Castle of the Week 16 – Mont Orgueil

Mont Orgueil, meaning Mount Pride, is on the east side of Jersey, the largest of the Channel Isles, just off the coast of France. The castle is built on a rocky promontory at Gorey facing the coast of Normandy and overlooking the Bay of Grouville. There are steep slopes and high cliffs on three sides giving an almost impregnable position.

Excavations have found evidence of a defensive ditch and bank dating back to the Iron Age but the earliest buildings are from the early 13th century. The Channel Islands became part of Britain when William of Normandy invaded England in 1066. In 1200, King Philip of France took Normandy back but King John of England kept the administration of the islands. The Channel Islands suddenly became the front line between England and France and work began on Mont Orgueil under the Warden, Hasculf de Suligny.

There were frequent raids from France and the castle was extended and improved throughout the 13th century. The Great Hall and crypt formed the Ancient Keep on the cliff edge at the highest point of the site. To this was added a middle ward enclosed by curtain walls with five round towers on the angles. The lower ward and outer ward had similar walls and towers making it a concentric castle. There were many machicolations where the defenders could drop boulders and pebbles from the beach, burning pitch or boiling water on besiegers.

The castle was the home of the administration and government of Jersey until 1600 and the Governor of the Island lived in the keep. Islanders would take refuge there when invasions were feared and wells were dug in the wards to make the castle entirely self-contained.

During the 14th century there were regular incursions by the French but they didn’t manage to take Mont Orgueil until Bertrand du Guesclin, Constable of France, invaded Jersey in 1373. The defenders put up a stout resistance and prevented laddermen from mounting the walls, but some of the French managed to undermine the outer wall and chased the garrison into the keep. This was built on solid rock so no undermining was possible and du Guesclin was fearful of reinforcements arriving so he made an agreement with William de Asthorp, in charge of the garrison, that if the English fleet didn’t arrive in two months, the castle would be surrendered to the French. Luckily the relief force arrived in time and the French retreated rapidly.

In 1461 the French invaded again and, this time, took Mont Orgueil, although it’s possible that the Warden of the Isles colluded with the French. It remained under French rule for seven years and cannons were added to the castle. The French were expelled from the island in 1468 and a new tower guarding the entrance and the moat were built. As more cannons were added, the walls and towers had to be strengthened.

In the 16th century the Grand Battery was constructed as a protective shield for the keep from cannon fire from the hill opposite. During the next century the Somerset Tower was built with better living accommodation for the Governor and garrison and to provide a gun platform. The round towers were replaced by angled bastions. The improvements weren’t finished as Elizabeth I’s military engineer advised her that the situation of the castle was wrong so a new castle, Elizabeth Castle, was begun in the sea off the south coast. Mont Orgueil was saved from demolition by Sir Walter Raleigh who was Governor of Jersey in 1600. However, it was barely maintained and was only considered as a refuge in time of war. It was used as a prison and became so dilapidated that not even troops could be quartered there.

At the end of the 18th century, England was at war with France once again. Philippe Dauvergne, in charge of defence, used the castle as his headquarters and organised a secret spy service supplying guerrilla groups in France and sending back information to the War Office in London. A predecessor of the SOE perhaps? He refitted and decorated the keep.

In the 19th century the keep housed the island garrison and in 1834 it was opened to the public to pay for excavations and research into the castle’s history. In 1907 the castle’s ownership was transferred to the States of Jersey but with conditions as to how it should be preserved. By the 1930s it was attracting 20,000 visitors a year.

The castle became a self contained strongpoint during the German occupation of Jersey in the 2nd World War. It provided fire control and observation towers, dugouts and trenches. Electricity was installed and the water supply improved. The keep was used as barracks. After the Germans’ surrender the castle was demilitarised and is now open to the public once again with wax figure tableaux in most of the rooms.

Write up and images provided by GillB