These French Protestants were driven out of their homeland in the 17th century. In 1598 the Edict of Nantes had given this minority a degree of protection from persecution. Its revocation in 1685 by Louis XIV led to the emigration of many French Calvinists, particularly from the north of France, now the French-speaking part of Belgium. Many of them ended up in Norfolk, where weaving the local wool was already a flourishing industry. Weaving was the trade that many of these French immigrants pursued, and they naturally gravitated to Norwich.
Many of their names were Anglicised, often in a quite ruthless way; Blanc became White, while Petit became Little and Langlois became English. The Martineau family retained their French name, which remains as the name of part of the Norwich Ring Road, Martineau Lane. The Martineau family retained their connection with the cloth trade well into the nineteenth century. Harriet Martineau became well-known in the country as a writer.
Other evidence of the importance of the Huguenots may be found in a church near the centre of the city. This is the church of St Mary the Less in Queen Street; you can easily miss it among all the shops, unless you raise your eyes to roof level, where the tower may still be seen. It was originally closed in 1544, at the time of the Reformation, but in 1565 it was given by the city fathers to the Dutch religious refugees who were already valued for their weaving skills. They appear to have used it for selling cloth rather than as a church, holding their religious services in Blackfriar’s Hall, a tradition which continued until 1929.
In 1637 the church of St Mary the Less was transferred to the Huguenot congregation; prior to that they had worshipped in the Bishop’s chapel in the Cathedral Close. They continued to hold services in French there until 1832. By then nearly all the Huguenots had been incorporated into the non-conformist community of Norwich. The Martineaus for example who had once worshipped at St Mary the Less were by then Unitarians, worshiping at the Octagon Chapel in Colegate.
You can find hints of Huguenot influence outside the city too. The nearest farm to my birthplace in Poringland is called French Church Farm. When and in what circumstances it acquired this name is unclear, but it is plainly a reference to the Huguenots. So too is Strangers Hall in Norwich, which got its name from the incomers or ‘Strangers’ who settled in the city from the mid 16th century. This term included both Dutch speaking Flemings and French speaking Walloons. These immigrants may have accounted for over as many as a third of the population of Norwich at their height, but by the end of the 16th century an outbreak of plague, prompted by their poor living conditions, reduced their numbers. You can tell the mass immigration had already begun before the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes increase the persecution of the Protestants by the Catholics.
Religious persecution persisted in France almost up to the Revolution (in the 1780s), and for almost a hundred years after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes the emigration of Huguenots continued. Many of the introductions by these Protestant immigrants from Northern Europe resonate down the centuries. It was for instance the Strangers who first brought the canary to Norwich. De Solempne, a Calvinist refugee, became the first printer in Norwich in the mid 16 century and was made a Freeman of city. The Florist’s Feasts, competitions among local horticulturalist held at Norwich inns, were a feature of local life from the 1630s for two hundred years, and were an immigrants’ innovation. In the brewing industry the introduction of beer rather than the English unhopped ale is down to the Strangers. The word ‘Plain” used across Norfolk (but nowhere else) to mean a square or wider part of a street is common in the Netherlands as “Plein”. This use of the word must have been introduced by the Strangers.
Although, as we have demonstrated, other industries were influenced by the Strangers; it was the weaving industry that acted as magnet for the Huguenots. More of them may have settled in London in absolute terms, but as a proportion of the population they were more influential in Norfolk than anywhere else in the kingdom. Immigration may be currently unpopular among the English people, but in our part of the country they have had a huge effect, and all to the benefit of the natives. We East Anglians would have been a poorer people without the Huguenots, both in wealth and in culture.
FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA