God touched their Hearts: The Huguenots of Barnstaple

The Barnstaple Huguenot table rug. © MBND.

“God touched the hearts of the chief citizens of Barnstaple, who having sent for us, took one or two of us into their homes and treated us with incredible gentleness and friendliness, each taking as much care of the French person they had in their house as if we had been their children or their brothers, meaning that God allowed us to find fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters amongst strangers.” Jacques Fontaine, 1722

Tales of small boats carrying desperate passengers making perilous journeys across the English Channel from France are sadly commonplace. After making one such journey, enduring 11 days at sea with little to eat or drink, a group of 125 migrants arrived in England on the 1st December, penniless, homeless and desperate.

This could be a current news item, but this group of refugees arrived in Appledore in 1685. From Appledore they made their way to Barnstaple, where they were taken into the homes of the resident population. One of the refugees, Jacques Fontaine, later wrote in his memoir that “each [took] as much care of the French person they had in their house as if we had been their children or their brothers”.

The refugees – the word was coined at the time, from the French “refugie” – were Huguenots, or French Protestants. Since 1598, when Henry IV of France had signed the Edict of Nantes, granting religious toleration, Protestants had been free to practise their religion, but in 1685 Louis XIV revoked the Edict, and declared Protestantism illegal. All Protestant ministers were given two weeks to leave the country or convert to Catholicism, while ordinary Protestants were forbidden from leaving the country. Despite this ban on migration, the renewed persecution meant that as many 400,000 Protestants fled France: “I saw it was a case of leave or perish”, wrote Jacques Fontaine.

Appledore Quay. © A.E Sweetman & Son Ltd / MBND.

'welcomed....with incredible gentleness. The refugees were all taken into the houses of the townspeople'.

Many of these displaced Huguenots arrived in Britain. Just as today’s migrant populations do, many refugees headed for the capital city – by 1710, at least 5% of the population of London were Huguenots – but there were settlements around the country, perhaps where pre-existing links had been established, or simply where ships first landed. In relative terms, this was one of the largest waves of immigration ever of a single ethnic community to Britain. The pamphlets and popular literature of the time show that the Huguenots suffered from some of the accusations common towards migrants: they took British jobs, they were immoral, ate strange foods, spoke strange languages. For at least half a century the Huguenots remained a distinct cultural group, slowly assimilating, so that around 2 generations later – about 1760 – they had generally ceased to be a recognisable minority.

Luckily we have Jacques Fontaine’s memoir, Persecuted for Their Faith: Memoirs of a Huguenot Family, which he wrote for his descendants in 1722, to give us some insight into the experiences of the refugee community in Barnstaple. Fontaine, his fiancé Anne Boursiquot, and her sister, were determined not to give up their faith, evaded French soldiers and boarded a boat in La Rochelle, desperate for safety, and arrived in North Devon practically destitute.

As far as we know the Huguenots didn’t have a particular reason for their arrival in Barnstaple – it seems as if they just happened to land in Appledore, but perhaps there were trade routes established with the merchants of La Rochelle. It was a fortunate landing anyway, for the people of Barnstaple welcomed them “with incredible gentleness”. The refugees were all taken into the houses of the townspeople and supported for months on end.

Rev. Jacques Fontaine © WikiSource

'...every market day meat, poultry and grain poured upon us in such abundance'

Jacques Fontaine tells us he was given lodging in the house of a Mr Downe, a man in his 40s living with an unmarried sister in her 30s, while his fiancé was accommodated nearby with a Mr Fraine. Amusingly, Miss Downe took a fancy to Monsieur Fontaine, and suggested that she should marry him, and proposed the neat solution that her brother should married Fontaine’s fiancé, Anne Boursiquot: this proposal, made via her brother, must have been an awkward conversation, since Mr Downe and Jacques Fontaine communicated with each other in a mixture of French, English and Latin. The bizarre proposal gave Jacques and Anne the impetus to marry, and Mr Fraine “took upon himself the furnishing of a wedding feast… to which he invited almost all the French Refugees in the neighbourhood”.

The generosity of the Barnstaple citizens continued, with some of the inhabitants of the town helping the newly married couple to furnish the small rented house they moved into: “the liberality shown to us did not stop there, for every market day meat, poultry and grain poured upon us in such abundance… all this was done in the true spirit of Christian charity; we never knew from whom any of these things came”, wrote Fontaine

St Peters Church, Barnstaple. St Anne’s Chapel, pictured right © MBND

The townspeople of Barnstaple made St Anne’s Chapel over to the refugees for their worship, where they held French language services until 1762. Although some of the community, including Jacques Fontaine, moved away from Barnstaple, a large number remained, eventually becoming absorbed into the general population. Some of the immigrants were experts in wool dying and manufacture, and introduced new processes which were used in the production of the well known “Barnstaple Baize”.

The absorption of the Huguenots into the community is seen in the Roch family experience. In the Museum we have a table carpet woven in 1761, which has been attributed to Jean Ulrich Passavant, a Huguenot from Strasbourg. It was originally used in St Anne’s Chapel, and came to the Museum after it was rediscovered there during refurbishments in the 1970s. The heavy tapestry is designed to put on a table and is rectangular in shape, edged with a fringe. It is detailed with colourful flowers and leaves, with a border of dotted lines, and bears the Barnstaple coat of arms and the name of the Mayor, the Huguenot Monier Roch. Monier Roch and his father Matthew Roch were a prominent citizens in the town, both serving as Mayor several times. Monier Roch went on to found the Barnstaple Bank in 1791.

Carpet (detail) showing Barnstaple Coat of Arms and Mayor Monier Roch’s name. © MBND

In less than 70 years a member of that bedraggled group of refugees had become one of the public servants of the town that had welcomed it so generously. Now in 2021, refugees still seek to come to Britain, looking for safety and a chance to rebuild their lives. The Community Sponsorship Scheme that offers a response to the Syrian refugee crisis feels much like the experience Jacques Fontaine details in his memoir, with communities taking on the responsibility of welcoming, supporting and helping to resettle refugee families. There are 5 of these sponsorship groups in North Devon, offering that welcome the Huguenots received centuries ago.

For details contact The Pickwell Foundation.

The Huguenot table rug is on display in the museum's Merchants and Manufacturers Gallery.
Written by Anna Stopes
Editor Adam Murray

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