By now many readers know that my family history is inseparable from the history of Jersey. Not New Jersey. Heavens no! The real Jersey, of the English Channel and off of the coast of Normandy. It rises from the waters of the Gulf of Saint Malo, a largely ignored land that never forgets. Through the ages, as great empires have risen and fallen around it, Jersey has largely been left in peace by the outside world. At the same time they reaped all the benefits of the developing cultures of England and France. They value Christ and the rule of law above all else, and their peaceful existence has left a paper trail back to the 13th century, as well as a rich oral tradition of legends and lore.
The term ‘hougue’ is a Jersiais-Norman derivation of the Old Norse word ‘haugr’ meaning mound, hill or knoll. Kin to barrows and tumuli, hougues are large earthen mounds built over sepulchers that house the lordly dead of ancient days. La Hougue Bie in Grouville Parish is the most famous of Jersey’s hougues. La Société Jersiaise bought La Hougue Bie in 1919 and excavated it in 1924/25, discovering what remains today Western Europe’s finest megalithic tomb. Though plundered of its treasure long ago, this five thousand year old Neolithic passage grave still contained the remains of five men and three women. It is an archeologist’s dream.
Today, atop La Hougue Bie, sits two small chapels in one building, the chapel Notre Dame in the west end and the chapel Jerusalem in the east. The earliest records relating to La Hougue Bie’s chapels date from the 16th century, but significant evidence, including an archetypal medieval legend, make the claim that some structure was built on the site much earlier.
The legend of La Hougue Bie tells the tale of the Norman widow who built the hougue’s original chapel in memory of her fallen husband sometime in the 11th or 12th century. He was a Norman lord of the Paynel family of Hambie, Normandy, and is said to have traveled to Jersey to slay a foul dragon that terrorized the islanders. After defeating the beast, the unsuspecting lord was set upon and murdered by his covetous servant who hoped to gain the lord’s glory and station. Ultimately the servant suffers a tell-tale heart, confesses his sins, and is put to death.
While researching the legend I came to see the story through the arc of the traitorous servant rather than the arc of the widow. Even with the subtle change in emphasis, I believe I have remained true to the spirit of the legend as well as its traditional characters. At the same time I created a number of new characters to give voice to the struggles of conscience that exist in all men.
This is a tale I have wanted to write since my mid-twenties, and have been working toward, albeit unconsciously, in my spare time for two decades. I sincerely and humbly hope that my readers come away feeling, at the very least, it is a good yarn.