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The World | COLUMN ONE

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

Beaumont became seigneur in 1974 on the death of his grandmother, Sibyl Hathaway, dame of Sark, who held the island's population together during Nazi occupation (imperiously requiring the German officers to sign in as visitors at the elegant manor house).

Over the years, the island had on its own cast away some of the trappings of feudalism.

Beaumont no longer collects an annual tithe on residents' wealth; annual payment of a live chicken to the seigneur also is no longer mandatory; and taxes are a fraction of what they are in Britain, though Beaumont continues to take his treizieme, one-thirteenth of the sales price, whenever one of the original 40 tenements is sold. None can be subdivided or conveyed without his concurrence, and all must be sold to a loyal subject of the queen.

THE seigneur's consent is no longer required for marriage (and no one can remember when he had the right to review the bride on her wedding night). Divorce is still not written into Sark's code, but the island has agreed to accept those granted elsewhere. The law decreeing that tenements must be handed down to the eldest son was changed in 1999 to allow daughters to inherit as well.

Still, by tradition and law, Beaumont is the only Sark resident permitted to keep pigeons or an unspayed bitch. And residents with a complaint can still fall on one knee and invoke the Clameur de Haro, a Norman custom under which a person can obtain immediate cessation of any action he considers to be an infringement of his rights.

"It usually involves boundary disputes. Say someone is knocking your trees down," explained Jeremy Bateman, the deputy seneschal, or island administrator.

"You can fall on your knees and invoke the Clameur de Haro. You say: 'Haro, haro haro! A mon aide, mon prince, on me fait tort!' [Help me, my prince, someone does me wrong!] And when that's done, everything stops. All work must be stopped until there's a hearing of the court.

"It is used occasionally," Bateman said. "I think the last time it was three years ago. A wall was being built on a boundary, and it was invoked. It's quite effective."

Sark's residents -- natives whose families have inhabited the island for generations, mainland Brits looking for a quieter life, and wealthy, often-secretive refugees appreciative of the island's generous tax laws -- for the most part rent their homes on short- and long-term leases granted by the tenants. By law, newcomers can live only in homes built before 1976, a regulation intended to allow the construction of new homes for the children of islanders but hold the new arrivals largely at bay.

Residents survive mainly on the revenue from the thousands of tourists who descend on the island each summer once the terrifying winter gales subside.

With next to no civil service, Sark is governed by volunteers. The seigneur's chief gardener is also the head of the constitutional review committee. Some people fish during the week and drive a carriage on weekends. Members of Chief Pleas oversee the schools, the sewage system, trash pickup, harbors, fishing, agriculture and health care.

"You'll see somebody that's working behind the counter in the food shops, and when you pop into the pub that evening they'll be behind the bar. That's how people support each other and make a living," said Geoff Benfield, a former automotive engineer from the mainland who opened a combination bed-and-breakfast and rocking horse carving studio on Sark.

The constable is one of the few who gets a salary. He earned it in 1991, when an unemployed French nuclear physicist, dressed in military fatigues and armed with an automatic rifle and 250 rounds of ammunition, launched a one-man invasion.

"He put these notices up, they were all in French, of course, saying he was going to take over the island," Beaumont recalled.

"Everyone took it as a joke, of course, until the next day somebody saw him walking around with a rifle. Fortunately, the constable just had a lot of plain common sense. He walked up to the chap and said, 'That's an interesting rifle you've got there.' And he asked, 'How does it work?'

"So the chap started to show him, and the rest of the fire brigade pounced on him."

MANY residents probably would have been content to leave Sark as it was for another 400 years. That wasn't going to happen after billionaire twin brothers Sir David Barclay and Sir Frederick Barclay bought the island of Brecqhou next door in 1993. The island falls under Sark's jurisdiction.

The reclusive Barclays, owners of the Telegraph media empire and the Ritz Hotel, proceeded to build an enormous castle, complete with medieval-style turrets.

Their distaste for Sark's feudal system apparently began when they were informed that Beaumont was due his treizieme on the purchase of the island -- a sum of $254,000.

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