The Dimensions of History

La Hougue Bie

James Lloyd visits the Isle of Jersey and an ancient burial mound where one layer of history overlies another.

It is a perennial and ineffaceable vice of each generation to believe that it is better than the last. It is more cultured, more intelligent, more enlightened, more liberal (assumed to be a good thing) and generally more sophisticated than every generation that has preceded it. Paradoxically, despite the precedent set by the invariably inferior previous generations, each contemporary generation also assumes that from this point on nothing much will really change. It is, after all, the pinnacle of human civilisation. What could there possibly be left to improve? Technology may enable life to become even easier but morally and ideologically it is deemed that the final word has now been said.

This is, of course, utter rubbish and the hubris of youth. No one knows the future. No one knows what is coming. All that is certain is the dependable haughtiness of the next generation, which, from its moral high ground, will see all the errors of current times with which contemporaries are too familiar to notice. Just as the early twenty-first century despises the early twentieth for its stifling conservatism and repression, so the early twenty-second century will despise the early twenty-first for its stifling conservatism and repression.

A good place to contemplate this is la Hougue Bie, in the parish of Grouville in Jersey. Its name is rather startling, to an Englishman. In fact, it is rather startling to most Jerseymen too, since Jerrais (the dialect of Norman-French that was once the general language of the island) was displaced by English in the nineteenth century. ‘Hougue’ means a mound but ‘Bie’ is a bit of a mystery.

The mound bit, however, certainly describes it well. It is a tumulus, forty feet high and a hundred and ten in length. It was built around five thousand years ago, originally not as a grave, as such, but as a kind of temple. At its heart is a sanctuary, built of monoliths, with side-chapels that were used as mortuaries. The sanctuary itself, however, would have been used (or so archaeologists assume, in that way that they do) for a variety of religious functions. Access to the sanctuary is granted by a cramped passageway, forcing all except young children to huddle or crawl to reach the centre, as though approaching an Oriental potentate. At both Autumn and Spring Equinox, the rising sun shines straight through the passageway, so that the sanctuary may have functioned, like Stonehenge, as some kind of calendar or observatory.

Once the original sanctuary and passageway had been built, layers of shingle and earth were laid on top to create the mound. Yet the really remarkable thing about la Hougue Bie is that (again, like Stonehenge) it ceased to be used even before the pyramids had been built. Only a few hundred years after the mound was built, the entrance was sealed and the ancient temple of the Jerseymen became nothing more than a little hill.

Yet perhaps something of its numen did survive, for in the twelfth century another God was worshipped at la Hougue Bie, when a chapel was built on the top of the mound. The chapel would be extended in 1520, when the Dean of Jersey, Richard Mabon, added a crypt, designed to imitate the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem. It is said that he staged fake miracles in the crypt but the era when such Popish larks were fashionable was coming to an end. The Reformation might have been driven politically by the King of England but, in Jersey, its theology was driven by the Huguenots, escaping persecution in France and bringing a particularly puritanical form of Protestantism to the island. The chapel was confiscated by the Crown and given to lay landowners.

La Hougue Bie languished again, until the mid-eighteenth century, when the site was acquired by the d’Auvergne family, coming in 1792 into the hands of Philippe d’Auvergne, sailor, spy, adopted son of a Walloon duke and all-round adventurer. D’Auvergne was a native of the island and during the Napoleonic Wars, when Jersey had faced a real threat of invasion, he played his own part by running an intelligence network, with la Hougue Bie as a one of his centres of operation. Since the mound was one of the best vantage-points on the island, d’Auvergne decided to build a watch-tower on it – but not just any watch-tower. Taking inspiration from the ostentatious top-secret hideouts of the typical Bond villain, d’Auvergne built a mock-Gothic fantasy turret on the top of la Hougue Bie, enclosing the chapel romantically within a medieval ruin as fake as one of Mabon’s miracles.

The nineteenth century saw the founding of the Société Jersiaise, the island’s local history society, which acquired la Hougue Bie in 1919. By this time, d’Auvergne’s folly had become a genuine ruin but was no longer regarded as romantic and the Société Jersiaise dismantled it in order to expose the chapel. It was at this time that the original purpose of the mound was re-discovered, with the literal discovering of the passageway by removing the rubble from the entrance.

Yet the story of la Hougue Bie was not yet told. One more generation would leave its mark on the mound, the least welcome of all the generations in Jersey’s history.

The French, despite being within sight of them, never managed to conquer the Channel Islands. That dishonour goes to the Germans. In 1940, the Nazis swept through Jersey, turning it into a giant internment camp, with slave labour being brought from occupied Europe to build the stern concrete fortifications that still stand scattered over the Channel Island to remind the islanders of their darkest days. At la Hougue Bie, the Germans unwittingly revived its Napoleonic usage, building a watch-tower on top of the mound and digging a bunker under it. The watch-tower no longer exists but the bunker now hosts a memorial exhibition to the more than six hundred foreign prisoners who died in Jersey and to the twenty-two Jerseymen who were executed for resisting the occupation, or simply for trying to help the slaves.

La Hougue Bie is a Mesmerising, complex place. The ancient Neolithic men who first constructed the mound may have thought, as every generation thinks, that things would never fundamentally change, that the cramped passageway and sanctuary would always function as a place of worship and astronomical observation. The sixteenth-century Dean who staged miracles in his chapel on the top of the mound did not realize that he represented the last gasp of a corrupt and discredited system. Phillipe d’Auvergne built a monument to an imagined past that, in the twinkling of a Victorian’s eye, became itself a relic of the actual past. The Germans who scarred the ancient mound too believed that their empire would last for a thousand years.

La Hougue Bie outlived them all and stands today, layer upon layer of Jersey’s history concentrated into one place. Every generation thinks that its values are the ones that will last for ever. Every generation is wrong.


Photo credits: La Hougue Bie (Richard Croft) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Passage tomb of la Hougue Bie (Bob Embleton) / CC BY-SA 2.0


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