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  • Writer's picturejoyce hampton

Huguenots - the elusive ancestors

Updated: Nov 16, 2021

Many people at some point in their lives will begin to wonder what their family origins are. For most the start of the journey into their ancestory is recent family papers such as birth, death or marriage certificates. Perhaps family members who have written down a two or three generation potted history of the family may be of help in the quest for your origins. However, those with Huguenot history have a wealth of additional places to seek out their ancestry from.

First of all, we need to consider what a Huguenot is? The answer is, it is a name given to French Protestants or as they were originally known, Calvinists, named after Jean Calvin, who having begun to question the Catholic church doctrine and unhappy with the corruption of the Catholic church, turned away from its prescribed form of faith. But, do not be under any illusions that the waters are clear, they are certainly not. Huguenots were those who fled religious persecution after Louis XIV of France signed the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. There had of course been Huguenot who had left before this date such as at the time of the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre in 1572 or when they could not in all concience accept the persecution they had been faced with before Henri IV of France had signed the Edict of Nantes in 1598.

Any French ancestors that you may discover who fled France at about the time of the French Revolution were not seeking refuge because of religious persecution, but instead they would be classed as political refugees.

In England the protestant reformation had begun in 1534 when Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic church in order to divorce his spanish wife Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn. After Henry VIII's death in 1547 his son, by his third wife, Jane Seymour, became the first protestant King of England and welcomed those from France and from the Netherlands, known as Walloons, to settle here. They were usually artisans and craftmen of the finest calibre who could bring wealth to England in the form of their high quality products and, just as importantly, they were encouraged to teach the locals some of their skills.

Edward VI gave a Charter to various French and Dutch churches to allow them to practice their faith in their chosen manner. The original churches were set up in London, Canterbury, Norwich and Southampton. But things were to change significantly when Edward VI died in 1553 and his catholic half-sister Mary came to the throne. During her reign many were persecuted for their faith and a great number of foreign refugees fled these shores only returning, if at all, after Mary's death in 1558 and the accession of her half-sister the protestant Elizabeth I.

So, after the briefest introduction to the history, we will now move on to the clues. Yes, of course the surname may indeed offer a clue but not always. For example, Dubois is French but it could be the earliest ancestory you can trace with this name is about 1800, thus just after the French Revolution, so probably not a protestant seeking religious refuge here rather a political refugee who in all probability was Catholic. But if you can trace that French name further back to, say, 1681, there is a good chance they were a Hugenot.

A few years before the Revocation, Louis XIV had set loose the Dragoons who undertook Dragnonades across the land to forcibly convert Huguenots to Catholocism so anyone arriving in this country around about 1681 onwards with a French surname would no doubt have been a Huguenot. You now have your first potential clue in tracking down your Huguenot ancestors........the date.

Your next clue is in the name many names were written down incorrectly by the clerks paid to record refugee arrivals. You can imagine a bored clerk towards the end of the day hearing the name Bois writing down Bows instead and so the bewildered foreigner in a strange land was already at a disadvantage as no one understood his pronouciation! This does not mean it is impossible to trace it just means you may need to delve deeper into the clues to seek out your ancestor and of course you must beware of false trails.

If you have enjoyed this blog, do please look for Part 2 next month..........

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