Alderney’s long history

A skyside view of Essex Castle (known originally as Fort Hill)Essex Castle (Kevin Lajoie - https://www.facebook.com/Aeriali)

Few small parcels of land in the British Isles - less than 1000 hectares at high tide - can have had such an eventful and turbulent past.

Created as sea levels rose some 10,000 years ago, Alderney was once part of the European mainland, a hilltop adjacent to a deep valley now flooded by the sea, and named La Manche (“The Sleeve”, in French) – or the English Channel.

That hilltop site near the coast made Alderney attractive to Neolithic people whose impact on the island’s landscape can still be detected at Les Rochers and other sites.  The seafaring Romans, having invaded Gaul (France) and Britannia (Britain) needed to protect their possessions in the 4th century AD from seaborne raiders, probably from the north, in present day northern Germany and Scandinavia.

The Romans built forts along the Saxon Shore in south east England, and in Alderney, they constructed a smaller fort at their sheltered harbour facing the coast of Gaul at Longis Bay, now known as The Nunnery.  This has recently been identified as the best preserved small Roman fort in the immediate area of northern France and southern UK.  Its significance could be even wider than that.  Investigations and excavations continue on a regular basis.

During the 8-9th Century the ‘Open Field System’ of agriculture was established on the island and is one of the main cultural factors in creating the island landscape which we still enjoy today.  The System led to large cattle proof enclosures known as The Blayes and it continued in practical use well beyond its abandonment, with areas still managed in the same manner over a thousand years after its introduction and right up until the start of World War 2.

Henry VIII projected English power regularly against France, a strong and dangerous neighbour.  In 1546, the last year of Henry’s reign, the English authorities approved the construction of a powerful fort, known as Les Murs de Haut or Upper Fort, which would dominate the approaches to Longis Bay - the only harbour in Alderney. After the King’s death, work was continued by the Protector Somerset. By then Alderney, together with the other Channel Islands and Calais, were the last remaining parts of England’s enormous land holdings in France since 1204.

Alderney played little part in the British and French wars of the 17th and 18th century except as a base for very successful privateers based in the New Harbour (1736) at Braye throughout the second half of the 18th Century.  During this period,  its superbly preserved single town of St Anne expanded and became the community we see today. 

The dominance of the British Empire established by the Royal Navy in this period came under threat from a resurgent French Empire in the mid-19th century.  Politicians and generals concluded that they needed to counter the new harbour being constructed at Cherbourg in the 1850s.  Alderney, the other Channel Islands – and the Naval dockyards on the south coast of England – were threatened with attack from the expanding French fleet and needed a base in the southwest channel for a fleet to monitor shipping and deter raids. The encircling chain of 18 magnificent forts and batteries and the massive breakwater date from this period.