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18 June 2014
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Legacies - Guernsey

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Myths and Legends
Gautier de la Salle: a "most notorious" henchman

La Ville au Roi

Gautier de la Salle is at the centre of what has been described in the local press as "one of the most cherished and ill-founded legends of Guernsey" – the legend of La Ville au Roi. Set in 1284, the story goes that Gautier, an early Bailiff of Guernsey, built himself a fine house called la Petite Ville at St Peter Port, in a field belonging to his wife.

His neighbour, a poor man named Massey, owned a small field to the rear of the house, which carried with it the right to use a well on the bailiff's property.
Castle Cornet
The harbour of Castle Cornet
© Courtesy of the Guernsey Tourist Board
Although Massey was offered a handsome price for this land he refused to sell, and so, according to legend, a frustrated de la Salle then decided the only way to obtain the land would be to have the peasant executed.

Theft was punishable by hanging in this period, and so de la Salle hid two silver cups in one of his hayricks, and accused Massey of stealing them. Although Massey pleaded his innocence he was found guilty and sentenced to death – it was, after all, only his word against the bailiff's. But, on the day of execution, before the sentence was carried out, one of de la Salle's workers ran into the court shouting that he had found the cups.

De La Salle cried out at the worker, saying that he told him not to touch that haystack, and this outburst raised suspicions in the minds of the Court. Massey’s execution was stayed, and Gautier de la Salle was himself arrested, tried and found guilty. He was hanged and his property declared forfeit to the king – ever since then the house has been known as La Ville au Roi.

So much for the legend. Studying the various contemporary documents like assize rolls, patent rolls, and petitions, however, it seems that the real events bore very little resemblance to this story. There was no Massey, no cups, and no dispute about a well; it's not even clear if Gautier was even ever a "bailiff". So what really happened?

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