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. Religious persecution persisted in France until the Revolution in the 1780s, a hundred years after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes.
Many of their names were Anglicised when they moved across the Channel; 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 Huguenots retained their connection with the cloth trade well into the nineteenth century. Harriet Martineau became well-known in the country as a writer, and her father had been involved in the weaving industry.
Other evidence of the importance of the Huguenots may be found in a church near the centre of the city. This is 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. The church was originally closed in 1544, as a result 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 place of worship, holding their religious services in Blackfriar’s Hall, a tradition which continued until living memory, finally ending in 1929.
Even before the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes there had been a steady flow of French Protestants to Norwich and in 1637 the church of St Mary the Less was transferred to the Huguenot community; prior to that the congregation had worshipped in the Bishop’s chapel in the Cathedral Close. They continued to hold services in French in St Mary the Less until 1832. By then nearly all the Huguenots had been incorporated into other non-conformist denominations that existed in Norwich. The Martineaus, for example, who had once worshipped at St Mary the Less became Unitarians, worshiping at the Octagon Chapel in Colegate. Other members of the family even became Anglicans.
Strangers Hall in Norwich got its name from these incomers or ‘Strangers’ who settled particularly in that area of the city. This term ‘Stranger’ included both Dutch speaking Flemings and French speaking Walloons. These immigrants may have accounted for as many as a third of the population of Norwich (or possibly more than that) at their height, but by the end of the 16th century an outbreak of plague, prompted by their poor living conditions, reduced their numbers to about a quarter of the population. Even this number was a huge proportion of the city’s residents. The mass immigration had already begun before the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes increased the persecution of the Protestants by the Catholics and boosted the numbers fleeing across the Channel.
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 Huguenot refugees. 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 migrants from Flanders.
Many of the novelties introduce by these Protestant immigrants from Northern Europe resonate down the centuries, almost to the present day. It was for instance the Strangers who first brought the canary to Norwich, a bird which remained popular in the city well into the 20th century, when it gave its name to the local football team. Anthony de Solempne, a Calvinist refugee, became the first printer in Norwich in the mid 16th century (before printing was banned in the provinces) and he was made a Freeman of the City. The Florist’s Feasts were competitions held among local horticulturalists. These took place in local inns and were a feature of Norwich life from the 1630s for two hundred years, and these too were an immigrants’ innovation. In the brewing industry the introduction of hops led to the production of beer rather than the English unhopped ale; this was also down to the Strangers.
Although, as we have demonstrated, other industries were influenced by the Strangers, it was the weaving industry that acted as a magnet for the Huguenots. In absolute terms more of them may have settled in London, but as a proportion of the population they were more numerous and consequently 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, both in wealth and in culture, without the Huguenots.
FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA