Until 1204 the Channel Islands were a part of the Duchy of Normandy. When Normandy was lost to France by King John, Jersey chose to remain loyal to the English Crown.
The island was only 14 miles from the coast of France, so the fear of French invasion was a constant concern to the islanders over the centuries during which England and France were at war. The cliffs on the island's north coast provided a natural defence but the bays of the east, west and south coasts were vulnerable to potential invaders.
In 1779 there was an unsuccessful French attack in St. Ouen’s Bay and in 1781, 600 French troops landed at La Rocque and marched unchallenged to the capital, St. Helier , forcing the Lieutenant-Governor to surrender. After defeating the invaders at the Battle of Jersey bolstering the coastal defences became a priority.
The Martello Tower
The Governor of Jersey, General Sir Henry Seymour Conway, decided to build 30 round towers to protect the island's coastline. The inspiration for these towers came from an ancient stone tower in the Bay of Martella in Corsica which held out against a British naval attack. They were round as this shape was regarded as stronger than square ones. The only square tower to be built in Jersey was Seymour Tower. It would take the British Navy 16 years to realize their defensive value and begin to construct Martello Towers along the south coast of England.
However Jersey’s round towers are unique as unlike their English counterparts they have a more elegant design with tall tapering walls. In addition they are generally constructed of local granite and have mâchicolations- projecting beak like structures high up on the towers and walls) allowing the defenders to protect the base of the tower. The ground floor was used to store ammunition and weapons whilst the upper floor housed up to ten troops and their commanding officer.
The other modification made by Conway was to locate a battery at the base though later versions, such as Kempt Tower at St. Ouen, had a cannon mounted on a revolving platform on the roof. These are the only 'true' Martello Towers though all of the towers of this period are popularly and incorrectly referred to as Martello Towers.
When Conway died in 1795, 22 of the planned towers had been completed and a further tower, La Rocco, was ready to construct.
After Napoleon and his forces were decimated in Russia the threat from France receeded and in 1837 one of the last towers to be built in Europe, Victoria Tower on the east coast of the island, was the also the last of these fortifications to be built in Jersey.
The Nazi Occupation
The Channel Islands were the only part of British soil to be occupied by the Nazis and they quickly realised that the towers could be adapted for their own defence. Three were destroyed by them including one at Bel Royal which was replaced by a concrete bunker and one at La Rocco- pictured above- that was used for artillery practice.
Of the 24 towers still standing probably the most impressive, La Rocco, has been rebuilt and many of the others can be hired out for functions and even wedding ceremonies!
Some,like the National Trust owned Victoria Tower , will even allow visitors to camp in the tower and Kempt Tower is open during Summer months as the home of an exhibition on the adjacent Les Mielles wildlife conservation area.