Magazine article Risk Management

The Last Vassals

Magazine article Risk Management

The Last Vassals

Article excerpt

In the English Channel, not far from the northern coast of France, lies the island of Sark. It is perhaps the only place that still practices Clameur de Haro, a medieval Norman law by which, if you are being transgressed upon in any way, you can call a stop to the act by rounding up some witnesses, throwing your hat to the ground, taking a knee and reciting the Lord's Prayer followed by: "Haro! Haro! Haro! To my aid, my Prince! I am being wronged!" After this, the alleged transgressor must stop the contested deed, and the entire matter is taken to court. It's a weird way to settle disputes and is rarely employed. The last time someone used it, for example, was in 1970 to halt the construction of a garden wall.

But that is beside the point. Clameur de Haro is less a vital method of law enforcement and more a cultural distinction of what is already a rather distinct place. At just two square miles in size and with only 600 permanent residents, Sark is dwarfed by its neighbor, Guernsey, which technically governs the island. Together, the islands of Herm, Alderney, Guernsey and Sark comprise the Baliwick of Guernsey, a self-governing UK dependency that has become known the world over for providing top-shelf dairy products and a prominent captive insurance domicile. But Sark remains strangely apart from all of this, in a world of its own where the customs of the Middle Ages still hold sway.

Sark was colonized by the English in 1565 by feudal landholders who leased their land in perpetuity from a seigneur, or noble lord. A single representative of each landholding family automatically got a seat in the island's Chief Pleas, its version of parliament. Another 28 seats were determined by popular vote, and the seigneur got a seat, too. The seigneur approved all real estate transfers, taking a 1/13th cut if any money changed hands. He also appointed the island's executive officers and enjoyed a few other perks, like being the only person who could own pigeons or salvage items that wash up on shore.

To this day, Sark is still ruled by a seigneur, and Sark's enduring feudalism has created a way of life many might find appealing. Sark has no income tax, crime or shop hours past 5 p.m. No cars are allowed, and aircraft may not land on the island or even fly over it below 2,000 feet. Life on Sark follows a slow, rural pace that is so idyllic it seems the whole thing is a put-on for the tourists.

Of course, life here isn't always perfect. During World War II, Sark was occupied by the Nazis and was the target of Operation Basalt, in which British commandos stormed the island in order to reconnoiter it and capture German prisoners. In the resulting firefight, the commandos managed to extract a secret agent posing as a Polish forced laborer, as well as capture a German prisoner who provided a wealth of information. Actor David Niven, himself a veteran of Channel raids during the war, noted that grateful Sarkees treated the commandos to drinks at the local pub during the operation. But he also said there were no Germans on the island, so he was probably just adhering to the journalist's credo of not letting the truth get in the way of a good story.

In 1990, the island was invaded again, this time by only one person, an unemployed French physicist named Andre Gardes. He arrived on Sark with a semiautomatic weapon and posted notices across the island that on noon the following day, he would take the place over. The invasion was thwarted, however, when Sark's one and only constable encountered Gardes sitting on a bench, waiting for noon to come. …

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