A tiny self-governing country in the English Channel, privately owned by a feudal lord called the Seigneur, with forty hereditary tenants, and where cars are banned, there are almost no taxes, and only the lord has the right to own a dovecote. The population is about 600.
Sark is part of the Bailiwick of Guernsey, which is a dependency of (but not part of) the United Kingdom. However, Sark has its own parliament, called the Chief Pleas, and is effectively independent of both Guernsey and Britain. Its present status has existed since 1565.
The island is in two parts connected by an isthmus: Great Sark with an area of 419 ha and Little Sark at 96 ha. It is surrounded by very high (90 m) cliffs and only in 1949 was a permanent harbour built; before then, at high tide another harbour existed but at low tide the cliffs had to be scaled by ladder. The island's surface is gentle farming country. Its highest point is 114 m.
Sark is known as Sercq in the local patois, a form of Norman French largely now displaced by English, which became the official language of Guernsey in 1922.
The Channel Islands were formed around 6500 BCE as the sea receded. The larger islands, Guernsey and Alderney, are rich in Neolithic and Celtic Iron Age monuments, great burial chambers and so on -- as is Jersey, which was however a part of the mainland until 709. But Sark, a short distance to the east of Guernsey, shows almost no signs of ancient occupation.
The Acta Sanctorum (Deeds of the Saints) records that in 565 St Magloire landed on Sark (Latin Sargia) with 62 followers, and they built an oratory, a mill, and a dam, and set up as headquarters from which to convert the other islands.
Through almost all its history Sark has been a haven for pirates. In 933 the islands were taken by the Vikings, known here as Norsemen: under William Longsword, whose father Rolf the Ganger was trying to gain respectability by carving out a duchy in the area known thereafter as Normandy. Their descendant William I united Normandy with England in 1066. In 1204 France conquered Normandy, all but the islands, which maintained their allegiance to King John of England. He rewarded them by granting them special charters in 1215; and this is the basis for the de facto independence of the Channel Island countries to this day. The islands changed hands several times in the subsequent wars between England and France.
Sark was deserted when in 1565 Queen Elizabeth I granted the seignory, equivalent to the English title of lord of the manor, to a Jerseyman, Helier de Carteret, on condition that he maintain forty men-at-arms to defend it in her name. This feudal dispensation is still the active basis of Sark's government. De Carteret divided the land into forty leasehold tenancies or tenements, a system known as the Quarantaine.
The hereditary seignory has changed families twice: the last De Carteret seigneur sold the fief (the feudal possession) in 1730 to Susanne Le Pelley. A female Seigneur is called Dame of Sark. In 1834 a silver mine was discovered; however ruin came to the Le Pelley family as the mine was flooded, one seigneur was drowned in a wreck, and the brother who succeeded him mortgaged the fief but died unable to redeem it.
In 1852 Dame Marie Collings foreclosed on the mortgage and bought the fief of Sark for £6000. Her family own it to this day. The most famous ruler of Sark is the formidable Dame Sybil Hathaway, who defied the Nazis when the islands fell under German occupation between 1940 and 1945. She died in her nineties in 1974, succeeded by her grandson, Michael Beaumont, the present Seigneur of Sark.
Seigneurs and Dames
Helier de Carteret 1565-?
...(my source only starts at 1700)...
Sir Charles de Carteret 1693-1715
John Carteret (Baron Carteret) 1715-1720 (but he lived till 1763)
John Johnson 1720-1723
James Milner 1723-1730
Susanne Le Pelley 1730-1733
Nicolas Le Pelley 1733-1742
Daniel Le Pelley 1742-1752
Pierre Le Pelley I 1752-1778
Pierre Le Pelley II 1778-1820
Pierre Le Pelley III 1820-1839
Ernest Le Pelley 1839-1849
Pierre Carey Le Pelley 1849-1852
Marie Collings 1852-1853
William Thomas Collings 1853-1882
William Frederick Collings 1882-1927
Sybil Beaumont 1927-1974 (Sybil Hathaway from 1929)
Michael Beaumont 1974-
The forty tenants hold their land and rights by allegiance to the Seigneur. They may not alter or dispose of their titles without his permission, and if their hereditary line fails, the tenement reverts to the Seigneur. They owe him duties and payments, which have been reformed in modern times: the poulage is now a nominal fee rather than two chickens; the corvée or duty of labour was replaced by a levy in 1951; and I don't know the status of the tithe and military duty.
The forty sit in the Chief Pleas (Chefs Plaids), together with (since 1922) twelve elected members called Deputies of the People, and presided over by the Seneschal, who is appointed by the Seigneur but is then no longer answerable to him. (This independence was a reform of 1951.) The Seigneur can be brought for trial before the Chief Pleas. There are other quaint titles tagging along: Prevot, Greffier, Treasurer, Constables, Vingtenier.
On the visit of Queen Elizabeth II in 1957 Dame Sybil Hathaway pledged her homage to her liege lord: "Ma Souveraine Dame, je vous rends homage lige et vous sera foyale et loyale contre tous."
The court in Guernsey is a higher court of appeals, and would be used in the unthinkable event of a serious crime, as the Seneschal can only impose three days' imprisonment.
The nearby island of Alderney was in a similarly independent position from 1660, but in 1825 the hereditary lord sold his title back to the British crown, and in 1949 the island's parliament amended their constitution to become more dependent on Guernsey, having been devastated by the Nazi occupation. All of Guernsey's manorial lordships had a similar status before, but a post-War reform ended their peculiar rights, leaving only Sark as the last pure feudal territory in the world.
In 2002 the hereditary feudal nature of the government is being disputed. It is or might be contrary to European human rights rules. Well, we all like democracy and human rights, but if the EU forces the UK to intervene and impose a new constitutional settlement on Sark, it'll be the poignant end of an extraordinary survival. The feudal system was abolished in England in 1290 by the law Quia Emptores; yet over 700 years later this peaceable little speck in the sea still (nominally) operates by it. Seigneur Michael is reported as being saddened by the pressure to modernize.
Apart from the nominal depredations of feudal service, the economy is based on tourism. A poll tax is levied on visitors, and an impôt on alcohol and tobacco exists. Tourists enjoy the horse-drawn carriage rides around the unmade streets of the island. A point of some contention is that, while cars are not allowed, motorized tractors are now used. A ferry service connects Sark to the world: there is no landing for aircraft.
In recent years its potential as a tax haven has been used: the company registration requirements are easy and the tax bite minimal. This was known as the "Sark lark", and has been to some extent reformed.
The currency is the Guernsey pound, which since the 1920s has been fixed as the same as British currency. The traditional currency seems to have been the French system known as tournois: Helier de Carteret received the island for a yearly rent of fifty sols tournois, and the Seneschal has power to impose a fine of three livres tournois.
Editor's note: Sark abolished feudalism in early 2008 to make way for the process of democratisation.
Sources and further reading.