Sunday, March 07, 2010

Sunday Salon: Huguenot Heritage by Robin D Gwynn

On the 22nd October 1685 The Edict of Nantes was revoked by the Emperor of France. All protestant services were forbidden. All their temples were destroyed. From now on all their children were to be baptised and brought up as Catholics. The Minsters of the Huguenots had fifteen days to leave the country; while their flock were forbidden to leave.

But 200,000 found ways to secretly leave the country. They shut themselves into barrels and stowed away on ships; they crept onto open boats and endured winter seas; they crossed mountains at night and stole in Switzerland and then into Germany and Holland; they followed guides who led them into traps; they followed tiny written plans; they disguised themselves as beggars, peddlers, even priests or nuns. Usually they went singly or in small groups of two or three not to draw attention to themselves: the father then the mother then the children one after the other. Some of the youngest and weakest had to be left behind, sometimes never to be seen again. They were generally educated and skilled and France lost some of its most industrious and useful citizens.

France's loss was England's gain. A century before there had been another wave of protestant immigration, this time from the low country. These Walloons were skilled weavers and it changed England from a country that mostly exported its wool as raw material (only to import the finished cloth) to a country that became famous for its fine textiles. The French emigrants added to the variety of textiles produced and since French silks were renowned and fashionable, again English exports increased.

The production of cloth encouraged the development of industry; the first 'manufactory' in England, in 1717, produced silk and was owned by the descendant of a Huguenot. As England grew richer so industry flourished, which in turn increased wealth.

Apart from being successful enterprising entrepreneurs the Huguenots also established schools and libraries, and excelled in politics, journalism, acting, science and the arts.

The Huguenots, it has been calculated, are the ancestors of about three quarters of today's population of England, were part of the reason for the Industrial Revolution and hence the nineteenth century British Empire...and yet until the last couple of weeks I knew nothing very much about them. They are strangely missing from the national curriculum of our schools, even for those who take it at an advanced level. But thanks to this book I now know a little more.

Added later: how strange to see this today from a modern day asylum seeker from Eritrea, "I am a protestant and the government would put in jail," says Ledia as she waits fearfully to see if the British government will allow her to stay.


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