National Army Museum

England's 'First Refugees'

Robin Gwynn examines the arrival of Huguenot French to England in the 17th century.

16th-century propaganda print depicting Huguenot aggression against Catholics at seaEvery English person has heard of the Battle of Hastings and the Norman invasion of 1066. Far fewer are aware of a very different, later descent from France on the England of the Tudors, Stuarts and Hanoverians, a descent which was large scale but peaceful and took place over a long period of time under conditions clouded by uncertainty. This was no invasion, but the irregular and uncharted arrival of Huguenots, French-speaking Calvinists. Some boats came crammed with these new arrivals; early in October 1681 the True Protestant Mercury reported 600 as having fled La Rochelle in four ships, for example, and particularly large numbers came in the spring and early summer of 1687. Other craft brought odd individuals. Sometimes families travelled as a whole, but ships could also arrive, as a 1681 newsletter described, 'with few men in them, they sending their wives and children away first, and most of these have run great hazards at sea'.

Such a flood of these new immigrants was washed onto British shores in the 1680s that a new word came into the English language at the time to describe them: 'rés ' or refugees. Forty or fifty thousand crossed the Channel while Louis XIV sat on the French throne (1660-1714). Others had come in the time of the Tudors, especially during the reigns of Edward VI and Elizabeth. More continued to arrive during periods of persecution in the eighteenth century, for conditions in France could lead Protestants there to martyrdom for the sake of their beliefs as late as the 1760s.

If the Huguenots were first and foremost Protestants, they were also distinctive in their social stratification. Most men and women in France, as in England, were directly employed in agriculture. Yet few among the Huguenots were workers of the land. The great majority lived in towns; they were artisans, especially weavers, Those who came to Britain included many skilled craftsmen, silversmiths, watchmakers and. the like, and professional people – clergy, doctors, merchants soldiers, teachers, There was a small sprinkling of the lesser nobility.

Both their Protestantism and their skills are relevant in explaining why so many Huguenots crossed the Channel. England was second in popularity as a place of refuge only to the Dutch Republic, more popular than Germany or Switzerland or places further afield like America or the Cape of Good Hope. As a leading Protestant nation, Britain was an obvious possibility for those fleeing Catholic persecution in France. It is noteworthy that comparatively few refugees came in 1685, the actual year of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, or in 1686; but they arrived in large numbers in 1687, after James II had issued his Declaration of Indulgence. In other words, the Huguenots did not relish the thought of moving to the lands of another Catholic sovereign, but were strongly attracted to England as soon as the religious conditions seemed acceptable.

The other attraction lay in the prospects for employment that were to be found in English towns and cities, especially London. Had Scotland been able to offer similar openings, surely many refugees would have gone there in view of the traditional Franco-Scottish alliance. But Scotland did not have the same markets, and had few towns, so only a few hundred Huguenots went that far north. Englishmen prized French fashions, and the more far-sighted welcomed both the new techniques that the refugees brought with them and their willingness to work hard.

The same factors that encouraged fleeing Huguenots to head across the Channel also encouraged Englishmen to receive them, by and large, with sympathy and kindness. Inevitably there was some opposition; foreigners had never been popular in England, Frenchmen were particularly disliked, and the refugees found themselves in competition with the native poor for work opportunities. But such resentment was drowned beneath a welter of economic arguments and a flood of emotional support. Following the ideas of Sir William Petty and others, it was argued in the later seventeenth century that the manpower brought by the refugees was valuable, and the Huguenots undoubtedly benefited from the proven economic advantages that had accrued to the country from the Elizabethan foreign Protestant settlements.

The emotional support for the refugees – translated into practical terms through a generous response to public collections ordered throughout the country for their relief – depended upon Stuart Englishmen's conceptions of Catholicism. Anti-Popery was at a peak. Disgust at what was being done to Protestants abroad was paralleled by fears about what might be done by the Catholic James II in England. Anti-Popery underlay English preparedness to believe the lies of Titus Oates, the length and bitterness of the Exclusion Crisis, and eventually James' loss of his throne. It, more than anything else, ensured that the normal hostility to foreigners would be suspended in the case of the Huguenots. When, three years before James' accession, Samuel Bolde warned his readers in a printed sermon that they did not know how soon they might share the refugee condition, he was hitting a vital nerve.

The appearance of so many people fleeing government action abroad had no previous parallels in English history. The Jews who had come to medieval England had been comparatively few in number, although their isolation from their Christian English hosts accentuated their presence. Dutch and Walloon Calvinists arrived in force in Elizabethan England – there were over 15,000 foreign Protestants in the country in the 1590s, the majority Dutch and almost all of the remainder Walloon and Huguenot – but few needed to come once the independence of the United Provinces was secured. Most of the refugees from the German Palatinate in 1709 were immediately resettled in Ireland and America. Irish and Scottish migrants, who chose to come for their individual economic benefit, belong to a different category. Not until the nineteenth century can any other swell of refugees be said to compare remotely with the Huguenots.

From their ranks have come names so well-known in England that their foreign origins are now hidden beneath a cloak of familiarity: names like Bosanquet, Courtauld, Dollond, Gambier, Garrick, Minet, Portal, Tizard. A few, such as de Gruchy, Le Fanu, Lefevre, Lefroy or Ouvry, still immediately strike one as of foreign origin. But the very survival of such names hinders recognition of just how completely the Huguenots have been assimilated. Andrews, Baker, Barber, Cross, Forrester, Fox, Hart, Marshall, Monk, Newhouse, Peters, White, Wood do not look in the least like foreign names. Nor, of course, is there necessarily anything foreign about them. Yet they may well hide the Huguenot origins of Andrieu, Boulanger, Barbier, de laCroix, Forestier, Reynard, Le Cerf, Mareschal, Le Moine, de la Neuvemaison, de la Pierre, Blanc and Dubois. Other names have become even harder to disentangle. Worse still from the historian's point of view, the corruptions and translations may stem from the very earliest months of a refugee's arrival in Britain. 'Lacklead' has a Scottish, 'Bursicott' a West Country air; they are what Englishmen made of de la Clide and de Boursaquotte when they first encountered those Huguenot names. It is worth digressing to point out one result of such transmogrifications: estimates of, for example, the number of MPs of foreign extraction in eighteenth-century Parliaments, or of foreign capital tied up in the English banking system during the wars against Louis XIV's France, are likely to be too low, even if based not on the inadequate published naturalisation records but on lengthy, detailed genealogical research.

The number of Huguenots who sought refuge in England was so large, in relation to a national population of perhaps five and a half million at the end of the seventeenth century, that assimilation and intermarriage mean that most English readers of this journal will have some Huguenot blood in their veins. It runs strongly in the upper echelons of English society. Prince William and Prince Henry, for instance, have descent on their father's side from families including Bourbon Montpensier, Coligny, d'Olbreuse, Rohan and Ruvigny; and on their mother, Lady Diana Spencer's, from Bourbon Vendome, Bulteel, Guinand, Navarre, Rochefoucauld, Ruvigny, Schomberg, and Thellusson. It runs strongly too in the south-west and south-east of England, and also in Ireland, where a further 10,000 refugees settled. It is rarer in the north and west, and in Scotland and Wales; the only Huguenot communities known to have had organised congregations north of a line from the Severn to the Wash are the small settlement at Chester and the more substantial one at Edinburgh.

Just as most Huguenot names have vanished in the process of assimilation, many Huguenot contributions go unrecognised as such because they are deeply embedded. in our national life. David Garrick did so much for the theatre, especially in terms of rehabilitating Shakespeare, that it is hard to remember that he was the grandson of a Huguenot refugee who was an elder of the French Church of London. Users of Roget's Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases , readers of Harriet Martineau, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu or Walter de la Mare, theatre-goers enjoying the skill of Lord Olivier, do not pause to consider their French ancestry.

No doubt that is as it should be, for – especially after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes robbed them of the hope of toleration in France – the Huguenots proved very willing to become English. Those who came to Elizabethan England had been less prepared to cut all ties with their native country, where the ebb and flow of the fortunes of civil war continued to give them hope of re-establishing themselves when peace finally arrived. Protestants from Dieppe, for instance, took refuge in Rye and Winchelsea on the Kent coast on several occasions, only to return to France when. opportunity arose. After the fall of La Rochelle in 1628 and the Peace of Ales the following year, however, the Huguenots could no longer hope to resort successfully to force of arms to protect themselves against hostile action. Consequently they were defenceless against government legal actions in the 1670s, or against the dragonnades of the 1680s; their only answer lay in flight.

It followed that unless outside pressures could be brought to bear, they could not influence or change the thinking that had underlain t he Revocation. in 1685. They did. indeed attempt to get clauses inserted in the Peace of Ryswick (1697) and the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) which would have allowed them back into France; but William III's military efforts were insufficient to force such a concession on Louis in 1697, and by 1713 the economic value of the Huguenots was so great to the allies that neither England nor Holland wished to press the issue. By then, too, children of the refugees had grown up who were ambivalent about returning to a land that was their parents' rather than their own.

As the eighteenth century brought with it successive Anglo-French wars, the pressures on such descendants to underline their Englishness could only grow. In any case, their sense of identity with the Hanoverian succession and their abhorrence of the regime that had unjustly forced their parents to flee were both very strong. In 171.5 it was claimed that they composed the most 'desperate' and disciplined body in England opposed to the restoration of the Stuarts. When the Young Pretender appeared in 1745, the Huguenots were quick to come forward with loyal addresses promising men for service against him. By the time of the Napoleonic Wars, no-one could doubt their Englishness. On July 26th, 1803 a mass meeting of Londoners unanimously declared its 'determination to stand or fall with our King and country' because:

The independence and existence of the British Empire... are at stake. [Forthcoming events will]... determine whether we and our children are to continue freemen and members of the most flourishing communion in the world, or whether we are to be the slaves of our most implacable enemies.

The declaration was signed by the chairman: Jacob Bosanquet, grandson of David Bosanquet who had taken refuge from Languedoc in 1685.

Assimilation was not accomplished without strains within Huguenot families. Some of the steps that might be involved are revealed in the autobiography of Sir Samuel Romilly (1757-1818), a law reformer whose career was important for its long and successful. campaign to inject a greater degree of mercy into the excessive harshness of the English criminal law of the day. His great-grandfather, a landowner at Montpellier, had remained in the south of France after the Revocation, but continued to worship in Protestant ways within the security of his own home, and brought up his children as Protestants. It was Samuel's grandfather, Etienne, who became a refugee in 1701, at the age of seventeen. He went to Geneva for the specific purpose of receiving Communion, and there decided not to return home but to go instead to London. Only then did he inform his family of his decision, but his father accepted the situation and sent money to him from France which helped him establish himself as a wax-'bleacher in Hoxton, It is typical of first-generation refugees to marry others of their own kind, and Etienne married Judith de Monsallier, the daughter of another Huguenot immigrant.

Samuel Romilly's father, Peter, was apprenticed to a Frenchman in the City, a jeweller named Lafosse. In due course Peter too married the daughter of a refugee, Margaret Gamault, so Samuel was brought up in surroundings which retained strong Huguenot influences. He described his father as attaching more importance to practical charitable behaviour towards his fellow men than to forms of worship, but Peter made his family regularly attend morning and evening worship on Sundays, alternating between the parish church and the French chapel in which he had a pew. 'It was a kind of homage which he paid to the faith of his ancestors', Samuel recorded, 'and it was a means of rendering the French language familiar to us'. Otherwise he was far from impressed:

Nothing was ever worse calculated to inspire the mind of a child with respect for. religion than such a kind of religious worship. Most of the descendants of the refugees were born and bred in England, and desired nothing less than to preserve the memory of their origin; and their chapels were therefore ill-attended. A large uncouth room, the avenues to which were narrow courts and dirty alleys, and which, when you entered it, presented to the view only irregular unpainted pews and dusty plastered walls; a congregation consisting principally of some strange-looking old women scattered here and there, one or two in a pew, and a clergyman reading the service and preaching in a monotonous tone of voice, and in a language not familiar to me, was not likely either to impress my mind with much religious awe, or to attract my attention to the doctrines which were delivered.

Nor did he respect the school to which he was sent, 'of which the sole recommendation seems to have been that it had once been kept by a French refugee, and that the sons of many refugees were still scholars at it'. Writing, arithmetic, and the rules of French grammar. were all that he learnt there, if one discounts the influence that hatred of the unjust brutality of the schoolmaster must have exercised on his later career. As for 'the more familiar use' of French, that was something which he and his brother acquired at home, for it remained 'a rule established by my father, that French should be spoken in the family on a Sunday morning, the only time... business allowed him to pass with us'.

Despite his strictures on the French services he had known in his youth, Samuel Romilly continued to attend the chapel, and found it a changed place when a new minister, John Roget, replaced the old man whose monotony had so bored him. Roget indeed became a close friend, and married his sister Catherine. Samuel's Huguenot background must have continued to influence him, and in 1786 he followed his elder brother and father in being elected a director of the French Protestant Hospital. But by and large it was the members of his – the third – generation of refugees who were the last to show any profound awareness of the Huguenot character of their families. In 1787 those Protestants who remained in France finally won toleration, and shortly afterwards special rights were offered to Huguenot descendants who might wish to return there. Very few of those who had crossed the Channel can have been tempted, for assimilation was complete. What had been French had become British.

Various stages can be discerned in the process of assimilation. Just as modern West Indian immigrants may be specifically Grenadian or Trinidadian in the first generation but more generally West Indian in the second, so the Huguenots moved from a close attachment to their provinces of origin towards simply a consciousness of having had roots in France. Between the 1680s and 1710, a series of Friendly Societies – the first in England – were founded, almost all with a French regional basis: the 'Societe des Enfants de Nimes', the Society of Dauphine, the Norman Friendly Society and so on. In London, where there were many French congregations, certain churches drew markedly on some provinces rather than others, so that in Spitalfields refugees from Picardy were likely to attend the church of St Jean, while those from Poitou were drawn to La Patente. Refuge relief – a massive operation which involved the transfer of over one and .a quarter million pounds across a period of two centuries – was at first organised through bureaux according to the province from which the recipients came.

Soon, though, it was more broadly French institutions that were being established, like the Maisons de Charité created for the relief of the poor refugees who thronged the east and west London suburbs of Spitalfields and Soho. La Providence , the French Protestant Hospital, was founded in 1718, also in London; it still exists today, located now at Rochester in the form of flatlets for the elderly. French congregations dwindled in number and lost their regional bases of membership. The Westminster French Protestant School, founded in 1747 for descendants of the refugees, survived into this century and continues to assist with their education in the new guise of the Westminster French Protestant School Foundation.

Calvinism, with its elders to supervise moral behaviour and its deacons to administer poor relief, was always a practical form of religion. Its founder, John Calvin, wanted people to worship God as was their duty, and established an organisation designed to achieve that end. The Friendly Societies with their mutual aid schemes, the Maisons de Charite, the French Protestant Hospital and School, all have their roots in the religious commitment that had prompted the Huguenots to seek refuge in the first place. For this was one wave of refugees whose destitution was due almost wholly to their adherence to their beliefs. The Protestants who reached Tudor England included a substantial proportion – nearly half, perhaps – whose motivation was primarily economic; and they came from lands divided by civil war, and to that extent could be charged by their enemies with sedition. But those fleeing Louis XIV's France turned their back on violence. With the exception of the Camisard rebellion in the Cevennes, they made no effort to resist the state authorities except through flight itself. Since the French government had no wish to lose such useful citizens, that was a dangerous option. Soldiers were patrolling the land frontiers, ships the sea coasts. Capture meant fines and imprisonment at the least, and possibly transportation to the New World, death or – a still worse fate – a lifetime's service chained aboard the French king's galleys.

Historians sometimes write as though religion was no longer the same motivating force in the late seventeenth century that it had been earlier, at the time of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. The story of the Huguenots, or indeed the way in which James II threw away his throne in his vain and unpopular efforts to secure greater toleration and equal opportunities for his fellow Catholics in England, suggests that this view needs reconsideration. From the secular viewpoint of the twentieth century, it is surprising that Louis XIV's advisers should have been willing to countenance the loss of so many useful, peaceful and productive subjects, and astonishing that perhaps a quarter of the Protestants in France at the time were prepared to accept the loss of land and possessions and embrace the dangers inherent in the option of flight.

If their willingness to work hard, to persevere and to lead frugal, upright lives can be ascribed to their religious motivation, the remarkable versatility shown by some of the Huguenots seems rather the product of their displacement and situation as refugees. John Dollond was a silkweaver in Spitalfields when he developed an interest in optics, set his son up as an optician and then abandoned his earlier craft and joined him; he became a Fellow of the Royal Society and won a Copley gold medal, and the firm he founded has grown into that of Dollond and Aitchison. James Vauloue, who invented the machine that drove in the piles for the first Westminster Bridge, was a watchmaker.

The career of Jacques Fontaine, who was training for the ministry when he escaped from France to Appledore near. Barnstaple, Devon in 1685, is fascinating. He had no business or craft training, but was determined to make his own way and not rely on charity. Moving to Taunton in neighbouring Somerset, he opened a shop and began to make cloth. So successful was he that by 1694 he had made a thousand pounds, but he had also aroused local jealousy – and he still aimed to minister to a larger French congregation than Taunton could provide. Packing up, he moved to Cork in Ireland, where, in addition to his ministry, he engaged his formidable energies first in broadcloth manufacture, then in a fishing business. When he died in the early 1720s, he was running a school in Dublin, while most of his children had gone to Virginia to make yet another new start.

Fontaine was a forceful man, not noted for compromise or. tolerance – indeed even the Calvinist French Church of London felt constrained to advise him, while he was minister at Cork, that he should not publicise his low opinion of the Church of England. The Huguenots as a whole shared his quality of determination, yet they contributed to a European-wide movement towards greater toleration and understanding during the eighteenth century. This was partly because their own example underlined the unreasonableness and folly of displacing so many useful citizens in the search for religious uniformity. Further, when they voted with their feet to disobey their government and flee, they raised fundamental questions about the rights of the subject and of the individual conscience. The Huguenots had to answer those questions to their own satisfaction, and to defend their actions to their fellow countrymen still in France. Moreover, by their dispersion they helped create a more international community in Europe than had existed since pre-Reformation days. Pierre Bayle, a refugee in the Netherlands, exercised an important influence through his personal advocacy of toleration and freedom of conscience and through his sceptical and scientific method which pointed the way to Voltaire and other thinkers of the Enlightenment. Other Huguenots influenced a new cross-fertilisation of English and continental ideas. Pierre des Maiseaux translated Bayle's work into English; Pierre Coste translated Locke's writings into French; and Paul de Rapin (Rapin-Thoyras') History of England and Abel Boyer's Political State of Great Britain made English institutions better known in Europe than previously they had been.

As the refugees rooted themselves in Britain, they began to explore the variety of religious experience around them. In the first generation after the Revocation, the majority clung to the form of worship they had known in France, while a minority used the Anglican Prayer Book translated into French. As their descendants became English, they came to play a part not only in Presbyterianism (which was closest to the French Calvinist forms) and Anglicanism, but in early Methodism – Vincent Perronet was the Wesleys' right-hand man – and most other branches of Protestantism. And in the nineteenth century, that most notable of English Catholics, Cardinal Newman, was the son of a Fourdrinier mother. The breadth of the Huguenot religious contribution, even in spheres where it might not be anticipated, reflects and illustrates the refugees' ample repayment of England's hospitality towards them.

Robin Gwynn is senior lecturer in history at Massey University, New Zealand, and currently Director of Huguenot Heritage. He is the author of Huguenot Heritage (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985).

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