End of Europe's last fiefdom as Sark votes for democracy

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Some 450 years after it was given to an Elizabethan nobleman on the condition he keep it free of pirates, the Channel island of Sark has ceased to be the last feudal fiefdom in Europe.

The population of the tiny Crown dependency, 20 miles off the French coast, voted yesterday for a new system of government which will mean it is ruled entirely by elected representatives for the first time in its history.

The referendum ends the rule of the Seigneur of Sark - an inherited office which can be traced back to Hellier de Carteret, an aristocrat from Jersey who was granted the island by Elizabeth I in 1565 to keep it free of marauding privateers.

Under the previous system, the Seigneur presided over the Chief Pleas, a ruling body composed of the descendants of 40 farming families who helped colonise the island and 12 non-landowning deputies voted for by residents. Yesterday, 418 of the 600 residents of the smallest state in the British Commonwealth chose between retaining a mixture of elected and unelected deputies or a system consisting solely of directly elected deputies.

By the close of polling on the island, which is three miles wide and 1.5 miles long, a slim majority of 234 had voted for full democracy.

It is expected to take a couple of months to establish the new Chief Pleas, which will consist of 28 representatives to oversee an annual budget of about £600,000 - half of which is derived from landing charges on tourist boats.

Paul Armogie, one of the existing deputies, who backed the move to full democracy, said: "This was a monumental decision. The next time Sark goes to the polls it will be one person, one vote, looking for 28 people to serve on the Chief Pleas and its committees."

The vote is the culmination of a long campaign to end the traditional power structure on the island, which bans all cars and has a tractor to haul goods up the 90-metre hill from its main harbour and to act as an ambulance.

Among those who called for a system more in keeping with the 21st century were the Barclay brothers, the billionaire owners of the Telegraph group and Sark's most high-profile residents by dint of their ownership of a castle on the neighbouring islet of Brechou.

In a statement last year, the brothers said: "Sark should be governed by a democratic process. [We want] a parliament wholly elected by its people and not a parliament whose majority is appointed by an inherited feudal lord through a payment of money to him."

The old system was not without its supporters on the island, which as a Crown dependency is not part of the United Kingdom despite being technically owned by the Queen.

Only 60 per cent of those eligible to vote yesterday took part in the referendum.

The current Seigneur, Michael Beaumont, took the title in 1974 and will now have see whether he retains a legislative role via the ballot box.

It was unclear whether the vote will also strip him of the office's other remaining feudal rights - to be the only person in Sark who can keep pigeons and unspayed female dogs.