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After the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre on August 23, 1572, hundreds of Huguenots set sail for England.

In Paris, Ambassador Sir Francis Walsingham’s house was respected as a place of sanctuary for the Huguenots. However, those who lived in the north of France packed their belongings and planned their escape.

A book from 1871, Protestant exiles from France in the reign of Louis XIV or, The Huguenot refugees and their descendants in Great Britain and Ireland, details this story. A summary and excerpts follow.

Elizabeth I, her advisers and the Church of England were shocked and moved by the persecution of their Protestant counterparts in France. Special prayers were authorised to be said in churches on October 27, 1572. Plans were made to offer the refugees shelter and a new life.

As with so many migrations, the upper classes viewed this differently to ordinary townspeople. The historian Strype observed:

The better sort of the Queen’s subjects were very kind unto these poor Protestants, and glad to see them retired unto more safety in this country ; but another sort (divers of the common people and rabble, too many of them) behaved themselves otherwise towards these afflicted strangers, and would call them by no other denomination but French dogs. This a French author, sometime afterward, took notice of in print, to the disparagement of the English nation.

William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley from NPG (2).jpgAnother adviser to the Queen, Lord Burghley, deeply affected by events, was kept informed of Huguenot arrivals. One of his memoranda states that, in the weeks after the massacre, 641 people from the northern French towns of Dieppe and Rouen arrived in Rye (East Sussex), one of England’s Cinque Ports. In November, 58 more arrived.

Burghley’s family estate was further north in Lincolnshire in the town of Stamford. He was instrumental in creating a Huguenot colony there. Among the new arrivals were schoolmasters, merchants, silk-weavers, hatters, dyers and cutlers (cutlery makers). They had their own place of worship and their own minister. However, by the early 18th century, the colony had dispersed. Strype wrote in 1711 that townspeople still remembered the minister, Isbrand Balkius, who must have stayed there as he was of riper years when he died.

Many Huguenots settled in coastal towns along the south coast of England from Kent to the West Country. A few, manufacturers in particular, went to the Midlands or to the East of England. English merchants had reservations about how much trade the Huguenots should do. Whilst they empathised with the plight of the French Protestants and were happy with them to make goods at wholesale level,

they were bent upon shutting up the retail-shops of all foreigners.

In 1588, much to Lord Burghley’s disappointment, Parliament debated the Bill against Strangers and Aliens Selling Wares by Retail. In an impassioned speech to Parliament, Burghley acknowledged that he must let his head rule his heart on the matter. However, he also cited the Old Testament books of Leviticus and Ezekiel which exhort kindness to strangers. He concluded that Huguenot retail shops would be so few in number that English shopkeepers would not notice an effect on their revenues.

Burghley’s speech might have helped to defeat the legislation. The Bill was also refused a second reading. A subsequent proposal requiring foreigners’ children to pay a special tax never saw the light of day.

It should be noted that none of the Huguenot groups asked for a handout, only the opportunity to work for a living. The better off took care of their poorer brethren.

Burghley died in 1598, at which point shopkeepers’ rancour again surfaced. In 1599, the Lord Mayor of London forbade foreign retail shops. Queen Elizabeth, Archbishop Whitgift and prominent advisers advised him to drop the restrictions. In 1601, Lord Buckhurst, the Lord High Treasurer, asked Attorney-General Coke to drop all legal cases against foreign shopkeepers.

Queen Elizabeth died on March 24, 1603. Archbishop Abbot said:

Queen Elizabeth, who, having at her coming to the crown, promised to maintain the truth of God and to deface superstition, with this beginning with uniformity continued, yielding her land, as a sanctuary to all the world groaning for liberty of their religion, flourishing in wealth, honour, estimation every way.

Her successor, King James, wrote letters in French to the French Church in England and to the Dutch Refugee Church promising that he would continue his predecessor’s policy of sanctuary to persecuted Protestants. He acknowledged their contributions to English society, particularly in the manufacture of goods and in political science.

Nevertheless, by 1605, the London Companies (guilds) of weavers, cutlers, goldsmiths and others were up in arms, accusing Huguenots of undercutting them. They appealed to James’s advisers for new laws protecting them from ‘alien industry’. In 1606, a law was passed requiring ‘double custom’ to be paid on baize. The same tax was payable on other exported cloth.

In 1615, the Weavers Company made the following accusation:

the strangers employed more workmen than were allowed by statute, and then concealed them when search was made that they lived more cheaply and therefore sold more cheaply than the English that they imported silk lace contrary to law.

In 1621, the Weavers Company issued another complaint:

Their chiefest cause of entertainment here of late was in charity to shroud them from persecution for religion; and, being here, their necessity became the mother of their ingenuity in devising many trades, before to us unknown.

The result was a law requiring Huguenot businesses to employ English apprentices and servants to learn these unknown trades (emphases mine):

the neglect whereof giveth them advantage to keep their mysteries to themselves, which hath made them bold of late to devise engines for working of tape, lace, ribbon, and such, wherein one man doth more among them than seven Englishmen can do ; so as their cheap sale of those commodities beggareth all our English artificers of that trade and enricheth them. Since the making of the last statute they are thought to be increased ten for one, so as no tenement is left to an English artificer to inhabit in divers parts of the city and suburbs, but they take them over their heads at a great rate. So their numbers causeth the enhancing of the price of victuals and house rents, and much furthereth the late disorderly new buildings which is so burdonous to the subject that His Majesty hath not any work to perform for the good of his commons (especially in cities and towns) than by the taking of the benefit of the law upon them, a thing which is done against his own subjects by common informers. But their daily flocking hither without such remedy is like to grow scarce tolerable.

To address these accusations, London censuses were taken in 1618 and 1621. The government considered that the London Companies’ had exaggerated their accusations. The government’s conclusion aligned with English public opinion. People were happy with the Huguenots’ presence and their contributions to society.

I find interesting the arguments that the Weavers Company advanced about immigration, industry and housing in London. The general view today is that Huguenots were absorbed into English society without a problem. Whilst that might have been true generally, London — and no doubt other centres of industry — probably had the usual problems with an influx of foreigners.

What was the truth? Quite possibly somewhere between what both the government and the London Companies asserted. At least there was no question of public assistance in those days.

Tomorrow: Huguenots under Charles I

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