London played host to a substantial number of French Protestants throughout the sixteenth century. France – a staunchly Catholic country – heavily stigmatized Protestantism, making the country somewhat uncomfortable for deviants from the Catholic Church. It wasn’t until the 1680’s however, that the Huguenot migration began en masse.
For many years, the Edict of Nantes had granted the Protestants the freedom to worship as they chose in designated areas, providing a measure of safety. This marginal security came to an end with the Dragonnades, a policy introduced in 1681 by Louis XIV. Dragonnades were coercive tactics intended to make France increasingly uncomfortable for the Huguenots by forcing them to re-convert to Catholicism. Finally, in 1685, King Louis overturned the Edict of Nantes, resulting in heavy-handed laws and severe persecution of the Protestants.
Hundreds of thousands of Protestants were forced to flee the oppressive rule in France. Many found new homes in the Netherlands, others in America, and others still finding refuge near the Cape of Good Hope.
In keeping with the strong British anti-Catholic sentiment of the day, King Charles II flung open the doors of England, offering a place of refuge to the fleeing Huguenots. Thanks to widespread propaganda depicting the persecution inflicted on French Protestants, the refugees arrived to a warm welcome by the English people. In fact, they were the recipients of generous charitable support from the British monarchy throughout the end of the seventeenth century.
By 1710, between 40,000 and 50,000 refugees had made their way to the safety of England. Historians estimate that around half of that number settled in Spitalfields where housing was cheap and the London trade guilds held less economic power.
The Huguenots came from all walks of life, though many were intellectuals and highly skilled tradesmen with backgrounds in weaving, clock making, and financial services. Textile manufacturing, in fact, was the prevalent occupation amongst the refugees, and they found their services in high demand among the British upper class.
Thanks to the hard work and skill of the Huguenot weavers, the textile trade thrived, and Spitalfields soon became known as “Weaver Town.” The influx of silk and French styles had quite an impact on the fashions of the British upper class. Many workshops were opened, and their owners soon became extremely wealthy with many hundreds of employees. The wealthy Huguenots built large, distinctive houses in Spitalfields – many of which still remain today.
The Huguenot Churches were a binding quality in the community, providing both a connecting point for the immigrants, as well as a support system for the poor and new arrivals. Two churches in particular became very well-established. A very strict, Calvinist church thrived on Threadneedle Street in the City, while a more Anglicized worship took place at the Savoy in the West End. These two churches became focal points for the many refugees, and led to the development of two distinct communities.
Due to the high concentration of French immigrants, they managed to retain much of their distinct culture and language for several generations. Their high fashion and language set them apart somewhat from the general population, and over time they achieved a level of respectability – particularly in contrast to the squalor and immorality of many Londoners.
In time, however, the Huguenots gradually assimilated into British culture and society. The strict Calvinist Protestantism drifted gradually toward a more Anglicized form of worship, and the Huguenots eventually took on Anglicized surnames (though this was often due to English clerical error in record-keeping).
As Indian and Chinese silks became more readily available, the Spitalfields silk weaving went into decline. This seriously affected the community in Spitalfields, and though the industry struggled on, the 30,000 workers were reduced to starvation wages. The ebbing prosperity, along with the introduction of new machinery, led to violent clashes between factory owners and their workers.
By 1801, the “Spitalfields Acts” were passed in an attempt to improve wages and working conditions, and to protect the domestic market. Eventually, however, many Huguenots moved away from Spitalfields, settling in the suburbs.
The Huguenot impact on Spitalfields remains today though, with many French-sounding street names, and many well-preserved Huguenot houses. In fact, it is estimated that Huguenot blood still runs through a quarter of London’s population.