• Richard Edmunds

The Arrival of the Huguenots

Updated: Aug 16, 2018

I am pleased to announce the first of my updated and revised reprints of my 2013 Huguenot series of books, The Early Silk Weavers of London and Spitalfields 1520-1720, was published on 4th August 2018 and is now available to purchase from the store section of this website https://www.richedmunds.co.uk/product-page/the-early-silk-weavers-of-london-and-spitalfields-1520-1720 .



Created as a parish on the outskirts of London in 1729, Spitalfields was by then the focus of the European silk trade with an industrious and vibrant mixed community. This book explores its rise to prominence in the preceding two centuries, from a sparsely populated rural hamlet of St Dunstan's, Stepney, to a bustling urban centre of commerce, and particularly the part played in that transformation by foreign Protestant refugee settlers, Walloon and Huguenot, who established and built the thriving silk industry there.


But just who were the Walloons and Huguenots and when and why did they leave their home for England?

The Walloons were, and are, a distinct ethnic group, who speak a Romance language, closely related in genesis to modern French. They populate Wallonia, a region of Europe today not autonomous, but split between southern Belgium and north east France. At the time of the Protestant Reformation the entire area was under the control of the Holy Roman Empire and the Habsburg Kings of Spain. Between 1566 and 1648 many Reformists fled religious persecution in this area and established churches and refugee communities in England.

The origin of the term Huguenot is disputed, though initially it was a pejorative, used by outsiders to describe members of the Reformed Church of the Kingdom of France, followers of the teachings of French theologian Jean Calvin, at the time of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. All but obsolete by the late 18th century, in the second half of the 19th century the term was resurrected in a historical context and embraced by descendants of French Protestant Refugees, particularly those living in the United Kingdom and the United States, where it is now used free from any negative connotation.


As with the neighbouring Walloons, French Reformists had been given cause to flee their homeland as early as the 16th century, particularly during the brutal French Religious Wars of 1562-1598, which included several localised and widespread massacres of Reformists, most infamously that of St Bartholomew's Eve, in August 1572. Initially though, in the period 1548-1648, Walloon refugees to England greatly outnumbered their French co-religionists, and were instrumental in establishing the Francophone refugee communities and their various associated trades and industries here.

The largest exodus of Protestant families and individuals from France occurred in the years immediately following the infamous Revocation of the Edit of Nantes, in 1685, the ultimate cause of which was the increasing despotism of the French monarch Louis XIV.


Louis XIV of France 1643-1715

The roots of his personal character and the genesis of his policies both originate in the 'Fronde' uprisings in the early 1650s, a formative experience for the youthful King. Yet to reach his majority, it became necessary for him to flee Paris in fear of his safety. This unsettling experience, combined with the bleak fate of his late uncle Charles I of England, recently dethroned by civil war and executed, shaped a totalitarian adult ruler who favoured a strong centralised form of government, with a large standing Army.


In times of peace the costs of maintaining this army and the perceived threat it posed to civil liberty led to regular calls for it to be disbanded. State persecution of religious heresy, indelibly linked in popular perception with sedition and rebellion since the upheaval of the Religious Wars the previous century, provided a convenient excuse to keep these troops engaged during peacetime, on the pretext of maintaining civil order. This was a major underlying reason behind the repeated persecutions of the Huguenots in 17th and 18th century France.


The first widespread outbreak of persecution began in 1678, coinciding with the return of the King’s Army from the Franco-Dutch war, and lasted until 1688, when war again broke out with Holland, England and the Holy Roman Empire. When hostilities ceased, on the signing of the Treaty of Ryswick in September 1697, the domestic persecutions of heretics were again renewed with vigour, and continued until the commencement of the Spanish War of Succession in 1701. The persecutions largely halted for the next decade whilst the troops were occupied elsewhere, with the exception of the Cevennes region where Protestants were in open rebellion, necessitating a military response from central government. The Peace of Utrecht in 1713, and the subsequent return of the Army to France occasioned yet another renewal of widespread persecution and a fresh spike in religious refugees.


The Dragonnades, the forced billeting of troops on Protestant homes, was used, from 1681, as an intimidatory tactic to force conversion or ruin on Huguenot families.

The death of the aged Louis XIV, in 1715, initially created great uncertainty in the direction of policy towards France’s Protestants, with widespread hopes of an imminent end to persecution and the return of the siginificant Refugee Diaspora as a much-needed boost to the economy. These hopes did not, ultimately, come to fruition. With the Regency Council of the infant Louis XV, (1715-1774), reluctant to alter the status quo, the same old persecutory pattern continued.


The eight-year period from 1748-56 saw a particularly brutal repression, whilst troops were again temporarily garrisoned at home, in the hiatus between the end of the Austrian War of Succession (1740-1748) and the outbreak of the Seven Years War (1756-63). Perhaps as many as ten thousand to fifteen thousand Protestants fled France at this time. In England most of these came from Normandy and Poitou. A particular feature of these later persecutions in Normandy was the revival of the much feared and despised 1681 'enlèvement' law, which allowed for the forced abduction of Protestant children, under seven, and their placement into Catholic Reform Schools and Convents, as Wards of the State barred from contact with their families. Refugee lists in both Jersey and London show a disproportionate amount of those who fled at this time were either parents with young children, or children smuggled out and sent alone into the 'refuge', possibly to relatives already in exile abroad.

Many of the 1748-56 wave of refugees were aided in London by the energetic efforts of the charismatic Minister of the Artillery Church, in Spitalfields, Jacob Bourdillon (1704-1786). He later referred to this time and his response to the crisis in his famous Jubilee Sermon of 13th January 1782:

“A violent persecution having renewed afresh in various Provinces of France, against our Brothers, around the year of 1748, a great number of them came to take refuge in this Kingdom, like come unto another Fatherland, where, in the shelter from danger, they accepted, according to their needs, considerable assistance, and found here churches, the doors of which were opened to them with gladness.”


An illicit religious assembly is discovered in France, during the outlawed period 1685-1787

As the Seven Years War drew into its final stages, and troops began to return home, fresh persecutions once more broke out. The last execution of a Protestant minister in France, Francois Rochette, took place at Toulouse in February 1762. Just weeks later, the Huguenot textile merchant, Jean Calas, was broken on the wheel in the same location. This unjust act of brutality caused general revulsion in Europe, and widespread calls for an end to intolerance, which were championed by the enlightenment thinker Voltaire (1694-1778). Slowly this call was heeded and the persecutions drew to an end in most locations, though official state toleration would not yet come until nearly a generation later, under a new King, Louis XVI (1774-1793).


Isolated exceptions included the Cambresis, a Walloon region, previously part of the Spanish Netherlands, annexed to the French Kingdom by Louis XIV in the 1660's. There a newly revitalised Calvinist movement clashed with a similarly zealous local Catholic authority, dominated by Jesuits. Refugees fleeing persecution in the same region in the 1560s, were among the earliest foreign Protestants in England and had founded many of the Stranger congregations. Ironically, because of this later persecution, Walloon Calvinists now also made up the last of the so-called ‘Huguenot’ refugees to England.


This final influx occurred in the 1760s and 1770s, as small groups of linked families and individuals, from several interconnected neighbouring villages and towns in the Cambresis, fled the French Kingdom, by foot and boat, finding refuge in Holland and England. They numbered probably no more than a few hundred persons in total, and certainly nothing like the tens of thousands of refugees who fled from various different locations in France at the height of the nationwide persecutions a century earlier in the 1680s.

The last individual refugee arriving in London from this region, is recorded as late as 1781, just six years before Louis XVI signed his Edit of Toleration returning civil status to the Protestants of France. An estimated 150-200,000 Protestant refugees had fled from France and Wallonia over the course of the preceding two centuries, and around 50,000-60,000 of those individuals had found refuge in England and Ireland. Their contribution to culture, trade and industry was highly significant, not least in Spitalfields, where the silks designed and woven by these refugees, their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, remain famous examples of high art in textiles and a visual testament to their unique and indomitable spirit of industry, independence and creativeness.


Spitalfields Weavers at their looms 18th century.

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