The 12 parish churches which are passed by islanders and visitors on a daily basis, and often taken for granted, are all of significant age. It is not clear exactly how old each of them actually is as written records only date from the 11th century, but in all likelihood, most have their origins well before that.
The earliest predecessors of the churches would have probably been smaller chapels, owned by the local lord or chief, which were subsequently opened up to public worship. Sometimes they perhaps owed their origins to other ecclesiastical buildings. These earlier buildings may have been build using wood, which was susceptible to being burnt by marauding pirates, from which the Island suffered constantly. That might explain the lack of earlier physical remains, as well as the great period of church building in medieval times. There would also have been early links with French bishoprics as Christianity spread westwards, and Celtic missionaries like St Magloire (known locally as St Mannelier) and St Sampson in Guernsey.
St Lawrence church has some physical evidence that an earlier building existed on the site several centuries before the 11th century. St Brelade still has a smaller chapel adjacent to the main church (known as “Fisherman’s Chapel”) which probably stands on the site of an earlier place of worship. Names of churches sometimes give a clue to their origins – St Clement de Pierreville, St John in the Oaks, St Martin de Grouville, St Martin the Old, St Saviour of the Thorn, St Mary of the Burnt Monastery. The latter name seems to suggest that the church was on the site of or very close to an earlier monastery destroyed, probably in one of the pirate raids.
It is certain that by the medieval period, the parish churches were the centre of each parish and life revolved around them. The proclamation of laws and other announcements were made in the churchyard after the service on Sunday. Public business e.g. the buying and selling of land, was also conducted in the same way. In the matter of defence, the butts, where archery was practised, were normally close to the church and the sounding of the church bells has always been a sign of imminent danger. Later as cannon were introduced, the church became the arsenal where they were stored. This practice continued for several centuries until purpose-built arsenals were built in the early 19th century! And St Brelade’s even had a gun battery emplacement in the churchyard!
Whilst much of the exterior appearance of these parish churches is later in date (particularly Victorian restorations and extensions), deep down they are very much medieval buildings.