Gorey Castle is a titan among castles. It looms against the horizon above Jersey’s most iconic harbour, a monolithic and brooding presence watching over the golden sands of the east coast. Mont Orgueil is its French name, meaning “pride”, and the title serves it well. Today Gorey Castle is a star tourist attraction, a Jersey icon. But its sheer weight, its brute military presence, speaks of a darker past. From Iron Age hill fort to Nazi castle, Gorey Castle has played a pivotal role in the history of the island of Jersey.
The story of Gorey Castle begins as a rocky crag high above plains that stretch a thousand miles south. Neolithic peoples place stone dolmens on the mountain tops. Then the sea, gorged as the Ice Age melts, sweeps away the forests and lashes right up to the base of the rock. The island of Jersey is born. The Iron Age peoples recognize the defensive potential of the castle rock, and seize it.
For long centuries the hill fort stood, even as William, Duke of Normandy, overlord of the islands, seized history by the throat and conquered England. Times changed and the world turned. Suddenly the English kings were engaged in a titanic struggle for continental supremacy. Jersey was thrust onto the front line, the literal cockpit of the two great warring powers, England and France. The first recorded mention of the castle was in November 1212, as the conflict reached fever pitch.
Work progressed on a great stone fortress. A thousand tree trunks were sent from Hampshire’s New Forest to fortify the new castle. Armour and swords arrived by the boat-load from England. Along with the great fort at Grosnez, the now derelict fort in the far north-west, Gorey Castle was a stronghold of English rule. In 1337 the French invaded, and the castle resisted siege. Blood flowed, but the castle did not fall. A second siege under French buccaneer Bertrand du Guesclin followed in July 1373, and the outer walls were breached. But the rock did not fall.
In the Middle Ages life was, to paraphrase Hobbes, nasty, brutish and short. The exhibition of the “Wounded Man” at the castle’s gate shows the exquisite variety of means by which man inflicted pain on man for gold and glory. Mount Pride paid its dues in blood. Yet when the French finally occupied it in the fifteenth century, it was through treachery not brute force.
Times changed, firepower increased, and the fatal proximity of the overlooking hills made the once-proud keep a sitting duck. Military priorities had changed. It was time for a grand new fort, fit for the age of artillery and marshaled armies, to be constructed on the ruins of St. Helier’s priory. Elizabeth Castle, sleek and modern and guarding the capital’s harbour, was born.
Gorey Castle faced the wrecker’s ball, but luck prevailed. It was Sir Walter Raleigh, the consummate Renaissance Man, explorer, astrologer and man of letters, who rescued the castle. He was sent by Queen Elizabeth to tear down the old fort, but sentiment won the day. Gorey Castle was formidable; “twere a pity to cast it down”. It is ironic that the man who ushered in the future – pipe tobacco, potatoes, the rich promise of the New World and its trade flows – saved Jersey’s past.
Gorey Castle turned from sanctuary into prison. William Prynne, the man who dared broadcast unprintable truths against King Charles I and his bishops, was incarcerated here. His ears were cut off and his forehead branded SL – Seditious Libeller. Prynne’s bleak story ended happily after the Restoration with royal favour and the title of Keeper of the Tower of London. The man who had once been imprisoned in a great castle was given another one as his reward. They say God moves in mysterious ways.
The old, proud mountain lingered on as a hub of dark intrigue. As the French Revolution cast its fanatical spell over Europe, the castle was used as a royalist base by d’Auvergne and his secret network. Then as Jersey sauntered into the sunlit uplands of the Victorian age, the castle retained its potency as a symbol of the island’s proud loyalism and independence. Queen Victoria, the ruler of half the known world, chose to visit Mount Orgueil with Prince Albert. She had a penchant for island castles. Then the old queen died and the century turned.
Once more the shadow of darkness fell upon the old castle, as Hitler’s armies poured into Jersey and the swastikas flew over the fields of brown Jersey cows and sweet potatoes. Gorey Castle, as a prominent coastal fortified site, was absorbed into the machinery of the Third Reich. The Nazi obsession with the Channel Islands meant that 10% of the entire Atlantic Wall was constructed right here on the islands. Concrete gun emplacements, bunkers and flak towers were added to the ancient walls.
The Nazis had prepared for a battle that never came. On May 9th, 1945 – Liberation Day – Jersey was set free and Gorey Castle fell back into the realm of history. Today it is a tourist trap, but one with a unique sense of presence and power. You can experience something of the depth of the past, of the blood and glory of previous ages. Today, the Union Flag and Jersey cross fly serenely overhead. The views are stunning, over Gorey Harbour and towards the French coast. Mount Pride endures still, but its walls are dark, blackened with the weight of its memories.