Why Katherine Bertrand went though the roof

In her Report to the Folklore section of the Société Guernesiaise in 1928, Edith Carey drew attention to an interesting custom connected with suicides, based on an inquest held in 1580.

Philippe Le Geyt was born in 1635 and died in 1716. Like Guernsey’s Laurent Carey, (1723-69), he wrote a great deal concerning the constitution, laws, and usages of Jersey.¹ Neither of these authors’ works, though invaluable to the advocates of the time, were published until long after their death. Le Geyt’s manuscripts were published by the States of Jersey in 1846, Carey’s by the Royal Court of Guernsey in 1899.

Le Geyt wrote that it was a belief held in Jersey that ‘should anyone commit suicide in a building the corpse should never be taken out of the door or carried feet forward, but be hauled up through the faiste, or ridge of the roof;’ he had, however, never heard of anyone who had ever seen or heard of this ritual actually taking place. Edith Carey² nevertheless found a Jugement of the Royal Court of Guernsey [Livre des Crimes, Vol. II, p.2] concerning an inquest, held at the scene, 8 March 1580, into the suicide of Katherine Bertrand of Jersey. She was the wife of Jacques L’Advenu, alias Des Vaux. Allix Roualt,³ who was the wife of John De La Court, and Mme De St Croix, had been searching for her; they found her hanging from a beam in De La Court’s cowshed in Hauteville.

‘After the inquest the Royal Court ordained that ‘la dite femme sera crevée par le faye de la maison,' i.e. that the corpse should be lifted through the ridge of the roof, and ‘traînée en un lieu à part, pour ester enterrée hors de la compagnie des corps des Chrestiennes’—dragged on a hurdle to a place apart, away from the bodies of departed Christian people. Furthermore, the beam on which she had hung herself should be cut down and burnt.’

Le Geyt, when dealing with the crime of parricide, indicates that the murderer must be dragged to his execution on a hurdle, or claye, ‘comme indigne de marcher sur la terre, cette commune mère dont les hommes sont sortis’, not worthy to walk on the Earth, the Mother of us all. Edith Carey found in this sentiment an ‘unconscious reverence for Mother Earth’, with its origin in pagan times. The claie was a kind of wooden trellis used in Britain and France to drag criminals to be hanged, drawn and quartered. John Kempt, who in 1753 hanged himself in Castle Cornet rather than face trial, was sentenced, though dead, to be dragged on just such a claie to be hanged again on the rock that now bears his name.

Edith Carey may not have searched for other instances of this curious practice, and others may exist in the Livres es Crimes. Thomas Le Marchant, in his Remarques et animadversions, circa 1650, makes this observation, which seems to support Le Geyt:

[It has not been the custom in Guernsey since the Reformation to confiscate the goods of a suicide. The idea is Papist, as it assumes the person has not made confession before their death.] Anyone who commits suicide because they have gone mad or are driven mad by illness or sickness, who becomes enraged or frantic and destroys themselves when their mind was thus disturbed, by drowning themselves or hanging themselves or something of the sort, such people should not be judged to be hopeless cases [morts dans le désespoir] [without hope and therefore damned, désespéré et par conséquent damné] if they lived a good life and showed no indication of this kind of behaviour before they became ill.

Yet on occasion the blind zeal of certain Magistrates caused them to pass sentence that the bodies of poor souls like this, whom violent fever caused to lose their reason and kill themselves, although they lived a blameless life, should be lifted out of their houses through the roof, dragged around like dogs, and buried next to the highway [grand chemin], since they were deemed unworthy to be buried amongst the faithful.  [Vol. II (XII) p. 176.]

John Kempt's unusual punishment may well be the only instance of the use of the claie for around two hundred years, and Katherine’s being lifted out via the roof one of the only times such a thing ever took place in Guernsey. It is worth noting, however, that from their names, many of the people involved in the discovery of Katherine Bertrand’s suicide were probably of Jersey origin, as well as the lady herself; perhaps they insisted that the ritual be included in the Court’s judgment.

¹ Les Manuscripts de Philippe Le Geyt, Ecuyer, lieutenant-bailli de L'Ile de Jersey, sur la constitution, les lois, et les usages de cette Ile: 4 volumes, Philippe Falle, 1846, III, p. 431. Jersey suicides were dragged on the rack and then buried in unconsecrated ground without a coffin, but not hanged. Thomas Le Marchant again, Vol. II (XII) p. 179:

Also, the customary law of Guernsey does not agree [that], as specified [in the Approbation,] the body of a male suicide should be hanged, although it is in the customary law that the body of any suicide, male or female, should be dragged to the place of burial, which is always in unconsecrated ground.

See Guernsey Folk Lore, p 307, re the suicide and burial of Robert Asheley in 1581; the body was to be covered with 'a heap of stones.' Edith Carey draws attention in a footnote to Shakespeare's Hamlet, and the refusal therein of a priest to bury Ophelia as a suicide, commanding instead 'Shards, flints and pebbles should be thrown upon her.'

An Act of the Royal Court of 5 April 1623 discusses the fate of the estate of Jean Vivian, who had recently 'deliberately thrown himself into the sea and drowned himself.' He was treated in the same way as criminals who had been condemned to death, and who 'as a result of the enormity of their crimes' had suffered confiscation of their estate.

² Report and Transactions of the Société Guernesiaise, 1928.

³ Allix [Alice] was the daughter of François Roualt [Ruaux] and Jenette Nant [Naont]; she married as her second husband, 28 December 1591, John Andros, Seigneur De Sausmarez, whose father John had inherited the title through his first wife Judith De Saumarez, sister of the childless previous Seigneur, George De Saumarez. John was himself a widower, having married Cecile Blondel (d. 1588) in 1570, and having three children by her. Allix died on 6 February 1595, and two years later John married for the third time, to Margaret Compton, daughter of Thomas Compton, Bailiff and Lieut.-Governor.