Lost world: the last days of feudal Sark

It's the last outpost of feudalism in the Western world - a tiny island in the English Channel where an elderly 'Seigneur' rules the inhabitants from his 17th-century manor house. But not for much longer. The strange idyll that is Sark is poised to embrace democracy, and an ancient way of life may disappear for ever. Ed Caesar steps ashore

John Michael Beaumont makes an unusual despot. In his standard-issue pensioner's outfit - cosy crewneck jumper, blue work trousers, grey leather-look shoes - the 79-year-old ex-aircraft engineer looks much like any other septuagenarian. He drinks tea. He tends his garden. He potters. Kim Jong Il he most certainly is not. However benign, though, Beaumont is an old-fashioned sort of dictator - the hereditary overlord of the last independent feudal state in the world.

As Seigneur of Sark, an island three miles long and one mile wide, 25 miles from the French coast, Beaumont's position is an enviable one. Since 1565, when Elizabeth I granted the island to the nobleman Hellier de Carteret in return for his protection against pirates, the Seigneurs have ruled this rock. And, in return for the £1.79 Beaumont pays annually to the British Crown to keep the island "in perpetuity", the Seigneur holds the privilege of granting the Sarkees permission to buy and sell their houses; and he is also entitled to collect a treizieme - one-thirteenth of every land transaction.

But not for long. Beaumont's days of occupying his unique position are numbered. Earlier this month, the self-governing island, which falls under the protectorate of the British crown, voted by a majority of 234 to 184 to usher in universal suffrage for its population of 610. No longer will the island's 40 landowners, or "tenants" as they are confusingly known, sit on Sark's government - the "Chief Pleas". Nor will Beaumont retain his treizieme, or his right of veto.

Next year, the adult population of the island will go to the polls for the first time with one vote each and elect 28 new members of the "Chief Pleas". Sark will be a democracy.

That it has taken Sark 500 years longer than most of Western Europe to abolish feudalism should come as no surprise. As any newcomer soon realises, on Sark things move slowly.

***

Indeed, the entire journey to the island seems to have been designed to promote deceleration: plane to Guernsey (speedy); taxi to St Peter Port (leisurely); 45-minute ferry crossing (ponderous); and, finally, a sputtering ride on a tractor-pulled passenger trailer known as the Toast Rack from Sark's harbour to what the locals optimistically call "the village".

The tractor (the sole public transport) is tolerated only because life on Sark exists 100ft above sea level, on the plateau above its jagged cliffs. The view of the island from the water is forbidding. But, arriving at the Toast Rack's terminus, the scene is unnervingly bucolic. It is all one can do not to check for television crews hiding behind the low-built stone cottages, so idyllic, so Truman Show is the island.

To the deafening sound of no traffic - transport on Sark is restricted to tractors, bicycles and horse and cart - Guernsey cows moo by picket fences. Under a toy-town, turreted branch of NatWest bank, a signpost points to a variety of exotic-sounding locations with distances given in walking minutes (Little Sark, 50 minutes; Dixcart Bay, 15 minutes; L'Eperquerie, 30 minutes). Cherubic children on bicycles weave along unsurfaced roads, saying "hello" to complete strangers.

On Sark's high street, The Avenue, there is an establishment that calls itself The Little Shop, although it seems no smaller than any of the other tiny outlets near by. Like all the other shops, at 5pm it is closed.

At the end of The Avenue there's a two-cell jail, more accustomed to holding tourists without a bed for the night than criminals. It is empty. There was a break-in at Sark's only jewellers, Rang, last summer, but it was all rather inept; the drunken offender left the island's voluntary policeman a series of clues, not least the string of jewels trailing back to his hotel.

Beyond the village, the low hedgerows that border the lanes are just neat enough, just unkempt enough. The fields beyond, filled with buttercups in summer, are lush with grass. As the sun drops into the English Channel, one man in wellies fills his bicycle basket with mushrooms. The idyll is only punctured by Dermot, the owner of the Petit Beauregard guesthouse, muttering: "Who's that picking my mushrooms?"

At such moments, a Sarkee would be well within his rights to invoke the ancient statute book and sound the Clameur de Haro. An islander who feels he has been wronged or assaulted in some way can drop to one knee, throw his hat to the ground, recite the Lord's Prayer in Norman French and then say: "Haro, haro, haro! A mon aide mon Prince, on me fait tort!" (Help me, my prince, someone does me wrong). The assailant must immediately cease what he is doing, while a formal complaint is made to the island's Greffe (court). It would have been wonderful to see Dermot use the "Haro", but it was unlikely; the custom was last enacted in Sark in 1970, during a dispute over a garden wall.

It's off-season now in Sark, and the island is a very different place to its holiday incarnation. In summer the inhabitants, assisted by hundreds of outsiders who come to work in season, are ferociously busy. Sark, with its quaint laws and pebble beaches, is a paradise. But now, in mid-October, when the nights draw in and the last tourists have gone, one gets a better sense of what the island is really about.

At 5pm, the island's two pubs, the Mermaid and the Bel-Air, fill with workers - those who have not already gone on holiday. In the Mermaid, all the talk is of games of brag and changing ferry times. Five minutes away, in the Bel-Air, they natter about the folly of Steve McClaren's appointment as England football manager and the relative merits of fishing turbot over bass. No one talks politics. "We don't do politics in here," says Troy, the fisherman. "Have a drink."

But it's not hard to find people who will speak up. The most vocal conservative is Elizabeth Perrée, the proprietor of La Sablonnerie, a Michelin-starred hotel on Sark's jutting southern peninsula. She is all a-flutter about what is happening to her island. She was born there, to two Sark-born parents, and finds recent events deeply troubling.

"I don't see why we have to change at all," says Perrée. "I feel very strongly that the island has worked very well for 450 years because there was this system. Look how beautiful the island is. We all kept it that way out of duty and obligation. Now I don't know what's going to happen. I just wish we could go back to before."

***

Two miles to the north of La Sablonnerie, the Seigneur reclines in the study of his 17th-century stone manor, the Seigneurie. It's a gloomy morning outside, and we can hardly see each other across the book-lined room, but Beaumont does not turn on the lights. I wonder why? Surely he can't be short of money?

Beaumont has lived in this stunning house, with its manicured, tourist-attraction gardens, since the redoubtable Dame of Sark, his grandmother Sybil Hathaway, died in 1974. Its dark-wood interior oozes old-world charm. On the piano are signed photographs of the most recent British royals to visit. Only Prince Charles, though, has slept at the Seigneurie - to avoid a diplomatic dispute between Jersey and Guernsey over where the prince should stay.

Beaumont displays an amiable lack of self-importance. In the downstairs loo, he keeps all the letters bearing the erroneous titles with which correspondents have addressed him.

They include: The Seigneur of Shark; His Excellency, the Governor General of Sark; The Sir of Sark; Lord Michael Beaumont; His Highness Sire of Sark; The King and Queen of Sark; The Lord of the Manor; His Grace, Michael Beaumont; and - my favourite - JM Beaumont, Head Gardener, The Seigneurie.

This fantastic list shows how much magic is still conjured by Sark and its ancient ways. The Seigneur, for instance, is accorded some pretty odd privileges denied to all other Sarkees - the right to keep an unspayed bitch (he doesn't); the right to keep pigeons (he does); and the right to keep the flotsam and jetsam that washes up on the island (he wouldn't want to).

"What I find absolutely baffling, though," Beaumont says, "is all this other stuff people keep repeating as fact."

What other stuff?

"That you can beat your wife with a rod no thicker than your finger, for instance. That's not a law. It may be an old right, but that's not the same thing. And Americans always ask me about the Droit de Seigneur, where I would be allowed to sleep with a bride on her wedding night. I think I would get into some trouble if I did that."

Apart from keeping watch over the more ridiculous corners of Sark's legal heritage, what, exactly, does a Seigneur do all day?

"Well, it's not a job," says Beaumont, a little defensively. "But I suppose if you asked me what my duties are, I have to appoint the island's officials." Those include the Seneschal, Sark's key administrative position (currently held by an ex-Army officer called Reg), which encompasses both a role as civil judge and criminal magistrate, and as a multipurpose point of contact for the island. He also chooses the Prevot (Sheriff of the Court and Chief Pleas); the Greffier (clerk); and the Treasurer.

What else? "If there's a problem that can't be dealt with by those officers, or if there is a problem with one of those officials, I have to do something. Like when the crane fell into the harbour. We had to haul it all the way back to Guernsey. That was something."

One occasion on which the island was truly galvanised into action was in 1991, when an unemployed French nuclear scientist called André Gardes arrived with a semi-automatic weapon.

"He was such an odd chap," Beaumont says. "He turned up one night with a little posse and started putting up signs saying he was going to take over the island next day at noon. They read very like German wartime notices. Most people thought it was a joke, but he was serious.

"The next day, the voluntary constable approached him as he was sitting on a bench, waiting for 12 o'clock to come round. He said, 'That's a nice gun you've got there,' and jumped on Gardes when he was changing the magazine. I had to go to Guernsey that morning to pick up a cheque for the island, so I missed the action." Only on Sark could an attempted military takeover be foiled with such comic timing.

If one needed further proof of the village atmosphere on Sark, one need only know that the last major uprising was instigated by Beaumont's mother, the Dame herself. In her old age (she died at 90), Mrs Hathaway pressed for battery-powered buggies to be permitted on the island for those without mobility.

"God, yes, there was almost a revolution over that," says the Seigneur. "She said she couldn't get around any more without one, but Chief Pleas were up in arms. I think they thought it was one step on the road to having cars."

By such incremental measures does life on Sark progress. It must have come as a shock to the Seigneur, then, when the seismic changes to the island's constitution were voted through. "Actually, I wasn't surprised at the result," says Beaumont, who voted for the change himself. "The old system worked very well, but in the past 30 years the island has changed enormously.

"Tourism reached its peak in 1990, and has declined ever since. Because of this, many of the original tenements [plots where the tenants live] have been sold to Englishmen rather than inherited. New ideas have come to the island. So I always thought that change was inevitable. Although, when it came, I have to admit that it felt abrupt."

***

In retrospect, the writing was on the wall for Sark's ancient system of government when the Barclay brothers, the Telegraph Group's billionaire owners, paid £2.33m for the neighbouring island of Brecqhou in 1993. Brecqhou falls under the jurisdiction of Sark, and as such they were forced to pay their treizieme - £179,230 - straight into Beaumont's pocket.

Of further irritation to the Barclays - who are believed to have set foot on Sark only once - was the law of primogeniture, meaning that property must pass whole and undivided into the hands of the eldest male heir. This, they argued, ran contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights. They mounted a formal challenge, both to Brecqhou's status as part of Sark (they lost), and to primogeniture (they won, and Sark has since changed that law so that the eldest female can inherit).

But the changes did not go far enough for some. And, after the Barclays published open letters in the Guernsey press decrying Sark's "embarrassing" system of government and calling the Seigneur "the unacceptable face of feudalism", Sark's ancient laws have come under an increasingly harsh spotlight.

The powers-that-be realised that unless they changed themselves, someone else would do it for them. The islanders, then, were given two choices earlier this year - to reduce the power of the unelected tenants who sit on Chief Pleas; or to implement universal suffrage. They chose the latter.

"What I didn't want us to do," Beaumont says, "was to throw everything away. There was a chance we could have come under the jurisdiction of Guernsey, and that would have been awful. The important thing is that, by making the change, we have kept our independence."

So what, if anything, will change? There are some who feel that the vote's result could mean a total shift in values for the island state. At the moment, for instance, there is almost no taxation, a tiny fund for social service (help is given to the aged by need, not by right), and no paid civil service. There is no NHS, so every Sarkee must have health insurance. The annual budget is a paltry £859,000, raised by a small property tax and excise duties on alcohol and tobacco, and by licensing the island's bicycles, tractors and horses.

The island, at present, is a Conservative's dream of small government. The trouble is that it runs entirely on goodwill and voluntary service - and those who opposed the switch to democracy are concerned that is all about to change. "Of course, it will make it harder for people," says Phyllis Rang, on The Avenue. "Taxes will go up because suddenly people will want to be paid for doing the island's work."

A more pressing concern will be the issue of land tenure. How will the relationship between the Seigneur and the tenants develop? How will those who live in leased properties on the tenants' land react? Will freehold be introduced? It becomes clear from talking to islanders that these questions may be resolved in a way that loosens the Seigneur's grip on Sark.

***

In the half-light of an autumn evening, Sark may appear to be a dream, but its residents are deeply pragmatic. That is never more evident than in winter, when the beef farmer doubles up as an oil salesman and tractor driver, and the fisherman turns to odd-job man and pond sculptor. One gets the impression that the Sarkees had little ideological fondness for feudalism, but they knew a good thing - low taxes and a stable community - when they saw it.

So, what now for Sark and its Seigneur? Will the newly enfranchised Sarkees want to maintain their unelected leader? And, even if Beaumont is allowed to keep his position, token as it now is, will they want his son to take over when he's gone? "Well, it's true that my position will be more honorary," replies Beaumont. "But I see no reason why my son [an engineer] should not come here after me. I don't know what he will make of it, mind, but then my grandmother wasn't sure what I would make of it either."

But what if the islanders no longer want a Seigneur of any kind? "Well, they can't just do away with the title, can they?" he says, ebullient.

A pause; he seems to be thinking this problem over for the first time. "You need somebody who is more than just a figurehead, because on an island like this, everything is run by committees. So you need someone who is going to stand above the committees, someone to be there when things go wrong.

"But, yes, it's obviously possible that they could get rid of the position altogether. Alderney has an elected president - we could have a politician on the island too. All I would say is that in Sark, at present, you have to have someone."

For the moment, Sark has Beaumont, its 22nd, and possibly its last, Seigneur. It could do a great deal worse. It will take time - everything takes time on Sark - for the full implications of this month's historic vote to sink in. What the islanders do know is that Sark, however little it appears to have changed right now, will never be the same again.

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