Religious divisions in France and persecution of Protestants led to waves of foreign immigrants to London. The Huguenots who made the country their new home introduced the word ‘refugee’ (from the French réfugié) into the English language.
From the second half of the 15th century there was a growing movement across Europe that questioned the theology, wealth and power of the established Catholic church. In England, Henry VIII’s break from the Pope, the suppression of monasteries, and the formation of the Church of England, was more to do with his desire for divorce, but the country gradually drifted in the direction of Protestantism.
Calvinist Protestantism gradually spread across France, particularly amongst better-educated professionals, merchants and artisans, especially city-dwellers, and increasingly even noble families. They became known as Huguenots. King Francis I of France was initially tolerant towards them. From 1534, however, he turned against Protestants, brutally persecuting those who could not flee abroad. Individuals were burned at the stake and Huguenot villages destroyed. France descended into a period of sporadic civil wars between Catholics and Protestants lasting more than thirty years, known as the Eight Wars of Religion.
Some Huguenots left their country and arrived in London. In 1550 Edward VI granted a royal charter to establish a Protestant church at Austin Friars in the City for Dutch and French immigrants. That same year the chapel of the former St. Anthony’s Hospital in Threadneedle Street was licenced for services and it became the primary place of worship in London for Huguenot immigrants. (In 1841 the building was demolished to make way for the Royal Exchange and the church eventually re-sited in Soho Square where the French Protestant Church remains today). As the number of French Protestants increased, a subsidiary congregation was established to the west of the City on the Strand at the Savoy.
A significant event during the civil wars was the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in August 1572 when Protestant leaders in Paris were brutally murdered, triggering further massacres across the country. News of the events reached England and had a profound effect on the sympathies of the English people. Huguenots were thereafter welcomed to settle in this country. Importantly, Queen Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, William Cecil, was a great supporter, knowing their reputation for hard work. Many of the early refugees settled in Canterbury, hoping one day return to France, and a local weaving industry thrived there. When it later became clear there was no option to return, many left for London. By the mid-1630s there were Huguenot workshops in Southwark and Westminster employing several hundred people.
The early 17th century was a period of relative calm in France under the rule of Henri IV. In April 1598 he passed a series of laws known as the Edict of Nantes in which Huguenots were guaranteed a great deal of freedom to practice their form of religion. Persecution of Protestants resumed during the reigns of Louis XIII and Louis XIV, however. Huguenots were excluded from public office and various trades, and forbidden from practicing law or medicine, or from leaving the country. Many of their places of worship were suppressed, Bibles and record books destroyed, and schools closed. From around 1681 French soldiers, or ‘dragoons’, were forcibly billeted within Huguenot homes, terrorising Protestant families. Huguenots began to flee in large numbers as dragoons took over their homes, secretly and illegally leaving France. It was a dangerous thing to attempt. They escaped across borders to the nearest country, whether that was the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland or Italy. Those on the west side of France mostly escaped by sea, via the ports of La Rochelle, Bordeaux or Nantes to Falmouth, Dover, Southampton or the Channel Islands. Some even made it onward as far as the English colonies in America. Those crossing the Channel did so in dangerous conditions, often in small rowing boats to avoid French naval frigates, or hidden in barrels on ships.
In 1681 King Charles II of England, petitioned by the congregation of the French church on the Strand, formally offered Huguenots his royal protection. Describing them in a document that was read out in churches around the country as “distressed strangers”, he ordered a national relief fund be set up. One Huguenot who arrived during that time was the young Elizabeth St.Michel who in 1655 married Samuel Pepys and Pepys regularly attended the Threadneedle Street church. Henry Compton, Bishop of London was a great supporter of the Huguenots and helped in raising aid for arriving refugees. In April 1686 a public collection was sanctioned to help relieve newly arrived silk-weavers who had settled at Spitalfields. Annual royal grants were provided to Huguenots from 1686 through to the reign if George III.
The Huguenot church at Threadneedle Street, which had been destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 but rebuilt, became too small for the large congregation. James II, was a Catholic and less sympathetic to this influx of new Protestants, but nevertheless in 1687 granted a charter for the building of a new French church at Spitalfields, between Black Eagle Street and Grey Eagle Street.
In October 1685 Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, formally put into law much of the persecution that was already taking place. Hundreds of Protestant men who remained in France were put into slavery as rowers aboard galley ships, a practice that continued well into the 18th century. Three quarters died within three years of sentencing. Women were incarcerated, in some cases for life. The remaining Protestant places of worship around the country were destroyed. Charles II wrote to his cousin Louis offering asylum to French Protestants. Fifty thousand left for England. By the end of the century Huguenots possibly formed five percent of the population of this country.
Huguenots, like their 17th century contemporaries the Quakers, were industrious people. These puritanical Calvinists believed that wealth, created by honest work, was godly. The Huguenots were on the whole mostly skilled artisans, craftsmen, farmers, and professional people. Those who came to England included doctors, schoolmasters, merchants, mariners, shipwrights, and even some aristocrats. They were generally welcomed by many wherever they settled and there was greater tolerance towards them than the more socially-extreme Quakers. Persecuted for generations in their former homeland, they formed close-knit communities. Some joined the forces of William of Orange and were part of the army that accompanied him during the Glorious Revolution that ousted James II from the English throne in 1688. Several highly-skilled gun-makers also settled in London.
The strangers were not welcomed by everyone. Some London citizens blamed them for an outbreak of plague in 1593 and attacked their homes. In the 1680s English weavers and metal-workers in London, who had to compete with the highly-skilled newcomers, threatened violence against French immigrants. Charles II ordered troops to be stationed in nearby locations as a deterrent.
Many products that had previously been imported from France were from then manufactured in London or elsewhere in England. The departure of Huguenots from France led to economic hardship there whereas in England their hard work and inventiveness became one of the pillars of the industrial revolution of the 18th century. As an example of France’s loss, glass-making was revolutionised in England by the Huguenots but died off as an industry in France. Louis had demanded that all gold plate be handed over to finance his wars in Holland, forcing many goldsmiths to leave France. There had been a major Huguenot silk weaving industry that decamped to London, wiping out much of the French cloth industry. Other Huguenots were clock-makers and silversmiths. One weaver named Mongeorge brought with him from Lyon the secret of making silk lustring, then very fashionable, and the product became known as English taffeta. An Act of Parliament thereafter banned its importation on the grounds that the English-produced product was of such high quality.
An estimated 25,000 Huguenots arrived between 1685 and 1700, many in need of work and shelter. About one third of those arriving in England settled in areas around London but outside of the jurisdiction of the City and the Livery Companies. The largest concentration was at Spitalfields and Bethnal Green to the north-east of the City.