Last week, the tiny Channel Island of Sark changed its centuries-old law to introduce democracy becoming the last European territory to abolish feudalism. For the last 450 years, the island was a fiefdom under the rule of the Seigneur of Sark. That changed on 9 April this year, when Britain’s Privy Council approved a Bill that will see a parliament of landowners (called the “Chief Pleas”) replaced by a 28-member assembly elected by universal suffrage in December.
The island’s 600 inhabitants (known as “Sarkees”) have been ruled by the Seigneur of Sark since Queen Elizabeth I handed down the laws to the island in 1565. The Seigneur appoints the judiciary and has until recently been entitled to a cut from any property bought and sold on the island, and even to the ancient system of tithe levies. The Seigneur maintains his own private army and is entitled to a chicken a year from each of his subjects. Among the island’s other eccentric customs is the fact that the Seigneur is the only person on Sark allowed to keep pigeons or an unspayed bitch dog.
The island was originally divided into forty landholdings known as tenements. Each owner or (more correctly “tenant” as the Seigneur retains freehold title over all of Sark) had, by right, a seat in the Chief Pleas forming a majority of the assembly with just 12 other elected people’s deputies. However Sark signed up to the European convention on human rights thirty years ago and as The Guardian pointed out, signing the convention “seemed a good idea until islanders realised that feudalism did not sit well with human rights”.
However the new assembly is not a simple victory of democracy for the majority of oppressed Sarkees. Instead, it is the outcome is the result of a conflict between two billionaire newspaper magnates and supporters of the island’s feudal old guard. The magnates are the 73 year old twins Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay, the owners of the Ritz Hotel and Telegraph newspapers who own the nearby smaller island of Brecqhou. Their supporters say the Barclays are fighting against the feudal regime while pumping millions of pounds to revive the island’s sagging economy. But other Sarkees see the twins as megalomaniac powergrabbers determined to take over the island.
The Barclays are not entirely happy with the Privy Council’s decision. They are likely to challenge the decision in court because it allows the Seigneur to retain a power of veto over legislation and he will have the right to appoint many public office holders. The island's only judge, known as the Seneschal, will be appointed for life by the Seigneur and will remain as the parliamentary Speaker, with tight control over its agenda and debates. Legal counsel for the Barclays described the plan as “half-baked” and complained about the lack of separation of powers between the legislature and the judiciary.
As well as pushing for democracy, the Barclays have been buying up much of Sark’s land and hotels. The brothers paid £2.33m for the island of Brecqhou in 1993. Because Brecqhou falls under the jurisdiction of Sark, they were forced to pay their “treizieme” (one thirteenth) - £179,230 – to the Seigneur. Some traditionalists fear they are turning the place into a holiday resort for the rich. They say the new system of government may make it easier for them to carry out their plans. On the other hand, supporters of the brothers argue that they are creating jobs, especially for young people who would otherwise leave.
Sark is the smallest of the four main Channel Islands situated 10km east of Guernsey and is barely 5km long and 2km wide. Cars are not allowed on the island and the only way to get around is by horse and carriage, tractor or bike. The island’s most famous resident was writer Mervyn Peake (author of the Gormenghast trilogy) who lived here for a couple of years in the 1930s. The island’s rugged scenery made its way into Gormenghast which he started writing during his time on Sark. His friend Gordon Smith told the BBC the island became a part of his mythological landscape. Peake came back to the island after the war and drew inspiration from the scenery for his illustrations and writings. Now at the end of its feudal days, Sark itself has become the story.