Although popular history has it that the name Jersey is derived from Caesarea, and that the island was once named in honour of one of the Roman emperors, there has been preciously little proof that the Romans ever occupied or lived in Jersey.
For nearly four centuries, until AD 410, the Romans ruled Britain, but apart from finding a few coins here and there, archaeologists had no real proof that they were present in Jersey, until the excavation in 2010 of a building and skeletons of the Roman era, attached to Grouville Church. The Jersey Evening Post reported in June of that year:
- ‘Archaeologists have made what could be the first ever discovery of Roman dwellings in the Island. They describe the finds as “very significant”. Evidence of Roman life has been uncovered at Grouville Church, with a search in the building’s cellar unearthing items of pottery that could date back almost 2,000 years, as well as ancient skeletons and the remnants of Roman roof tiles.
- ‘The latest find could be the first example of a Roman dwelling to be discovered in Jersey.
- ‘Two particularly old skeletons were uncovered, together with significant Roman pottery remains, including part of an amphora of a style not made after 261 AD, pieces of roof tile and some Samian pottery, 0which was produced in Gaul from about 60 AD.’
But more Roman finds have been uncovered in Guernsey than in Jersey: excavations in St Peter Port near the old market have confirmed that the Romans used the island as a trading base and probably stayed here for around 250 years. A 3rd century Gallo-Roman shipwreck was discovered in the mouth of the harbour in 1982 – inevitably, it became known as the ‘Asterix’ ship.
According to Jersey Heritage’s head of community learning, Doug Ford, it suggests that Guernsey may have been the local seat of administration, from where Jersey was governed. Unlike Jersey, it had a natural deep-water harbour and a safe anchorage.
He added it was far more likely that the only government official in Jersey was a tax farmer, who periodically remitted the taxes from his fellow Islanders to Guernsey – and kept whatever he could make on top of that for himself. Perhaps, one might speculate, he lived in ‘the big villa’ (‘Gros ville’). And that, perhaps, was the only impact of the Roman Empire on day-to-day life in Jersey.
The Channel Islands were familiar to the Romans, since the names appear on the so-called Antonine Itinerary, which was a register of the stations and distances along the various roads of the Roman empire, containing directions of how to get from one Roman settlement to another.
This states that a ship leaving Vectis (Isle of Wight) on its way to Gaul passes a number of islands before it reaches Uxantis (Ushant or Ouessant): among them are Riduna, Sarnia and Caeasarea. Riduna, the first mentioned, has been suggested to be Alderney; Sarnia, Guernsey; and Caesarea, Jersey. But is this right? The next island visible from a vessel after Riduna-Alderney is Sark – and there is an unarguable similarity in the sound of ‘Sarnia’ and ‘Sark’.
That would make Guernsey ‘Lesia’, and Jersey, the island next in the list after Lesia, ‘Andium’. In the Dark Ages there are documents referring to Jersey as Angia or Augia, which seems fairly corroborative, but then where was Caesarea?
There is a suggestion that this would have been the Minquiers, at that time still one large island – larger than Jersey, as it still is, at very low tides.
In the period before the Roman Occupation, there seems to have been a close connection between Jersey and the Celtic tribe occupying the area of modern St Malo and its hinterland, the Curiosolites, whose chieftains ruled from near modern Courseuil, west of Dinan.
The Curiosolites traded goods across the Channel to the south coast of Britain. For generations there had been a brisk cross-Channel trade supplying wine and luxury goods from southern Europe to Britain, and the sea-going Celtic tribes of Armorica (modern Brittany) built ships every bit as seaworthy as anything built by Roman shipbuilders.
Jersey and Guernsey would have been stopping points along the trade route between Armorica and England, and it is fascinating that Jersey’s own principal trade route to the south was at that time, just as it now, to what we now call Brittany, rather than to the much-nearer Normandy coast. The currents made the north-south journey easier than the geographically less distant east-west one.
Despite the lack of economic benefit to the Romans of occupying the Channel Islands, there are some miscellaneous traces of Roman culture. Apart from the recently discovered remains at Grouville, there is the Gallo-Roman ‘Fanum’ – a small temple – at the Pinnacle, a spot that appears to have been sacred for thousands of years.
Two pieces of Roman figurine have been found in and near St Clement’s Churchyard, possibly of Hercules or Mercury. The latter was the god of merchants and traders.
Then there is the St Lawrence Stone – a granite pillar of non-local stone, found beneath the church, but originally from a secular building, and with the remains of a Latin inscription carved on it.
It is interesting that three traces of Roman culture that have been discovered are all near a present parish church – St Lawrence, St Clement and now Grouville. It lends credence to the possibility that the sites of the Island’s parish churches were centres of some kind or another long before the present buildings were built.
After the Romans departed thousands of Celtic Britons fled from murderous Nordic invaders. Their escape route from the south and south-west of Britain took them to the sparsely populated land that they named after themselves, Lesser Britain, or Brittany, and the Channel Islands were very much on their route.
Indicative are the names of some of their leaders – Samson, Malo (MacLow), Brelade (Branwaldr) - the culture of the new settlers was certainly Christian, but of a more Celtic than Roman type. In due course a further overlay of Nordic settlers transformed ‘Andium’ or ‘Augia’ to ‘Jersey’, and as the centuries passed, the remains left of Roman Jersey became less and less visible .
Today there are just a few hints left, here and there, suggesting that Jersey just might have been part of the Roman Empire.