history of the huguenots

The exact origin of the term Huguenot is uncertain but it was commonly used to describe Protestants in France from the middle of the sixteenth century. The Huguenots were members of the French Reformed Church established by John Calvin in 1555. The Protestant Reformation in Europe began with the teachings of Martin Luther in Germany in the early 16th century and spread rapidly in France and this new reformed religion was practiced by many members of the French nobility and social middle-class.

An Eyewitness Account of the Saint Bartholomew’s
Day Massacre by François Dubois

As Protestantism grew and developed in France, it abandoned the Lutheran form and adopted a more Calvinistic tone. It was based on a belief in salvation through individual faith, without the need for the intercession of a church hierarchy, and on the belief in an individual’s right to interpret scriptures for themselves.

At the time, these beliefs were considered to be radical and placed the French Protestants in direct theological conflict with both the Catholic Church and the King of France. Followers of this new Protestantism were soon accused of heresy against the Catholic government and the established religion of France but the number and influence of the French Reformers continued to increase and led to an escalation in hostility and conflict between the Catholic State and the Huguenots. The conflict reached a peak in 1572 when Catholic mobs massacred Huguenots in what became known as the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. This incident radicalized the Huguenots and ignited the French Wars of Religion which continued for the next three decades.

Many Huguenots chose to leave France and settle in neighbouring Protestant countries where they could freely practice their religion. They established communities in Europe and some travelled as far as New France, America and South Africa.

the edict of nantes

On 13 April 1598, Henry IV of France signed the Edict of Nantes which officially ended the conflict between the French Catholic State and the Protestant Huguenots. The Edict granted Protestants equality with Catholics and a degree of religious and political freedom within certain geographic areas but it also served to protect Catholic interests by discouraging the founding of new Protestant churches in Catholic controlled regions. The Edict succeeded in ending the long running French Wars of Religion and restored peace and unity for many years.

The Arrival of Henry IV in Paris

But the peace would not last and throughout the first half of the 17th century, conflict continued to flare up between Catholics and Huguenots and the application of the edict varied from year to year. When Louis XIV assumed full control of the French crown in 1661, he imposed his philosophy of ‘une foi, une loi, une roi’ — one faith, one law, one king — and officially renewed the persecution of the Protestant minority. Over the next twenty years, the restrictions imposed on Huguenots increased in both number and severity; they were prohibited from holding public office, practicing as physicians, travelling and selling their possessions.

Finally, in October 1685, Louis XIV issued the Edict of Fontainebleau which formally revoked the Edict of Nantes and declared Protestantism illegal in France. This act, more commonly known as the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, was the culmination of the increasing persecution against the Huguenots and it resulted in the destruction of Huguenot churches, the closure of Protestant schools and increased pressure and intimidation to convert to Catholicism. Those who refused to swear allegiance to Rome had their land and possessions confiscated and many were imprisoned and tortured. Huguenot children were forcibly taken from their parents and placed in convents and orphanages where they were raised and educated according to the Catholic tradition. As a result of the increased persecution, many Huguenots fled France and sought refuge in Holland, Belgium, England and America.

To prevent the Huguenots from leaving, the state declared all emigration illegal. In order to escape the ongoing persecution, many Huguenot families were forced to abandon their homes and possession and flee the country illegally. Numbers vary but scholars estimate that some 200 000 to 500 000 Huguenots left France between 1685 and 1700 and sought refuge in neighbouring Protestant countries.

flight to england

As the persecution of Huguenots increased, many sought refuge across the Channel and between 1685 and 1700, approximately 50 000 Huguenots fled to England. They were attracted to England because of the welcome afforded to them as sufferers for the Protestant cause and public opinion in England was so firmly in favour of the Huguenots that even King Charles II, a Catholic monarch, felt compelled to offer sanctuary to the Huguenots. He declared that he was:

obliged, in Honour and Conscience, to comfort and support all such distressed Protestants, who, by reason of the Rigors and Severities, which were used towards them upon the Account of their Religion, should be forced to quit their native Country, and should desire to shelter themselves under his Royal Protection

Huguenot Refugees arriving at Dover

Large numbers of refugees from Huguenot communities in north-west France, particularly Normandy, Brittany and Picardy, made their way to the ports of Le Havre and Calais. Their journey was not an easy one as sentinels and guards were posted at city gates, main roads, and ports to prevent the Huguenots from leaving. Those who were caught faced imprisonment and torture and many were forced to serve their sentences as galley slaves. To avoid capture, families often split up into smaller groups with mothers, fathers and children travelling separately. Many left their homes at night with little more than they could carry and travelled by cart or on foot through fields, forests and back roads. Once in the port town of Le Havre, they secretly booked passage on ships sailing to Dover on the south coast of England and hid among the cargo to avoid detection.

The Huguenot refugees arrived on the beaches of Kent following a 20 hour journey across the English Channel. They travelled north across Kent, first to Canterbury and then on to Gravesend where they once again boarded ships and sailed up the Thames to London. Safe in England, the refugees joined existing Huguenot communities in Norwich, Canterbury, and Wandsworth but a large number also settled in Spitalfields in East London. Many of the Huguenot refugees were skilled craftsmen — silk weavers, watch makers and goldsmiths — and were quickly accepted because of their skills and abilities.


Spitalfields took its name from the Hospital and Priory of St. Mary’s founded in 1197. Spital was a common medieval term for a hospital and St Mary’s was located in a rural area surrounded by fields, orchards and woods. It remained a rural area until the mid 17th century when King James allowed development outside the city walls to alleviate the over crowding in London that led to the Great Fire in 1666. The area grew quickly with the first market established in the 1680s and Spitalfields became a parish in its own right in 1729 when Hawksmoor’s Christ Church was consecrated.

Nicholas Hawksmoor

In 1711, an Act of Parliament provided the funds for the construction of 50 new churches in London to serve the growing population, particularly in areas outside the city walls. But of the fifty churches commissioned, only twelve were completed before the money ran out and the plan was abandoned. Architect Nicholas Hawksmoor (1660 – 1736) designed six of the twelve new churches including Christ Church Spitalfields, St George in the East Wapping, St Mary Woolnoth, St Anne Limehouse, St George Bloomsbury and St Alfege Greenwich. Hawksmoor trained with famed architect Sir Christopher Wren from 1684 – 1700 and worked with him on all his major architectural projects including Chelsea Hospital, the rebuilding of the London churches damaged in the Great Fire, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Hampton Court Palace, and Greenwich Hospital.

An estimated 25 000 Huguenot refugees settled in Spitalfields between 1685 and 1700. It proved an attractive place to settle as there was a small existing French community and the cost of living was much lower than other areas of London. Since it was outside the city walls, it also provided greater freedom from the economic controls of the City guilds and the Huguenot refugees quickly set up new businesses and industries and established their own religious, social and charitable organizations in the area.

Many of the Huguenots who made Spitalfields their home were weavers by trade. They used handlooms to weave raw silk imported from Italy and brought with them a newly invented technique to give thin silk taffeta a glossy lustre. During most of the 18th century, weaving was a cottage industry pursued in an essentially rural landscape of fields and hedgerows where the Huguenot weavers cultivated flower gardens and bred and trained singing birds.

Being nearly all bird-fanciers, the weavers supply London with singing-birds, and half the linnets, wood-larks, goldfinches, and greenfinches sold in the metropolis are caught by Spitalfields weavers in October and March. They are fond of singing-matches, which they determine by the burning of an inch of candle.

They also had a Calvinist belief in the virtues of hard work, thrift and self-discipline and saw business success as a sign of God’s grace. The industry and skill of the French Huguenot community brought prosperity to the East End and the editor of Stow’s Survey of London paid tribute to the character and industry of these refugees:

Here they have found quiet and security, and settled themselves in their several trades and occupations; weavers especially. Whereby God’s blessing surely is not only brought upon the parish by receiving poor strangers, but also a great advantage hath accrued to the whole nation by the rich manufactures of weaving silks and stuffs and camlets, which art they brought along with them. And this benefit also to the neighbourhood, that these strangers may serve for patterns of thrift, honesty, industry, and sobriety as well.

The first waves of Huguenot immigrants worshipped in the old St Anthony’s Hospital Chapel on Threadneedle Street in the City of London. The medieval building was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 but within three years, the Huguenots built a new church on Threadneedle Street and continued to worship there until 1841 when the building was demolished to make way for the new Royal Exchange. New churches opened to serve the growing community and by 1700, there were nine Huguenot churches in Spitalfields — all of which practiced a Calvinist form of worship — including St Jean, La Patente, Crispin Street, Eglise de l’Hopital and Wheeler Street.

French Huguenot Church
Threadneedle Street

At first, the Huguenots maintained their own distinct identity, speaking French and attending their own religious institutions, but over time, they assimilated into English society and there was a drift towards the Anglican Church and anglicized names — often as a result of mistakes made by English clerks. The wealthier Huguenots built large houses in Spitalfields, both for their families and for the weavers they employed; these houses were characterized by elaborate porches, distinctive shutters and enlarged windows in the attic to let in the maximum light for the weavers.

In the late 18th century, the silk weaving industry fell into decline as imported fabrics from China and India become more readily available. The economic pressure resulted in clashes between weavers over wage rates and the increasing mechanisation which threatened their jobs. Prices for woven fabrics fell and the weavers and their families suffered terribly as a result. By the end of the 18th century, many weavers in Spitalfields were unemployed and the weaving industry was in crisis.

The weaving industry never recovered and by the mid-19th century, this was one of the poorest parts of London. In 1851, Charles Dickens visited Spitalfields and described its ‘squalid streets, lying like narrow black trenches...where sallow, unshaven weavers prowl languidly about, or lean against posts, or sit brooding on doorsteps.’

Weaver’s houses
Fournier Street, Spitalfields

The area gained a reputation as a cheap place to live, proving a magnet to successive waves of immigrants. During the 1840s the potato famine led to an influx of immigrants from Ireland, bringing in workers to build the nearby docks. They were followed by Jews fleeing the pogroms in Russia and Poland and more recently by Bangladeshi settlers who have also contributed to the richness of life in Spitalfields in the borough of Tower Hamlets.

The original Huguenot Chapel on Fournier Street was converted into a synagogue in 1898 and more recently into a mosque but traces of the Huguenot history are still visible in Spitalfields today where many French street names — Fournier Street, Nantes Passage, French Place and Princelet Street — as well as elegant Huguenot houses are preserved. The silk weaving industry is also recalled in Fashion Street, Silk Street, Loom Court and Shuttle Street, and in pubs like the Weaver’s Arms and the Crown and Shuttle.

mallandains in london

Like many other Huguenot refugees, three branches of the Mallandain family settled in Spitalfields and many of them worked in the local silk weaving industry.