How the World’s Only Feudal Lord Outclassed the Nazis to Save Her People

Housewife, Hulton Archive // Getty Images
Housewife, Hulton Archive // Getty Images

When Germany invaded the Isle of Sark—the last foothold of feudalism in the western world—Dame Sibyl Hathaway protected her people with the unlikeliest of weapons: Feudal etiquette, old-world manners, and a dollop of classic snobbery.

Dame Sibyl Hathaway had 275 Nazi prisoners on her hands and knew exactly what she wanted to do with them.

It was May 1945. Five years earlier, Germany had invaded Hathaway’s home in the British Channel Islands, a tiny isle of 400 called Sark. Despite having no modern defense network or fancy gun emplacements—it didn’t even have electricity—Sark had proven itself to be uniquely prepared for its unwelcome visitors. The island had an advantage that the rest of Europe had discarded centuries earlier: feudalism.

The Isle of Sark was the western world’s last fief. For 400 years, it had faithfully followed 16th century Norman law, and 61-year-old Dame Sibyl (as her subjects called her) served as their feudal overlord. She once defended the institution of feudalism by saying, “What is good enough for William the Conqueror is good enough for us."

Now, just one week after Hitler had killed himself, Dame Sibyl walked down a steep, dusty path toward Sark’s main harbor to meet the British “liberation.” Around her, the island’s meadows appeared to bloom in celebration.

The Dame greeted a group of British soldiers and led them to the Nazi’s island headquarters to discuss the terms of surrender. As Lieutenant Colonel K. Allen questioned the German Kommandant, Dame Sibyl translated everything into German. When Allen finished his interrogation, he turned to the Dame.

“I can’t leave any troops here because so far only a token force has been landed in Guernsey,” Allen explained, referring to the island seven miles west of Sark. He was hesitant to continue. “Would you mind being left for a few days, or would you prefer to go to Guernsey with me?”

Dame Sybil fought the urge to roll her eyes. She had been fending off the Nazis without any help from England since the war started. Why would she need help now? “As I have been left for nearly five years,” she said, “I can stand a few more days.”

With that, the liberation team departed and Dame Sybil regained control over not just her island, but a new legion of German vassals.

You could argue that she had been controlling them the whole time.

 

Dame Sibyl once wrote that Sark is “an oasis of quiet and rest, unique in the present-day world.”

Perched 350 feet above the English Channel, the island is a precipitous tableland blanketed by rolling pastures and a kaleidoscope of wildflowers. Narrow dirt lanes, walled in by tall hedgerows, sit shaded under the tunneled canopies of trees. On a clear day, you can peer across the island, past teams of grazing sheep and Guernsey cattle, and look onto a watery horizon that melts into the sky.

The place is a time capsule. Cars are banned. Residents get around by bicycle, and the local ambulance and fire trucks are pulled by tractors. With little noise pollution, the island’s soundscape is a symphony of coastal winds, crashing waves, the clip-clop of horse-drawn carriages, and the rustle of waving fields bursting with whimsically named flowers: foxgloves, toadflax, dog violets, and oxeye daisies. Since there are no streetlights on Sark, the Milky Way gleams on moonless nights.

iStock/Allard1

Along Sark’s coast, farmland cedes to golden slopes of gorse, which flirt with balding cliffs that tumble hundreds of feet into churning turquoise seas. Along the shoals, clouds of gulls scream, purple jellyfish bob, and the occasional puffin waddles. The island is tiny—only three miles long and 1.5 miles wide—but has so many nooks and crannies that it boasts 42 miles of coastline. When the strong tidal stream recedes, a wonderland of anemone-filled coves and caves is revealed.

Victor Hugo, who visited Sark when he took exile in the Channel Islands in 1872, wrote that, “The island is a meadow and I work like an ox there. I do not graze there, however, though I gorge myself on flowers and dew … this beauty is absurd.” Four years later, the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne agreed, calling it, “On the whole the loveliest and wonderfullest thing I ever saw.”

People have lived on this tranquil island as far back as 2000 BCE. Legend has it that, in the 6th century, Saint Magloire brought religion to Sark while riding the back of a sea monster. In the 13th century, the island became the property of the English Crown but remained mostly deserted (with the exception of a few "pirates, thieves, brigands, murderers, and assassins," François Rabelais wrote in the 1530s). In 1565, Helier de Carteret cleaned up the place after he earned Queen Elizabeth I’s permission to establish a fief there, bringing 40 families—most of them from the nearby island of Jersey. Each family received a parcel of land, called a tenement, and to this day Sark's plots bear old names in Norman French: La Varouque, La Sablonnerie, La Moinerie.

Culturally and politically, Sark has changed very little since then. It, along with the three other major British Channel Islands—Guernsey, Jersey, and Alderney—are possessions of the British Crown, yet each island remains politically independent of the United Kingdom. (On Sark, there is no income tax, no welfare, and no help from the National Health Service.) During Dame Sibyl’s lifetime, homes were lit with oil lamps and water had to be pumped from a well or catchment. Anybody who wanted a warm bath had to light a fire by their tub. And most residents spoke a unique patois called Serquais, a remnant of the Norman French brought there by the island’s original settlers.

When Germany invaded in 1940, many of the descendants of those original 40 settlers still lived on Sark. Heirs to more than four centuries of feudal rule, they had no intention of abandoning their island or their way of life. This was especially true of Dame Sibyl, who had been groomed to become the island’s leader since she was a little girl.

As it turned out, the strict feudal etiquette she had spent her life practicing would become a potent weapon, a tool for bending the occupiers to her will.

 

On the morning of June 9, 1940, Dame Sibyl Hathaway looked across her island and saw the horizon obscured by billows of black smoke.

Twenty-five miles east, on the coast of France, oil storage tanks spewed flames. Weeks earlier, the Wehrmacht had penetrated the Maginot line, the bulwark of trenches and fortifications separating France from Germany. Now, as the occupation of France looked inevitable, the people of Normandy were sabotaging their own oil reserves.

For Dame Sibyl, it was a private smoke signal. If Normandy fell, Sark would follow. (She knew the Germans would be hungry to occupy the Channel Islands; it was a chance to sow propaganda about controlling “British” territory.) As rumors swirled about evacuations, Dame Sibyl took the ferry to Guernsey to see how the second biggest Channel Island was preparing.

The air was thick with panic. There were lines everywhere: Lines at stores as people frantically bought suitcases, lines at the bank as people attempted to withdraw money, lines at the dock as people pushed onto boats bound for England. Possessed by the chaos, islanders buried heirlooms in their gardens. Hundreds of expectant evacuees swarmed the veterinary clinic in an attempt to put their beloved pets to sleep.

The Channel Islands, the Dame soon learned, would be demilitarized—they weren’t even going to put up a fight. In just one week, approximately 17,000 people would evacuate Guernsey alone. The commotion appalled Dame Sibyl so deeply that, on the trip back to Sark, she “made up my mind how best I could protect my own people.”

According to old Norman Law, Sark’s tenants were sworn to protect the island from foreign invaders—in fact, custom required each landowner to own a musket—but that old precept felt laughably anachronistic in the face of a Nazi invasion. (In 1887, a journalist had described Sark’s so-called militia as little more than “seven dozen pairs of boots.”)

Lucas Reilly

But Dame Sibyl worried that Sark could crumble if too many people evacuated the island. The gist of feudalism, after all, is that it's self-sufficient: If everybody on Sark stuck together, the Dame reasoned, life could go on.

Shortly after returning from Guernsey, she called a meeting and told the inhabitants that she had decided to stay—and asked the islanders to remain as well.

“I am not promising you that it will be easy,” she told them. “We may be hungry but we will always have our cattle and crops, our gardens, a few pigs, our sheep and rabbits.”

The Dame understood that not everybody might sign on and promised to arrange for anybody's departure, if they so wished.

Of those born on Sark, not one person left.

 

Just one week after the Channel Islands were officially demilitarized, three German military planes barreled over Sark, hurtled toward Guernsey, and bombed that island's capital of St. Peter Port. Thirty-eight civilians died. Dame Sibyl watched as the planes arced over the Channel and aimed for her home. Bullets pelted Sark's harbors, but nobody was hurt.

The following day, the telephone line connecting Sark and Guernsey fell silent. Three days after that, on July 3, 1940, a lifeboat arrived at Sark’s main harbor. The Germans had arrived—and the Dame made her first move in a subtle game of political one-upmanship.

Sark’s coastline is foreboding. In the Middle Ages, pirates and privateers would circle the island's bluffs looking for a place to dock, only to declare it unreachable. Today, visitors can be carried up a steep lane by a tractor-pulled wagon affectionately named the “Toast Rack.” In Dame Sibyl’s day, horses lugged the passengers up. But not on the day the Nazis arrived. Dame Sibyl resolved that she would not go to meet the Germans; they would come to her—and they would walk.

As the Nazi officers hiked, Dame Sibyl waited in her royal residence, a stone mansion known as La Seigneurie, and talked strategy with her husband, Bob. “Let’s take a leaf out of Mussolini's book,” she told him. They placed two chairs behind a desk at the far end of the drawing room, which would force the officers to walk the whole length of the room. It was a small power move, but they needed every trick they could muster. The Dame advised her maid to announce the Germans as if they were any other villager.

Chris Jackson, Getty Images

Dame Sibyl later wrote in her autobiography, The Dame of Sark, that she was “determined that this island, at least, should show a front of firmness and dignity and give the impression that we were taking everything in our stride in the firm conviction that we would make the best of a bad time which we were convinced would not endure long.”

When the Germans arrived, the officers wiped their boots on the doormat outside. Dame Sibyl glanced at her husband with relief. Just from the sound of their feet, she could tell that the men about to enter her house were aristocrats—the way they wiped their boots was a sign of respect.

As luck would have it, the Channel Islands attracted a disproportionate number of Germany’s uniformed aristocrats. The islands were a relatively safe spot for Germany’s most privileged soldiers, who were naturally attracted to staying in a bygone place where inheritance still equaled influence. “That the German nobles would have felt a particular affinity with a place where pre-modern feudal rule was still partially intact is an inescapable conclusion,” Paul Sanders wrote in The British Channel Islands Under German Occupation.

This arrangement, however, would play into Dame Sibyl’s hands.

The maid announced the men’s arrival. Two officers, draped in dark green, introduced themselves and told Dame Sibyl that they had come to establish some rules. There would be a curfew at 11 p.m.; no groups larger than five were allowed in the streets; all pubs were to be closed; all arms were to be confiscated; and no boats were allowed to leave the harbor.

Hearing this, Dame Sibyl nodded: Bitte hinsetzen, she said, asking them to sit. She continued speaking in German: "I will see that these orders are obeyed."

There was a moment of stunned silence. The German officers, dumbfounded by the Dame’s command of their language, were immediately flustered.

“You do not appear to be in the least afraid,” one officer said.

Without hesitation, Dame Sibyl replied tartly, “Is there any reason why I should be afraid of German officers?”

This, after all, was her island.

 

For the past 400 years, the Isle of Sark had been ruled by a "Lord of the Manor" called a Seigneur or Dame, who pledges allegiance to, and rents the island from, the King or Queen of England. The Seigneur or Dame holds the island in perpetual fief, and rents out 40 parcels, or tenements, to 40 different residents called tenants, who can rent pieces of each parcel to lower-ranked islanders. For centuries, these 40 landowners made up the island’s parliament, called Chief Pleas, with the Seigneur or Dame presiding as a quasi-dictator.

"It may seem undemocratic that most members hold their seats by right of property," Deputy John La Trobe Bateman told National Geographic in 1971, "but we are perhaps the world's best-represented community. With our population of 575, we have one legislator for every 11 people."

Hulton Archive, Getty Images

As the island's leader, Dame Sibyl’s job came with privileges that would have made Hitler drool. According to the original Letters Patent, she controlled:

"All of its rights, members, liberties and appurtenances, and all and singular castles, fortresses, houses, buildings, structures ruined with their fragments, lands, meadows, pastures, commons, wastes, woods, waters watercourses, ponds, fees, rents reversions, services ... vicarages, chapels or churches, and also all manner of tithes, oblations, fruits, inventions, mines, quarries, ports, shores, rocks, wrecks of the sea, shipwrecks, farms, fee farms, knight’s fees, wards, marriages ... fugitives or pirates, or felons de se, out-laws, of persons put exigent, and the forfeited or confiscated goods of persons condemned or convinced any other way whatsoever; also all forfeitures, paunages, free warrens, courts leet, views of frankpledge, assize and assay of bread, wine and beer; all fairs, markets, customs, rights of tolls, jurisdictions, liberties, immunities, exemptions, franchises, privileges, commodities, profits, emoluments, and all of the Queen’s heredits..."

And so on.

And none of that counted the specific privileges afforded to Dame Sibyl by ancient Norman common law. When a property was sold, she was entitled to one-thirteenth of the purchase price, called a la troisieme. For every chimney, she was entitled to a tax paid in chickens. For every harvest, she was owed a tenth sheaf of corn, apples, flax, hemp, or beans. She claimed ownership of every bit of flotsam and jetsam that washed ashore. Only she could keep pigeons or an unspayed dog. (Dame Sibyl’s was named Maxine.) She also had to pay the Queen for the privilege of running the island. But since the figure was never adjusted for inflation after being set in the 16th century, the cost to rule Sark was just £1.79.

The islanders were also subjected to a buffet of centuries-old common laws. There was, of course, the rule on muskets. Divorce was illegal. Government officials were required to juggle multiple jobs (with the constable running double-duty as the island's chief beetle inspector). Tenants were required to spend two unpaid days a year repairing the island's roads. Most amusingly, if an islander ever felt that he or she was wronged by a neighbor, they could drop to their knees and recite the Clameur de Haro, an ancient injunction that involves yelling, “Haro! Haro! Haro! À l'aide, mon Prince, on me fait tort!” followed by the Lord’s Prayer in French. Legally, the offender had to report to the constable.

To say the least, Sark’s residents have never been keen about outsiders barging in and trying to change their way of life. One time during Dame Sibyl’s reign, the island hired a new doctor who brought a car, insisting it was vital for medical emergencies. Islanders and the Chief Pleas treated the offense with the kind of hellfire one might expect of a murder trial. They determined that the car could stay—but only if it were drawn by a horse.

“That’s just the way Sark has always been,” Margaret Langlois, a resident for the past 27 years, explains. “The attitude here is: If you don’t like it, you know where the boat is.”

 

The Dame’s complete control over the happenings in Sark wasn’t her only power over the Germans. Her name was in the Almanach de Gotha, a German directory that listed all of Europe’s most important royals and nobility—a who’s who of the continent’s aristocrats.

“She was aristocratic and came to understand that the Germans in command were also aristocratic,” Sark’s current Seigneur, Christopher Beaumont, tells Mental Floss. “They connected on that level. And it would allow conversations to go on that probably couldn’t have happened had their statuses been different.”

From her opening interaction, Dame Sibyl immediately realized that any fantasies about armed insurrection would be useless. Rather, her greatest weapon would be decorum. For the rest of the war, she put on an air of exceedingly stuffy social graces. She would never approach a German, but expect him to approach her. Before allowing a Nazi to take a seat in her home, she reportedly demanded that he bow and kiss her hand.

As she’d later write in The Dame of Sark, “The stiff German formality worked in my favor because it showed the Germans that I expected to be treated in my home with the rigid etiquette to which they were accustomed in their own country.” These social conventions successfully eroded her new visitors’ confidence and gave her the upper hand when they began mulling policies that threatened her people’s lives.

At first, Dame Sibyl found small ways to get under the occupiers' skin. In her sitting room, she deliberately placed anti-fascist books at eye-level. Sometimes she’d innocently ask the soldiers why they were taking so long to conquer Russia. She regularly fired shots at the Nazi sense of ethnic superiority with backhanded compliments. (When she learned that the Germans had bought all the tweed in Guernsey and were planning to ship it to Britain for tailoring, she told them: “No one can deny that English and Scotch tweeds are the best in the world ... or that London tailors are vastly superior to those in any other country.”)

Dame Sibyl knew that, in aristocratic circles, the artifice of polite conversation meant everything—and her words could work like a psychological water torture experiment. Each little statement was harmless alone, but over the course of weeks and months, these constant drops of rhetorical acid helped her assert dominance and compelled many German officers to drop their guard. As she'd write, “In the course of polite conversation I was often able to acquire useful information which would not otherwise have been available."

Sark's residents followed the Dame's lead. When the Germans tried to implement a bureaucracy that threatened the island's feudal self-sufficiency—demanding that fishermen only go out to sea from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., accompanied by an armed guard—they responded with their own subtle shows of disrespect. Sometimes fishermen "forgot" to appear at the docks during the approved fishing times, leaving their German chaperones waiting alone at the harbor. Other times, fishermen deliberately steered into giant swells, soaking the landlubbing Nazis and making them seasick. Even the children played tricks, stringing invisible wires across the road to trip Germans riding bicycles.

Lucas Reilly

But war, of course, is more than a game of pranks. All of Sark’s radios would eventually be confiscated, leaving most residents clueless as to what was happening off the island. Dame Sibyl, for instance, had a hazy idea that the Luftwaffe were bombing London, but she didn’t know about the bombings in Bristol, Birmingham, or Belfast.

She also didn’t know that her eldest son, Buster, was long dead—killed during the blitz of Liverpool.

 

By summer 1941, as more enemy troops moved onto the Channel Islands, the Germans started hoarding a disproportionate amount of the island’s produce. Sark's islanders began to suffer. The Sarkese began making “tobacco” from dried clover and fruit leaves; “tea” with dried peapods steeped in hot water; “coffee” with grated barley, dried sugar beet, and parsnips. Every meal included lobster. “When lobster is the main dish day after day, month in month out, let me assure you that you become heartily sick of the sight of it,” Dame Sibyl wrote.

The Dame fought these restrictions with a healthy dose of do-you-know-who-I-am? To get what she wanted, she schmoozed with the aristocratic officers: Colonel Graf von Schmettow, Commander-in-Chief of the Channel Islands, who was friends with Germany’s exiled Kaiser; Freiherr von Aufsess, the Chief of Civil Administration, who was indirectly connected to the Dame through a marriage of cousins; Prince Oettingen, the Kommandant of Civil Administration, who shared mutual friends with the Dame back in Germany. Whenever troops on Sark gave Dame Sibyl gruff, she simply went over their heads to these “friends.”

“If the lower classes made any attempt to bully me or my people I knew full well that neither they nor I would show any sign of cringing,” she wrote. She was able to end a handful of disputes by simply asking: Who is your superior?

“Because the social conventions were so strong, she was treated with much more deference than we would get treated with now,” Seigneur Beaumont says.

Weaponizing etiquette truly had its charms. When von Schmettow’s son died on the Russian front, Dame Sibyl sent him a sympathy card, a gesture Von Schmettow never forgot. So later, when Sark risked being slapped with steeper rations, von Schmettow fought the cuts on the Dame’s behalf. And when Sark’s German doctor was murdered by a fellow German soldier, the Dame’s relationship with Prince Oettingen ensured that the island received a replacement immediately. “She essentially used social protocol to broker deals,” Beaumont says.

Some policies, however, were beyond Dame Sibyl’s control. "Natural factors limit the number of people who can live on Sark," Beaumont says. "If we've got close to 1000 people here, we could start running out of water." In October 1941, 300 German soldiers were sent to the island, putting a significant strain on the island's resources.

Things got worse as the war heated up. The following year, British commandos raided Sark, killing two German officers and taking one prisoner. The Germans retaliated, placing barbed wire around Sark’s perimeter and laying more than 13,000 landmines, which made it impossible for the islanders to launch their fishing boats, collect the gorse they needed for fuel, or gather seaweed they used for fertilizing fields. Soon, rabbits discovered that the minefields were a great place to breed—and the island's crops were decimated by the ensuing bunny boom.

Then Germany decided to deport all of Sark’s British citizens.

According to some accounts, Dame Sibyl convinced the Germans that most of Sark’s people were, in fact, not British, but Channel Islanders. This little game of semantics appears to have worked: Of the 400 islanders, the list of deportees was reduced to just 11 people.

In February 1943, a more indiscriminate round of deportations was ordered by the Nazi brass in Berlin. Two additional roundups targeted 50 people, including Dame Sibyl’s husband Bob, an American citizen, who was sent to a prison camp in Bavaria. (Bob maintained his resistance in prison: He smoked a pipe during the daily parade; stood at ease when he was called to attention; and snuck secret doses of liquor.)

It's difficult to quantify how well Dame Sibyl's networking had helped in reducing the number of deportations. We do know, however, that Prince Oettingen, who considered the Dame a friend, was so outspoken in his opposition to the deportations that he was eventually removed from his post.

Now alone, Dame Sibyl doubled down on her attempts to make the occupiers feel like incompetent fools. One of the most amusing stories occurred during the spring of 1943. At the time, Sark’s Guernsey cattle were still producing half a pint of milk per head, which the island’s farmers secretly skimmed before handing over to the Germans. When the Germans complained to Dame Sibyl that they couldn't make butter with the milk, she showed up to their headquarters dressed in traditional butter-churning overalls and proceeded to give such a confusing and patronizing lecture on the art of butter-making that they were too embarrassed to ever complain again.

For the rest of the war, the Germans were left scratching their heads in bewilderment as they tried making butter from skim milk.

 

In the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, Dame Sibyl groggily woke to the rumble of bombers flying overhead and the thundering of heavy guns off the French coast. Later that morning, as she drank a cup of what could euphemistically be called coffee, the island’s German doctor visited and, in hushed tones, told her that the Allies had invaded Normandy.

All the ships and planes had bypassed the Channel Islands.

Keystone, Getty Images

As Allied troops pressed into France, island life turned bleak. Winston Churchill refused to send any food to the Channel Islands, insisting that Germany was responsible for providing sustenance to lands it occupied. But the Germans didn’t provide for the people of Sark—the people of Sark provided for the Germans. Feudalism, the Dame learned, didn't work smoothly when hundreds of moochers were hoarding all the provisions.

Indeed, by winter, even the Germans were feeling pinched. Chickens, pigs, cats, and dogs started disappearing. The Germans demanded that all of Sark’s stored grain, plus 90 percent of all potatoes, be funneled into their coffers.

For the Dame, this crossed a line. Instead of complying, she helped launch a clandestine operation to steal back what was, according to feudal law, rightfully hers. One evening, as the Germans were preoccupied with their dinner, the Dame and a crew of conspirators stole a half-ton of wheat from the village hall, which they hid in her barn. Meanwhile, they secretly hoarded potatoes under a trap door in her drawing room. The loot was secretly distributed in to residents in rations.

The months crawled until Hitler finally died. On May 8, 1945, the commanding Germans demanded that Dame Sibyl hand over Sark’s cattle and 200 tons of timber for fuel. Instead, she flew the British and American flags from her tower and joined the islanders as they lit a bonfire in celebration.

By this point, there were 275 German soldiers stationed on Sark, but after the arrival—and departure—of the British liberation team, Dame Sibyl had become their commander. As she began giving orders, a British officer observed that she acted, "more forceful than any army officer and more than equal to any German Kommandant."

First, the Dame demanded they establish a telephone line connecting her house to Guernsey. Then she ordered the Germans to return all the confiscated wireless radios and to remove all 13,500 landmines. She insisted that each prisoner repeat her commands and relished hearing the soldiers say: “Zu Befehl, Gnädige Frau”—"At your command, madam."

Over the coming months, German POWs completed a series of construction projects, building a protected concrete path over a narrow isthmus connecting the southern half of the island; repairing and redecorating the homes they had occupied; and resurfacing the island’s roads. They also removed rusty roll-bombs dangling from wires over Sark’s harbors.

One day, Dame Sibyl received a call from Sark’s ex-Kommandant informing her that one of those bombs had exploded. Two German prisoners were killed.

In that moment, the courtly facade of manners the Dame had maintained so firmly for five years finally crumbled. She said what was exactly on her mind.

“Ach, So?”

 

For much of the war, Sark’s people resented Dame Sibyl for asking them to stay. That changed when they learned about the neighboring island of Alderney.

Similar to Sark in size and culture, Alderney was completely evacuated days after the bombing of Guernsey—and the Nazis went on to destroy it. They dismantled Alderney’s homes for firewood. They constructed ugly concrete fortifications, bunkers, air raid shelters, and gun emplacements and built two work camps and two concentration camps. They killed the last Alderney cow, rendering the unique breed—which only lived on the island—extinct. The occupation had a similar effect on the island’s unique dialect, Auregnais: The displacement of Alderney’s people killed the language.

After the war, Alderney was rebuilt from scratch, and most returning residents abandoned any relics of old Norman politics. Today, Alderney has recovered—but it is relatively dense with cars and homes. (Despite being the same size as Sark, it’s home to five times as many people.) The island is still beautiful, but the old-world culture and atmosphere that made it unique has disappeared.

Had Sark’s people left, the island may have suffered a similar fate.

That’s not to say Sark hasn't changed. Today, the chimney tax is gone. (Dame Sibyl got annoyed when islanders began paying with their wimpiest chickens.) Few, if any, of the old grain-based tithes are collected, and the island’s agricultural industry has dwindled to favor tourism. The stringent rules on divorce have been modernized and the island’s language, Serquais, is down to its last five speakers. Most drastically, in 2008, Sark’s feudal politics was abolished in favor of democracy, a decision that stripped the landowning class—and all future seigneurs and dames—of their power.

The feudal system of land tenure, however, remains intact. There is still no freehold on Sark, which ensures that the 40 tenements retain their quaint, rural charm. The seigneur, who occupies a more ceremonial role, remains the island’s chief tenant, with perpetual fief owed to the Queen. (The method of payment, however, has been modernized; today, Seigneur Christopher Beaumont—Dame Sibyl’s great grandson—pays Queen Elizabeth II £1.79 through an online bank transfer.) And some of the old Norman laws are still enforced: The Seigneur still owns all of the island’s pigeons.

Whatever charm Sark has retained, much of it is owed to Dame Sibyl. Every deported islander would survive the war, and nearly all of them would return to Sark, where the Dame's steadfast leadership brought the island back to its old routines. The return of normalcy could be seen most clearly through the prism of local politics, where, once again, the quaintest moves to modernize were treated with unbridled hysteria.

Take when an aging Dame Sibyl, battling arthritis and a bum hip, decided to bring an electric mobility scooter onto Sark. It might as well have been Watergate.

But Dame Sybil won that battle, too. What had been true during the German occupation remained true later. As she put it: “I usually got my way.”

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Now that Prime Day is over, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday still a few weeks away, online deals may seem harder to come by. And while it can be a hassle to scour the internet for promo codes, buy-one-get-one deals, and flash sales, Amazon actually has an extensive coupon page you might not know about that features deals to look through every day.

As pointed out by People, the coupon page breaks deals down by categories, like electronics, home & kitchen, and groceries (the coupons even work with SNAP benefits). Since most of the deals revolve around the essentials, it's easy to stock up on items like Cottonelle toilet paper, Tide Pods, Cascade dishwasher detergent, and a 50 pack of surgical masks whenever you're running low.

But the low prices don't just stop at necessities. If you’re looking for the best deal on headphones, all you have to do is go to the electronics coupon page and it will bring up a deal on these COWIN E7 PRO noise-canceling headphones, which are now $80, thanks to a $10 coupon you could have missed.

Alternatively, if you are looking for deals on specific brands, you can search for their coupons from the page. So if you've had your eye on the Homall S-Racer gaming chair, you’ll find there's currently a coupon that saves you 5 percent, thanks to a simple search.

To discover all the deals you have been missing out on, head over to the Amazon Coupons page.

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

A User's Guide to the Branches of U.S. Government

Gage Skidmore, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Gage Skidmore, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

By Nick Capodice and Hannah McCarthy, Quick and Dirty Tips

Today, we're bringing you our very own Big Three—the three branches of the U.S. government: the legislative, executive, and judicial branches.

But before we tackle that, let's get one important thing out of the way. The system that keeps it all spinning—checks and balances. Because as Federalist Paper #51 puts it, "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition."

What is the separation of power in the U.S. government? Checks and balances!

The framers were very much aware that the grand ideas and philosophies they laid out in the Constitution would have to be implemented by fallible humans. And fallible humans have a tendency to get a little wild-eyed where power is concerned.

The first step in creating checks and balances was to skirt the whole king issue by splitting the governing power across three branches—something called the separation of power. But that wouldn't be enough. Those branches would need to keep a watchful eye over one another so that no one entity would get too big for its britches.

Who checks Congress?

So, let's start where the Constitution starts—Congress. The legislative branch makes laws that govern the people of the nation. Pretty straightforward, right? Of course, that's also an immense, almost staggering amount of power. You've got 535 mostly white, mostly male, mostly well-off people—that's 435 congresspeople and 100 senators—making the rules for hundreds of millions of Americans. What could possibly go wrong?

James Madison had our back on this one. So here's the catch, or in this case, the "check."

In order for a bill from Congress to actually become law, the president has to either sign it or, alternatively, do this thing where he doesn't do anything to it and the bill becomes a law on its own. But if the law says something like "Only Americans whose names end in the letter L are allowed to drive," the president could say "Hey, I don't like that. I'm vetoing it."

But then Congress has the power to veto that veto with a veto override, which requires a two-thirds majority vote in both houses.

That veto override can be helpful if you've got a president who's totally at odds with Congress. Andrew Johnson, for example, had 15 of his vetoes overridden. That's a lot, given the fact that we've only had 111 veto overrides in the history of the United States.

The veto override, in and of itself, is a check, both on Congress and the president. But just because Congress overrides a veto to make that the law, it doesn't mean that that law is good or right. Lucky for us, the framers thought of that one, too.

What about the judicial branch?

Is that the solemn swish of black robes we hear?

There are keepers of the Constitution—the judicial branch, specifically the Supreme Court. If Congress strong-arms a law into being, the Supreme Court can then review it and strike it down if they deem it unconstitutional.

And that power to strike down laws is not constitutional power. It's a power that the Supreme Court essentially gave to themselves in their ruling on Marbury v. Madison.

The ability to grant governmental powers is, in fact, quite an immense amount of power on its own. It's the executive branch's job to prosecute violations of federal law through the Department of Justice. And the prosecutor has the power to bring a case before the Supreme Court or not. And Congress has the power to regulate federal jurisdiction.

In other words, they can decide the kinds of cases that the courts have the power to rule on.

Impeachment and other checks

Congress has the power to impeach members of the federal judiciary. And, of course, they can also impeach the president.

The president is mainly checked by Congress. Impeachment is a big check, but a relatively rare one. More frequently, Congress holds the purse strings and can slow the president's agenda by not budgeting for the things the president wants. They can also pass laws like the 22nd Amendment, which said, yeah, no more Franklin Delano Roosevelt; we're limiting all presidents to two terms in office.

But what do we do if the executive goes all rogue and we can't wait for Congress to pass a law or an amendment?

That's where those constitutional stewards, the Supreme Court justices, come into play again. The Supreme Court has the power to declare executive actions unconstitutional. It is a rare bird, that one, but all-important in a government where men are most certainly not angels.

What are the three branches of the U.S. government?

Now that we know how we keep the government from going mad with power, what is it that we're keeping in check?

Let's start with the Constitution itself and the legislative branch.

The legislative branch—Congress

Article I, which sets up the power of the legislative branch, gets far more ink than any other branch. It's four out of the seven pages of the Constitution. But what are these two houses of Congress? Are they alike in dignity? What do they even do?

It's a poorly guarded secret that the framers were a little bit scared of democracy. Having one large legislative house that's determined by the size of the population? That was scary to them. So we have two houses in our bicameral legislature.

The House of Representatives is the large brass 435-member chamber that's up for election every two years. The more people you have in your state, the more representatives you get in the House.

And then we have the highfalutin Senate. The Senate consists of two senators from each state, and each gets a six-year term.

While the House and Senate have several separate powers, they have one big collective one—they're the ones who make the laws that govern our country.

The Schoolhouse Rock version is that the House or the Senate initiates bills, they go to committee, they get out of committee, they're voted on, and then they go to the other chamber for a similar process. And if it passes both houses, it goes to the Resolute Desk of the President of the United States to be signed into law.

We're going to tell you right now, the Schoolhouse Rock version is almost never how bills actually become law.

There are 1000 pitfalls that alter and stymie a bill at every turn. Suffice to say, it is a winding path. Indeed, the one difference between the two chambers is that only the House, not the Senate, can initiate bills to do with spending. This is called the Power of the Purse. The framers thought the people's House should be the one who decides where the money goes.

Who can be a Senator or Representative?

The actual restrictions on who can become a senator or congressperson are few. For representatives, you have to be at least 25 years old and have been a U.S. citizen for seven years to qualify. And for the Senate, you have to be 30 years old and a citizen for nine years.

The bills that get proposed in either chamber have such a litany of obstacles that only about 3 percent of proposed bills become law. And most of those are noncontroversial, like naming a courthouse or making an honorary holiday.

Some see the fact that so little legislation is actually passed as terrible. And others see it as a wonderful feature of our democracy because a congress that passes tons of legislation has way too much power.

What other powers does Congress have?

The House has some unique powers—they can break an electoral tie to determine the next president. And that hasn't happened since the Hayes-Tilden election of 1876.

The House can also initiate impeachment. But they just initiate; they don't actually remove the official from office.

Many of us know this since we recently had an impeached president. The House starts the procedure. And with a majority vote, that official is impeached. The Senate then holds a trial, and it requires a two-thirds majority of the Senate to remove that official from office.

And this leads us to the unique powers of the Senate. As we said, they try impeachments and remove officials from office. They also confirm presidential appointments for over 2000 different positions. The president picked someone for a job (like a cabinet position or a judge), and 99 percent of the time, the Senate gives the appointee the thumbs up.

The Senate also picks the vice president in case of an electoral tie, which happened one time and probably won't again, since nowadays, the VP and president run on the same ticket.

And one final thing—either house can declare war, which is something we haven't actually done since 1942. So how have we been in so much war since then?

And that's your very subtle transition to the powers of the executive.

The executive branch—the President and federal government departments

When you think of the executive branch you think of, well, the executive—the president.

But the executive branch employs over 4 million people. It is the nation's largest employer by a wide margin. The Department of Defense alone out-employs Walmart by about a million people.

And that's what we think it can be easy to forget—the executive branch comprises not only the president and everyone who works in the Executive Administrative Office, but there are also 15 departments that fall under the banner of the executive branch. Those department heads make up the president's cabinet, along with whomever else the president appoints as an advisor, and hundreds of smaller agencies.

Here are the 15 federal departments in the order of their creation.

  1. State Department. They handle relationships with foreign countries.
  2. Treasury. They make the money by collecting taxes. This includes the IRS.
  3. Defense. Our largest department, which includes the military.
  4. Justice. They enforce laws that protect public safety. This includes the FBI and U.S. Marshals.
  5. Interior. The Department of the Interior manages the conservation of our land, which includes national parks.
  6. Agriculture. That's the USDA. They oversee farming.
  7. Commerce. They promote our economy and handle international trade.
  8. Labor. That's our workforce.
  9. Health and Human Services. That includes the FDA and the CDC. They also manage Medicare and Medicaid.
  10. Housing and Urban Development (HUD). They address national housing needs.
  11. Transportation. That's the federal highways and the Federal Aviation Administration.
  12. Energy. They manage our energy and research better ways to make it.
  13. Education. They focus on national education and federal student loan programs.
  14. Veterans. Veterans Affairs programs benefit those who have served in the military.
  15. Homeland Security. It's their job to prevent and disrupt terrorist attacks within the United States.

Now, there are the president's constitutional powers, and then there are the president's political powers. Most broadly, with the aid of the many executive departments, the president is tasked with making sure laws are followed through with. And we already know the president can sign bills into law or veto them. The Constitution also empowers the president to appoint people to powerful positions in the cabinet, as well as the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, and circuit courts. All told, the president appoints people to around 4000 positions, 1200 of which require Senate approval.

That's a lot of appointment power. And of course, the president is empowered to make treaties with foreign nations and is the commander in chief of the U.S. Armed Forces.

But the president cannot declare war.

Here's where we stumble into those political powers not enumerated in the Constitution. Congress has not declared war since World War II. America's presidents have led us into many armed conflicts without congressional approval and simply called them "police actions." Police actions can look like war, act like war, talk like war. But if warlike actions are called police actions, they can be done without congressional approval.

What are executive orders and executive agreements?

So, there are also these things called executive orders where the president simply declares something. And executive orders happen. When Obama wanted immigration policy, and he couldn't get it from Congress, he just signed the DREAM Act. And a lot of undocumented teenagers got to stay in the U.S.

Executive agreements fall along a similar line in terms of skirting Congress, but they are used in place of treaties. The president can just make an agreement with a foreign nation without going through the treaty process.

We should clarify (because these executive orders and agreements sound like a big ol' way around the checks and balances our framers so thoughtfully established) that the Supreme Court can block an order or agreement, and Congress can pass a law that invalidates that action. The only underlying principle is that any executive action has some sort of legal validation process.

It's all about what Congress or the Supreme Court chooses to let fly.

The Vice President

And let's not forget the veep—the vice president.

The vice president has long gotten the short shrift in the United States. For most of the job's history, it was barely a job at all.

The vice president is president of the Senate. That means that they preside over proceedings, but they only get to vote in the event of a tiebreaker. So, usually, they just don't show up. More recently, the veep has been tapped to represent the president in matters of foreign relations. And, of course, on the rare occasion that the president dies while in office or resigns, the vice president gets the world's biggest promotion.

The judicial branch—The Supreme Court

That just leaves one branch hanging, the one that Alexander Hamilton called "the weakest branch" and "next to nothing."

The Constitution is the supreme law of the land and the Supreme Court interprets it. They decide what is or is not constitutional. Article III of the Constitution, which deals with the judiciary, is short and vague. (One scholar told us it was so short and vague because the framers wanted to get the heck out of there before Rhode Island showed up and made a hash of everything.)

But while the Constitution was vague on the powers of the Supreme Court, we've cleared that up a bit since then. They have less notable powers, which is that they hear cases involving ambassadors, public officials, and states. But most of the time the Supreme Court is an appellate court, which means that it hears appeals. You don't like the outcome of a state or federal court decision? You can appeal it up to a higher court.

And this is important—you're not appealing the verdict of the jury. You're not disputing if you're guilty or not. You're appealing the way that the trial went. You're saying that the laws that you broke were unconstitutional.

This power, which is called judicial review, was granted upon the Supreme Court by the Supreme Court itself in the first landmark case, Marbury v. Madison, which is a delightful tale. We're gonna get into that in the next episode, so let's talk about how a case gets to the highest court in the land—with an immense amount of difficulty.

Appeals to state and local decisions rise slowly but surely through the American court system. But that last step is nigh on impossible. To get your case heard by the nine in D.C., you have to file for what's called a writ of certiorari, which honestly, nobody can agree on how to pronounce. That writ tells the court, you should hear my case and here's why.

Between 7000 and 8000 writs of certiorari are filed each year. And the court agrees to hear about 80. You're more likely to have your case heard if there's what's called a circuit split, where several of the circuit courts in the U.S. have ruled differently on something and you've got parts of the country interpreting the constitution differently.

The parties in a Supreme Court case aren't a plaintiff and defendant like on The People's Court or Judge Judy—they are petitioner and respondent.

The petitioner lost their last case, and they're petitioning to have it heard. And in the case name, the petitioner's name always comes first. So in a trial like Texas v. Johnson, Texas lost the last case, and they're petitioning to have it reversed.

One more word, it's not lawyers who present arguments in the Supreme Court. They're referred to as advocates.

The court hears cases starting in October. They discuss them in conferences, they vote on them, and someone who voted in the majority writes the opinion, which is read some time afterward. Other justices can add their name to that opinion if they have concurring opinions with different legal reasoning. Or if you're on the side that voted the other way, you can write a dissent.

By the way, the vast majority of Supreme Court decisions are unanimous, but like everything, it's never so cut and dry as that. Once the court rules, you have the long circuitous route to the states adopting the ruling into their laws, which can take decades.

A version of this article was originally published on Quick and Dirty Tips as A User's Guide to the Branches of U.S. Government. Read more from Quick and Dirty Tips.

About the authors

Hannah McCarthy is the co-host of Civics 101 from New Hampshire Public Radio. She came to New Hampshire by way of Brooklyn where she worked as a radio producer and writer. She lives in Boston, Massachusetts.

Nick Capodice is the co-host of Civics 101. Before coming to NHPR, Nick worked in the Education Department at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, where he wrote and led tours, trained educators, and helped design digital exhibits. He also led beer history and tasting tours for Urban Oyster in Brooklyn.

Nick and Hannah are the authors of A User's Guide to Democracy: How America Works, with illustrations by Tom Toro.