Michael Beaumont doesn’t wear chain mail, has no serfs and has never been asked to help to defend Constantinople against the infidel. Yet he has at least one thing in common with the legendary middle managers of the Middle Ages: Beaumont, 59 and every inch the English gentleman, is the last feudal lord in Europe, the temporal ruler of a 1,350-acre island in the English Channel called Sark. As the 21st seigneur of Sark, Beaumont is, even now, sworn to protect the island from the enemies of the Queen of England. “To this day I have to be able to raise 40 men with muskets to keep the island free,” says Beaumont, “though now we count shotguns as muskets.”
Beaumont’s status stems from the fact that in 1852 his great-great-great grandmother, after foreclosing debts on a previous seigneur, began leasing the island from the crown. That crown lease—still current and the last of its kind in existence—enables Sark to call itself a fiefdom and the seigneur to call himself a feudal lord. Although the 550-or-so Sarkese are full-fledged British citizens, local law and traditions still reflect the island’s feudal past. Technically, it is illegal for anyone but the seigneur to own pigeons (too many pigeons would spoil the crops) or to keep unspayed bitches (too many dogs would make life dangerous for Sark sheep). No cars or aircraft are allowed on the island, only tractors and horse carts. And there is no divorce, principally to keep the island’s straightforward system of land inheritance from getting too confused.
“Someone once came to my grandmother and asked her if it were true she owned everything that washed up,” says Beaumont, illustrating the pitfalls of another feudal tradition. ” ‘Certainly,’ she replied. So the chap said, ‘Well, ma’am, I’m afraid you got yourself a whale.’ She had in fact got a basking shark, 30 feet long and very dead, and it was her responsibility to get rid of this stinking monster.”
Alas, the legal powers of a seigneur aren’t what they used to be. There’s no lopping off of heads for insubordination and that sort of thing. “One would like to be a dictator, but unfortunately that is not the case,” jokes Beaumont. “All I have to do, from a constitutional point of view, is appoint the island officials, be present at Chief Pleas [the island parliament] and approve all ordinances.” Chief Pleas meetings, Beaumont notes, can be inadvertently diverting. “We had a fantastically long discussion about turning one of the roads into a one-way street,” he recalls of a 1981 session. “It finished up that horses were allowed to go only one way, tractors were allowed to go only the other way, and bicycles could go whichever way they wanted. The very next item on the agenda was whether we would approve Greece’s application to join the European Economic Community. There were roars of laughter and it was passed on the nod.”
The oldest Sarkese speak a fast-disappearing French patois that can trace its roots to the period before the Norman invasion in 1066, when Sark belonged to France. Each session of Chief Pleas opens with a reading of the Lord’s Prayer in French, and island laws are still written in that language, although the islanders “are very conscious of not being French,” says the seigneur.
Beaumont and his wife, Diana, 51, moved to the island a year after he inherited his title, and the manor house that goes with it, from his grandmother in 1974. Although he grew up on “the mainland” and worked there for 25 years as an aircraft designer, “the only things I miss are the theater and concerts,” he says. “And my friends a bit, but they tend to come over here.” Indeed, the island’s charm and idiosyncrasies have made it a prime tourist call, enabling the locals to supplement their income from fishing and farming with the pounds sterling shed by some 70,000 visitors a year. The poet Swinburne made the trip in 1876—it’s eight miles by summer ferry from the island of Guernsey—and found “a small sweet world of wave-encompassed wonder/ kept from the wearier landward world asunder/ with violence of wild waters and with thunder…Sark.”
As much as possible in the modern world—and with a nod to the tourist boom now necessary to Sark’s economy—the seigneur would like to keep it that way.