Journeys of fear and of hope
My last blog spoke of the sheer desperation felt by Huguenots as one by one almost all of the safeguards within the Edict of Nantes were negated until the King signed the Edict of Fontainebleau, now forever known as The Revocation. I said that in my next blog I would write about the fearful and, in some cases, the downright dangerous journeys both individuals and families were forced to undertake.
The Huguenots had seen the metaphoric writing on the wall for a few years but the increased restrictions and often forced abjuration of their faith, led many to flee a few years before the signing of The Edict of Fontainebleau in 1685.
Some sought a lonely road to freedom others travelled with their wives and children, but all faced an arduous and often dangerous journey. Let us look at just two of the journeys bravely undertaken by Huguenots.
In south-west France the Portal family who had lived near Bordeaux for generations began to receive unwelcome visitors, in other words the Dragoons were starting to make regular visits. It was decided that they would have to leave their home if they were to be free to live and worship in their chosen way. So, they left their home – father, mother and five children to travel on the first stage of their journey to their estate in the Cévennes but they were followed and overtaken by the Dragoons who killed both the parents and one of the children. The four remaining orphaned children were forced to flee from the house they had been sheltering in as the Dragoons set light to the property razing it to the ground. The four children, one girl and three boys set off together toward the coast. By the time they reached Montauban one of the boys fainted with hunger and was taken in by a kindly baker. The three children reluctantly left their brother in the baker’s care as they headed for the port of Bordeaux.
The children managed to gain passage on a merchant ship where they were hidden in barrels. They were some of the lucky ones because shortly after they made good their escape, the order from then on to fumigate the holds of ships was given. I leave you to imagine the scene when a barrel was opened after the hold had been fumigated.
The Migaults, were another family to suffer the abuse of the Dragoons. Eventually they were forced to flee their home to take shelter in nearby woods, were a further 21 Huguenot families were also seeking shelter. Eventually, the Dragoons left the area but when the family tried to return to their old home, now in ruins, the Dragoons were waiting for them again and so they fled back to the relative safely of the woods.
By 1683 Madame Migault had died, leaving the surviving 12 children in the care of her husband. They could not live indefinitely in the woods and it would be too dangerous for all of them to travel together so the three eldest sons made their escape first, two fled over land to Germany and the Netherlands while the third son took ship to Holland. By 1688 Monsieur Migault felt he and the rest of the family must try to leave France for a new life.
The Migault family’s first attempt to leave France was on a cold dark night. Jean had successfully negotiated for the family safe passage on a ship leaving La Rochelle for England. He left for La Rochelle with one horse in whose panniers two of
the Migault children were ensconced, while a third was seated on the horses back, with the rest of the family walking alongside.
Heavy rain had turned the roads into deeply rutted, sticky, sodden paths which, nevertheless, were still far too dangerous to travel along. To avoid detection, they picked their way slowly across meadows now transformed into swamps, often sinking deep into the mud as they desperately struggled onwards towards the beach where they were to embark. As the beach came into sight, they could see fellow refugees quietly waiting for the hoped-for salvation that the ship would offer if things went well. Over 50 people were taken out in groups by longboat to the English-owned ship anchored offshore that night, but the Migaults were too large a family unit to be taken as one group.
As the sky lightened and a new day dawned, two patrolling guard boats were sighted between the beach and the rescue ship, forcing those still waiting to turn in flight back towards La Rochelle, hurrying as fast as they could, retracing their steps, panic-stricken, along the rain sodden paths of their earlier route; these poor souls must have been fearful of being arrested at any moment. The Migaults were among those lucky enough to regain the safety of their lodgings. Terrifying as the experience of that night had been, it did not deter them and within three months they were ready to make another attempt and this time they succeeded.