Both my husband and I have French Huguenot ancestors. Each of our mothers carried the original immigrant’s Huguenot surname, though anglicized. Not long after the 1685 revocation of the Edict of Nantes, his mother’s ancestor emigrated from Normandy, France, to the Northern Neck of Virginia. He arrived sometime between 1687 and 1693. It is thought he may have come through England, possibly via Jersey in the Channel Islands. We have no family stories about this trip.
My mother’s ancestor arrived somewhat later. Along with his two brothers, he landed in Philadelphia in 1752, having set sail from Antwerp, Belgium. The story we have is that the boys’ mother had fled France with her family many years earlier and settled in Geneva, Switzerland. After her death, the three sons, by then adults, chose to come to the Colonies.
We have no records of the financial situation of either family at the time they left France or arrived in the Colonies. My mother’s ancestors, like many Huguenots, were well educated and quickly found jobs teaching in the Pennsylvania Dutch region west of Philadelphia. My husband’s ancestor must have come with resources. Though he had previously married in France, he fairly quickly married a Virginia woman. By the time he died some 35 years later, he had become the owner of a vast tobacco plantation in Westmoreland County, which he purchased from from Catherine Culpeper and her husband, Thomas Fairfax, 5th Lord Fairfax. His neighbors included the Washingtons, the Monroes, and the Lees.
So it was with great personal interest that each of us read a fairly recent release, The Huguenot Chronicles, by Paul C.R. Monk. The fictional story is, according to its description, “based on true events.” I do not know if this means it is true of a particular family, or more generally true. I certainly believe that every event reported in the series actually happened, over and over, to countless Protestants of conscience during the years preceding and following the edict’s revocation.
This series is a chilling story about a treacherous and hazardous period of history. Thousands of French Protestants did not survive the harsh turnabout that took place in 1685. Thousands more converted to Roman Catholicism to save their lives and those of their families.
As I read these books, I was constantly imagining the experience and journey of my ancestor. Did that family, like the heroine, have a long trek on foot through France to reach the refuge offered by Switzerland? Did they, like her, travel with a small band of refugees, walking by night, hiding by day? Since I do not know when my ancestor’s mother fled with her three sons or how old they were then, I wonder how much her experience paralleled the travails so vividly brought forth in Monk’s work.
My husband’s ancestor likely travelled a different route; much of Normandy is not far from England. Perhaps he, along with other refugees, was able to cross the channel furtively and proceed with less threat from there. It is not clear from existing records whether his first wife had died in France, or whether he left her behind. Records do show that three children of that union reached adulthood in France. Perhaps, as with some of the families in Monk’s story, his wife was unwilling to make the sacrifice and chose instead to remain in France with her children and convert.
Can the fictional family in Monk’s series possibly have a happy ending? Odds are definitely against them; but so were the odds against safe and successful flight from persecution in France for my ancestor and my husband’s. Were this not true for thousands more, the early colonies and our infant nation would not have benefitted so greatly from the significant contributions of Huguenot immigrants.
In short, I found this trilogy of books to be well-told, gripping, and realistic. I highly recommend it, especially to anyone with Huguenot ancestry. More generally, it offers a vivid picture of prejudice, hatred, and power in a tumultuous period of history that many Americans know little about.
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