Huguenot Refugees

In April 1598 King Henry IV of France granted important rights to Protestants — mostly Calvinist Huguenots — in his Catholic country, not out of sympathy for their beliefs but as an attempt to forge national unity in unstable times. It was one of the first decrees to establish religious toleration in Europe, and helped end the bloodshed of the many Wars of Religion that had raged from 1562. They were granted radical, wide–ranging rights at a time that Protestants were still widely regarded as heretics, so was unpopular with Pope Clement VIII and other monarchs.

On October 18 1685 Louis XIV revoked it, putting an end to religious and civic rights for Non– Catholics, so an estimated 400,000 were forced to flee to England, Holland, Americas but especially Prussia. This caused immense damage to France, as they took with them their commercial and technical skills, to benefit France’s rivals and enemies.

Much has been made of their huge contribution to England, most famously the silk weavers of Spitalfields. They were welcomed by the community that established in 16th century London, so they did not become a burden on the limited English welfare state.

But they were not popular with Queen Anne and her Tories. Towering over the streets of Spitalfields is Christchurch, by Hawsksmoor, a huge monumental edifice aimed at serving the surrounding poor. But it was also making a very clear statement on the supremacy of the Anglican Church and the monarchy.

The situation was very different in Bristol, where there was no existing community, and the Stuart monopolies had ravaged the city’s commerce and industries. They complained that they could barely maintain their own poor, so when a ship brought the first refugees in December 1681 they wrote to the government for aid. The Huguenots were described as men, women and children “generally of the meaner sort and in need of relief”, with more expected to follow.

This was not just Bristol being heartless; the Elizabethan Poor Law system was based on recipients being members of their local parish; it was a closed system in which neighbours helped each other. There was no system to help poor strangers. Bristol’s authorities asked the government where they should send the Huguenots. Yet Bristol’s population at the time was about half Nonconformists, especially the much persecuted Quakers who were excluded from public office, so they welcomed the new arrivals. The city council even wrote to London requesting that the fines raised from persecution under the Conventicles Act be used to support the new arrivals. At times these laws had been viciously imposed on Non Anglicans in Bristol, with worshipers fined or imprisoned, their meeting houses destroyed, the furniture burnt in the streets, and some shipped to the colonies.

A second large party arrived in August 1682 and were supported with £42/10s by the council. This group included many mariners, whose skills were welcomed as the city’s shipping and commerce was expanding. There was also a small group of the higher classes, with 10 merchants, 1 physician, 3 surgeons and many took the Oath of Allegiance to the crown. Most of them settled in Bristol, with some becoming successful merchants. In 1693 Stephen Peloquin was nominated by the mayor to became a free burgess. David Peloquin served as sheriff to the corporation in 1735 and was mayor in 1751. Mary anne Peloquin seems to have been the last of the family, and when she died left £19,000 to the corporation for charitable purposes.

Other names appear in civic offices such ad Daltera and Piquenot, but most anglicised their names, so have since vanished. Levraut became Hare, Leroy King, both names which can be found in later records. They were allowed to use the Lord Mayor’s Chapel on College Green before building their own.

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