The first refugees, 1685

An ingenious deception at sea

(Hello, this is Histories, a free weekly email exploring first-hand accounts from the corners of history… Do please share this with fellow history fans and subscribe.)

We did the best we could, one finding shelter here, another there, and we experienced much greater humanity from the fishermen’s wives than from the rich people; and in the cottages of the former we spent the next four or five days…

In the world of British genealogy, there’s a certain cachet in claiming Huguenot roots (I have an unproven claim to them myself, as it happens) – we think of them as industrious craftspeople, who had overcome persecution and soon became part of the fabric of London and many of our regional cities. But that persecution is easily overlooked in this romantic vision.

I’m not going to go into great detail about the background, but the Huguenots of course were French Protestants, and by the late 16th century accounted for as much as 10% of the country’s population. After the horrors of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572, which saw thousands of them killed, the peace-keeping Henry IV’s Edict of Nantes of 1598 granted them considerable rights in this firmly Catholic nation. But a century later, the tide had turned again, and the autocratic Louis XIV revoked the law in the Edict of Fontainebleau of October 1685. Now, suddenly, violent persecution ruled, and hundreds of thousands of Huguenots fled, many to England (and thence Ireland or America) or the Protestant countries of northern Europe. It would be a whole century again before their descendants could return to France.

These were the people who first gave us the word ‘refugee’, from the French refugié. (History of course has seen many waves of refugees of one kind or another before and since, and boats crammed with desperate, persecuted people sadly still arrive frequently via France more than 300 years after the Huguenots came in significant numbers.)

Over the next few issues of Histories, I’m going to explore some first-hand accounts of the Huguenots who came to Britain and Ireland, as well as looking at the variety of reception they received. This week, please meet Jaques de la Fontaine (1658–1728), later known as the Rev James Fontaine.

He was born in Royan in south-west France into a land-owning family, studied at college and trained as a Protestant minister. When Louis revoked the Edict of Nantes, such ministers had only 15 days to recant or flee, or face death. Jaques fled with his sister Elizabeth, his fiancée Anne (more about her next week) and his niece Janette. Within a couple of years in England he had established a cloth-weaving business, and later moved to Ireland – again, there’s more to tell next time.

In 1722, James wrote a memoir of his life before and after exile. It was first translated and published by Ann Maury, daughter of a US diplomat and descended from a family related to the Fontaines, in 1838 as Memoirs of a French Refugee Family.1 Here, then, is Jaques’ nail-biting account of how his family fled France under the noses of their persecutors, which brings to mind the plight of Jewish families fleeing Germany in the late 1930s.

In the month of October, 1685, the Edict of Nantes was actually revoked. Of course there was no choice left, flight was the only alternative, and I went to Marennes to make preparations in good earnest, and was fortunate in finding an English Captain with whom I was able to make a bargain. He agreed to take me, and four or five persons in addition, at the rate of ten pistoles each, and we were to assemble at Tremblade for embarkation… I mentioned our project to some few persons who I thought would gladly have availed themselves of it, but their fear was stronger than their hope, and they dared not venture to encounter so many dangers, the Coast being carefully guarded both by sea and land to prevent emigration. We lodged at the house of a drunkard in Tremblade, who being able to speak the English language was to be our pilot…

We set off in the night and had two horses to carry our little baggage. In the course of the following day upwards of fifty persons assembled on the sands hoping to embark with us; and most of them being very young, they had not taken due precaution to conceal their intention, and it had reached the ears of the Papists, who very promptly obtained an order from the Custom House, to prevent the vessel sailing. We waited anxiously all day…

At night horses were sent down for us to return to Tremblade, and fifteen or twenty of our number were taken in by a citizen who had changed his religion. He was in a dreadful fright, for there was a fine of 1,000 crowns for harbouring a Protestant; and the houses of suspected persons were liable to be searched at any moment. After concealing us the whole day, his fear got the better of his humanity, and towards night he turned us out of his house; saying, “I have damned my own soul to save my property, and I am not going to run the risk of losing it to save your souls. You must do as I have done or take your chance elsewhere.” …

We had not left his house more than half an hour before a magistrate and some soldiers went to it, and examined every part most carefully in search of secreted Protestants. We did the best we could, one finding shelter here, another there, and we experienced much greater humanity from the fishermen’s wives than from the rich people; and in the cottages of the former we spent the next four or five days.

The Captain came to us again to say that he would sail most certainly on the following day; that he would pass between the Islands of Re and Oleron, and if we were disposed to venture out to sea in small boats, he would take us on board after he had got rid of all visitors, Custom House officers, &c. and that he could not assist us in any other way. That very evening the 30th. Nov., 1685, we embarked in a little shallop as soon as it was dusk… We had instructed our boatmen that if we were pursued they were immediately to run the boat ashore, abandon her, and then ‘sauve qui petit.’ …

We had agreed with the English Captain that when we saw him, we should make ourselves known by hoisting a sail and letting it fall three times, and he was to answer our signal by lowering his mizzensail three times. About 3 o’clock in the afternoon we first espied the vessel; she had the official visitors and pilot still on board. On reaching the extreme point of the Isle of Oleron we saw her cast anchor, put out the visitors and pilot, take her boat on board, get under weigh, and sail towards us. We now felt a confidence that we had surmounted every difficulty, and expected in a very few minutes to be under full sail for England. Our joy was of short duration, a King’s Frigate came in sight, and gradually approached us; she was one of those vessels constantly employed on the Coast to prevent Protestants leaving the Kingdom, and all who were found were seized, and the men sent to the galleys, the women to convents. No language can describe our consternation at this sudden change in our prospects; a moment before the cup of joy, was at our lips, and now dashed to the ground. We were at the distance of a cannon shot from the Frigate, and what must she think of us; a little bit of a boat at anchor in a place which did not afford safe anchorage even for large shipping. She cast anchor, ordered the English vessel to do the like, boarded her, and searched every nook and corner without finding any French Protestants except a Minister and his family, whose departure was authorised by law. What a blessing that we were not on board at this time! Had the Frigate been only one hour later in appearing we should all have been lost. After the search, the Englishman was ordered to sail immediately, the wind was favourable, and he could make no excuse, and we had the misery of seeing him leave us behind.

Our situation was dreadful, we were in perfect despair, and knew not what to do. To remain where we were would infallibly excite suspicion, and the Frigate would send to overhaul us. If we attempted to return to Tremblade, the chances were a hundred to one against our succeeding, and to add to our dismay our poor boatmen and his son (our whole crew) wept aloud, deploring their misery, for they having already abjured, knew well that nothing short of a halter awaited them if detected in the act of aiding Protestants to make their escape…

All at once I thought of a feint which, thank God, proved successful and effected our deliverance. Having considered that the wind was fair to Rochelle, and contrary to Tremblade, I said to the boatmen:

“Cover us all up in the bottom of the boat with an old sail, then hoist your sail, and go right towards the Frigate, pretending to endeavour to gain Tremblade; and if they should hail you from the Frigate, you must say you are from Rochelle, and going to Tremblade; if they ask what you have on board; say, nothing but ballast; and it would be well that you and your son should counterfeit drunkenness, tumbling about in the boat, and then you can, as if by accident, let the sail fall three times, and so inform the English Captain who we are.”

He determined to abide by my counsel, and after covering us up, he actually sailed within pistol shot of the Frigate.

As I expected, she hailed him, and asked whence he came, whither he was going, and what he had on board. To all which he replied as I had instructed him…

From the Frigate they entreated our boatman not to think of making for Tremblade, that night was approaching and he would inevitably be lost, but recommended him to return to Rochelle with the fair wind. This was exactly the advice we wished to receive. Our course was altered, the boat was put before the wind, and we bade them adieu very cordially. In the mean time, the English vessel had answered our signal and was getting fairly out to sea, we dared not follow her because the Frigate remained at anchor; but about twilight the boatman said we must make the attempt before night, or we should be swallowed up by the waves… A few minutes put an end to our anxiety, for we saw the Frigate steering towards Rochfort; so we again changed our course, the English vessel slackened her rate; we overtook her, and were taken on board before the Frigate was out of sight. A day never to be forgotten by us, who effected our escape from enemies, who had not only power to kill the body but have destroyed an infinite number of souls also…

We had contrary winds, and were eleven days on the voyage; we suffered somewhat from a shortness of provisions, especially water, but we dared not put into any French port for a supply.

We landed on the 1st. December, 1685,2 (English or old style) at Appledore, a small town in the Bristol Channel, below the river Taw which goes up to Barnstaple. After paying for our passage, I had only twenty gold pistoles left, but God had not conducted us in safety to a haven there to leave us to perish with hunger; the good people of Barnstaple had compassion upon us, took us into their houses, and treated us with the greatest kindness; thus God raised up for us fathers and mothers, and brothers and sisters, in a strange land.

(Next week, life in England.)


The text is widely available online, including here. It is known to focus on showcasing Jaques’ piety at the expense of faithfulness to his original. You can see images of his handwritten memoir here and a more modern translation was published in 1997 by the Huguenot Society of Great Britain and Ireland.


The date here is only one day after that of departure to account for his switching from the Gregorian calendar in France to the Julian in England, still in use there until 1752.