Remembering the Huguenots. The expulsion of Protestants from France 300 years ago helped coin the word `refugee'

IF historian Robin Gwynn has anything to do with it, the word ``Huguenot'' will be a lot more familiar to people by the end of 1985 than it is now. ``The reason I'm here, really,'' said the New Zealand educator over lunch recently, ``is that I am just fed up with the neglect of the Hugenots. I'm quite sure it's wrong. There isn't any other historian in Britain who is going to do anything about it, and I'm not making any impression from New Zealand.''

Dr. Gwynn, although British by birth and education, is by adoption a New Zealander. Since 1969, he has been senior lecturer in history at Massey University there.

His interest in the Huguenots -- whom he broadly defines as all French-speaking Protestant refugees from both France and the Low Countries in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries -- goes back to his teens. His mother was the first official researcher for the Huguenot Society of London and wrote the standard work on Huguenots in Ireland.

Now he has produced his own major book, ``Huguenot Heritage: the History and Contribution of the Huguenots in Britain'' (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul). It is the first serious study of the subject to be published since 1867, and it took Dr. Gwynn 20 years to complete. Apart from the publication of his book, Gwynn is in Britain on behalf of the Huguenot Society to act as director of the 1985 ``Tercentenary Commemoration'' of the Huguenots.

Three centuries ago, in 1685, Louis XIV fatefully revoked the ``Edict of Nantes.'' That law, which took effect in 1598 during the reign of Henry of Navarre, was meant to be ``a perpetual and irrevocable guarantee'' of the rights of Protestants in France.

In the late 17th and early 18th centuries some 40,000 to 50,000 Huguenots fled across the English Channel. It was the first large immigration of aliens that Britain had experienced, and on the whole they met with remarkable sympathy and charity.

Why, in Dr. Gwynn's view, should we be more aware of the Huguenots today? He points out that the very word ``refugee'' came into the English language because of the Huguenots. With millions of people in a similar condition today, he argues, the origin of the term is hardly something we can ignore.

He also argues that there are still ``ecumenical lessons which need to be learnt'' from an historical episode that ``in retrospect was . . . terribly silly -- it shouldn't have happened.''

It is Dr. Gwynn's contention that the Huguenots have been slighted in this century. He feels strongly that the emigr'e French Protestants are ``an important part of English history. They knew that in the 19th century. If you read [the English historian] Macaulay, he was well aware of the Huguenot input. In 1900, you couldn't possibly have written a history of Stuart England without mentioning the Huguenots. But in the 1980s you can.''

Dr. Gwynn cites J. R. Jones's 1978 comprehensive volume, ``Country and Court.'' It covers 1658 to 1714, precisely when the Huguenot influx into England was most significant.

However, says Dr. Gwynn, ``The word `Huguenot' isn't in the index of Professor Jones's book. Nor is the word `refugee.' The Huguenots are actually mentioned . . . but only as a factor which encouraged English xenophobia at that period. . . . Something's gone wrong. It's very curious.'' Professor Jones, of the University of East Anglia, readily agreed in a phone interview that perhaps he should have given the Huguenots a ``brief mention'' in his book. ``I think I would plead guilty to understating their importance there,'' he told me, ``but I think honestly that they are an important minor strain in the period.'' They were ``minor,'' he argued, because they were forced to be ``unobtrusive.

``They were accepted as long as they didn't assert themselves. As long as they were unobtrusive and constructive they were welcomed and assimilated.''

Prof. John Kenyon of St. Andrews University, Scotland, was much less interested in the Huguenots. ``There are a lot of books on Stuart England, including my own, which don't mention them. In fact, I'm at a loss to think of a recent textbook or general history which does.''

Why would interest in them have lapsed? ``Perhaps it is because of a general lack of interest in religion,'' he suggests. ``I dare say a hundred years ago, people . . . were much more conscious of religion and it may have been felt that the Huguenots had contributed something to an existing, everyday, religious heritage that everyone was conscious of, whereas now religious consciousness has loosened and is no longer important.''

He thought for a moment, then added: ``I also think, surely -- I mean this expulsion of the Huguenots from France appeared a terrible thing a hundred years ago, whereas nowadays there have been much greater horrors perpetrated -- on the Jews and on the Armenians -- populations have been transferred all over the place. And the Huguenots now appear very small beer.''

But not to Dr. Gwynn. And he has a supporter in London University lecturer, Dr. Barry Coward, whose book ``The Stuart Age'' was published in 1980. ``In order to explain the intensity of anti-Catholicism in the late 17th century, the Huguenot influence is very important,'' says Dr. Coward. He emphasizes their impact on the political scene and on economic history: ``I would certainly be mentioning them in connection with the transmission of technology. I have a lecture on the influence of aliens on the English economy.''

Both in conversation and in his book, Dr. Gwynn underscores the rich and various contribution made to England's character and development by the Huguenot element.

Through Huguenot journalists, translators, and publishers, for instance, French thought was diffused throughout Britain -- and English thought was conveyed back to the homeland, with which they maintained contact. In England, Huguenots were spread across a range of classes, although they were mainly urban in origin. Their mark was left on painting, sculpture, acting, teaching, and medicine.

Moreover, the Huguenots seem to have forced on England a greater degree of religious tolerance, even though the Anglican Church, despite its Protestantism, exerted varying degrees of effort to make them conform to Anglican episcopacy, instead of the Calvinist ways they believed closer to Apostolic purity.

On the whole they were treated much more tolerantly by the English church than the country's home-grown nonconformists.

Intriguingly, Dr. Gwynn says, as they were assimilated over the 18th century ``they came to contribute to every possible shade of religious opinion'': They became Quakers, Unitarians, Methodists, and, of course, Presbyterians.

Huguenot presence in the English Army became a significant factor in the eventual defeat of Louis XIV.

In finance, too, the Huguenots were prominent: They provided 10 percent of the initial capital for the Bank of England, and six of the original governors, including the chairman, were Huguenots.

Throughout 1985, there are to be lectures, exhibitions, church services, tourist trails, and other commemorations of the Huguenots in Britain. A major exhibition at the Museum of London will look in detail at the rich contribution to the city's history made by the French emigr'es. This opens in mid-May and lasts through the end of October. At St. Paul's Cathedral on Sept. 26, a special thanksgiving service will be led by the Archbishop of Canterbury. (Canterbury, incidentally, was a major settlement city for Huguenots after London, and French church services are still held there today, as they are at the French Church in London.) Other events include historical conferences on the Huguenots in London (Sept. 24, 25) and in Dublin (April 9 to 12). -- 30 --

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