24th June 1204
Guernsey chose England over France
The Channel Islands occupied a curious political position straddling England and France for more than 130 years.
In 1066, when William the Conqueror defeated King Harold, he united the English and Norman thrones. At that point, the Channel Islands became associated with England – and, indeed, having been on the “winning” side, could be said to have been in some way the mainland’s victor.
As such, the islands retained the French language and the French basis of their legal systems. Yet, by 1204, things had somewhat changed.
War with France
By then, King John was on the English throne, and fighting a war against King Philip II of France. King John didn’t have a very easy time as king. He was forced to sign Magna Carta in 1215, which severely curtailed his rights. He was dead by 1216 having contracted dysentery.
Twelve years earlier, his war with France wasn’t going well, and in 1204, after two years’ fighting, he had lost his territory in Normandy. This put the Channel Islanders in a precarious position. Did they remain true to their French roots, siding with King Philip, or did they stay loyal to King John?
Either way, they would have lost whatever territory they had in the opposing country. A Channel Islander with territory in France, but who sided with John, would have lost that French territory. One who had English land but sided with Philip would have lost their English possessions.
Although there were some individual exceptions, the Channel Islands ultimately sided with King John, and their position was sealed the following year through invasion.
The invasion didn’t come from King John himself. It was Eustace who claimed the Channel Islands for the English crown in September 1205. This was a particularly turbulent time for anyone living in Guernsey. France and England both understood the Channel Islands’ strategic importance.
They could be used as a staging ground from which to launch an invasion of Normandy should England want to try and win it back. France couldn’t risk this happening, so it took the islands back. England soon regained them and set about building up their defences. Thus began the construction of Castle Cornet, which would secure St Peter Port harbour.
Looking back, therefore, we can see that as the catalyst for these subsequent invasions and defence-building, 24 June 1204 marked the date on which the link between the main Channel Islands and England was finally fixed.