When travelling around Jersey you may see frequent references to the perquages. There’s even a wine named Perquage, produced by the island’s La Mare Wine Estate. But what are – or were – perquages, and what was their significance? And can you still see them today?
What Are The Jersey Perquages?
Jersey is divided into twelve parishes, each with its own parish church, and in the Middle Ages the perquages were footways leading from the churches to the sea. The name derives from perche, an old French measure, and refers to the width of the paths. Perquages are unique to Jersey (you don’t even find them in the other Channel Islands).
Although everyone agrees that these paths existed, everything else about them seems to be controversial. Over time the perquages were absorbed into private ownership, so that their original routes became unclear, and there is still no firm agreement as to where they were actually located. However the subject that generates the most argument is what they were actually for.
Medieval Sanctuary Paths
The traditional view is that perquages were used by those in search of sanctuary. In Jersey, as elsewhere in the Middle Ages, criminals could seek sanctuary in the churches for a fixed amount of time, following which they would either have to leave or to face justice.
According to the story I heard, the island authorities preferred to avoid imprisoning or executing felons if possible. So they allowed the accused to walk along the perquage paths (where the rules of sanctuary still applied) and into the sea. Those with rich friends would be bundled into boats and removed from the island. Others would be left to take their chances in the water (given the strength of Jersey’s tides, and the distance to the nearest land, their chances would not have been good…)
Modern historians have disputed whether perquages were actually used for this purpose, suggesting that they were just public paths. However the legend persists, and it adds a certain frisson to the exploration of these routes!
The Perquage Of St Brelade’s
The easiest perquage to locate (and the one whose route is least disputed) is at St Brelade’s Church on the south of the island. Most visitors find their way here at some point anyway: the church has a picturesque location and the adjoining Fishermen’s Chapel contains some remarkable medieval wall paintings.
A gate at the back of the churchyard is marked “Le Perquage, Ancient Sanctuary Path”. Not only is this path very obvious, it is also very short. A set of steps takes you to a slipway that leads directly onto the beach – the St Brelade’s criminals would have had very little time to change their minds about fleeing the island!
Other Perquages On Jersey
As I toured around the island I tried to find some of the other perquages. With little information to go on, the routes I found may not be the “correct” ones, but they all seemed logical…
St Ouen is said to have had two perquages, one to the north and another to the west. I located a footpath leading north from the church and followed it – with a few twists and turns – to the coast. Whether or not this was the original route, I managed to arrive at Grève de Lecq which is a known perquage path. From here a set of wooden steps – which looked as if they might have been there for a long time – led down to the beach.
St Clement’s is another church that is worth visiting on its own account. Like the Fishermen’s Chapel it is full of medieval wall paintings (or so the website informs me – I was unable to see them myself as the church was being cleaned when I visited).
I couldn’t find any information about the location of the St Clement perquage but, knowing that they tended to take the shortest possible route to the coast, I set off due south from the church along the Rue de Jambart. Allowing for a slight diversion created by modern development, this road ran in a straight line to the sea, ending in a slipway that would run into the water at high tide.
St Helier is a bit of a mystery as far as its perquage is concerned. Castle Street, which runs towards the modern ferry port, is alternatively named “Le Perquage”. However, since the street was built on reclaimed land in the 17th century, it is argued that this could not be part of the original route.
On the other hand, the road does also point to the offshore St Helier Hermitage. It seems likely that there must have been some sort of pathway across the water before the current causeway was built (the Hermitage was a medieval pilgrimage site). So it’s just possible that the perquage followed the same route…
This is another mystery, and one which I didn’t have time to investigate. On the south coast road, close to Beaumont, is a parking space known as the “Perquage Car Park”. From here a straight path runs alongside a stream (as many perquages did), but no-one is certain which church it led to, or even if it is a perquage at all.
I have called this one St Lawrence, because it has been hypothesised that it led eventually to the church of St Lawrence. If I make a return visit to Jersey I’ll check it out for myself!