Houses resemble those who dwell in them, and can, as it were, die. The breath of superstition is the destruction of the dwelling; then it has a terrible aspect. These weird-looking abodes are not rare in the Channel Islands; all agricultural and seafaring classes have strong faith in the active agency of Satan.
The former in habitants of these parts relate that in bygone times, the Roman Catholics of the Normal Archipelago were, in spite of themselves, in closer connection with Satanic influences that the Huguenots. Why this should have been the case we cannot say; but there can be no doubt that much annoyance was experienced by the minority from this source. Satan had a weakness for Catholics, which has given rise to the opinion that the Devil is more Catholic than Protestant. One of his most unbearable tricks consisted in paying nightly visits to married Catholics, a the moment when the husband was asleep, and the wife dozing off, which gave rise to much unpleasantness. Patouillet, indeed, asserted that Votaire owes his existence to one of these Satanic visits. However this may have been, it is certain that this possibility of a visit from the demon at night, when it is impossible to see distinctly, even in slumber, caused much embarrassment among orthodox dames. The idea of giving to the world a Voltaire was by no means pleasant. One of these consulted her confessor on this difficult subject, and the best mode for the discovery of the cheat. The confessor replied, ‘To be sure that it is your husband by your side, and not a demon, put your hand upon his head. If you find no horns, you may be sure that all is right.’ But this test was far from satisfactory.
Gilliatt’s house had been haunted, but was no longer in that condition; it was on that account, however, regarded with some suspicion. No one can be ignorant of the facts, that when a sorcerer has installed himself in a haunted dwelling, the devil considers the house sufficiently occupied, and abstains from visiting it, unless called in, like a doctor might be.
This house was named Le Bû de la Rue. It was situated at the extremity of a little promonotory of rock, rather than of land, forming a little harbourage in the creek of Houmet Paradis. The water at this spot is deep. The house stood alone, almost separated from the island, and had sufficient grounds about it for a small garden, which was at times inundated by the tide. Between the port of Saint Sampson and Houmet Paradis, is a steep hill surmounted by a block of towers covered with ivy, and chown as the Château de l’Archange; so that, at Saint Sampson, Le Bû de la Rue could not be seen.
Sorcerers are common in Guernsey. They exercise their profession in profound indifference to the enlightenment of this century. Some of their practices are shocking. They set gold boiling, gather herbs at midnight, and cast the evil eye upon cattle. When the people consult them they send for bottles containing ‘water for the sick’, and mutter mysteriously, ‘the water has a sad look.’ In 1897, one of them discovered, in water of this kind, seven demons. They are feared by all. Another had the wickedness to seal up envelopes containing nothing. Another went so far as to have on a shelf four bottles labelled ‘B’. These facts are well authenticated. Some sorcerers are obliging, and for two or three guineas will they roll upon their beds, and groan with pain; and while they are in agonies, you exclaim, ‘There! I am well again.’ Others cure diseases by merely tying a handkerchief round the patients loins, a remedy so simple that it is astonishing that no one had yet thought of it. IN the last century the Cour Royale of Guernsey bound such folks and burnt them alive. Now it condemns them to eight weeks’ imprisonment; four on bread and water, and the remainder in solitary confinement.
The last burning of sorcerers in Guernsey took place in 1747. The authorities devoted the Carrefour de Bordage to that ceremony. Between 1565 and 1700, eleven sorcerers suffered at this spot. As a rule the criminals admitted their guilt. The Carrefour de Bordage has rendered other services to society and religion, for it was here that heretics were bought to the stake. In the reign of Queen Mary, among the Huguenots burnt here, were a mother and two daughters. The mother was named Perrotine Massy. One of the daughters was enceinte, and was delivered of a child in the midst of the flames. The newly-born infant rolled beyond the flames, and a man took it in his arms; but Hellier Gosselin, the Bailiff, like a good Catholic, sternly commanded the child to be thrown in the fire.
Excerpt from The Toilers of the Sea published by Alan Sutton Publishing 1990
Victor Hugo (1802-85) arrived on Guernsey in October 1855, and lived on the island until 1870. The Toilers on the Sea (Les Travailleurs de la mer) set in Guernsey was published in 1866. Stunningly brilliant and full of gothic touches, such as a battle with a giant octopus, it is one of the jewels in the Crown of literature about the islands.
However, David Shayer in Victor Hugo in Guernsey (Guernsey Historical Monograph No 21. Published by the Toucan Press, Guernsey, C.I. 1987), cogently states some objections from a Guernsey perspective:
“Hugo’s depiction of the islanders generally has not been all that enthusiastically endorsed by their descendants. One wonders how close he came to ordinary life. Certainly he amassed a wealth of detail concerning island customs and sea matters by talking to knowledgeable individuals, but this was of the nature of research rather than of first-hand experience. Some of the Guernsey surnames are correct—Tostevin, Mauger, Brouard – but the islanders tend to appear as French Frenchmen rather than as Guernsey Frenchmen, and the unusual combination of French ancestry and English loyalty seems to have baffled him somewhat.... While it can be said with certainty that there was no small degree of superstition in Guernsey at the beginning of the 19th century, it is unfortunate that Hugo gives the impression in his opening chapters that the island was universally riddled with it to the exclusion of every other attitude.”