The history of Jersey seems to be riddled with conflict. So it is not surprising that its coastline should have been heavily fortified, with castles, lookout towers and other defences. Many of the fortifications of Jersey are still standing, including two impressive castles and several towers.
Coastal Defences Of Jersey
Jersey has occupied a strategic position in the English Channel since Norman times. Quite apart from ongoing disputes between the English and the French, it was involved in the English Civil War and the Napoleonic Wars and, more recently, it suffered the German Occupation during the Second World War. This meant that it became necessary for the coastline to be heavily fortified, for the island to be prepared for both defence and attack.
Apart from the much smaller island of Alderney, Jersey is the closest of the Channel Islands to France. As such, it was the first line of defence. However, you will also find fortifications on the more distant island of Guernsey, in particular the medieval Castle Cornet.
Mont Orgueil Castle
First built in the 13th century, Mont Orgueil Castle (also known as Gorey Castle) was for many centuries the main defence of Jersey. On a hill on the east coast, it faced France, enabling potential invaders to be easily spotted. The castle was built at various times, and now incorporates a medieval keep, a Tudor keep, and numerous other additions, some as recent as the German Occupation.
Although the castle remained in use, it gradually became less important. By the 15th century cannon technology had developed to the extent that the castle could be fired upon from the opposite side of the valley. A curtain wall was built to act as a further defence but the castle was still vulnerable to attack. Over time Mont Orgueil Castle was superseded by the new Elizabeth Castle at St Helier.
Today the castle is maintained by Jersey Heritage as a tourist attraction. Visitors can explore the four levels of the fortress with its gardens, layers of defensive walls, and maze of connecting rooms and passageways. The site includes several artworks and installations such as the holographic portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, but I found the main pleasure was just in wandering around, soaking up the history, and enjoying the views from the top.
Note that the castle is on a hill and you will need to climb steps to access the property and the upper floors. The website states that it is unfortunately “not suitable for people with mobility impairment”.
Elizabeth Castle is situated on two small offshore islands connected to St Helier by a tidal causeway. It was built in the 1590s on the orders of Sir Walter Raleigh, at that time Governor of Jersey, and named after Queen Elizabeth I. It was later enlarged, and played a part in the English Civil War, being held by the Royalists and besieged by the Parliamentarians. The castle was involved in the 18th century Battle of Jersey (against French invaders), and used by the Germans during World War II.
The buildings include the original fortification, barracks and a parade ground. There are also gun emplacements and a wartime bunker. Of particular interest is the small medieval oratory on a mound behind the castle. This is dedicated to St Helier, a hermit who lived on this spot and who was martyred here in 555 CE.
Although the castle itself is not as impressive as Mont Orgueil, visitors are drawn by Elizabeth Castle’s location, and the attractive walk across the causeway (don’t forget to check the tide times in advance). If you don’t wish to walk, or the tide is in, you can take the ferry that runs from Les Jardins de la Mer.
Elizabeth Castle and Mont Orgueil Castle are both owned by Jersey Heritage. Buy a 4-3 Heritage Pass to visit four properties for the cost of three.
Towers And Other Fortifications Of Jersey
Smaller fortresses include Grosnez Castle, on the northwest of the island. Built in the 14th century as a place to avoid French attackers, it soon fell into disrepair, but the ruins remain and can be visited. On the south coast, you can walk across a causeway to St Aubin’s Fort, but note that access to the fort itself is restricted.
At the end of the 18th century 23 towers were built around the coast, later supplemented by eight Martello towers. Several of these remain: probably the easiest to see is the First Tower, on the coast road outside St Helier (you will pass this one if you take the airport bus to the city). However, you are likely to spot others as you travel around the island.
The only one of the original towers to be built on the north coast was at Grève de Lecq: this was used by the Germans during the War and is now owned by Jersey War Tours.