Please welcome award-winning novelist Piers Alexander to The Seventeenth Century Lady!
Dura lex sed lex: The law is harsh, but it is the law. For Huguenots in the 1600s, royal edicts were instruments of hope and despair, both in France and in England.
Slaughtered for their faith in the sixteenth century (the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572 was just one example), Henri of Navarre’s Edict of Nantes in 1598 gave Huguenots freedom of worship for the next eighty-seven years.
Increasing repression in the seventeenth century, especially under Louis XIV, led up to the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. The monarch put quill to paper; brutal dragonnades (the forced billeting of dragoons with Huguenot families) led to mass conversions and attempts to escape France by land and sea. Tens of thousands reached England, where they were publicly welcomed by Charles II but privately barred from livery companies and unable to naturalise for decades to come.
Some time during those two centuries of emigration, we think that my own ancestors fled south-eastern France and settled in the West Country. Sometimes it’s hard not to look at my father and think of their strong work ethic, their ability to learn languages and assimilate, fiercely independent of priesthood and state alike.
When I came to write The Bitter Trade, a novel of the Glorious Revolution, I chose to have a half-Huguenot hero. Calumny Spinks is an outsider: his family have fled France, but aren’t welcome in England, yet his cussed Englishness alienate him from the Huguenots of Spitalfields who take him in. I wanted to know what it was like to be an outsider’s outsider: what would drive a young man to become a racketeer, a conspirator, a fighter.
Huguenots in late seventeenth century London were still at the mercy of royal whims and writs. Families fled Bourbon France to seek freedom of worship, yet the 1662 Act of Uniformity prescribed conformist worship, excluding the Calvinist Huguenots from public office, and from the established church. Worse, Charles II signed the secret Treaty of Dover with Louis XIV in 1670, aimed at defeating Holland – which was the great haven for Huguenot refugees (a word which originates with the refugiés of the 1680s).
Only after James II’s 1687 Declaration of Indulgence, again offering freedom of worship to Dissenters (as well as Catholics), did England become truly appealing to Huguenots. But he had previously suppressed news of the Revocation – so, ironically, the 1687 influx came with such horrifying stories of life under Louis XIV that English public opinion became inflamed against the king, partly enabling the Glorious Revolution which overthrew him.
Imagine the optimism of Huguenots in England under William III: a Protestant king who’d dedicated his life to fighting the French tyrant, grandson of a Huguenot, and a man who was to donate generously to their people from the Civil List. Though it took years for Parliament to naturalise the Huguenots, civil life grew better for them quickly, and their influence spread: from weavers and mercers, to dominating the finer crafts of goldsmithing, gunmaking and jewellery, to leading England’s new banking industry and even the army itself, when Jean-Louis de Ligonier became Field Marshal in the middle of the eighteenth century .
In the end, Huguenots themselves took control of the promises of kings: it was they who spread William III’s destabilising propaganda before his invasion; they led the paper-makers and printers who filled the pages of Hansard. Two centuries later, a son of Huguenot emigrés, Thomas de la Rue, who printed Victoria’s “promise to pay the bearer” on British banknotes.
Dura lex sed lex has a second, subtler meaning. In Latin, jus means natural law, but lex means human, temporary law. So the law may be harsh, but it can be changed; and the Huguenots of the seventeenth century prevailed over intolerant royal writs with persistence, adaptability and faith.
Piers Alexander is the author of The Bitter Trade, a historical novel set during the Glorious Revolution.
It has won the Pen Factor and a Global Ebook Award for modern historical fiction.
* Both images are part of Quiet Conquests, a record of the Huguenot Society / Museum of London exhibition in 1685 commemorating the tricentenary of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes.