As a British outpost within sight of France, an often hostile enemy, the Channel Islands were once a frontier on the edge of a war zone
Over the course of hundreds of years, Jersey was attacked and invaded by French forces many times, culminating in the Battle of Jersey in 1781 when conflict between the two nations simmered as they fought over territory and trade.
In the lead-up to the Battle, Channel Island privateers had attacked and claimed French ships and their valuable cargoes. The clamour for retaliation against Jersey raised proposals at the French court to capture the Island. In 1779, the Prince of Nassau led a force of 1,500 men to invade Jersey but the invasion flotilla was spotted off St Ouen’s Bay and the alarm raised. The invaders were beaten back by cannon fire and a falling tide. The action resulted in the death of Thomas Picot when the cannon he was manning blew up and two sheep were killed by French cannon.
Jean, Philippe, 1755-1802; Moses Corbet (1728-1814) with Stockades and a Cannon
The next invasion attempt in January 1781 was more successful, although four transport vessels were wrecked, their cannon lost and 200 men drowned navigating the rocky south-eastern corner of Jersey. Despite this, the invasion continued. Led by Baron de Rullecourt, a French force landed at La Rocque early in the morning of 6 January 1781. They made their way through the country lanes towards St Helier, arriving at Colomberie around 6am. There, they encountered Pierre Arrivé, who had just left his house. He was bayoneted and killed. The soldiers then reached the Market Square (now the Royal Square) and secured the Court House.
Philippe Charles-Felix Macquart (1744-1781), Baron de Rullecourt by a French School artist
Alerted by the noise of the French troops, people came to their doors to see what was happening. Jean De Ste Croix was bayoneted and struck on the head by a sword but managed to escape to a neighbour’s house. One of the sentries in the Piquet House near the Square in Church Street was killed but the other managed to escape and ran to the Hospital, which was being used as a barracks for the British troops of the 78th Regiment, and raised the alarm. By 7am, Lieutenant Governor Moyse Corbet, still in his nightshirt, was captured. Dressing hurriedly, he was escorted to the Court House where he was met by de Rullecourt, who demanded that Corbet sign articles of surrender. British regiments and the Jersey Militia began to gather across the Island in response to messages and alarm guns being fired.
To ensure the success of his occupation, de Rullecourt needed to neutralise Elizabeth Castle and get the garrison there to surrender. He sent a demand for surrender that was refused. His attack on the Castle was repulsed by cannon fire, killing two men and wounding others, forcing French forces to retreat. A second party of French officers demanded the surrender of the Castle and again this was refused. By now it was 10.45am and the incoming tide was covering the causeway.
Major Francis Peirson, the leader of the British forces, began positioning his troops. He sent soldiers to Fort Regent so they could fire onto the Square from above and he gave the order to march on Town.
This portrait of Major Francis Peirson (1757-1781) by Philip John Ouless (1718-1885) was painted many years after Peirson died
French forces took three militia cannon from the Town Church and placed them in the entrances to the Square. The two placed by the Town Guard House were pointed straight down into La Grande Rue (Broad Street) in the direction of the advancing British troops. Inexperienced French gunners set them too high and when the first was fired at 40 metres, the shot sailed harmlessly over the advancing troops. Seeing this, the men tending the second cannon panicked and fled, abandoning both cannon. At the same time, the fire from troops on Fort Regent was so intense that many French troops took shelter in the houses surrounding the Square.
Meanwhile, Peirson led his men into the Square. Realising that they were in danger of being caught in the line of fire, he was motioning his men back when he was struck by a bullet. His men dragged him to the safety of Mrs Fiott’s house nearby (now a shop on the corner of the Square) where he died.
Mrs Fiott had been looking out of the window of her house when she was hit in the shoulder by a musket ball
Finding themselves attacked from all sides, the French began to waver. De Rullecourt emerged from the Court House with Lieutenant Governor Corbet at his side, possibly with the intention of surrendering, when he was struck by musket balls fired by the 78th Highlanders. Two balls passed through his thigh, a third went through his neck and a fourth shattered his jaw. The French invasion was over. Miraculously, Corbet, despite having his hat shot away, survived unscathed. De Rullecourt was carried over to Dr Lerrier’s House on the east side of the Square where he died six hours later.
With Peirson dead, Corbet resumed command of the British forces in the Island as French prisoners were rounded up. The rank and file were held in the Town Church and the Officers were held in the Royal Court House. Corbet was later court-martialled and found guilty of surrendering.
The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781 (after John Singleton Copley) by William Holyoake (1834-1894)