The Ancient Priory & Parish Church of S. Michel du Valle

Like many Christian places of worship, this church has been built on a hill site associated with paganism, as indicated by the rocks of a partly demolished Neolithic tomb shrine, and the remains of a dolmen outside the west doors. The exact date of the foundation of a church on this site is unknown, though it is not unreasonable to suppose that one was built here following the missionary endeavours of the Celtic Saint Sampson and his followers, who attempted to evangelize Guernsey in the middle of the sixth century. An early chapel dedicated to his cousin, S. Magloire, was built in the parish, but all traces have disappeared. Within the present church there is evidence of much older materials being used in the building. For example, in the sedilia in the sanctuary, some Roman brickwork has been used, but this could have come from anywhere around, not necessarily a previous building on the same site.

Certainly, around 968AD monks from Mont S. Michel founded a Priory and were granted land to maintain an income. The site, like that of Mont S. Michel, formed an island at high tide, until Napoleonic times the only inland water remaining being that of Vale Pond, which can be seen outside the west doors to the south. The influence of the Priory is clearly discernible in the Chancel, built between 1140 and 1160 where the south wall contains the arches of the monks’ stalls. Little remains of the Priory itself, though there is a piece of buttressed wall by the main road on the south side of the church, and indications of a stairway leading to a doorway into the Chancel on the south side.

Evidence of the gradual extension of the church may be found in the location of the three piscina (stone washbasins for the priest to cleanse the communion vessels and for the ceremonial washing of hands, situated at the south side of any altar). The location of a piscina behind the present organ console would indicate the former presence of an altar to the west of where the Chancel arch is; most probably the original High Altar, before the present Chancel was built. The present High Altar has an unusually large piscina, and in the Chapel of the Archangels, to the north of the Chancel, there is a piscina intricately carved in granite(c.1475-1500). The north aisle and Chapel were added in two stages in the 13th. century, as can be seen by the ceiling. Above the pulpit there is a carved dog’s head, the mark of a stonemason. Considerable change was made to the appearance of the church in 1876 during the incumbency of the Rev’d. T. Bell, who was Rector for 50 years. The re‑ordering of the Chancel, re-seating of the nave, and the mosaic reredos of 1904 is evidence of his influence.

The window in the Chapel of the Archangels contains its original fifteenth century tracery, and the glass is from the nineteenth century studio of William Morris: The main east window above the High Altar is a memorial to John Ingrouille who was imprisoned in Germany during World War II, and died in a Brussels hospital before he could reach home. The window at the south west end of the nave is the work of a local artist, Miss Mary Eilie de Putron, showing the risen Christ appearing to S. Peter. who is clad in the blue Guernsey and sailcloth trousers of a local fisherman. The window at the west of the Baptistry, depicting the Descent of the Holy Spirit on the world, was designed by our Licensed Reader, Mr. Peter Derham.

There is a ring of six bells (tenor Bb 6cwt. 2 qtrs. 23 lbs.) which were cast in 1891 using in part the metal from three mediaeval bells. Visiting bell ringers are always welcome at our practice on Monday evenings.

Recent improvements to the church fabric have included new choir stalls and thatching candlesticks, made by Guernsey Woodcarvers. A new first floor choir vestry has been built, occupying a space where, in the eighteenth century, there was a musicians’ gallery. Underneath the stairs leading to the choir vestry is a simple kitchen facility. In memory of 50th. anniversary of the liberation a pair of outer doors in oak were provided for the porch (c.1485).

A board at the south west end of the church displaying an incomplete list of incumbents gives some hint of Guernsey church history. At the Reformation in 1585 a French Huguenot minister was appointed (even though the island was a possession of the English Crown the problem was finding Anglican clergy who could speak French, for which purpose Elizabeth College was founded. For 80 years Calvinism officially held sway until 1662 when Anglicanism was established at the Restoration. Most of the services continued to be in French until after World War 1. Documents of the feudal court date from c 409, and the Church registers froth 1.580, recordings being mostly in French until 1939.

None of the surviving memorials is of great antiquity, although a recess in one of the flagstones near the entrance to the Chapel of the Archangels shows where a fifteenth century brass has been removed., whilst nearby is an incised inscription dated 1685 in memory of the wife of a former Rector. In the churchyard at the foot of the hill in the north west corner a massive stone tells of a shipwreck at Portinfer and bears a carving of the wreck and a portion of the ship itself embedded in the stonework. On the north slope of the hill a much worn stone tells of the violent death of Olympe Mahy, who was stabbed through an open window by a passing soldier. A representation of this dramatic event may just be discerned at the head of the stone.