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A feudal outpost in transition

Sark island, a speck in the English Channel, has been a noble fiefdom for 442 years. Now the 21st century is calling, with a battering ram.

March 08, 2007|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

Sark, Channel Islands — HERE, on an island that might be called Camelot, the winds of democracy have blown in like the waft from a landfill.

This 3-mile-long stretch of granite crags, flowered meadows, neat cottages and well-

behaved Guernsey cows 80 miles off Britain's coast in the English Channel is the last feudal outpost in Europe. Algernon Swinburne, the 19th century poet, called it a "small, sweet world of wave-encompassed wonder."

Sark has remained pretty much the same for 442 years, since Queen Elizabeth I declared it a noble fiefdom. Transport is by bicycle, horse-and-

carriage or Wellington boots. When absolutely necessary, one may resort to one of the island's few tractors. But the neighbors, never frugal with opinions, tend to look up from their gardens and make case-by-case assessments of what constitutes necessity.

Landownership is divided among 40 "tenants." They are the descendants or successors of the 40 men with muskets recruited by the original seigneur, the ruling lord commissioned to defend the isle against pirates and buccaneers. Government administration is by fiat, with the island administrator, judge, constable and clerk appointed by the current seigneur, a 79-year-old former aeronautical engineer whose family has governed Sark since 1852.

But that was all in place long before the 21st century arrived on the gut-churning, twice-a-day ferry from Guernsey; before it was decreed that, in a modern Europe whose members are signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights, it's just not on to have feudal lords, and not on to have seats in the island's parliament bequeathed across generations to eldest sons, and not on to refuse to adopt divorce laws because you don't like them.

Sark, like the rest of the islands that squat in the English Channel, is technically not part of Britain, or anywhere else. As a dependency of the sovereign of England on and off since the days of William the Conqueror, Sark adopts its own tax residency, landownership and environmental standards.

But as a dependency, it looks to Britain for its defense and international diplomacy, and to the nearby island of Guernsey for criminal laws. (The bigger island centuries ago was granted Sark as part of its bailiwick, or court bailiff's jurisdiction.) That means that when Britain agreed to respect human rights, so, by extension, did Sark.

Until now, no one has been particularly inclined to get rid of the feudal governing system that placed political power in the hands of the seigneur and a parliament made up of his 40 vassals and, more recently, 12 elected deputies.

But as outsiders looking for a slice of the island's tranquillity and rural grace have begun to buy up the 40 land allotments, some of the newcomers have demanded at least a nod to the conventions of the 21st century, much as has happened on Guernsey and the nearby island of Jersey. For some, the idea of having to apply to the seigneur for permission to sell land -- and pay him

one-thirteenth of the sales price -- is too charmingly medieval for comfort.

BRITISH authorities, responsible for administering European human rights standards, have given Sark a choice: Either create an elected parliament of a form chosen by the majority of the island's 600 or so residents, or give up some sovereignty.

"They said the legislature wasn't human-rights-compliant.... About 10 years ago, the seigneurs in Guernsey had to give up giving permission [to sell land] and collecting money, and I realized from that date that the same thing was going to happen in Sark, that it was all inevitable," said Michael Beaumont, the seigneur, who has tended to rule Sark the only way this island of eccentrics could be ruled: by dry wit, gentle prodding and quiet diplomacy.

A referendum last fall was supposed to usher in an elected parliament. But the last few weeks it has become clear that Sark's 40 landlords, who would for the first time have to stand for election, aren't giving in without a fight.

In January, the parliament, known as Chief Pleas, voted to suspend the referendum and study further whether Sark truly wants to go down the democratic road.

"We are now up to our seventh year in discussing a new constitution," said Beaumont, who has made it clear he is prepared to forgo his inherited privilege and defer to progress. "But when you've got a house with a vast majority all made up of [landowners], they're not going to give up their seats, at least not willingly. They're going to fight to the last drop of blood, as far as I can see."

As early as the 13th century, Sark was a haven for monks and pirates, the treacherous underwater rocks along its coasts serving as weapons against unsuspecting ships. That ended in 1565, when Queen Elizabeth I granted the island as a fief to Helier de Carteret on the condition he ensure the island's safety by retaining 40 armed men.

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