Guernsey got together to present a petition setting out what they believed to be their rights.
  • In 1603, when Sir John Peyton arrived in Jersey as Governor in succession to Sir Walter Raleigh, he asked the Rector of St Helier, Thomas Olivier, to brief him on the island's constitution. The Rector produced a document which was a combination of the 13th century list which supposedly originated with King John and the 14th century petition, and this became known as the 'Constitutions of King John'.
  • The Rev Philip Falle, who became known as Jersey's first historian, published a list of 18 clauses as an appendix to his 1694 work An account of the Island of Jersey, which he called the 'Constitutions of King John', stating that 'the original is lost' but 'they are extant in an Inquest of his son Henry III, which recites and confirms them'.
  • Falle's list became accepted in the island as an authoritative statement of Jersey's constitutional position, and was presented to, and accepted as such by a 19th century Royal Commission.

It is now clear that, whether or not King John actually set down any constitutional rules for the Channel Islands, they were certainly not as extensive as the list 'invented' by Thomas Olivier, published by Philip Falle, and perpetuated ever since. Falle's "Account", which was more a statement of the island's position rather than a true history, is now known to have been largely based on a similar work by Lieut-Bailiff Jean Poingdestre, Caeserea or a Discourse of the Island of Jersey, written in 1682 but not published until the late 19th century.

Nicolle's list

Historians differ as to how many clauses there actually were in the various documents, and Falle's appendix lists 18 Latin clauses, but only shows numbers from II to XVIII. The only published list of the clauses translated to English which I have encountered is in Edmund Toulmin Nicolle's Town of St Helier, published posthumously in 1931. Nicolle lists 17 clauses, which he says he has summarised 'as briefly as possible':

  • The election of 12 Jurats to hold office for life
  • These Jurats to have jurisdiction in all matters civil and criminal
  • The Itinerant Justices not to hold Assizes except in the presence of the Jurats as a consultative body
  • The Record of Judgments to be made in presence of the Jurats
  • Possession for a year to be unimpeachable except in the case of a grant from the King's Chancery
  • The Islanders not to be subject to any jurisdiction out of the Islands
  • Fines to be taxed by the Jurats
  • Banishment or outlawry not to involve, so far as heirs were concerned, the escheat to the Seigneur or Lord of the goods and chattels of the outlaw
  • The outlaw pardoned within the year and a day to be reinstated in his land and property
  • The Islanders to be free of all levies, aids and contributions whatsoever
  • No one to be imprisoned in the Castle except for murder or serious assault and then with the assent of the Jurats
  • The Viscount and King's Granger to be elected by the inhabitants
  • The payment of money due to the Crown not to have preference over private claims
  • None but the Viscount to levy dues
  • No man obliged to plead before the Justices Itinerant until their commission be registered by the Court
  • the Justices' pleas not to last longer than three weeks
  • Homage only due to the King when he personally visited the Islands

Falle's list

Falle's list is as follows, with my own English notes. These are given not in an attempt to provide a direct translation of the original Latin (my language skills, assisted by an online translator are woefully inadequate), but to show where Nicolle's list matches or differs from Falle's.

  • Imprimis, constituit Duodecim Coronatores Juratos, ad Placita et Jura ad Coronam spectantia custodienda - In the first place he appointed the twelve Jurats or coroners, to the pleas and to the laws pertaining to the protection of the crown
  • II Constituit etiam et concessit pro securitate Insularium, quod Ballivus de cetero per visum dictorum Coronatorum poterit placitare absque Brevi de Nova Disseisina facta infra annum, de Morte Antecessoris infra annum, de Dote similiter infra annum, de Feodo invadiato semper, de Iucumbreio Maritagij - He made and granted also for the security of Islands, that the bailiff in a short time will be able to function without reference to the Crown
  • III li debent eligi de Indigenis Insularum, per Ministros, Domini Regis, et Optimates Patrie; scilicet post Mortem unius eorum, alter fide dignus, vel alio casu legitimo, debet substitui - The Jurats are to be chosen by the natives of the Islands, by the Ministers of the lord the king, and the nobles of the country, and after the death of one of them or for any other legitimate reason, another should be substituted
  • IV Electi debent jurare sine conditione, ad manutenendura et salvaudum jura Domini Regis et Patriotarum - Those elected should swear without condition to uphold the rights of their King and countrymen
  • V Ipsi Duodecim in qualibet Insula, in absentia Justiciariorum, & una cum Justiciariis cum ad Partes illas venerint, debent judicare de omnibus casibus in dicta Insula qualitercunque emergentibus, exceptis Casibus nimis arduis, et si quis legitime convictus fuerita Fidelitate Domini Regis tanquam Proditor recessisse, velmanus injecisse violentas in Ministros Domini Regis modo debito Officium exercendo - The Jurats should judge all cases in the absence of the Justices and when the Justices are present, except very difficult ones
  • VI Ipsi Duodecim debent Emendas sive Amerciamenta omnium premissorum taxare, predictis tamen arduis Casibus exceptis, aut aliis Casibus in quibus secundum Consuetudinem Insularum mere spectat redemptio pro voluntate Domini Regis et Curie sue - The Jurats must impose all fines according to the custom of the islands
  • VII Si Dominus Rex velit certiorari de Recordo Placiti coram Justiciariis et ipsis Duodecim agitati, Justiciarii cum ipsis Duodecim debent recordum facere; et de Placitis agitatis coram Ballivo et ipsis Juratis in dictis insulis ipsi debent recordum facere conjunctim - The Bailiff and Jurats should jointly make a record of their judgments for the benefit of the King
  • VIII Quod nullum Placitum infra quamlibet dictarum Insularum coram quibuscunque Justiciariis inceptum, debet extra dictam lnsulam adjornari, sed ibidem omnino terminari - the islanders should not be expected to plead outside the islands
  • IX Insuper constituit quod nullus de libero Tenemento suo, quod per annum & diem pacifice tenuerit, sine Brevi Domini Regis de Cancellaria, de Tenente & Tenemento faciente mentionem, respondere debeat vel teneatur - Nobody who has held a tenancy for a year and a day should be removed except by writ of the King's Chancery
  • X Quod nullus pro Felonia damnatus estra Insulas praedictas, Hereditates suas infra Insulas forisfacere potest, quin Heredes sui eas habeant - The heirs of a person condemned for a felony should not lose their inheritanced
  • XI Item, si quis forisfecerit, & abjuraverit Insulam, & postea Dominus Rex pacem suam ei concesserit, & infra annum & diem abjurationis revertatur ad Insulam, de Hereditate sua plenarie debet restitui - Anyone pardoned by the King within a year and a day should have their property reinstated
  • XII Item, quod nullus debet imprisonari in Castro nisi in Casa criminali, vitam vel membrum tangente, & hoc per Judicium Duodecim Coronatorum Juratorum, sed in aliis liberis Prisonis ad hoc deputatis - No one should be imprisoned in the Castle except for murder or assault, with the agreement of the Jurats
  • XIII Item, quod Dominus Rexuullum Prepositum ibidem prohibere debeat nisi per electionem Patriotarum - The Provost and the Viscount should be elected by the people
  • XIV Item, Constitutum est, quod Insulani non debeant coram Justiciariis ad Assisas capiendas assignatis, seu alia Placita teuenda, respondere, antequam transcripta Commissionum eorundem sub Sigillis suis eis liberentur Islanders should not plead before the Justices until copies of their seals have been presented to the Court
  • XV Item, quod Justiciarii per Commissionem Domini Regis ad Assisa capiendas ibidem assignati, non debent tenere Placita in qualibet dictarum Insularum, ultra Spatium trium Septimanuarum - The Justices' Assizes should not last longer than three weeks
  • XVI Item, quod ipsi Insulari coram dictis Justiciariis post tempus predictum venire non tenentur - That islanders are not bound to appear before the Justices after this time
  • XVII Item, quod ipsi non tenentur Domino Regi Homagium facere, donec ipse Dominus Rex ad Partes illas, seu infra Ducatum Normannle venerit, aut aliquem alium per Literas suas assignare voluerit in iisdem Partibus - They are not bound to pay homage to the King unless he visits the islands or the Duchy of Normandy
  • XVIII Item, Statutum est pro tuitione & salvatione Insularum & Castrorum, & maxime quia Insule prope sunt, & juxta potestatem Regis Francie, & aliorum inimicorum suorum,quod omnes Portus Insularum bene custodirentur , & Custodes Portuum Dominus Rex constituere precipit, ne damna sibi & suis eveniant ad predictum Hamagium nomine suo ibidem recipiendum - Because the islands are so close to the power of the King of France, and are hated, all ports should be well kept and the Lord the King will guard the door


It will be seen that the two sets of clauses presented above more or less correspond with each other, but do not match clause for clause. There is some detail in Nicolle's list which seems to me to be missing from Falle's, but this may be a matter of error of translation. Intriguingly Nicolle omits the final clause, which refers to the Crown's obligation to defend the islands against the French. (There was obviously no assumption in 1940 that this obligation extended to defending the islands against the Germans.)

Gathering at Castle

Nicolle records that islanders awaited the arrival of Justices Robert de Scardeburg, Richarde de Westcote and Robert Norton in a climate of exasperation with the extent to which money was being extorted from them by the Crown:

"Fines were paid to procure grants and confirmation of liberties and franchises of markets, fairs, free warren, for examption from tolls, pontage, etc; to obtain justice and right, to delay trials in civil cases, for licence to trade, for pardons for crimes committed, and even for the compounding of felonies. Everything and anything was turned into a source of Royal revenue and profit."

Before the Justices' arrival there was "a unique gathering of some of the most notable and influential men of the Islands in the Abbey or Priory of St Helier". Just who were the leaders is not clear. Nicolle says that they were the Priors of St Clement and of the Vale in Guernsey. Other historians have suggested that Pierre Bernard de Pynsole and Laurens de Gaillard, who had been appointed joint Warden of the Isles the year before, were the ringleaders.

Their role as Crown representative for all the Channel Islands would explain the joint approach of the petition. Their appointment does not fit the pattern of others nominated as Wardens in this eaa. They were French knights had been appointed joint wardens in 1330, with a requirement to pay King Edward III an annual farm of 500 livres.

George Balleine’s History of Jersey, one of the most respected 20th century histories of the island, relates:

"23 men met in St Helier’s Priory on the Islet and bound themselves by a tremendous oath to resist to the death any interference with the ancient liberties of the Island. The leaders were Pierre Bernard de Pynsole, Laurens du Galars or de Gaillard and two French monks from Mont St Michel. The leaders met the Justices and claimed confirmation of the ancient laws and customs of the Island and disputed any right of interference in them."

What eventually became of the petition is not recorded, but it did not go down well with the Justices. Nicolle writes:

"In presence of such claims and of such a show of independence we must not be surprised if the Justices were somewhat taken aback, and looking with great disfavour upon the proceedings, demurred to the demands put forward. However, the Justices do not appear to have lost their presence of mind and the Viscount was ordered to arrest the ringleaders as rebels. They were tried but acquitted by the jury and discharged. The Justices, however, did not accept this as final and declared in their judgment that the matter was one of their competence.
"The rebels were cited to appear again before the Justices in Jersey at Longueville in St Saviour's parish. Only one, Philip de St Martin put in an appearance and he was permitted to compound for his transgressions by the payment of a fine of 20 sols. The arrest of the defaulters was ordered but history does not relate what happened to them."

De Pynsole and de Gaillard did not last long in the islands. At the Assizes they were accused of selling false measures and sedition. It was no surprise to see a successor named the same year.

Further petition

Clearly nothing happened to appease the islanders and in 1333 they again petitioned Edward III and in 1341 he confirmed the customs and privileges of the islanders. There is no record, however, of the details of these customs and privileges, and whether or not they accord with the 18 clauses recorded by Falle is unknown.

In any event, it will be seen from the listings above that this collection of clauses refers almost exclusively to the conduct of judicial affairs and scarcely extends to the degree of self-determination that the islands have assumed or been granted over the centuries. The majority of monarchs who succeeded Edward III made a point of confirming the Channel Islands' rights and privileges sooner or later after the start of their reign. Some added specific exemptions to taxation and import duty and the right of free movement of islanders and their goods within the wider British Isles, the whole culminating in today's arrangement which allows the Bailiwicks of Jersey and Guernsey a substantial degree of independence from the UK Parliament.

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