This blog post is written by award-winning author and friend, Rosemary Hayes, who has written around fifty books, mainly for young adults. ‘The King’s Command’ is her first story for an adult readership. Set in the late 17th century, it’s about the persecution of the Huguenots in France and their flight to England. Rosemary’s fictional account is based on the history of her own ancestors, and in this post she gives a fascinating insight into how she translated fact into fiction.
Like many people (possibly as many as one in six in England), I have Huguenot ancestry.
No-one knows the exact genesis of the word Huguenot but it is thought, originally, to have been a term of insult by French Catholics towards French Protestants. However, in time it became adopted by the Protestants and widely used by them.
My ancestors – the facts
Many of those who try to trace their Huguenot roots find the process laborious and frustrating, coming across contradictions and going down blind alleys, but I was lucky. A lot is known about my Huguenot forebears, Lydia and Samuel La Fargue. They feature in the Annals of the Huguenot Society and some meticulous research was done on them by an Edwardian ancestor of mine, so I had a head start.
I knew where they lived in France; in a small town in Gascony, not far from Bordeaux, originally called Castillon-sur-Dordogne and now called Castillon-la-Bataillie. I knew what they did (they were predominately lawyers, physicians and minor nobles) and that they were friends with other prominent Protestant families in the region with whom they inter married and socialised. In the baptism records of the time, it can also be seen that they were godparents to one another’s children. The Edwardian ancestor states that they lived just outside the town centre in ‘the pleasant faubourg’ and, although I found no evidence of this, it seems likely to be true. They also owned land in the plains South of the town.
So, they came from the bourgeoisie, were committed Huguenots, following the teachings of Calvin, and their own ancestors had fought against the Catholics in the sixteenth century Wars of Religion.
I also knew that Lydia, Samuel, their surviving children and Lydia’s widowed mother left Castillon and fled to Geneva in 1690. And also, intriguingly, that Samuel returned alone to Castillon in 1692 where he died, aged 32, on the very day on which he converted to Catholicism. He may, of course, have died from natural causes, but these were turbulent times, so who knows? I did discover from local documents that he had returned to try and reclaim forfeited property.
After his death Lydia, her children and her mother then left Geneva for London and settled in the pleasant village of Hammersmith where there was a small Huguenot community. Lydia’s only surviving child, Elias, became a Church of England vicar in Lincolnshire and is my direct ancestor.
Why did the Huguenots flee France? A brief background
The wars of religion between Protestants and Catholics raged in France during the second half of the 16th century where hatred ran deep, armies were raised and atrocities committed by both sides. These wars were finally brought to an end through the actions of King Henry IV. Henry, originally a Protestant, was a pragmatist. In a bid to unite the country he converted to Catholicism, reportedly saying “Paris is well worth a mass” and promulgated the Edict of Nantes (1598) which granted official tolerance to Protestantism, and for eighty years or so the Huguenots thrived.
Henry’s successors, however, were far less tolerant of the Huguenots, destroying their strongholds and breaking up their military organisation and when the young Louis XIV finally took control of his throne in 1661, he vowed to make France a wholly Catholic country and wipe out the ‘false religion’ of Protestantism once and for all. During his reign, the Edict of Nantes, which had protected Huguenots for so long, was revoked and their lives became impossible.
Unless they denied their faith, they would forfeit their property, be unable to practise their professions or trades and their children would be forcibly removed from them to be brought up as Catholics. They were banned from holding gatherings, even in private, and their temples were destroyed. Yet they were not allowed to leave the country; the King did not want to lose the skills of these hardworking and successful people.
Hardly surprising then, that many converted and many fled despite the penalties if they were caught.
It has been an intriguing journey finding out about my ancestors and, more generally, about the circumstances which forced Huguenots like them to flee France. My book ‘The King’s Command’ is based, very loosely, on their experience. I have set the story in Castillon, called the main character Lydia (or Lidie, as she was known by her family) and her husband Samuel, but a lot of the other characters are fictional, as is the account of Samuel’s death and Lidie’s escape. I know nothing of the family’s actual escape to Geneva but night travelling was common. There were ‘Huguenot Trails’ known only to those within a trusted network, safe houses along the escape routes, false identities adopted and bribes paid. There were also plenty of financial rewards offered to those betraying Huguenots and to soldiers finding stowaways, with spies and informers everywhere, so any escape would have been fraught with danger.
In my story, I have made Lidie stay in Castillon and then escape not from nearby Bordeaux, which was heavily guarded, but from a little port called La Tremblade a good way up the West coast. Many Huguenots did escape from here and I used, as background, a contemporary account of one such escape, cranking up the tension as the family tried to avoid detection.
To add to the tension, I made the King’s dragoons visit Castillon to try and force unconverted Huguenot households to abjure. I don’t know if this is true, but certainly there were plenty of reports of this happening in the region.
I also made Samuel die a violent death as a direct result of his association with Claude Brousson, a Protestant lawyer and preacher who fought tirelessly for justice for the Huguenots. Brousson had to flee for his life to Switzerland and then, very bravely, returned in secret to become part of the Church of the Desert, in the wild and mountainous region of the Cevennes, where he preached and gave succour to his fellow Protestants. He died a martyr and hero but he is largely forgotten now and I felt he merited some recognition.
In reality, once Lidie reached London, it seems that she led a very quiet and worthy life, centred on the French church in Hammersmith, but I decided to make her lively and vivacious with a strong character and a love of fashion and of the new silks being made in Spitalfields. I also invented for her a naughty surviving daughter, a new romance and another child from a (fictitious) second marriage.
In her will, Lidie left the bulk of her estate to her son Elias and the rest to the French church in Hammersmith and the French poor of London. It seems that she was still relatively well off and it is known that she brought with her from France some family portraits (presumably taken out of their frames and rolled up), some small pieces of family silver and the La Fargue seal.
The Huguenots were hardworking and talented people and they integrated so seamlessly into their adopted countries that, generations on, it is easy to forget the circumstances which forced them to flee their native France in the 17th century.