Trace your French émigré ancestors like Sir Derek Jacobi

By Guest, 27 August 2015 - 9:47pm

Laura Berry reveals the sources used to trace Sir Derek Jacobi’s French ancestors who emigrated to England during the 17th and 18th centuries

Huguenot refugees arrived on English shores after the Edict of Nantes was revoked in 1685 (Photo: Getty Images)

In 1685 Louis XIV of France revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had allowed Protestants a certain degree of freedom to worship during the early 17th century.

His actions resulted in thousands of French Protestants, or Huguenots, fleeing to countries where they could practice their religion without persecution. Many poor Protestant silk weavers and craftspeople landed on these shores and quickly set up businesses in Spitalfields, London, and in other cities in the southeast, including Norwich, Canterbury and Southampton. The history of this first wave of artisan immigrants can be researched with help from this guide.

However, wealthier Protestants who were more closely tied to the French court and lived off investments in land and property were often unable to leave their home country quite so swiftly. It was possible to survive in France by pretending to be Catholic, but many eventually made secret arrangements to emigrate abroad for fear of being exposed and imprisoned, or worse.

Derek Jacobi’s émigré ancestor’s name, Joseph de la Plaigne, suggested that he came from the landed elite (“de la” meaning “of the”). This partly explained why it took him almost two decades to get out of the country, but also meant that a wide range of records were available to research his story.

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London's French Hospital was originally located in Finsbury before moving to Victoria Park in 1865 (Photo: Wellcome Images)

Huguenot records

The Huguenot Society has collected much genealogical information about French Protestant immigrants to England and other areas of Britain. Its library is part of UCL Special Collections and is currently accessible by appointment only at The National Archives. Some of the Society’s published works can be found at the London Metropolitan Archives, which has a research guide here.

Whether or not a French émigré was wealthy, if their descendants fell on hard times then they could apply for support from the French Hospital, founded in London in 1718. Admittance was only granted to people who could prove their Huguenot ancestry, and so a wealth of genealogical information is available to search amongst the records of this charity, also now held in the Huguenot Library. It’s worth researching the side branches on your family tree as you work back in time, because the application papers of a direct ancestor’s sibling or cousin may provide you with valuable information about their shared émigré ancestor.

Municipal and Departmental archives in France may also hold material about wealthy residents before they left the country – the Archives Départementales de la Gironde (Bordeaux Departmental Archives) hold, amongst other things, a list of people who made oaths of allegiance to the city in 1667. In Paris, the Société de l’Histoire du Protestantisme has a library of specialist publications, including a Dictionary of Protestant French Families in Bordeaux in the 17th Century, revealing that Joseph de la Plaigne was imprisoned at the Chateau de Loche. For further information click here.

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Fresco above the entrance to L'Eglise Protestante Française de Londres in Soho (Photo: Alamy)

Church records

While Spitalfields is renowned for having been home to a large population of poor Huguenot refugees in the 17th and 18th centuries, Soho attracted wealthier immigrants and became known as Petit France. The parish records of various French Protestant chapels in the West End can be searched amongst online nonconformist records at TheGenealogist and Ancestry. The only remaining French Protestant Church now stands on Soho Square, and was built in 1893 (see egliseprotestantelondres.org.uk). The records of the French churches in London are written in French, but can be translated with help from Google Translate.

Some imagination is required when searching for the names of a Huguenot ancestor and their descendants. In Derek Jacobi’s family, the ‘de la Plaigne’ surname was quickly Anglicised to ‘Laplaign’ and by the 19th century it had become ‘Lapland’. As successive generations were integrated into English society their baptisms, marriages and burials took place in ordinary parish churches, which is usually where you will need to start tracing your line back through the 19th century. Many Church of England parish registers are online at FamilySearch, Findmypast, Ancestry and TheGenealogist, or are available to search on microfilm at local County Record Offices.

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Court and inheritance records

Wealthy French émigrés like Derek Jacobi’s ancestor Joseph de la Plaigne sometimes brought cases in the Court of Chancery, which dealt with disputes over land, money and property. This court generated a complicated set of records, and there are research guides to help you by clicking here. Joseph de la Plaigne’s pleading was found indexed on The National Archives' online catalogue under the spelling ‘Laplayn’, and a great number of other court cases may also be found simply by searching the catalogue by surname.

Wills proved in England can be a good source of information about any land that your ancestor held back in France. A large collection of wills proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury are searchable on TheGenealogist and on The National Archives website, where further information about finding wills proved in other courts can also be read here.

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William of Orange arrived in England on 5 November 1688 (Photo: Getty Images)

Military and other records

Many Huguenots supported William III when he arrived from the Continent to seize the British Crown during the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and continued to serve in the English Army after they arrived here. Matthew Glozier’s book The Huguenot Soldiers of William of Orange and the Glorious Revolution contains some biographical information about key players. Several published volumes of English Army Lists and Commission Registers for this period can be browsed for free at archive.org. Prominent Huguenot men are also mentioned in State Papers in The National Archives’ SP 44 record series.

Derek Jacobi’s ancestors who fought loyally for William III were naturalised as British Subjects by an Act of Parliament, and it wasn’t uncommon for civilian Huguenot immigrants to apply for denization, which was less expensive and gave them some of the same rights. Go to this link for detailed information about finding records of naturalisation and denization.

Wealthy French Protestants and their descendants who had significant careers in Britain may be mentioned in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. For an in-depth guide to researching your French Protestant forebears, turn to Tracing Your Huguenot Ancestors: A Guide For Family Historians by Kathy Chater.

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previous blog Article
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