Who were the Huguenots?

The origin of the word is obscure, but it was the name given in the 16th century to the Protestants in France.

In 1559 the Protestant King Henry IV, inherited the French throne and in 1593 he converted to Catholicism. Five years later, the civil wars that had raged throughout France ended and Henry gave the Huguenots, (his former comrades in arms) considerable privileges, including widespread religious freedom. Over time the Huguenots became loyal subjects of the French crown.

Louis XIV, grandson of Henry IV came to power in 1643 at the age of four. When he eventually assumed control of the country in 1661 his advisers warned him that the Protestants (a sizeable religious minority) were a threat to his authority. Eventually in order to reduce their threat to Catholicism, the Huguenots' privileges were eroded. By the 1680's Protestants in France were deliberately terrorised and finally, in 1685 all privileges were revoked, pastors exiled and laypersons were prevented from leaving the country.

However, many did leave, often at great risk. Men who were caught, if not executed, were sent as galley slaves to the French fleet in the Mediterranean. Women were imprisoned and their children sent to convents.

About 200,000 Huguenots fled France, settling in the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Scandinavia, and Russia. About 50,000 came to England, with around 10,000 moving on to Ireland. Because of the political climate in Britain towards Louis XIV of France, the Huguenots were welcomed here.

However, as with the influx of immirants and refugees today, the literature of the time showed they could not escape accusations that their presence threatened jobs, standards of housing, public order, morality, hygiene and that they even ate strange foods!

By about 1760 the Huguenots had ceased to stand out as foreign, even following the path of Anglican conformity in religion.