November 2017

Huguenot Immigrants in Southampton

At the last meeting of 2017 the well-known historian Dr Cheryl Butler gave an illuminating talk on the Huguenot immigrants to Southampton.  As well as being topical it was fascinating to discover that they fled France for much the same reasons present day immigrants flee their homes— religious persecution.

As Dr Butler explained, there were several waves of immigrants, the first were victims of the Spanish Inquisition in the 1560s when Spain was a global super-power and controlled the Protestant Netherlands. The Walloons from what is now Belgium decided to leave after the fall of Valenciennes, one of their major cities. Elizabeth I was on the English throne and welcomed one hundred and sixty-six, some from the Channel Islands, some from Antwerp and Bruges, most belonging to two family groups.  Existing strong trade links with Southampton made it a good choice and this year marks the 450th anniversary of their flight.

Surprisingly, Elizabeth’s England was not Protestant enough for them as it was merely High Anglican whereas the Walloons were Calvinist and not keen to join the Anglican Church in Southampton.


The queen had the power to permit St. Julien’s church, built in 1197, to be used by these immigrants and this she allowed.  The church still stands today on land owned since the fourteenth century by Queen’s College, Oxford. The church was updated in Victorians but retained the internal white-painted walls and wooden altar. The services dedicated in the names of French saints continued to be held regularly until the nineteenth century and only stopped completely in 1939.

Although this first wave of immigrants fled with very little they soon established themselves as wealthy merchants by investing in the Sea Beggars, or ‘pirates’ as the Spanish saw them. With freebooters like Raleigh and Drake, they ranged wide, even seizing Havana under their captain, Jacques Sores.  By 1572, however, Elizabeth thought it expedient to throw them out, or at least go through the motions of seeming to do so because later we find that a mayor of Southampton, a Huguenot, was also appointed Admiral of the Fleet.

The second wave of immigrants was French Calvinists, fleeing to Southampton after the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre on 24th August 1572.  When Protestant, Henry of Navarre, after marrying Marguerite, sister of the French king, converted to Catholicism with the remark, ‘Paris is worth a Mass’ the thousands of Huguenots who had flooded into Paris to celebrate the wedding were slaughtered.  How many escaped and managed to flee to Southampton is in dispute but the population, low at that time, probably doubled. The Edict of Nantes later confirmed freedom of religion and should have allowed this wave of immigrants to return home but the edict was soon revoked and they were forced to remain. On 4th September 1591 during Elizabeth’s visit to Southampton they offered a Petition of Thanks for the past twenty-four years of refuge.

Unlike their Anglican counterparts they kept strict fast days but a record of misdemeanours clearly shows they were not entirely perfect.  A Robert Couson sold a horse without admitting that it was blind and his punishment recorded at the court leet.  Similarly a wife-beater and a persistent drunk are also in the record.  Women kept their own names and this provided a good source for revealing family connections.

As a practical and useful addition to the Southampton merchant class at a time when wool and weaving were its dominant business, they brought the technique for making Hamtun serge with them and employed many wool-combers and weavers.  When this was seen to put local wool workers out of business they were regulated and began to take on English apprentices. The family de la Motte were significant contributors to this serge-making and dyeing success and, despite having 7 children, when de la Motte himself died his widow Judith continued to run things, employing around one hundred and twenty people at West Hall.  One of her sons became mayor of Southampton and she herself started the de la Motte Year Book which was continued for several generations after her death and provides a rich source of information.

With the need for education a grammar school was founded during the reign of King Edward VI and headmasters at similar free schools which were established were drawn from the Huguenot community.

Other trades included glass-making, in a style incorporating roundels and paper-making. Many refugee families made their mark, including Cardonell whose arms can be seen on Bargate, and Henry Portal, whose mill is now the Bombay Gin factory.  He came over in the third and final wave of Huguenots who arrived in the early eighteenth century and, by 1724, were manufacturing the paper used for the bank notes for the Bank of England.

Hard hit by outbreaks of the plague their numbers dwindled and eventually English, not French, was spoken. The last marriage was registered in 1753.

Queen’s College edict in 1712 confirmed their tenure of St Julien’s.  In July there is an annual day of remembrance in French by a French pastor.  The land is still owned by Queen’s College, Oxford.

The next meeting of the Society will be on 26th January 2018 at 7.15 p.m. when Nick Saunders will talk about the Hampshire Regiments and Victoria Cross Awards in WW1. For more information see the website or email