Newly released correspondence shows how UK billionaire brothers Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay have been waging a long battle with Seigneur John Michael Beaumont, the hereditary ruler of Britain’s feudal island of Sark.
The Isle of Sark, part of the scenic Channel Islands, is a world apart from the sophisticated megacities that sprawl across the British mainland. No motor cars are permitted here, on this small island just over two square miles in size – there are no paved roads, in any case –and only 600 people consider Sark their home. It would seem like life here is a simple, slow-moving affair; perhaps even a little dull? On the whole, however, residents prefer it that way.
The island has a peaceful, bucolic air virtually impossible to find on the mainland, with plenty of natural beauty. Rolling green hillsides are cut through with well-trod hiking paths, climbed by thousands of visitors seeking prime vantage points overlooking the other Channel isles. The sleepy town is itself a postcard of traditional cottages and historic architecture. Sark was recently designated as a “Dark Sky Community” for the plethora of stars visible without the interference of modern trappings like pollution and street lights, the only island to receive this international recognition. In these special places, light and other pollution are so negligible as to allow for astronomy with the naked eye.
However, the ways in which Sark remains in a time long past go far beyond star-filled skies and horse-drawn buggies. Until reforms undertaken in 2008 to comply with the European Convention on Human Rights, Sark was considered Europe’s last “feudal state”. The island and the small neighbour falling under its dominion, Brecqhou, were governed under an ancient system of Norman laws that had remained unchanged since the 16th century.
Under the new system, some elements of the democratic process have been introduced, although it remains a far cry from Western-style governance. Despite the reforms, the island is still considered a “fiefdom” of the British Crown, as it remains under the dominion of a hereditary ruler, Seigneur John Michael Beaumont, the 22nd man to hold the title. However, there are those who imagine a very different future for Sark.
In particular, criticism has been vocal from Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay, two flamboyant British billionaires who have made major investments in Sark’s tourism industry, and in 2003, purchased Brecqhou and built a replica Gothic castle. Since taking possession, the brothers have embarked on a seemingly endless series of battles with the Seigneur – over the ban on cars, tax rates, and even Sark’s claim to govern the island. Some of these fights have ended in victory – in the mid-1990’s, the Barclays successfully petitioned the European Court of Human Rights to overturn Sark’s antiquated inheritance laws, which required that the island be left to the eldest brother’s first born son.
Most recently, private correspondence between Sir David and Seigneur Beaumont has been published by the local Barclay-owned Sark Newsletter, and it shows how serious the battle of political wills has become. As reported in the local publication, The Channel, the Barclays reportedly offered £2M for the island’s lease, its title, and compensation for loss of income – and the letter, claimed Sir David, seemed to show the Seigneur as open to the deal. After publication, however, there were strict denials that the owner was considering a sale, and the nature of the comments in the letter were heavily disputed by the Seigneur. Another letter published by the newsletter – this time, from the Seigneur to a public official – indicates that he would quit his post if the Barclays, who already own approximately 30% of Sark’s property, increase their holdings any further.
The conflict poses many questions , whether we agree or not with the often arbitrary and antiquated laws of Sark. If the Barclays succeed in their campaign for dramatic changes to the island – for paved roads and cars, an end to non-democratic leadership, and perhaps other plans – would the island and its people benefit from being brought decisively into the modern world, or would Sark lose some of the charm and quaintness that makes it such a special place? It’s hard to imagine a “Dark Sky” island perhaps filled with cars and industry. And perhaps most importantly, should the Barclays win their bid for control of the island, will it truly be a 21st century revolution – or just a Seigneur of another name?