Huguenot or Huguewilling

In which Chris Sams remembers when Rochester once accepted religious refugees from a hostile country with open arms, yet at the same time treated them with the suspicions and xenophobia..

In the sixteenth century Europe was rocked by a religious ‘schism’ which was started by the German monk Martin Luther and the English King Henry VIII. This of course was the rise of Protestantism and the separation from the Catholic Church. This has caused ruptures in different countries for hundreds of years, which we are still feeling the after effects now, especially in Northern Ireland. It was only recently that an age old law banning Catholics from being Prime Minister was lifted.

In France, a nation that England, and the successor nation of Great Britain, has fought for centuries (including for a century and a bit during the Hundred Years’ war), this split was dealt with quite harshly.

French Protestants, known as Huguenots, faced horrible repression and saw their leaders murdered; including Admiral de Coligny, in the St. Bartholomew’s massacre on 18th August 1572. The violence was not all one way, as Huguenots attacked Catholic priests and nuns as well as churches and congregations. Although moderate Catholics within France wanted to work for national unity over sectarian violence, there were too much hatred and foreign interference, especially from Rome. Massacres in Paris and the provinces continued with mixed reactions from foreign leaders including condemnation from Ivan the Terrible, Czar of Russia, and the German Emperor Maximillian I, but King Phillip II of Spain laughed at the news – possibly the only time he is recorded doing so.

France made a huge blunder at this point. It has been argued by historians; of the Canadian colonies, and Americas in the early colonial stage, that had the French government exiled the Huguenots to their new colonies, rather than criminals from the hulks in Toulouse, and sponsoring “fallen women” to marry them, then the colonies would have had a greater industry and income. As many of the Huguenots were tradesmen and middle class, who would have embraced the New World and made it their own, but remained loyal to France. This is, of course conjecture for people with dusty heaving bookshelves, and beyond my real sphere of historical interest.

The Charter of Edward (1547-53) allowed Huguenots to set up a church in London, and with the ascension of Henri de Bourbon, King of Navarre, to the throne of France in 1593, the fighting stopped. Following the deaths of several of his Valois cousins Henri became heir to the throne in 1589, but his Huguenot religion caused great upset amongst the staunchly Catholic aristocracy of France and a Civil War erupted. Henri converted to Catholicism to soothe the situation but gave boons to Huguenots in France giving them freedoms under the treaty of Nantes. These freedoms were slowly eroded over time, until King Louis XIV overturned the treaty of Nantes in 1685 and exiled all Protestant priests, but forbade any French citizens to leave.

With their rights being quashed and in some places their lives terrorised many Huguenots decided to leave and 200,000 left. If caught trying to escape they could be executed, sent as galley slaves to the Mediterranean fleet, and children placed in convents, women imprisoned. Of that number 10,000 came to England and gave us the word “refugee”. Jean Calas, a Huguenot merchant from Toulouse was arrested for the murder of his son, though Calas maintained it was suicide until his eventual death. Mainly because of his faith Calas was tortured with his arms and legs dislocated, 17 litres of water forcibly poured down his throat, he was tied to a cross in the town square and his limbs broken twice by an iron bar before his eventual execution on the wheel. This mode of execution included the victim being tied to a large wheel and having every bone in the body shattered starting with the shin bones up to the neck.

Then, as now, the refugees were treated as outsiders, their differences marked them as aliens and there was a great distrust of them, especially during war time with France as there was a belief that they could be enemy agents. There were also accusations of them stealing local jobs, lowering living standards and causing crime – all too familiar slogans. It took around a century for them to be assimilated into the local culture and population. Although the refugees shared the same religion as the English and in some cases adopted Anglicanism not long after arrival, they were still viewed by their country of origin and accents.

The Huguenots were not lazy and worked hard in skilled craftsmanship including book making, weaving, literature, education and the military proving that although we are from different countries and speak different tongues that a European cooperation can still exist.

In Rochester, there is the French Hospital which is the fourth location of the hospital (originally established in London in 1718) and was set up to allow refuge for Huguenot refugees and now descendants. There is also the Huguenot museum in the High Street for more information on the life and times of Huguenots.  

There are bitter divisions within this country especially over the European Referendum of 2016. There is bitter distrust of people who have taken refuge in this country or have immigrated here and they need to be solved and dealt with, so that as a country we can all move forward together as one, as it has before.

chrisChris Sams is history writer published by @fonthillmedia. He is a @_uow graduate studying War at Sea 1914-18. Read more at

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