A Bonanza for Lawyers

Diarmaid MacCulloch

  • Facing the Revocation: Huguenot Families, Faith, and the King’s Will by Carolyn Chappell Lougee
    Oxford, 488 pp, £37.99, December 2016, ISBN 978 0 19 024131 5

I must make a declaration of interest in reviewing this book: the author’s surname suggests that we are distant relatives. My mother’s family name was also Chappell: they dropped the ‘e’ from the end as they faded into the general population of this country, after arriving from France to settle in Staffordshire, the heartland of England’s nascent industrial revolution, at the end of the 17th century. They were Huguenots: French Protestants who had made the choice to leave their homeland for conscience sake, rather than stay and take on a new identity, one which would have been all the more repellent for being assumed in familiar surroundings. Refugees like the Chappelles left France in huge numbers in the late 1680s after Louis XIV’s Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, despite the fact that the French Crown had forbidden them to leave and laid down drastic punishments for any who tried to do so. Around 200,000 Huguenots scattered across Protestant Europe, the equivalent of millions from present-day populations crossing national frontiers in a very short time, and forty or fifty thousand of them came to Britain. By 1700, there were 14 Huguenot churches in West London, and a further group of congregations to the east of the city. One of these buildings survives: La Neuve Eglise, on a corner of Brick Lane in Spitalfields, has passed from one immigrant community to another; it later served as a synagogue, and now, with the addition of a shiny minaret to its Georgian façade, it is spiritual home to the Bangladeshi Muslims of East London.

Today hardly any British politicians have the courage to admit that immigration is essential to a successful society, but late 17th-century England experienced an uncharacteristic moment of generosity towards the Huguenots, among whom were numbered my Chappelles. There was a corollary of course: these strangers were welcomed because the Protestant English had other aliens to hate. The Huguenots were victims of a regime which looked as if it intended to destroy 150 years of English Reformation as well as its own Protestant society. In 1685, Louis XIV of France betrayed the promises of his ancestor Henri IV, completing nearly a century of remorseless official subversion of Henri’s Edict of Nantes of 1598, which had guaranteed a place in national life for the French Reformed Church and its members. The new Edict of Fontainebleau forbade Protestant worship, ordered the destruction of their churches and declared them Catholic. Louis already had the Stuart monarchy in his pocket, and seemed ready to impose his popery throughout western Europe. Behind rational English fears about French interference lurked more visceral emotions. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs had long fostered consciousness of the English Protestants burned at the stake by Queen Mary, to which were added more recent memories of Protestants being massacred in Ireland in 1641 (the English tended not to remember their own massacres of Irish Catholics). The majority Catholic population in Ireland seemed like a fifth column in England’s sister kingdom across the water, and Huguenots were therefore particularly welcomed by the apprehensive Protestant population of the Irish capital when they arrived and settled around Dublin.

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