12th December 1851

Victor Hugo flees France and Napoleon

Guernsey’s most famous resident neither was born on the island nor died there. Yet his 15-year association with St Peter Port resulted in some remarkable creative works, the championing of human rights and a legacy from which the island’s tourist trade had been benefitting ever since. Victor Hugo has repaid Guernsey’s hospitality many times over.

The French poet and novelist had long been a supporter of both the monarchy and the French system of government, which put him in good company until, on 2 December 1851, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (Napoleon III) staged a coup and seized power. Hugo had been one of the leaders of an insurrection against Napoleon, so he had no choice but to flee for his own safety.

In the first instance, he crossed the border to Belgium and took refuge in Brussels, but the following year he went to Jersey, where several other exiled French nationals, sympathetic to his cause, were already based.

Expulsion from Jersey

Unfortunately, in expressing solidarity with those expelled exiles in October 1856, he was expelled from Jersey. The exiles had set up their own newspaper and reprinted in it some satirical comments about Queen Victoria’s visit to Paris. The fact that the comments had originally been printed in a London publication was not considered adequate defence.

Fortunately for Guernsey, Hugo didn’t look far when choosing his next refuge. He chose Jersey’s close neighbour and made Hauteville House in St Peter Port his home for the next 15 years. He returned to France when Napoleon III finally lost power in 1870. His reputation at home was fully restored before his own death and he was given a state funeral. Many French towns and cities now have roads named in his honour.

Hugo wrote many of his best-known novels while exiled in Guernsey, including Les Miserables and Toilers of the Sea. The house is now owned by the city of Paris and open daily to visitors.


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