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.

Wherever Huguenots went, having already demonstrated their initiative and energy by their decision to leave France in the face of royal prohibition, they continued to be busy and productive. John Houblon, from a Huguenot family which had arrived from France in a slightly earlier wave of Catholic persecution, became the first governor of the Bank of England in 1694 and a knight of the realm; until 2014, his luxuriantly bewigged features adorned our fifty pound banknotes. My own ancestors did not rise so high, but they worked hard in the weaving trade in their new Midlands home. They left no family lore about their trials in leaving France beyond the memory of coming to England. By contrast, Carolyn Chappell Lougee’s book sheds light on the complex experiences which led one French noble family to fragment in response to the Revocation, compelling many of them to start new lives (or end them) in the Netherlands, England and Ireland.

For reasons that Lougee explains at length, it is difficult to give the family a single name, but among the surnames and titles on which one has to keep a careful eye in her complex story are de la Rochefoucauld, de Robillard, Isle, de Solière and de Touchimbert. They themselves might have thought of their identities as much in terms of their principal estates or seigneuries in south-west France, Berneré and Champagné, which makes the decision of many of the principal characters to abandon these estates all the more striking. One of the distinctive circumstances of this story is the peculiarity of their genealogy. In what would then have been regarded as a major disaster for a European aristocratic family, and which would be odd in any century, over three generations the family produced only daughters: 14 girls in all, and no boys. This led to all sorts of legal complications, not least because different rules of inheritance applied in different French legal systems. It was a happy hunting-ground for lawyers, and a major weakness for a formerly staunch Protestant dynasty in the western heartland of French Protestantism facing the misfortunes brought by the Revocation.

Lougee doesn’t have a light touch in telling this microhistory, and even after a scholarly lifetime spent negotiating archaic English land law, my eyes glazed over as she outlined the legal stratagems that the matriarch of this family adopted in order to minimise the problems of so much distaff inheritance. To feel properly well disposed to the book, it is advisable not to start with the opening chapter but to turn to the afterword, where Lougee tells the reader how she came across the first fragments of the archive that she has so lovingly reconstructed. It is an absorbing narrative which wins the reader’s admiration for her persistence in tracking down the papers, which had become as scattered as the Huguenots themselves. At the centre of the archive is Marie de la Rochefoucauld, feudal lord in her own right of Champagné, who wrote a memoir of her strenuous lives in four different countries (lastly in Ireland). This exciting work, which for all its evidential value is also a manifest piece of self-fashioning, finally made it into print in 1928. Lougee, in the course of a long-standing professional interest in female autobiography, noted a suggestion in a specialist article that the manuscript behind the printed version survived, and resolved to track it down. Over several years her search took her on an extended ramble around the landed and formerly landed gentry of the British Isles. She eventually ran her quarry to earth in a cottage in North Yorkshire, home of a lady born to the not very Gallic surname of Parry-Jones, who had a treasured cache of family documents in a trunk that had come to rest there after a sojourn in Chile. Another great dossier of papers was discovered in a château in Périgord. Now, after Lougee’s efforts in France, the Hague, Kent Record Office and elsewhere, the archive has been reconstructed in virtual form at Stanford University.

The de la Rochefoucauld family, it’s clear, faced the wretched consequences of being members of a minority who had earned the hatred of the majority, or at least the majority’s government, and who now had no means of defending themselves against retribution for Protestant atrocities which had happened more than a century before. That was the awful unfairness of the situation: Huguenots wanted to be loyal to the monarchy which in 1598 had given them a privileged, if permanently subordinate, place in the realm, but the king insisted that they remould their loyalty to renounce their faith. It was not surprising that their reactions to this pressure sometimes swayed. Josias de Robillard, the husband of Marie de la Rochefoucauld, wrote to his children in 1685 urging them to remain steadfast in the Reformed faith, and then again in 1686 explaining why he was himself not going to do so; the family preserved both documents. It took three years before he changed his mind once more, and fled to the Netherlands. His wife had already left, first for England and then for the Netherlands; his letter to her in the meantime is deeply affecting in its misery and longing. His journey was overland through northern France, with a final hop to the Netherlands from Dieppe, where at last he could be reunited with his family. Both husband and wife were committing a crime by leaving France, and those who abetted them likewise. Not surprisingly, it was an expensive business, undertaken by those who were prepared to live in very different circumstances in a strange land, having sacrificed most of their portable wealth to rapacious traffickers en route. Josias suffered an anti-climactic death in 1689, a poor reward for all his struggles. For reasons which are not clear but which must have had much to do with his sense of being part of an international Protestant crusade, he had enlisted in Marshal Schomberg’s regiments of refugee Frenchmen fighting for William of Orange against the Catholic King James in Ireland, and ended up dying in Belfast, like so many soldiers in early modern armies, not fighting in battle, but from a disease caught in camp in Dundalk. His son, another Josias and also a Protestant soldier in a strange land, made a new life in the Irish midlands.

The most memorable character in Lougee’s account is Madelene de Solière, who in the ideal film version of this book would be played by Bette Davis. Having run off to a Franciscan friary in Paris to marry a handsome prince of Saxony, heir to a score of titles, the young woman discovered, to no one else’s surprise, that he was a conman, who promptly disappeared. Her subsequent conversion to Catholicism and marriage to a Catholic seigneur (who seems to have been less than a match for her strident person-ality) enabled de Solière to launch a life-long campaign to seize what she regarded as a fairer share of the Huguenot family fortune; yet despite her lavish gifts to the parish church to prove her newly discovered piety, there were village Catholics who took the trouble to write malicious and hurtful remarks about her in the parish archives. Her Protestant relatives must have regarded her as the eighth plague of Egypt, and unquestionably she would have been an incentive for any of them to move to Dublin, even if it involved disguising themselves as agricultural produce.

It is a slightly irritating feature of Lougee’s book that she keeps insisting that her narrative questions a clutch of widespread assumptions about the Huguenot dispersal: that those who left were heroically Protestant in conviction, that the French state was determined and cruel in its efforts to stop them, that French Protestant nobles who converted before the Revocation did so out of material considerations, and that the dispersal was a modernising force. No doubt there are Huguenot circles of piety in which simplified stories form a comforting community myth, just as there are analogous groups of Methodists, recusant Catholics or Waldensians, but I can’t see that historians will find much that is surprising in the tangles and nuances of this story. Of course those who left France had a number of motives for doing so, but the fact was that in their hundreds of thousands they left existences which had been for the most part comfortable and secure, when conversion to Catholicism would have continued their comfort and security. Those who stayed in their native land were a mixture of those who decided that Catholicism wasn’t so bad after all, those who had never taken to inherited family pieties, and those who believed that a steadfast God would see them through in some sort of clandestine practice of their Reformed faith. In that last conviction, God eventually delivered, as the existence of France’s haute société protestante to the present day attests.

The steady ratcheting-up of French government pressure on the Huguenots during the 17th century brought its own strains, paradoxes and human tragedies, affecting especially those who did not have the temperament or the inclination to transcend it. Neighbours embezzled funds stashed away for life in exile, toddlers were taken for ‘re-education’ in a school specially founded for the purpose by Madame de Maintenon, the king’s ultra-pious Catholic wife, and spies preyed on vulnerable exiles for their own profit, pretending to be devout Huguenots, and subverting the morale and finances of the new communities. One feature of such mass victimisation is the creation of demeaning categories: the whole French Reformed Church was for decades forced to live under the contemptuous official label ‘Religion Prétendue Réformée’. French Protestant buildings had to be huge and stuffed with galleries to accommodate congregations bursting at the seams, because so few churches were legally allowed. On the slightest legal pretext they would be closed, even before the Revocation. The gradually chilling, darkening atmosphere, the small-minded bullying and legal harassment, have many parallels in other repressive societies. Above all, as some made their decision to abandon their country and all that was familiar in 1685, it would have been with the same feeling that many of us experienced waking up one morning a year ago to learn the result of the Brexit referendum: this was no longer the country we thought we knew.