The Huguenots

London’s first modern immigrants, the Huguenots created today’s Soho and Spitalfields.

The 1562 Wassy massacre

When the Protestant reformation arrived in France, it tore the country apart in a series of bloody civil wars. As Protestantism gained traction, attracting something like a tenth of the population, the government clamped down. In 1562, French troops murdered fifty Protestant worshippers in the town of Wassy – an act of butchery which first gave the term “massacre” its modern meaning. The massacre prompted French Protestants, known as “Huguenots” to take up arms, sparking over thirty years of bitter religious civil war that ravaged France.

Huguenots at prayer

Nobody seems to know where the term “Huguenot” comes from, but it may be after a Protestant politician from Geneva by the name of Besançon Hugues. Geneva was also where Jean (John) Calvin, the father of Presbyterian Protestantism took power in 1541, and Calvinism was the main form of Protestantism in France, as it is in Scotland.

Henri IV

The Protestant banner was taken up by Queen Jeanne III of the Basque kingdom of Navarre (mostly now in Spain). When her son took the French throne as Henri IV in 1589, he realized that a Protestant king could never hold the country, so he converted to Catholicism, and then passed the Edict of Nantes, under which Protestantism was allowed, and religious tolerance prevailed.

Louis XIV

At last the violence subsided and France settled down to an uneasy state of relative religious freedom. But hardliners resented the Protestants and tried to undermine Henri’s edict, persecuting the Huguenots more and more, and sending waves of Huguenot refugees across Europe, but in particular to Britain and the Netherlands. Indeed, the word “refugee” was first coined to describe them. Finally, in 1685, Henri’s grandson Louis XIV – famous for saying “the state is me” – revoked the Edict of Nantes and banned Protestantism, sending over an even bigger wave of refugees.

Brick Lane's Jamme Masjid mosque
was originally a Huguenot chapel

The Huguenots’ arrival massively boosted the British and Dutch economies. Several important Huguenot-dominated industries – notably the manufacture of sailcloth, in an age when military and economic strength depended heavily on shipbuilding – were severely damaged in France and significantly augmented in Britain and the Netherlands, a major factor in helping to tip Europe’s balance of power over to those two countries. Glass making and textile weaving, especially of silk, were among the other important trades which moved from France to Britain as a result of the Huguenot exodus.

The French Protestant church in Soho Square

In London, the Huguenot refugees settled on what was then the edge of town, in Soho and Spitalfields. There’s a French Protestant church in Soho Square to this day, and the Soho we know and love came into being largely thanks to those pioneering refugees. In Spitalfields, it was the Huguenot silk weavers and textile workers who brought in the rag trade and established the East End as London’s main immigrant neighbourhood for generations.

Huguenot refugees leaving France

Today, politicians like Mark Francois and Nigel Farage use anti-immigrant hysteria to fuel their far-right agenda, but few of the xenophobes who vote for them realize that their ancestors were Huguenot refugee immigrants, whose arrival helped build the diverse, cosmopolitan London that we now enjoy.