The Hell Hounds of Guernsey

Remains of Lihou Priory

James Lloyd outdoes the Honourable Sir David Attenborough by going to the Channel Islands for a documentary on some extremely unusual fauna.

The Channel Islands, even if squished together, could not even cover the Isle of Wight and yet remarkably this tiny archipelago is over-populated with phantom dogs. Bouley Bay in Jersey is said to be haunted by a Black Dog of Bouley, believed to be an invention of smugglers who used Bouley Pier to hide contraband and wanted to warn off superstitious but prying locals.

The award for the most impressive collection, however, must go to Guernsey, boasting hell hounds at Beauregard Tower in Saint Peter Port and the Rue Mase west of that town, Sausmarez Manor in the parish of Saint Martin, the Rue de la Bête in the parish of Saint Andrew and the Rue de la Bête in the Fief of Lihou. No phantom canine of the bailiwick, however, is more terrifying than the dreaded Tchîco, which, like all of folklore’s best demons, has a bloodcurdling and historically inaccurate legend to go with it.

Once upon a time, the Bailiff of Guernsey was Gaultier de la Salle, who owned land in the parish of Saint Andrew. One of his tenants, Matthieu, owned a particularly pleasing field on which de la Salle cast an envious eye. As his feudal lord, he was in a sense the field’s owner himself but even the King’s Bailiff could not simply seize a tenant’s land without due process. Lamentably for de la Salle, Matthieu had broken no laws but the Bailiff was imaginative enough not to let his tenant’s innocence stop him from invoking the laws of forfeiture.

Matthieu was arrested and brought before the Bailiff, who accused him of stealing two silver cups. The vassal protested that he was guiltless, that he would never have dared to breach his lord’s house and help himself to his property. Yet the fact was that the cups were missing and Gaultier de la Salle was convinced that Matthieu had taken them. With his officials, he raided Matthieu’s land, looking lustily upon the field that would soon be his. He indicated a suspicious-looking haystack. His officers tore it apart and found not a needle but the missing cups.

Poor Matthieu insisted that he had not put his lord’s cup there but he could not account for how it had ended up in his haystack. The Bailiff pronounced him guilty and sent him to be hanged. In accordance with Norman law, his property was forfeit to his lord, so Gaultier de la Salle would get his bloodied hands on the field at last. Just as Matthieu was being led to the gallows, however, a farm boy stepped forward to announce that he had seen de la Salle put the cups in the haystack himself.

So it was that it was not the tenant but the Bailiff who was hanged. After his death, de la Salle was denied entry to the afterlife but returned to earth in the form of a white, headless dog, doomed to roam for all eternity the field that he had desired more than his own salvation. In this form, Gauliter de la Salle is known as the Tchîco, a tautological portmanteau of “tchi” and “coh”, both meaning “dog”, the former a Celtic word and the other Norman-French (whence Modern English “cur”).

People like things to come in pairs and opposites. To counter its white dog, Guernsey also has a black dog. The Bodu is said to have been a giant, who entered into a romance with a fairy. This displeased her sylphan kin, who transformed the Bodu into a black dog that now haunts the Ville Baudu and presages the death of anyone who sees it.

This legend resembles a similar story from Germany about a giant named Boduo who endured a similar fate and may be a relatively recent scholarly import to Guernsey. The earliest recorded appearance of the Bodu dates from the mid-eighteenth century and the explanatory back-story was not added until the nineteenth. The superstition is probably the product of folk etymology: ‘Baudu’ is actually a corruption of Baldwin, the name of a family who once owned the land, which is clustered with ancient burial sites that would have added to its numinous reputation.

The legend of the Tchîco too has a more natural explanation, though, for once, the truth is actually more exciting than the myth. In 1304 the Prior of Lihou Island was murdered by a gang of reprobates led by Thomas le Roser, who fled across Guernsey to the church of Saint Sampson, where they sought sanctuary. The Bailiff of Guernsey, Pierre la Marchant, former Bailiff Ranulph Gautier and other officers of the law pursued them. Le Roser resisted arrest and was killed by Gautier, for which he received a Royal Pardon.

Gautier was not, however, pardoned by Guillaume Lenginour, one of le Roser’s accomplices who had managed to escape. It is at this point that the real Gaultier de la Salle enters the story. He had moved to Guernsey from England, married a wealthy heiress and became an officer of the Warden of the Channel Islands, Otho de Grandison. He also, in circumstances that are lost to history, developed a grudge against his nigh-namesake Ranulph Gautier, so made common cause with Lenginour and managed to persuade the Warden to revive the case against Gautier of breaking sanctuary by killing le Roser.

Gautier was imprisoned in Cornet Castle, a fortress on an island off Saint Peter Port, where de la Salle did him to death privily. As a Warden’s official, de la Salle probably assumed that he would get away with it but Gautier’s nephew Gérard Phillipe went over de Grandison’s head and informed the King. After a lengthy manhunt, most of the villains got away but de la Salle was arrested, tried (by Pierre la Marchant, the very Bailiff under whom Gautier had killed le Roser) and hanged.

Castle Cornet

It is a somewhat convoluted story and it is easy to understand how its details could have become mixed up in the common imagination. De la Salle is promoted from Warden’s officer to Bailiff of Guernsey and his victim is demoted from former Bailiff to unlucky tenant. The theme of injustice remains, as does an execution and it is there that the connection between Gauliter de la Salle and the Tchîco lies.

Legend has it that de la Salle took final communion at the Bailiff’s Cross, a stone slab inscribed with a tau-cross in the crossroads leading to the gallows at Saint Andrew. The keen-eyed reader will remember that there is a Rue de la Bête in Saint Andrew’s parish and another on Lihou Island, where the original murder that started this tragic chain of events was committed. This creates the possibility that the multiple dogs that haunt these places are really just different iterations of the legend of de la Salle’s penance.

Why, however, should de la Salle have been remembered as coming back as a dog at all? The Rue de la Bête in the Fief of Lihou lies on a boundary between two fiefs and the phantom hound of Sausmarez Manor is also said to haunt a boundary. The Bailiff’s Stone, where de la Salle made his final confession, is also a boundary marker. In other words, the common themes amongst all these manifestations of the Tchîco are either an association with the Gautier affair or a boundary between two properties, supposedly guarded by a phantom dog.

Dogs have been used to guard property for thousands of years and are notoriously territorial animals in their own right. It was probably these factors that inspired the motif of a phantom hound marking the territory between two lords. The dog of the Bailiff’s Cross, in other words, came first and later became bound up with a hazy memory of de la Salle’s crime. As is often the way with villains of the past, especially villains in rural areas, their real fate is simply not enough. People want to believe that they suffered a fitting fate throughout eternity. Country folk, as has been said before in this series, are great haters.

Photo credits: Remains of wall, Lihou (Derek Harper) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Castle Cornet (Colin Smith) / CC BY-SA 2.0

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