huguenot London South Africa

The Huguenot Heritage

by Margaret K. Kilner
courtesy: Covenant People's Fellowship
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The Huguenots were a people of steadfast faith, unshakeable in their stand for Protestantism and very resilient. The movement was established in France and active from around 1559. They have a rich and varied history closely interwoven with that of the Reformers, and as such they were much maligned and persecuted as they made their stand against the mal-practises of the Roman Catholic Church.

Their determination and deep conviction is a hallmark of this group of Protestant people, particularly in their early days with Jacques Lefevre d'Etaples. Like the other reformers of that time, they were obliged to hold their meetings in secret, disguising their Protestant stalwart activities. Calvin was one of the most well known of the early Huguenots and his teaching strongly influenced them. They came from all walks of life, labourers, nobility, students, academics and craftsmen.

They suffered the ruthless persecutions being experienced in the mid-1500's of any who protested against the Catholic Faith. Any study of the Reformers will show that many tried to reason with the Roman priests and when the revelation of Bible Truth was made to them and this served only to widen the gap between the two persuasions.

In 1547 the Charles Ardente Committee which was formed, condemned the "heretics" to death. This was the beginning of martyrdom.

Huguenots were certainly numbered with the martyrs. They were cruelly tortured and burnt at the stake.

During that period, Huguenots attending a religious meeting at Vassy were cruelly attacked and there followed eight religious wars between the Protestants and the Roman Catholics.

There was a strong political association here as a result of the struggle between the merging House of Valois, which was Catholic and the Protestant Bourbon Dynasty.

Much cruelty ensued. Like many wars today peace negotiations were taking place and during one such cessation of war, the Huguenots were enabled to insist on certain privileges but these did not compensate for the great loss of lives already suffered. The peace did not last and many more suffered.

It was disclosed some time after the event, that Catherine de Medici, the Queen Mother, had secretly planned the terrible St. Bartholomew's Night Massacre which is featured in many historic writings on the Reformation. She was a Catholic but supported the marriage of her daughter to the young Prince Henry of Navarre who was descended from a Huguenot family and was one of their leaders. A strange move we might say but also a very cunning one and her strategy was soon put into motion.

The wedding ceremony was to be held in Paris and the festivities would last several days. Huguenots and Catholics gathered for the celebration. It was an ideal opportunity for the Roman Catholics to revenge themselves on the unsuspecting Huguenots. Four days later there was an attempt on the life of the Huguenot leader, Admiral Coligny. The unassuming Protestants thought at the time that this was an isolated incident.

The intrigue of this marriage continued and the cunning Queen Mother continued with papal processions through the streets of Paris; three new frescoes were added to the Vatican to commemorate the Bartholomew Night Massacre.

Let us take a look now at Henry of Nevarre. He was crowned and known as ''le bon Henri'' (the good Henry). He had been a prominent Huguenot leader. His devout mother was Jeanne d'albert. His greatest desire was to unite France under one king, to do this he had to renounce his Protestant Faith and become a Roman Catholic. To him political considerations were, regrettably, more important than religious ones. On the 25 July 1593 his army took possession of Paris.

The Huguenots were forced to co-operate with him if they were to remain in France. Strange as it may seem, his Prime Minister remained a dedicated Huguenot.

During the reign of Henry IV, the Edict of Nantes was promulgated ensuring religious freedom for all his subjects. The king endeavoured to accommodate the various groups within his country.

The Huguenots continued to play an important role in a growing and healthy economy, and France could not really afford to loose them; but the situation soon changed.

After the assassination of Henry IV in 1610 their position deteriorated greatly. Louis IV succeeded his father and his mother acted as regent. It was Prime Minister Richelieu who wielded power and as he took the view that the Huguenots had formed a state within a state, conflict was inevitable. The fortunes of Huguenot history dipped as the Prime Minister took arms against them, but there was a brief respite as his successor was more tolerant.

Slowly but surely however the situation subsequently deteriorated again. Increasing measures were taken against the Huguenots and by the time Louis XIV had proclaimed his motto, which in English reads: "I am the State", the Huguenots were again the victims of persecution. Those who declined conversion to the Catholic faith were guarded by Roman soldiers for whom they had to both provide food and shelter, and pay their wages. If they refused the men were banished to galleys or put on floating racks.

One of the most moving stories of Huguenot persecution was that of Marie Durand. She was imprisoned in "The Tower of Steadfastness" in 1730, where she remained for 38 years, all because her brother was a Reformist Minister. He was hanged after 20 years in prison. Scratched on the stone floor of the prison were the words "Her faith has not changed" next to Marie's name.

The Edict of Nantes was replaced by the Edict of Fontainbleau in October 1685 and this emphasised hatred of the Huguenots. They were forcibly obliged to give up their Psalm books and their Bibles were burnt. In case some were planning another emigration, the authorities declared that all emigration was illegal.

The Huguenots however were not so easily discouraged, this strong steadfast people decided to flee. Forget about the new laws, their minds were made up!

A few of them temporarily swore allegiance to Rome for their own safety; until they too made their escape from France. Some of the people who departed did so in disguise, often at night, usually on foot. They were a great loss to France for many of them were looked upon as the cream of the nation at that time.

To where did the Huguenots flee? Many went to the Netherlands and joined several former French refugees. Others came to Britain. The numbers in the Netherlands increased so much that although they were generally well-educated, trained workers and had been given special privileges, and found sympathy for their cause in that country, it was decided that large numbers would have to go elsewhere. Henry XVII made a plan to ease the population explosion. The Huguenots would go to the Cape of Good Hope.

You will recall if you are aware of South African history, that the Dutch East India shipping company were already using the South African Cape as a stopping place between Holland and the East, and several Dutch people had begun to settle there.

I must admit that until I recently visited South Africa, I knew very little about the Huguenots but one day my sister and brother-in-law announced that they were taking me to a place called Fransch-hoek. I knew the name but that was all. We had visited several places of interest, historically, during my visit so I asked my sister what I could expect to see there or learn from a visit. Nonchalantly she said: "The Huguenot Memorial, and History Museum", and also we would drive through the "wine country".

We set off on another beautiful day, driving inland where we saw plenty of wheat fields and then the softer vegetation of the wine-lands. Leaving behind the rugged coastline of the Cape, we soon reached the mountainous regions of the Drakenstein. We paused for a few minutes at the summit to view a delightful valley which was to prove of great historic interest and most picturesque. The drive up to that point had been spectacular as we negotiated the bends in the road climbing higher as we progressed. Now lying before us in the valley was FRANSCH-HOEK. We wound our way down and quickly approached this sparklingly clean and beautiful village. Art galleries, antique shops, a few curio shops selling local art and crafts and good restaurants. The main attraction was as we entered the village, a layout of well-kept pretty gardens, paved walkways and well-planned buildings housing the museums. Then this most fascinating monument.

Returning to the flight of the Huguenots. They landed at Suldanha Bay in 1688 - a date to be remembered - and during the next two years several ships arrived in the bay. The total was eventually around 200 immigrants, a comparatively small number against today's figures.

Simon van der Stel welcomed the newcomers and allocated farms to them along the Berg River as far north as Paarl. Some of the farms still bear the names of the early Huguenot settlers and this is noticeable by their French connection, some of which was adopted into the then new language of Afrikaans.

It was not an easy time for the Huguenots but they were used to persecution. They embarked on several types of farming including the planting of olive trees and they endeavoured to start a silk industry but both of these failed. They did however make a major contribution to the farming of wheat and wine in the country. Being a small closely-knit group and very French, they struggled to maintain their identity, threatened by the Dutchification Policy. Simon van der Stel came to fear French domination in the areas he had allocated.

The use of the French language became restricted, especially after the departure of their leader, Pierre Simond in 1702 and the death of their first teacher, Paul Roux. Future generations of Huguenots managed to retain their language but despite their resistance to the Dutch Authority they were merged into a larger community.

One thing which they held on to was their unshakeable Protestant Faith, and this had a great influence on the Afrikaaner. This race can claim to be about 20% Huguenot descent. The name has never been lost. Many Afrikaans names today are derivations of the early French names.

A tangible symbol of the Huguenots is their special cross. A model of this can be seen in the front of the pulpit at a church at Simondium. This symbol is still a Protestant sign among Huguenot families in France and is given to newborn babies or to young people confirming their Protestant faith, also as Christmas or New Year gifts.

It bears no resemblance to the Roman Cross, but tells its own story, depicting many aspect of the life of the Huguenots. The cross comprises four petals, or cross arms, representing the four Gospels. The eight petal tips depict the beatitudes and together with the four tips of the Fleur de Lis, represent the 12 Apostles. The dove at the foot symbolises the Church, it was added by the goldsmith Maystre of Nimes in 1688, the dove has outstretched wings, its face downward and is of special significance of the Huguenots in flight, and they approved the design - a reminder of their cause and reason for leaving their homeland.

The Book of Psalms had been translated into French by Clement Marot, a new edition appeared in Geneva 30 years later. The Huguenots brought this translation with them and Psalm 68 boosted their morale in times of war.

Their strong Calvinist sense of religions, freedom and independence, had actually strengthened the Dutch settlers and was intensified by the Huguenots.

Plans to erect a monument to the Huguenots in Fransh-hoek was contemplated in 1938. Because of the outbreak of war the following year and its economic recession, and the regulations enforced, it required an act of faith to continue with the plan. Designs were called for and J.C. Jongens, a Dutch immigrant created a simple but striking concept and this was accepted.

The centre figure is a young woman in front of an arched construction, which was the creation of Coert Steynberg. There could be no better place to erect the monument than Fransh-hoek. It was completed in 1945. The inauguration was delayed until 1948. The address was given by the Moderator of the Dutch Reformed Church in the Cape, the Dr. A.J. van der Merwe.

Again as we look closely at the monument there are symbolic meanings to its many elements.

The three arches are for the Holy Trinity, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the sun shines as a sign of righteousness. The top cross symbolises their Christian Faith, the female figure is casting off her cloak of oppression. Her position on top of a globe signifies her spiritual freedom. The Bible in her right hand and the broken chain in her left hand also depict religious freedom. On the globe the Southern tip of Africa is marked, together with scenes from the Bible representing Christianity. There is a harp for art and culture, a sheaf of corn for agriculture and a vine for viticulture, a spinning wheel for industry.

If you think back a few years to 1988, you may remember that many of our Reformers were remembered on the 300th Anniversary of their death. An organisation under the name of the "Spirit of '88" was formed in this country and is still in being today, printing articles and producing literature promoting the cause of Protestantism. It was a good year, rallies were organised by all the main Protestant Organisations and we in the Covenant People's Fellowship had a series of lectures on Reformation teaching in our London Meetings.

Quite apart, but relative to it, 1988 was also the year to commemorate the arrival of the Huguenots in South Africa three hundred years before. On the initiative of the Huguenot Society of South Africa the National Committee Huguenot 300 was set up to co-ordinate the festivities.

In London there is a Huguenot Church in Soho and the well-known Orange Street Congregational Church in Leicester Square has long been associated with the Huguenots. This powerful steadfast, loyal and faithful people who have upheld Protestant Truth throughout their history has left its mark. They may not receive as much attention as other Reformers because not so much is written about them. Some people are put off by the point in their history when some for political reasons as we have seen in this study, defected to the Roman Catholic Church. That was a minority, the remainder have given us much to remember.

The Huguenots that came to England had the same characteristics as those who settled in South Africa. Wherever the Huguenots went, they enriched their host country. There were spinners in Bideford, tapestry weavers in Exeter, wood-carvers in Taunton, hat makers in Wandsworth (London) glass-workers in Sussex and calico workers in Bromley (Kent.)

As we saw in their early history, they were not only an industrious people, but they were also to be found in Society Circles. Garrick the English actor was descended from the Huguenots. It is also interesting to note that Queen Victoria had Huguenot blood in her veins which should be an interesting point to British Identity believers as well as to the Protestant Associations today.

The Huguenots settled in many places and no doubt history students will know of memorials and monuments erected in other places to their memory.

Our interest lies in the group of Huguenots, particularly the silk-weavers who settled in the neighbourhood of Leicester Square, London where they worked, prayed and worshipped. They had offered their skills to the reigning king and assured him of their loyalty.

Like some of the Israelites who were murmuring in the wilderness and longing for the dainties of Egypt, these Huguenots missed the vine-yards of France with their luscious vegetation and delicious fruit; as well as wine. They missed their language and what they called the pretty accents of their kinsmen. The one thing which they gained, and which was extremely important to them, was religious liberty. That was far better than anything France could offer at that time of oppression, and so they stayed in England.

First of all there was a Huguenot Church in Glasshouse Street, London W1 near Regents Park. But soon that church could not hold them all and it was necessary to purchase a site near Leicester Fields where they built the Leicester Fields Chapel now known as the Orange Street Congregational Church referred to above.

It was a much larger church than at present and the actual sanctuary occupied the site from the alley-way at the side of the present church, with frontage along Orange Street which was not so named at that time, down to the corner where the library now stands and to the same depth as at present. The present Minister, our friend the Rev. Harold Stough told me this a few years ago when I was visiting Orange Street. All the building was used for the activities of the then Huguenot's Church and its congregation. But now, all but the area of the present church, the crypt and one or two small rooms, are let out to other people, some for office premises and the library which I mentioned, the Newton Institute occupies rooms at the back on two floors.

The Church was French Non-Conformist not to be identified with the English Non-Conformists.

Some of the old church registers show that Huguenots who had recanted at the heart of the French persecutions now came to the chapel confessing their sins and seeking church membership. Before they were accepted they were rigorously questioned about their belief, their new determination to stand for Protestant Truth and character was taken into account.

Their singing of Psalms in their native language and the presence of a French Minister attracted other Huguenots who were on their way to worship in St. Martins in the Fields, and they too joined the Leicester Fields congregation at the "small chapel" as they referred to it. A number of French pastors were in turn called to pastor the chapel and an interesting thing happened during the pastorate of Pierre Barbould (1711-1737) who was also a refugee. His grand-daughter describes the common practice of noseblowing! during the sermon, how that the minister after making a vigorous effort in doing this is followed by each of the congregation doing the same, either because of their brotherly sympathy or because climatic conditions were particularly unfavourable - not surprising when the church was in a field. The granddaughter described the practise as "a glorious concert". She implies that the minister takes advantage of such situations to refresh his memory from the manuscript before him.

The Prince of Orange had an interest in the chapel after whom it was renamed and the street has taken the same name. Other patronages expressed their interest too.

Adjoining the chapel was the house of Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) generally acknowledged to be the world's greatest scientist of his time, he achieved immediate fame for his work on the nature of white light, the calculus and gravitation. He was an M.P. for Cambridge in 1688 and Master of the Mint in 1699, President of the Royal Society from 1703 until he died.

It appears his close proximity to the chapel enabled him to offer the ground floor of his house for further French refugees from France as a place of worship. Many Huguenots came to worship there. They had many associations with the Leicester Square area of London and would not be pleased to see what goes on in that area now.

The Rev. Samuel Luke, in 1847 wrote of the Orange Street Chapel:

"A Chapel long endeared to the religious circle by its interesting association".

It has lived up to its name and is the venue today of various denominations, Christian and particularly protestant rallies and conferences.

We are saddened to find members, some of note in the National Established Church of England, have recently joined the Roman Catholic Church. We are equally saddened by the Ecumenical Movement gaining support when its domination will be Roman Catholic. Surely a look at history, even the history of the Huguenot as well as our Great Reformers of other note, should make the defectors of today have a change of mind. The Roman Church still say "Sempter Edem - we do not change".

We can, I believe be much encouraged by the steadfastness of the Huguenots. We may not suffer the persecutions which they endured. We may not be aware of the many Roman Catholics in parliament and other high places. We may not all be aware that the Royal Family with their advisors and sometimes their confidantes, are surrounded by Roman Catholics at the present time. It came as something of a shock to find a defector amongst the less Royals in recent times. We do need to be aware that this iniquitous system with their blasphemous mass are out to convert the whole world before the year 2,000 A.D.

It is time for Protestants to pray for the strength to defend the faith once delivered to the saints and to renew in their minds what it cost the reformers in their day to witness to the Truth. It is due to their faithfulness that we have the freedom to witness to that same Truth today. May we be as faithful to the faith.

Orange Street Congregational Church