The highest compassion, 1686

Of cabbages and kings

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They are not fled by permission… but with the greatest difficulty and hardship imaginable. And therefore it will be an act of the highest compassion to comfort and relieve them…

Recent post-Brexit disputes over fishing rights have reminded everyone of the complex relationship between Britain and France – on the one hand, close neighbours with mutual fondness; on the author, long-standing enemies back through the days of Napoleon and Wellington back to the Plantaganets and Normans.

Over the last two weeks, we’ve followed the fortunes of a Huguenot immigrant to Britain, Jaques de la Fontaine, as he fled persecution and settled into a new life. He was an energetic new member of his communities in south-west England, though still became embroiled in local politics which contributed to his leaving for Ireland. And the experiences of the Huguenots in Britain were certainly mixed, given that complex relationship between Britain and France.

We saw a couple of months ago how the French, for example, were blamed by ordinary Londoners for the Great Fire of 1666; yet the Protestant refugees also fed into anti-Catholic feelings directed particularly against James II in the 1680s. In his book The Huguenots of London (The Alpha Press, 1998), Robin Gwynn observes that “the Huguenots were met at one and the same time by support and hostility, by encouragement and opposition”. This week I’m going to use first-hand sources mentioned briefly by Gwynn to show what the Huguenots were often up against.

William Hogarth’s ‘Noon’ (1738) contrasts the elegance of the Huguenots as they leave a service at L’Eglise des Grecs in London’s Soho with the Londoners in the gutter.

For example, we have a 1735 pamphlet entitled Considerations upon the Mischiefs that may arise from Granting too much Indulgence to Foreigners.1 It begins by somehow associating the “generous, though Imprudent Conduct” of Charles I “in succouring the French Protestants” with his own downfall, and asserts that from the Huguenots’ “Ingratitude to King Charles the First, we must conclude them to be, of all People, the most abandoned”. And what follows is a textbook guide to xenophobia that all too many people today would probably still nod to when hearing:

  • “It is the Duty of a Stranger… to mind nothing but his own Business, not to be too inquisitive about another’s…”

  • “History furnishes us with a multitude of Examples of Cities and Commonwealths that were destroy’d by Foreigners, who had been received on the foot of Friendship and Hospitality by their unwary Hosts”

  • “Foreigners can never be actuated with as much Love and Zeal for a Country, where they reside only for some temporary Convenience…”

It then moves from the general to the particular, i.e. the French:

  • “no People in the World have a slenderer Title to the Character of Honesty than the French…”

  • “we neither eat nor drink, nor even think as they do… by imitating their Manners and Fashions, we may insensibly fall into their Vices”

And to the more particular still, damning the skills of the Huguenots with faint praise before revealing the deep fear of every xenophobe: invasion by the harder-working incomers…

…as the French are, of all People, the most enterprizing, the most industrious, and frugal, so we have the more Reason to be jealous of their Designs, and to provide against their Admission into any Places of Power, Profit, or Trust… they will in time engross all the profitable Branches of Trade, as they have already that of the Silk Manufacture; for I believe it can be demonstrated, that nine Parts in ten of that Traffick is in their Hands, with a great Share of that of Wines.

…considering their Sobriety and Diet, and the Fruitfulness of their Women, the City, in time, will probably be called a French Colony.

(On the theme of diet referred to above, the Huguenot and Walloon settlers in London’s Spitalfields district – epicentre of the silk weaving trade – were also regarded with suspicion for how many vegetables they ate! One Sir William Smyth wrote in 1686 to the Commissioners of Sewers for Middlesex that the sewer from Spitalfields “brings down a very noisome water, the Walloons and strangers there living much upon cabbage and roots, to the great offence of the inhabitants”.)

In 1707, though, one Hilary Reneu (1652–1713), a Bordeaux merchant and himself a refugee, tried to answer the question “Why are so many thousands of both sexes come into this country?” His poignant summary of what brought numerous Huguenots to Spitalfields, Soho and other places in the first place says it all:2

To which end, the Papists in this Kingdom are desired to address themselves to Martha Guisard, living in Frith street, Soho. She will tell them, That she came out of France, because Jean Guisard, her father, was burnt at Nerac; being accused of having irreverently received the Host.

Let them speak to Mrs. Tinel, Wife to a French Minister at Bristol, and to his Sister-in-law. They will tell them, that the Sieur Margueron, their father, was hanged at Sainte Foy; for having held a religious Assembly in his house. His estate was confiscated; and the house pulled down. Their mother condemned to make [the] ‘Amende Honorable,’ her head shaved by the Hangman, bare-footed and in her shift, holding in her hand a lighted torch; and afterwards to a perpetual Imprisonment…

Let them ask of the Sieur Peyferie and his family, What made them abandon a great estate, to be reduced to great straits in Tower street, Soho? He will answer, that, being accused, with some neighbours of his, of having exercised his Religion in his country house; he was condemned to be hanged: and his house demolished, and his woods destroyed…

The Sieurs Dupre, and Moise Du Boust, now living in the parish of Saint Giles in the Fields, will testify, that they were persecuted in their persons and their estates, their houses demolished; before they fled into this country: where they are necessitated to live upon the charity of the nation; the one being eighty years old, and the other grown ‘Invalid’ in our Army…

Mary Perreau, living in Spittlefields, will tell you, that she was married, at Plymouth, to Pierre Perreau, a French Pilot; who, a month after their marriage, being sailed for the Straits [of Gibraltar] , was taken, and carried into France: where he was condemned to the Galleys for 101 years…

These are Living Witnesses, for such as desire to be further satisfied of the Truth; and this small number, which might be infinitely increased, it is hoped will suffice, both to manifest the Truth, and to confute the malice of those who are endeavouring to subvert it, by their false slanders against the Refugees.

And thankfully, the opposition ultimately was in a minority, with many good-hearted people helping the refugees. I’ll finish this series on the Huguenots with Henry Compton (1632–1713), Bishop of London from 1675 until his death. (Genealogists can thank him for his 1676 census of religious affiliations.) In a powerful letter written on 2nd April 1686, he urged clergy in his diocese to raise a collection for the Huguenots, in which he wrote words which we should all remember today, when asylum seekers come to our shores:

They are not fled by permission… but with the greatest difficulty and hardship imaginable. And therefore it will be an act of the highest compassion to comfort and relieve them, as being performed to persons whose afflictions it is hard to say, whether of mind or body are the greater. When we reflect upon that desolation that has been before their eyes, of all their goods and stores, the barbarity of usage, both to their bodies and estates, and their quitting their whole subsistence with their native soil, through all sorts of peril, one would imagine it the greatest hardship. But when we come to examine that anguish which is brought their minds, it is incomparably greater; their wives, children, and relations imprisoned, clapt into monasteries, put down into dungeons, inhumanely tormented and afficted, till they renounce their faith, or perish in the trial. All men are not required to be wise enough to judge of the secular consequences of this accident in the peopling our country, increasing manufactures, industry, trading, and the like: but God excuses no man from being good and charitable… Exhort then your people whilst they have time, to do good.


You can find it in Google Books here.


The full text can be found here.