Edict of Nantes

A brief history of the Huguenots

Edict of Nantes

The Edict of Nantes

In the 1680s it was dangerous to be a Protestant in Catholic France. King Louis XIV revoked the 1598 Edict of Nantes that had given French Protestants some freedom to practise their religion for nearly one hundred years. This deed sparked an exodus of 200,000 men, women and children between 1680 and 1720, seeking religious tolerance elsewhere. The number of their Huguenot descendants around the world now runs into many millions.

The 50,000 or so French Protestants that came to Britain during this period joined a community that had begun settling here from the 16th century in London, Canterbury, Southampton, Norwich and elsewhere in the south of England. Like London, Canterbury was a major centre of Protestantism in Kent and had granted the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral to the Huguenots to hold their services. These still take place there, in the Black Prince’s Chantry.

The Huguenot refugees were generally made welcome in Britain, sustained by relief payments from Royal Bounty and assistance from the descendants of earlier refugees who were able to help them. Among these was Sir John Houblon, one of the founders of the Bank of England and its first Governor, whose family was well established in the City of London by the 17th century. Another prominent family, the Bouveries, were pillars of the Levant Company that was formed in 1581 to regulate English trade with countries in ‘the Levant’ (Turkey and the Mediterranean).


Huguenot WeaversDespite their initial destitution, the Huguenot refugees that came here were among France’s most enterprising and productive people. Their professionalism and creative genius enriched British and Irish public life and human assets enormously.

France’s loss was Britain’s gain as, without the Huguenots, this country would undoubtedly have been different. They established a major weaving industry in Canterbury, Norwich and at Spitalfields in East London.The West End became the home of skilled Huguenot craftsmen supplying the gentry with luxury goods, silver and leatherwork.


Huguenots developed workshops and industries based on their many skills in parts of the West Country, East Anglia, the north of England, Scotland and Ireland. When the weaving trade moved to the north to take advantage of  steam power, the weavers in Norwich used the dexterity in their spinning fingers to stitch fine ladies’ and children’s shoes, establishing a new industry in the city.

The Huguenots also made major contributions to the military, the insurance business, instrument making, scholarship and medicine, turned silk weaving into an art, promoted the English language (viz: Roget’s Thesaurus) and so much else that has brought Britain both profit and pleasure.


Philip Meadows Martineau

Philip Meadows Martineau

A few of the most notable individuals who contributed in this way included Henri de Massue, Marquis de Ruvigny – Earl of Galway, soldier, statesman and first Governor of the French Hospital; Field Marshal Earl Ligonier, commander-in-chief of the British army during the Seven Years War against the French and a Governor of the French Hospital for 22 years; Louisa Perina Courtauld who changed her husband’s family’s trade from silver to textiles; Philip Cazenove, founder of Cazenove & Co; David Garrick, actor-manager and playwright; Paul de Lamerie, the great silversmith; naval hero Admiral Gambier; Sir Samuel Romilly, law reformer; Philip Meadows Martineau, surgeon and land tax commissioner; Harriet Martineau, author and educational and economic reformer; James Martineau, English philosopher, educator, and Unitarian minister; the optician Dollond; Sir Henry Austen Layard (‘Layard of Nineveh’), the great archaeologist and Founding President of the Huguenot Society; and the legendary B.J.T.Bosanquet, inventor of the ‘googly’!