Protestantism developed in Europe in the 16th century as people became unhappy with the corruption of the Catholic church, triggering centuries of religious division.
In France, Protestantism spread in an arc stretching south from Nantes in the west to the Italian and Swiss borders, and in Normandy in the north.
Strictly speaking, the term ‘Huguenot’ should only be used to describe a French Protestant of the 16th to 18th centuries. However, when the Huguenot Society of London was formed in 1885, it decided to include other early religious refugees from the Low Countries -today’s Belgium and the Netherlands. In the second half of the 16th century, the majority who came to England were from this region.
While hundreds of thousands died in the religious wars raging across mainland Europe, England got off relatively lightly. Although there were martyrs, both Protestants and Catholics, who died for their faith here, the number was comparatively few – less than 2,000. A regular trickle of refugees sought safety in Britain.
The French Wars of Religion were ended by the Edict of Nantes in 1598. It granted Protestants the right to a certain amount of freedom of worship.
From the 1660s, these rights were chipped away. Persecution dramatically increased with the introduction of the dragonnades in 1681. Mounted soldiers were forcibly billeted on Protestant families – often wrecking their homes and making life intolerable – to make them convert or leave France.
Four years later, Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes. Protestant ministers were forcibly exiled, and everyone else had to become Catholic.
Men who refused could be sent to the galleys as slaves, imprisoned or executed. Women, too, could be locked up and their children taken away to be brought up in convents.
Thousands ‘converted’, but up to 400,000 fled France over the next decades. About 50,000 came to Britain; others went to Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia.
Sometimes people from these mainland European countries later moved to Britain, South Africa or the Americas: Huguenot lineage can cross continents.
Huguenots leave the French Church in Hog Lane, in the St Giles area of London (later part of Soho), 1736. An engraving of ‘Noon’ from the ‘Four Times of the Day’ series of paintings by William Hogarth. Engraved by W. H. Worthington from the painting by Hogarth. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Were your ancestors Huguenots?
There are many thousands of people in Britain who have French Huguenot heritage they know nothing about.
The silk-weavers of Spitalfields – the largest and poorest group of Huguenots – are perhaps the best known. They stuck together and many remained nonconformist.
They are also the easiest to research because they needed help, especially at the end of their working lives, which generated records (check out the holdings of the Huguenot Library).
Although an ancestor may be recorded as French in genealogical sources, the French have been coming here for centuries for reasons other than religious persecution.
In addition, Huguenots were admired by the Victorians, so many people started to claim Huguenot ancestry. Their ‘stories’ have been passed down, and should be verified.
Several clues hint at French Huguenot ancestry. First, there were particular periods when the number of immigrants from France swelled in response to religious persecution. Does your relative’s arrival in Britain coincide with one of these?
Secondly, French Protestant settlements in the UK were all in the south of England, Scotland and Ireland, while some went to the French-speaking Channel Islands.
The first arrivals went where people spoke French and could help with money, advice and so on.
Some names are obviously French, but others were misrecorded, such as the Chataigne family in Wandsworth who became the Chattings.
Some refugees translated their names. One Dubois family in London changed its name to Wood during the Napoleonic Wars.
So if you have an ancestor you suspect was French, investigate these records and see whether they formed part of this fascinating group.
Top 7 websites for finding Huguenot ancestors
1. The Quarto Series
The Huguenot Society of Great Britain’s Quarto Series includes the major sources for Huguenot ancestry in England and Ireland. The most vital are the Returns of Aliens, made in the early 17th century; the naturalisation and denization records from 1500 to 1800; and all the extant registers of French churches in this country. These are all on CD-Rom. Publications in the Quarto Series are available in a number of libraries including the Huguenot Library.
2. The Huguenot Library
As well as thousands of books and documents, the library has copies of research carried out into individual names and families.
3. The Huguenot Surname Index
Containing more than 200,000 entries, this is a master index to all of the publications in the Quarto Series. It has been compiled by the Huguenot Society of Australia and is available to buy on CD-Rom. If the name you are interested in is not here, the people are not Huguenots.
4. The Proceedings of the Huguenot Society
Now the Huguenot Society Journal, published annually since 1885, it includes articles on aspects of Huguenot, Walloon and early Dutch history, as well as individual families. There are published indexes, and members of the society can access all of the Proceedings on its website. The Society of Genealogists has a complete set you can consult. The Huguenot Society also published the journal Huguenot Families (1999-2009).
5. French Protestant Church of London
The church has records relating to various English congregations, but no registers.
6. Huguenot Museum
The museum has artefacts and displays about the Huguenots’ history.
7. Virtual Museum of Protestantism
As well as images and information, this website includes links to all of the Huguenot museums in France.
Kathy Chater is a historian and the author of Tracing Your Huguenot Ancestors: A Guide for Family Historians