The History of St Peter Port
St Peter Port on Guernsey, or St Pierre Port in the local French dialect, is an ancient settlement, its natural harbour used by the Romans . Long before them though the area was inhabited by Neolithic man – evidenced for example by the menhir known as Le Petit Rocque des Granges found just inland from the town – at least as far back as 6500BC; and Celtic incomers arrived around 800BC.
Roman traders and seafarers appear to have exploited the sheltered harbour from the middle of the 1st century until the beginning of the 4th. A wrecked ship found in the harbour dates from the latter part of that occupation of what the Romans called Sarnia. Christianity came to the island towards the end of the Roman era, possibly as early as the 3rd century.
A new wave of settlers arrived in the form of Bretons from the early 7th century onwards, and the Vikings too had a presence for a time on Guernsey as they did in Normandy, the –ey ending to the island’s name an indicator of their stay – it means island in Norse.
In 933 William Longsword annexed Guernsey to the Duchy of Normandy, to which in the form of the reigning British monarch the island owes allegiance to this day: the people of Guernsey sided with King John in 1204 when the French took mainland Normandy from him. John had Castle Cornet built on what was then a small tidal island just off St Peter Port to defend the strategically important town and harbour. Work on the fortification commenced in 1206 and was finally completed half a century later.
After the division of Normandy and Guernsey, St Peter Port endured some violent and difficult times: in 1294 the town along with the rest of the island was raided by the French, with significant loss of life locally; in 1338 Guernsey fell to the French, though Castle Cornet held out against a siege for a year, its garrison massacred when defeat finally came. The French were expelled in 1340, but their raids continued into the next century. Several wrecked medieval ships thought to date from the 14th century have been discovered in one site beneath the harbour waters, their loss perhaps linked to the Anglo-French conflict of that period.
At the end of Henry VIII ’s reign as gunpowder changed the nature of warfare Castle Cornet was restructured, the work to strengthen its walls continuing into the rule of Edward VI .
A further Tudor monarch, Elizabeth I , made her impact on the town too with the foundation of Elizabeth College there in 1563. In her reign and for some time afterwards privateers made much use of St Peter Port, their ‘work’ bringing wealth to the place as did that of more legitimate traders.
Disaster struck the town in 1672, when lightning strike set off the magazine in Castle Cornet, killing several people including the wife and mother of then governor of Guernsey Lord Hatton.
St Peter Port still bears the elegant traces of expansion in the Georgian and Regency periods, development in part funded by wealthy French refugees settling there having fled the French Revolution. The Napoleonic era that followed similarly had its impact on the town and the rest of the island as defences were improved ready for expected invasion.
More peaceful development took place in the middle of the 19th century: in 1832 a drainage system was installed, the project launched after a cholera epidemic blamed on hygienic conditions; and from 1853 work that took nearly 20 years began to extend the harbour, this work including joining Castle Cornet to the rest of Guernsey with a breakwater. This same period saw a famous guest living in the town: Victor Hugo was exiled there, living in Hauteville House from 1856 to 1870.
Though part of Cornet Castle was used as a seaplane base in WWI , St Peter Port enjoyed prolonged peace until the Nazis invaded the Channel Islands , St Peter Port suffering some 33 deaths in a bombing raid on 28th June two days before German troops arrived in the town. By the time Guernsey was liberated on May 9th 1945 more than 1000 residents had been deported to labour and concentration camps and the islanders were nearing starvation point.
Today St Peter Port is a prosperous place, with many offshore financial business located there and its harbour welcoming many thousands of pleasure craft annually.