The original refugees

The original refugees

The Huguenots fled from persecution in the 16th and 17th centuries and left their mark across the world, as we reveal

Header Image: A tapestry of the 1572 siege of La Rochelle (a significant Huguenot settlement), which took place shortly after the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre and saw heavy losses on both sides

Social History, Social History

Social History

Social History

In modern times the word ‘refugee’ is commonplace, but the term was first used more than 300 years ago to refer to a specific minority who fled their homeland. They were persecuted for their faith, and fled across the world – particularly to England and Holland, where their Protestant faith was accepted. They were the Huguenots.

There’s something romantic about Huguenot heritage – but why are people so keen to find out whether they have Huguenot roots? Perhaps there is something rewarding about being connected to people who had to suffer for their status, who earned their place in society and proved themselves against all opposition – values dear to British hearts, maybe. This spirit is encapsulated in John Everett Millais’ pre-Raphaelite classic The Huguenot, which shows a proud French Protestant declining his lover’s appeals for him to wear a Roman Catholic badge and thus be saved from persecution. Known today for their Calvinism – with a focus on the Bible’s teachings rather than the rituals of the Catholic Church – the original Huguenots of 16th century France were as much about politics as religion. By 1562 they numbered as many as two million, originally aristocrats but by now including artisans.

William Hogarth’s ‘Noon’
William Hogarth’s ‘Noon’ shows Huguenots leaving a French church in Soho, London; their high fashion is contrasted with the grubbier Londoners

They had an uneasy relationship with the monarchs of France, sometimes persecuted and sometimes protected, but gradually they provoked the wrath of the Catholics, who always outnumbered them by at least eight to one. A series of civil wars began with a massacre of Huguenots at Vassy in 1562, and France was divided by religious infighting for almost 40 years. Henry, the Bourbon ruler of Navarre, adopted the Huguenot cause as a teenager and became their champion.

In 1572, many Huguenots were killed in the mob violence of the legendary St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, just four days after Henry’s marriage to the king of France’s sister. More than 100,000 Huguenots were killed in just a few weeks. The Huguenots were not themselves blameless, of course, and many of them attacked Catholic cities and shrines. It was in this period that the first significant numbers of Huguenots fled to England – the English word ‘refugee’ was in fact originally used to refer to the Huguenots.

Persecution persisted until 1598 when Henry, now King himself and converted to Catholicism, issued the Edict of Nantes granting protection to both Protestants and Catholics, and peace returned for a while.

The last French Protestant church outside London closed in Brighton in 2008. There is still a French chapel in Canterbury Cathedral

In 1627, Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu laid brutal siege to the Huguenot city of La Rochelle, and over 14 months more than 80 per cent of the population died, mainly from famine and disease. In 1685, Louis XIV then revoked the Edict of Nantes, declared Protestantism illegal and unleashed a new era of terror, ending only with a new one in the French Revolution, when the pendulum – or the guillotine – swung in the other direction. It is estimated that as many as half a million Huguenots fled France in all directions in the period until 1764, particularly in the 1680s.

In Britain, the Huguenots tended to cluster near the coasts, as well as the Channel Islands, though of course families of Huguenot descent have since spread everywhere – and when tracing them it’s best to bear in mind their mobility.

In the 16th century it is estimated that tens of thousands of Protestant refugees came to England. In Rye alone, 600 arrived in the two months after the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. At the time, the nation had a Catholic monarch, James II, and it was only after his Declaration of Indulgence in 1687, permitting liberty of religion, that the main immigration came. Today they are remembered for their trades: weaving, dying, jewellery, glassmaking, bookbinding. They were initially welcomed for their skills, though later the competition they posed was often resented. For the genealogist, their trades and worship mean that they left many records.

Huguenot cemetery in Dublin
The small Huguenot cemetery in Dublin, opened in 1693, is not open to the public but a plaque outside lists the 239 names of the families buried there

Huguenot weavers’ houses can still be seen in Canterbury, a key centre for Calvinism in England. As far back as the 1550s, before the main waves of Huguenot immigration, Edward VI had already granted them a portion of Canterbury Cathedral for worship, and there remains a French Protestant chapel there to this day.

The Huguenots spread to many other towns across the south and east of Britain, including Norwich and Southampton, which like Canterbury had French communities prior to the main Huguenot exodus; others included Colchester, Dover, Bristol, Edinburgh, Exeter and Plymouth.

The neighbouring cities of London and Westminster were the focal points of two distinct Huguenot communities in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and evidence remains to this day.

In London itself, the ‘French Church of London’ in Threadneedle Street was established as early as 1550, and remained the flagship of French Protestant worship in Britain. Spitalfields became the other principal Huguenot community of the time, with nine churches in 1700, and particularly provided a home for weavers, clergy and naval officers.

To the west, meanwhile, the French Church of the Savoy met from 1661 until the 1730s, although it established use of a translated Anglican service book rather than the traditional French worship favoured in the City of London. In 1700 there were 14 churches around Westminster, particularly in Soho, where the only French church in London, built in 1893, remains; soldiers, jewellers and wigmakers tended to live in this area.

Further afield, there were French schools in Islington, Marylebone and Chelsea, and significant communities in both Greenwich (Huguenot homes are still to be seen in Crooms Hill) and Wandsworth.

A significant note for researching Huguenot roots in Britain, though, is that these people had a mistrust of death and a religion (Catholicism) that focused on it. As a consequence, preaching at burials was not permitted and French Protestant churches had no interest in recording deaths. This means that Huguenot graveyards (Wandsworth being an exception) are very rare.

Huguenot weavers’ houses
Huguenot weavers’ houses in Canterbury, which was a major home to Huguenots arriving in England Suzanne Knights

In the 17th century the English government encouraged Protestant refugees to settle in Ireland to improve its prosperity and strengthen the Protestant community. Consequently Huguenots settled in Dublin, and to a lesser extent Cork, Waterford, Kilkenny, Portarlington and Lisburn. Another rare Huguenot cemetery remains in Dublin to this day, in Merrion Row, founded in 1693 on land granted by William of Orange.

A number of Huguenots served as mayors in Dublin, Cork, Youghal and Waterford in the 17th and 18th centuries. Numerous signs of Huguenot presence can still be seen with names still in use, and with areas of the main towns and cities named after the people who settled there. Examples include the Huguenot District and French Church Street in Cork City; and D’Olier Street in Dublin, named after a High Sheriff and one of the founders of the Bank of Ireland. A French church in Portarlington dates back to 1696, and was built to serve the significant new Huguenot community in the town. At the time, they constituted the majority of the townspeople.

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As well as England and Ireland, Huguenots fled across Europe, and to South Africa and North America. One of the 1620 Mayflower pilgrims (Priscilla Mullins) was of Huguenot descent, as was American patriot Paul Revere – and indeed it is claimed that a third of American presidents have some Huguenot connection.

The oldest street in America is in New Paltz, New York, and much work has been done recently to restore the Huguenot houses and church there (see Other Huguenot settlements were founded in South Carolina, Virginia and Pennsylvania until 1709.

In what is now Germany, most Huguenots (including, ironically, a Boche family) settled in Prussia, Hanover, Nassau and Mecklenburg. In Switzerland, where more than 20,000 Huguenots are believed to have fled, Geneva, Neuchatel and Lausanne were the main French speaking cantons. Huguenots had a particular influence in the fields of watchmaking and banking. In the Netherlands, from 1588 to 1795 dissenters were obliged to marry in the Dutch Reformed Church as well as in their own denominational church.

Edict of Nantes
The 1598 Edict of Nantes, which permitted Protestantism in France. It was revoked in 1685, leading to mass waves of emigration

In South Africa, French settlers were among the founders of the country’s winemaking industry, and their language helped to transform Dutch into Afrikaans. Many of them were absorbed into Dutch Protestant congregations (though there were later rivalries) and travelled to the Cape of Good Hope with the Dutch East India Company. Colonies were founded at Paarl, Stellenbosch and Franschhoek, where today there is a Huguenot Memorial Museum.

It was to England, however, that the largest numbers of Huguenots fled – the best estimates suggest around 60,000 of them over time.

Returning to England, which is believed to have seen the largest influx of Huguenots – around 60,000, according to the best estimates – the Huguenots soon became a part of the nation, and had a considerable influence, even if they were not always popular at the local scale.

An early President of the Huguenot Society of London (now of Great Britain and Ireland), Arthur Giraud Browning, wrote in 1905 that “the people of England were in a peculiarly impressionable mood for receving and assimilating… the Huguenots”, owing to the religious climate of the time. Browning observed that Charles II, who openly claimed to support Protestants, died only months before the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, and the zeal for Catholicism of his brother, James II, had yet to fully emerge. The Huguenots had a brief window to establish themselves at a time when their faith was welcome, and James lost the opportunity to stamp them out.

Browning spotted that two pillars of the Anglo-Catholic movement in Victorian times, Edward Pusey and John Henry Newman, were both of Huguenot descent (the Bouverie and Fourdrinier families respectively).

Many Huguenots also served their new country. William of Orange commanded at least two regiments consisting entirely of Huguenots trained in Holland, and they came with him when he landed in Devon in 1688. Many then fought with him in Ireland, and trained the rest of the British army. Browning went as far as to comment: “The principle military direction of the British army when it started on its career of Empire-building was Huguenot.”

The Huguenot influence has remained in the country ever since, through their faith, their diligent practice of many skilled crafts, and of course through their French surnames filtering through the generations.

Find naturalised British citizens

If your ancestors came to Britain from abroad, they may have settled and sought British citizenship, which will have left useful records

Britain has seen many waves of settlers over the centuries, but before the Regulation of Aliens Act of 1793, there were no precise controls on immigration. The Act obliged aliens to be recorded on entering the country and to need documentation if they were to travel beyond their port of arrival. Few of these records survive, but when people wanted to become British citizens, a paper trail was generally left which remains today.

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Before 1844, there were two routes to citizenship. One was naturalisation, which required a private Act of Parliament (and for the person to take Anglican communion). This was expensive but granted all the rights of a natural-born citizen. Denization was simpler and cheaper – the term refers to ‘letters patent’ granted by the Crown. Letters of Denization could have restrictions applied – typically that the subject would have to pay double taxes and could not inherit property. Records of both kinds can be found as far back as the 16th century.

After 1844, the process was simplified, and the Home Office began granting certificates – the case papers for these are held at The National Archives. After 1948, the government introduced more straightforward nationality certificates.

Many records up to 1800 were published by The Huguenot Society. Records from the 19th century onwards are generally at The National Archives (see resources box), and now is putting a wide range of denizations and naturalisations online, including Acts of Parliament, returns of naturalisation of aliens and denizenship application by letters patent.

Find Home Office naturalisation records

1. Go to and log in to your account if you haven’t done so already. You can just enter a name, or use the advanced search options to narrow down by date, country of origin or UK residence.
2. Here is the results page, summarising some of the key information available. Note that residence can be as vague as London or as precise as a house address!
3. Use the icons at the right of the results to view a transcription, as shown here, or see the original record (see below for this example in full).

In focus: Naturalisations and Denizations

Acquiring British citizenship has left many different types of records over time. Here are two examples from the collections at

Naturalisations and Denizations

1 – These lists of denizations and naturalisations were published by the Huguenot Society and have now been digitised and made searchable at

2 – Naturalisations here refer to private Acts of Parliament, requiring royal assent (here by George II). You can look them up for more details at the Parliamentary Archives (see resources above)

3 – These summaries of naturalisations typically provide information about the person’s place of birth and their parents; occasionally a trade is listed

4 ­– Sometimes the person changed their name on settling in Britain – here from the grand ‘Superiori’ to the humble ‘Smith’!

5 – Denization listings tend to give less information about the place of origin – but more about where the person has settled. Here a parish is given – often the precise street will be listed, though in earlier years sometimes there is only a list of names

naturalisation certificates,

1 – These records are indexes of Home Office records of naturalisation certificates, digitised and transcribed at

2 – Once again many people simplified or Anglicised their name, as shown here

3 – Although there is not much detail, the date of the naturalisation and the person’s town of residence in the UK is usually given, along with their original nationality

4 – The AZ code refers to an ordinary certificate granted under the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act, 1914; you can search for the reference at TNA’s catalogue at here and find out how to see the original record at The National Archives in Kew

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