The Huguenot exodus from France

Huguenots were French Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries who followed the teachings of theologian John Calvin. Persecuted by the French Catholic government during a violent period, Huguenots fled the country in the 17th century, creating Huguenot settlements all over Europe, in the United States and Africa.

execution of Charles I by beheading occurred on Tuesday 30 January 1649[b] outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall. The execution was the culmination of political and military conflicts between the royalists and the parliamentarians in England during the English Civil War, leading to the capture and trial of Charles I. On Saturday 27 January 1649, the parliamentarian High Court of Justice had declared Charles guilty of attempting to “uphold in himself an unlimited and tyrannical power to rule according to his will, and to overthrow the rights and liberties of the people” and he was sentenced to death and executed

The British were not friendly with French King Louis XIV, and the Huguenots were welcomed there.

About one-fifth of the Huguenot population ended up in England, with a smaller portion moving to Ireland. The Huguenots are credited with bringing the word “refugee” into the English language upon their arrival in the British Islands when it was first used to describe them.

From 1688 to 1689, some Huguenots settled in the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa with the sponsorship of the Dutch East India Company

In common with many refugees the Huguenots often changed their surnames to adapt to their new country, or were forced to change them due by impatient immigration officials. As a result, many common English surnames have Huguenot roots (e.g. Andrieu/Andrews, Boulanger/Baker, Barbier/Barber, Delacroix/Cross, Reynard/ Fox, Le Cerf/Hart, LeBlancs/White).

My own surname heralds from the Languedoc region, from where a certain David Bosanquet fled in 1685. He became a banker and merchant and settled in Essex; besides me his descendants include the cricketer Bernard Bosanquet, inventor of bowling technique the ‘googly’, and his son Reginald, who became a much-loved television newsreader.

The author, a descendent of the Huguenots

Says Dr Kathy Chater, author and genealogist, “French people have, of course, been coming here for centuries for reasons other than religious persecution. William the Conqueror brought a whole raft of invaders and imposed Norman French on the legal system, so many people have names of French origin dating back to medieval times.

“However, the Victorians were so enamoured of the Huguenots that people of French origin who came to Britain for a variety of motives (not all of them honest!) claimed Huguenot ancestry. There is, therefore, no way of telling, without genealogical research, which were genuine Huguenots.

Fournier Street in Spitalfields – an area where many Huguenots fled to from France. Image: Huguenots of Spitalfields

The early Huguenots made an instant impact as they began to practise their expert crafts such as silk-weaving, jewellery and furniture making. They also brought significant wealth into the country, to the extent that the Bank of England’s first governor, Sir John Houblon, was the grandson of a Huguenot refugee (Samuel Bosanquet, grandson of David, was a subsequent governor).

Many of London’s street names speak of Huguenot ancestry: Romilly (lawyer) in Soho, Spirmont (Royal Derby link) in Chelsea, Fleur de Lis in Spitalfields, Huguenot Place in Wandsworth, where the hat makers settled, (the tears of the Huguenots are featured in the Wandsworth Coat of Arms), Fourbert’s Place, (riding school). Even the Garrick Theatre.

Jon Pertwee, a Dr Who, was of Huguenot descent.

Today, countless high-profile individuals can claim Huguenot ancestry. Examples include:

  • Simon Le Bon – the lead singer of Duran Duran is the eldest son of John and Ann-Marie Le Bon, a family of Huguenot descent.
  • Princes William and Harry – the Royal brothers have Huguenot ancestors on both sides of the family, including William of Orange, Charlotte de Bourbon Montpensier, the Marquis de Ruvigny, Viscount de Rohan, Gaspard de Coligny, Duke de Schonberg and the Rochefoucaulds.
  • Jon Pertwee – aka Doctor Who is a member of a noted theatrical family who are said to come from Pertuis in Provence.
  • Eddie Izzard – the comedian and marathon man is descended from a Huguenot family thought to originate from the Pyrenees (the name ‘Izard’ means mountain goat).
  • Charlize Theron – ancestors of the Oscar-winning actress were early Huguenot settlers in South Africa, a popular destination for the Huguenots.
  • Nigel Farage – it may seem ironic that the leader of the Brexit Party is descended from Huguenot refugees, but his surname almost certainly indicates these origins.
  • Jessica Chastain – the Hollywood star is descended from Pierre Chastain, a Huguenot physician who escaped to Switzerland from France and subsequently travelled to America.
The Huguenots brought their weaving skills to London. Image: Bishopsgate Institute

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