A feudal outpost in transition
HERE, on an island that might be called Camelot, the winds of democracy have blown in like the waft from a landfill.
This 3-mile-long stretch of granite crags, flowered meadows, neat cottages and well-
behaved Guernsey cows 80 miles off Britain’s coast in the English Channel is the last feudal outpost in Europe. Algernon Swinburne, the 19th century poet, called it a “small, sweet world of wave-encompassed wonder.”
Sark has remained pretty much the same for 442 years, since Queen Elizabeth I declared it a noble fiefdom. Transport is by bicycle, horse-and-
carriage or Wellington boots. When absolutely necessary, one may resort to one of the island’s few tractors. But the neighbors, never frugal with opinions, tend to look up from their gardens and make case-by-case assessments of what constitutes necessity.
Landownership is divided among 40 “tenants.” They are the descendants or successors of the 40 men with muskets recruited by the original seigneur, the ruling lord commissioned to defend the isle against pirates and buccaneers. Government administration is by fiat, with the island administrator, judge, constable and clerk appointed by the current seigneur, a 79-year-old former aeronautical engineer whose family has governed Sark since 1852.
But that was all in place long before the 21st century arrived on the gut-churning, twice-a-day ferry from Guernsey; before it was decreed that, in a modern Europe whose members are signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights, it’s just not on to have feudal lords, and not on to have seats in the island’s parliament bequeathed across generations to eldest sons, and not on to refuse to adopt divorce laws because you don’t like them.
Sark, like the rest of the islands that squat in the English Channel, is technically not part of Britain, or anywhere else. As a dependency of the sovereign of England on and off since the days of William the Conqueror, Sark adopts its own tax residency, landownership and environmental standards.
But as a dependency, it looks to Britain for its defense and international diplomacy, and to the nearby island of Guernsey for criminal laws. (The bigger island centuries ago was granted Sark as part of its bailiwick, or court bailiff’s jurisdiction.) That means that when Britain agreed to respect human rights, so, by extension, did Sark.
Until now, no one has been particularly inclined to get rid of the feudal governing system that placed political power in the hands of the seigneur and a parliament made up of his 40 vassals and, more recently, 12 elected deputies.
But as outsiders looking for a slice of the island’s tranquillity and rural grace have begun to buy up the 40 land allotments, some of the newcomers have demanded at least a nod to the conventions of the 21st century, much as has happened on Guernsey and the nearby island of Jersey. For some, the idea of having to apply to the seigneur for permission to sell land -- and pay him
one-thirteenth of the sales price -- is too charmingly medieval for comfort.
BRITISH authorities, responsible for administering European human rights standards, have given Sark a choice: Either create an elected parliament of a form chosen by the majority of the island’s 600 or so residents, or give up some sovereignty.
“They said the legislature wasn’t human-rights-compliant.... About 10 years ago, the seigneurs in Guernsey had to give up giving permission [to sell land] and collecting money, and I realized from that date that the same thing was going to happen in Sark, that it was all inevitable,” said Michael Beaumont, the seigneur, who has tended to rule Sark the only way this island of eccentrics could be ruled: by dry wit, gentle prodding and quiet diplomacy.
A referendum last fall was supposed to usher in an elected parliament. But the last few weeks it has become clear that Sark’s 40 landlords, who would for the first time have to stand for election, aren’t giving in without a fight.
In January, the parliament, known as Chief Pleas, voted to suspend the referendum and study further whether Sark truly wants to go down the democratic road.
“We are now up to our seventh year in discussing a new constitution,” said Beaumont, who has made it clear he is prepared to forgo his inherited privilege and defer to progress. “But when you’ve got a house with a vast majority all made up of [landowners], they’re not going to give up their seats, at least not willingly. They’re going to fight to the last drop of blood, as far as I can see.”
As early as the 13th century, Sark was a haven for monks and pirates, the treacherous underwater rocks along its coasts serving as weapons against unsuspecting ships. That ended in 1565, when Queen Elizabeth I granted the island as a fief to Helier de Carteret on the condition he ensure the island’s safety by retaining 40 armed men.
Beaumont became seigneur in 1974 on the death of his grandmother, Sibyl Hathaway, dame of Sark, who held the island’s population together during Nazi occupation (imperiously requiring the German officers to sign in as visitors at the elegant manor house).
Over the years, the island had on its own cast away some of the trappings of feudalism.
Beaumont no longer collects an annual tithe on residents’ wealth; annual payment of a live chicken to the seigneur also is no longer mandatory; and taxes are a fraction of what they are in Britain, though Beaumont continues to take his treizieme, one-thirteenth of the sales price, whenever one of the original 40 tenements is sold. None can be subdivided or conveyed without his concurrence, and all must be sold to a loyal subject of the queen.
THE seigneur’s consent is no longer required for marriage (and no one can remember when he had the right to review the bride on her wedding night). Divorce is still not written into Sark’s code, but the island has agreed to accept those granted elsewhere. The law decreeing that tenements must be handed down to the eldest son was changed in 1999 to allow daughters to inherit as well.
Still, by tradition and law, Beaumont is the only Sark resident permitted to keep pigeons or an unspayed bitch. And residents with a complaint can still fall on one knee and invoke the Clameur de Haro, a Norman custom under which a person can obtain immediate cessation of any action he considers to be an infringement of his rights.
“It usually involves boundary disputes. Say someone is knocking your trees down,” explained Jeremy Bateman, the deputy seneschal, or island administrator.
“You can fall on your knees and invoke the Clameur de Haro. You say: ‘Haro, haro haro! A mon aide, mon prince, on me fait tort!’ [Help me, my prince, someone does me wrong!] And when that’s done, everything stops. All work must be stopped until there’s a hearing of the court.
“It is used occasionally,” Bateman said. “I think the last time it was three years ago. A wall was being built on a boundary, and it was invoked. It’s quite effective.”
Sark’s residents -- natives whose families have inhabited the island for generations, mainland Brits looking for a quieter life, and wealthy, often-secretive refugees appreciative of the island’s generous tax laws -- for the most part rent their homes on short- and long-term leases granted by the tenants. By law, newcomers can live only in homes built before 1976, a regulation intended to allow the construction of new homes for the children of islanders but hold the new arrivals largely at bay.
Residents survive mainly on the revenue from the thousands of tourists who descend on the island each summer once the terrifying winter gales subside.
With next to no civil service, Sark is governed by volunteers. The seigneur’s chief gardener is also the head of the constitutional review committee. Some people fish during the week and drive a carriage on weekends. Members of Chief Pleas oversee the schools, the sewage system, trash pickup, harbors, fishing, agriculture and health care.
“You’ll see somebody that’s working behind the counter in the food shops, and when you pop into the pub that evening they’ll be behind the bar. That’s how people support each other and make a living,” said Geoff Benfield, a former automotive engineer from the mainland who opened a combination bed-and-breakfast and rocking horse carving studio on Sark.
The constable is one of the few who gets a salary. He earned it in 1991, when an unemployed French nuclear physicist, dressed in military fatigues and armed with an automatic rifle and 250 rounds of ammunition, launched a one-man invasion.
“He put these notices up, they were all in French, of course, saying he was going to take over the island,” Beaumont recalled.
“Everyone took it as a joke, of course, until the next day somebody saw him walking around with a rifle. Fortunately, the constable just had a lot of plain common sense. He walked up to the chap and said, ‘That’s an interesting rifle you’ve got there.’ And he asked, ‘How does it work?’
“So the chap started to show him, and the rest of the fire brigade pounced on him.”
MANY residents probably would have been content to leave Sark as it was for another 400 years. That wasn’t going to happen after billionaire twin brothers Sir David Barclay and Sir Frederick Barclay bought the island of Brecqhou next door in 1993. The island falls under Sark’s jurisdiction.
The reclusive Barclays, owners of the Telegraph media empire and the Ritz Hotel, proceeded to build an enormous castle, complete with medieval-style turrets.
Their distaste for Sark’s feudal system apparently began when they were informed that Beaumont was due his treizieme on the purchase of the island -- a sum of $254,000.
The Barclay brothers weren’t successful in challenging Sark’s jurisdiction over Brecqhou, but they did succeed in forcing scrutiny of the island’s compliance with the human rights convention.
In pushing the island to democratize, officials in London have warned that failure to modernize on Sark’s own terms could result in Sark losing some of its independence and being governed more directly by the larger island of Guernsey, an option no one here seems to want.
Moreover, many residents have become impatient with the domination of the landowners in decision making.
“The situation we have at the moment is we have about 40 people -- perhaps 27 or 28 of them turn up for meetings -- who have a seat in government simply because they own land,” said Jan Guy, a former head teacher at the island’s school who has lived here 19 years.
“Now, in some cases, their family has owned that land for many years, and several generations. But in many cases, that land has been bought quite recently. So if you came over and you bought a nice tenement, the next meeting of government, you’d be there, governing for the people of Sark. I ask you, do you think that’s right?”
But other long-term residents fear that easing the feudal landowners out of the government will be the beginning of the end.
“We must remember, it’s worked wonderfully for 450 years. Unfortunately, it’s a lot of the outsiders who come to the island because they love it, and lo and behold they want to change things once they get here,” said Elizabeth Perree, whose family, descendants of original tenants on the island, operates an inn and small farm.
“It still has the lovely simplicity of horses and carriages trundling along the roads. Cattle grazing and having lovely butter and cream straight from the farms -- all these little things are what make Sark what it is,” she said.
“It’ll be a tragedy if it starts to get built up and become like anywhere else in the world,” Perree said. “People say, ‘progress,’ we should do this, we should do that. Someone at the moment is suggesting that we should have more building because that would give more work to people.
“But in a funny way, I feel it’s special because it has stayed as it was. It’s the last feudal state in the Western world, for goodness’ sake.”