It is not common knowledge that until recently, the UK had the world’s last fully functioning feudal state right on its doorstep. Not part of the UK but – like all other Channel Islands and the Isle of Man – a part of Great Britain outside the United Kingdom, the Island of Sark, population 500, is the Commonwealth’s smallest SIM.
It makes its own laws and manages its own money. Administered by the Seigneur, a hereditary ruler who held the island for the British Crown, Sark was the last remaining feudal community in the Western world until 2008, when the islanders voted for democracy and the Seigneur’s powers were significantly curtailed.
The Seigneur, however, still pays an inflation-free tax to the Queen of £1.79 a year – a more significant sum 500 years ago when it first came into force and constituted ‘one 20th part of a knight’s fee’.
Cars are banned from Sark and planes are not allowed to land there, or to fly over the island below 2,000 feet. The place is engulfed by a strange quiet, broken only by the wailing of wind.
The island still abides by medieval laws, one of which says that ‘unspayed bitches are not allowed to be kept on the Island, except by the Seigneur’.
This law was adopted during the 17th century, when Chief Pleas (the island’s parliament) decided that too many dogs could cause problems with sheep farming. ‘Yes, our island is bitch-free,’ Michael Beaumont, the previous Seigneur and the father of the incumbent one (Christopher Beaumont), who inherited his estate from the Dame of Sark, says.
Another law states that 40 local family heads, including the Seigneur, are obliged to keep muskets to protect the island from invaders. A modest-looking brochure, the Constitution of Sark, reveals much about the island.
One of its articles states that, under Norman custom, a person can obtain immediate cessation of any action he thinks is an infringement of his rights. At the scene, he must, in front of witnesses, recite the Lord’s Prayer in French and cry out in patois: ‘Haro, Haro, Haro! À mon aide, mon Prince, on me fait tort!’ At which point, all actions must cease until the matter is heard by the court.
The Haro cry didn’t help the islanders when Sark was occupied by a garrison of 300 Germans during the Second World War. Nevertheless, not a single shot was fired from either side and the locals still refer to that period as a ‘model occupation’.
One remembered how the German commandant of Sark refused to take any action against local residents who defied the occupation authorities by keeping short-wave radios at their houses – an offence punishable by death anywhere else in occupied Europe.
In 1990, the island experienced another foreign invasion, albeit on a much smaller scale. It was taken over – single-handedly – by a drunken Frenchman, André Gardes, who landed on Sark with a semi-automatic weapon.
In a ‘manifesto’, written in broken English and pinned on the village noticeboard, he announced that he was taking control of the island. Having stated his intentions, he retired for a refill to a village pub, where he was apprehended and disarmed by the part-time constable (head of Sark’s part-time police force) and frogmarched to the island’s miniature prison, which consisted of one small, windowless cell.
The constable soon came to regret his bravery, for another island law made him responsible for feeding prison inmates and the Frenchman proved to be voracious. Luckily, two days is the maximum jail term in Sark and in due course the gluttonous invader was deported to his homeland.
Exempt from the UK’s social security and health schemes, the island takes good care of itself. Special community funds help young people through school and university, pay medical bills for the sick and provide pensions for the old.