March 8, 2007


Tiny island is a feudal time warp: Sark, in the English Channel, is under pressure to conform to Europe's rules (Kim Murphy, March 8, 2007, LA Times)

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.

Just declare independence from Britain but ask the Queen to remain your monarch, as we should have done.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 8, 2007 9:26 AM

Invade the mainland. Surely they still have some feudal military service owed the Seigneur?

("the right to review the bride on her wedding night": As Mel Brooks would say, it's good to be the . . . seigneur)

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at March 8, 2007 12:58 PM

"...ask the Queen to remain your monarch, as we should have done." Oh, yeah, King Charles III follows QEII.

Posted by: ic at March 8, 2007 2:25 PM

More likely William V than Charles III.

Nothing to support it but I expect that getting the Queen's consent to divorce Diana and then marry Camilia required the he allow himself to be bypassed in favor of William.

Posted by: Chris B at March 8, 2007 4:33 PM

Declaring their independence would be a tad too democratic for the EU.

Posted by: Chris B at March 8, 2007 4:35 PM

Chas has already been by-passed.

Posted by: erp at March 8, 2007 5:28 PM

That story of the one-man French coup is hysterical. Good thing he wasn't American; I can imagine what would've happened when the constable asked him how it worked: "Like this. *BLAM*"

Posted by: Just John at March 8, 2007 5:35 PM
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