The Huguenots

9781108079822fc3dI have mentioned before the industrious Samuel Smiles, Victorian believer in hard work and self-education (otherwise known as pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps) as the way to social improvement and financial prosperity. His 1867 work on the Huguenot communities of Britain and Ireland was, I imagine, inspired by his admiration for a group of people who had done just that, sometimes more than once.

The book does not however begin with the Huguenots, but with printing. Smiles sees the printing – and thus much wider availability, though still at great expense – of the Latin Bible as the great driver which eventually led to the Protestant Reformation. ‘We do not, however, suppose that Gutenberg and his associates were induced to execute this first printed Bible through any more lofty motive than that of earning a considerable sum of money by the enterprise.’ Nevertheless, the Bible as a purchasable artefact rather than a fixture inside a church led to wider knowledge of its full content among the secular learned, and thence to pressure for translations into the vernacular for the unlearned but pious.

A Gutenberg Bible in the collection of the Library of Congress

A Gutenberg Bible in the collection of the Library of Congress

Smiles quotes Martin Luther: ‘I was twenty years old before I had ever seen the Bible … my preceptor at the convent of Erfurt used to say to me, ”Ah, brother Martin! Why trouble yourself with the Bible? Rather read the ancient doctors who have collected for you all its marrow and honey. The Bible itself is the cause of all our troubles.”’ This and similar anecdotes reveal quite early on that Smiles is a little bit partisan in his approach. The Catholics (especially the French) are evil, the Protestants are heroic and noble, and that’s about all there is to it.

Smiles breaks off his more general narrative to look in more detail at the exemplary life of one French Protestant, the artisan, chemist, geologist, artist and potter Bernard Palissy, whose ornate and bizarre works had become popular in Britain after the Minton factory had displayed its range of ‘Palissy wares’ at the Great Expedition of 1851. (We are about to reissue a two-volume life of Palissy published in 1852.) Staunch in his faith, Palissy survived the wars of religion because he was patronised by Catholic nobles and even by Catherine de’ Medici, but after the Queen Mother’s death he was sent to the Bastille, and died there (under sentence of death by burning), having (according to Smiles) faced down the weak and duplicitous King Henri III.

A rather Shakespearian-looking Palissy, from an 1862 engraving

A rather Shakespearian-looking Palissy, from an 1862 engraving

The wars of religion led to one influx of French refugees to England; but earlier than this, Protestants (both Dutch- and French-speaking) from the Low Countries were heading across the Channel and the North Sea to escape increasing persecution by their Spanish Habsburg rulers. In 1550 Edward VI gave them the church of the Austin Friars (a community dissolved in 1538), which remains the Dutch Church to this day.


The Dutch Church in 1815

The Dutch Church in 1815








It was partially destroyed in 1600, gutted by fire in 1862, rebuilt, bombed in the Blitz, and rebuilt again in the 1950s. Its phenomenal archives happily survived, and were published between 1887 and 1897 by Jan Hendrick Hessels. As the French grew in number, they were given the former St Antony’s hospital chapel in Threadneedle Street, which in the following century became a centre of strict Calvinism and Parliamentarianism; the Royalists migrated to the chapel of the Savoy, where they held Anglican services in French.

The émigrés, as well as being co-religionists, brought to the British Isles skills which were of great advantage to their adopted country, not least those of spinning and weaving. One tends (I tend) to forget that the enormous textile trade of the medieval period consisted mostly of wool going out of England and finished cloth coming back: such spinning and weaving as happened were carried out as cottage industries for the use of one’s own family only.

The British wool industry at full production

The British wool industry at full production

Antwerp spinners and weavers, driven out by the disasters of war, started processing cloth from the same basic material, but in the country of its origin, and Queen Elizabeth especially encouraged this potential self-sufficiency, as saving the vital wool industry, for which the export market had almost dried up.

Smiles mentions Sandwich as one town transformed by the Huguenot influx: when the queen visited in 1573, over 100 children were shown off spinning in the school-yard; French millers built mills, potters from Delft built kilns. ‘Others were smiths, brewers, hatmakers, or shipwrights. Thus trade and population increased; new buildings arose on all sides, until Sandwich became almost transformed into a Flemish town’, an appearance which it still maintains.

St Peter's Church, Sandwich, rebulit woth Dutch gable

St Peter’s Church, Sandwich, rebuilt with Dutch gable

Another fascinating insight which Smiles claims is that the Flemings taught the English to eat vegetables: vegetable gardening, he says, ‘had almost become a lost art in England’. I think this debatable, if not wrong, but it is certainly the case that the Thames-side hamlets of Wandsworth, Bermondsey and Battersea were colonised by Flemish market gardeners, and remained suppliers of vegetables for Londoners until the nineteenth century.

Vegetable shopping, 1631

Vegetable shopping, 1631

Flemish iron-workers, under the protection of the earl of Shrewsbury, were sent to the obscure town of Sheffield to teach the locals their trade; Flemings and Dutch under Cornelius Vermuyden drained the Fens of East Anglia (here Smiles refers to vol. 1 of his own Lives of the Engineers). Meanwhile, in France, massacres in provincial cities in 1562 and the horror of St Bartholomew’s in Paris (and elsewhere) in 1572 kept a steady stream of refugees crossing the Channel to both England and Ireland. Sir Henry Sidney, then governor of Ireland, wrote in 1590: ‘… it would do any man good to have seen how diligently they [a community of French weavers] wrought, how they re-edified the quite spoiled ould castell of the same [Swords, north of Dublin], and how godlie and cleanly they, their wiefs, and children lived.’

Swords Castle, as repaired by the Huguenots

Swords Castle, as repaired by the Huguenots

The Edict of Nantes, ending the French wars of religion with a very limited version of religious tolerance, stemmed the exodus for less than a century: its revocation in 1685 led to renewed persecution and renewed flight, suffering and death. Smiles describes the diaspora throughout Europe, and argues that the revocation had a two-fold effect on the Glorious Revolution of 1688: the horrors recounted by the latest wave of émigrés confirmed the anti-Catholic sentiment in England at the time of James II‘s accession, and William of Orange was able to enlarge his own expeditionary force with experienced officers and men who had left or been driven from the French army.

Smiles ends the book with the stories of the second and third generations of Huguenots, and their usually prosperous lives and careers in Britain, as well as the surviving Huguenot communities, most notably in Spitalfields in in London. The book is a good Victorian moral tale, extolling self-help and abominating popery, but the stories of individual lives are fascinating, and frequently inspiring. He also supplies a useful list of names, from which you can check on your own Huguenot links, if any: my own ancestors include a warden of the Fleet prison and many distinguished naval officers!



This entry was posted in Archaeology, Art and architecture, Gardening, History, Printing and Publishing History, Religious Studies and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Huguenots

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