4: the Last of France

Before anyone familiar with the Pre-Raphaelites (1) points it out, the illustration above has nothing to with France and was painted in a different era from the great Huguenot exodus, which is the subject of this post. Yet, when you try to understand what emigration meant to real people; their commitment, their emotions, this painting tells us more than historical facts and figures ever can.

The painting is entitled The Last of England by Ford Maddox Brown (1855).  It portrays a young couple as they embark on their voyage to Australia.  They are portraits of Brown and his wife Emma; the hand that you can see under her shawl is that of their son, Oliver.  Brown, who had described himself a few years earlier as “intensely miserable, very hard up and not a little mad”, was struggling to maintain his family on an artist’s erratic income and had contemplated emigration himself.  We can imagine him painting this scene with a sense of ‘what if?’.

Unlike the ‘reprobate’ (Brown’s description) in the background waving his fist angrily at the country of his birth, the couple have turned their backs on the white cliffs of Dover, symbolising their renunciation of the old country and their commitment to the new.  It is a poignant moment, their emotions captured with heart-rending clarity: he brooding and determined; she trusting and devoted.

She grips his listless hand and clasps her child,

Through rainbow tears she sees a sunnier gleam,

She cannot see a void where he will be.

(Edmund Clarence Stedman, ‘For the Picture, The Last of England ’)

Those same emotions must have been expressed in the faces of thousands of refugees during the Huguenot exodus from France in the 1680s.  Hoping for a better future, but knowing that they were unlikely ever to see their home, friends and family again.  For them it was the Last of France.

We tend to think of refugees as destitute hordes fleeing for their lives, but the Huguenot exodus was rather different.

Firstly, the Huguenots were not forced to leave; on the contrary, there were severe penalties if they were caught attempting to emigrate. They could have avoided persecution and the terrors of the dragonnades (2) by the simple expedient of converting to Catholicism, yet large numbers rejected this option and felt compelled to leave.  Devotion to their religion was more important than allegiance to their country.

Secondly, the Huguenots possessed knowledge and skills that were portable and would be of value in their new home.  Their assets were not invested in property to the same extent as the catholic nobility, nor were they tied to the land like the peasantry; they could travel light.

Thirdly, the Huguenots faced a better reception at their journey’s end than most refugees. Many Huguenots had family connections abroad, some of them the descendants of the first wave of emigrants that left France after the St. Bartholomew’s day massacre (3) a century earlier.  Others had business connections through trade and finance.  All could rely on the support of fellow Protestants in neighbouring states.  The Huguenots were portrayed as martyrs, living evidence of the oppression of popery, and were assisted by public collections to ease their plight.

The fourth and perhaps most striking feature of the Huguenot emigration is how well planned it was. There was a well organised network of Protestant sympathisers in Germany, Holland, Switzerland as well as France who helped to coordinate the exodus.  Escape routes were set up (at a price) with guides who knew the hidden tracks and escorted the émigrés between a chain of ‘safe houses’ (4).  Some rulers, notably in Brandenburg (Germany), even set their stall out to attract this skilled workforce, offering them significant tax and trading concessions.  In other countries such as England (Great Britain did not exist at that time (5)) and the United Provinces (Holland, ditto (6)), which had stronger economies, there were advance negotiations to establish the ground rules.  London, for example, was keen to attract skilled workers and investment,but also had to safeguard the interests of its guilds which saw the Huguenots as potential business rivals.

Huguenot escape routes

As you can see from the map, the Huguenots spread far and wide.  England was only one place of refuge; the United Provinces was the most popular thanks to its proximity and flourishing economy, but Switzerland, Brandenburg, Ireland, the English colonies in America, the West Indies and South Africa were also popular destinations.  As far as canary history is concerned, it is the Huguenots who migrated to England, especially those who settled in London, that attract our interest because it is widely believed that they brought the Fine Spangled Sort / London Fancy / Lizard canary with them, depending on which version of canary history you read.

Migrating to England was not as simple as getting on a boat at Calais and landing at Dover; the ports were guarded and the coasts were patrolled.  Only a minority of refugees originated from the north of France; the Protestant strongholds were in the south of the country.  Most escape routes involved long sea journeys from the south west ports or crossing mountain passes to the east.  Even if they had the means to get to England, many Huguenots were deterred because it was ruled by King James II, a Catholic. It was only after he published the Declaration of Indulgence in 1687, and a year later when he was deposed by the Protestant William of Orange, that England was seen as a safe haven.

There is no exact figure on how many Huguenots emigrated.  Robin Gwynn (7) estimates between 180,000 and 190,000, but some estimates go higher than that.  Probably 40-50,000 settled in England, more than 20,000 of them in London, although some continued on to Ireland and America.  Over half a million Huguenots stayed in France as nominal Catholics, many of them participating in clandestine Protestant services, L’Eglise du Désert.  In that context, the number of Huguenots who settled in London is just over 10% of the diaspora and less than 3% of the total.

Those figures puzzle me, because if the Huguenots really were the source of the Fine Spangled Sort / London Fancy / Lizard canary, as everyone seems to assume, it begs the question why did these canaries become established only in London?  Why didn’t that happen with the other 97%?


(1)  The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a group of English artists and poets founded in the mid nineteenth century.  They included Rossetti, Holman Hunt and Millais.  Ford Maddox Brown was on the fringes of the group.

(2)  The dragonnades were discussed in Part 2 of this series, which you can read here.

(3)  The St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre is described here.

(4)  You can read an account of one man’s escape here.

(5)  Great Britain was formed by the union of England and Wales with Scotland in 1707.

(6)  The Netherlands was formed in 1830.

(7)  Robin Gwynn Huguenot Heritage: the history and contribution of the Huguenots in Britain, 2nd edition (2003), p.30.


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