When Sark was a pawn in international politics
The history of the Channel Islands is anything but dull. Each island has been fought over, invaded and re-conquered many times. Even the little island of Sark has been invaded, abandoned, sacked and liberated several times in the course of its’ history. However none has been more intriguing than the 16th century tale involving the French, a Holy Roman Emperor, the Governor of Guernsey and a Flemmish pirate no less!
Sark is Sacked and Abandoned
Our story starts though in the 14th century. In 1369 the French raided Sark slaughtering so many of the local population that it remained virtually uninhabited, or at least uncivilised and without government, for the next 200 years until the middle of the 16th century. Indeed legend has it that after the 1369 raid the island was so depleted that it fell into the hands of pirates and wreckers, who with false lights would lure ships onto the rocks and plunder them (see our article on The Pirates of Sark).
The French Return
Being so depleted and undefended meant Sark was ripe for further invasion. Thus it was that in 1549 a large French force landed and set up a garrison of some 200 conscripts, convicts and mercenaries, under Captain Francois Bruel. He built three forts: Le Grand Fort in the north of the Island to cover the landings at L’Eperquerie and La Banquette, Le Chateau de Quenevets on the headland above Dixcart Bay, and a third at Vermondaye in Little Sark.
Both Guernsey and Jersey had insufficient forces to displace them so the French were allowed to remained there. However what the larger 2 islands were unable to do themselves it seems was done for them, due to the quality of the men chosen by the French for this operation. Within 4 years the garrison was reduced to a mere handful of men by desertions or escapes. Sark was once again ripe for the plucking.
Enter the Flemish Corsair Adrian Crole
And so it was that in September 1553, Flemish Corsair Adrian Crole, sailing under letters of marque issued by the Holy Emperor Charles V, landed in Sark with 150 men to oust the remains of the French garrison. However, Crole wasn’t simply acting on his own initiative. He was actually acting on the suggestion of the Guernsey Lieutenant-Governor, Thomas Compton, who had explained that he could not attempt the operation himself as he would not have the backing of the English Government to start a war against the French.
Despite the three forts on the island, Crole’s men managed to capture Sark without difficulty. He took some French prisoners, landed them in Guernsey and then went on to London to report his deeds to the Ambassador of Holy Emperor Charles V, hoping for a handsome reward. However, the Emperor it seems, was not interested in adding the small islands to his vast domain, and so Crole was referred on to Queen Mary Tudor. She, however, was too preoccupied with domestic affairs at the time to negotiate a purchase and so he went back to Sark dispirited and disappointed.
By the end of October it was obvious to the Emperor that Queen Mary was not going to change her mind and Emperor Charles ordered Crole to abandon Sark; he was paid 1,200 livres to cover the expenses he’d incurred.
He collected ‘ordnance’ and other valuables from the French forts and then returned to Holland, stopping on the way to sell some of his booty to the Captain of Alderney.
Fearing that the island might again become a fortified base for the French, the Governor of Jersey sent a landing party to demolish the forts. A chronicler writing three decades later described how they :
‘returned to Jersey leaving the Isle of Sark once more vacant, no one in those insecure days being found desirous of risking life or property on so isolated a spot’
And so Sark was again left untenanted until in August 1565 Elizabeth I gifted the island of Sark to Jerseyman Helier de Carteret. He then settled and tenanted the island thus ensuring that Sark remained occupied even up until today.
You can also read more on Sark’s history in our article entitled : Sark a potted History