ON THE day the first child refugees from the “Jungle” camp in Calais were allowed into the UK, the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Richard Chartres, led a commemoration of the Huguenots, who were expelled from France 331 years ago on Saturday.
The trickle of French Protestants fleeing state-sanctioned persecution turned into a flood after King Louis XIV revoked the earlier Edict of Nantes — which had granted them freedom of religion — on 22 October 1685.
Standing outside Christ Church, Spitalfields, in east London, Bishop Chartres said on Monday that their arrival had changed the country for ever.
“This is a particular auspicious day,” he said, as he planted a mulberry tree in the gardens outside the church. “Not only is it a rather melancholy commemoration of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes: it is also the day when we are going to receive some hundreds of unaccompanied child refugees. Of course, it was the Huguenots who gave ‘refugee’ to the English language.”
Mulberry trees were associated with the Huguenots because they came to dominate silk-weaving. Silk worms eat only mulberry leaves.
Spitalfields soon became home to the most concentrated population of Huguenots. Bishop Chartres, who said that he came from Irish Huguenot stock, reminded the small group who had gathered at Christ Church of the extent of the wave of migration.
“Fifty-thousand Huguenots arrived around the time of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes,” he said. “If you look at the proportion of the population, it is equivalent to the arrival of 650,000 refugees today.”
Although the influx caused much debate — and a “touch of xenophobia in Parliament”— the Huguenots almost instantly began to make a huge contribution to both society and the economy, Bishop Chartres said.
The mulberry tree he planted outside Christ Church, a gift from the Chelsea Physic Garden, is a graft from a mulberry that was probably planted during the reign of King James I. “It’s a very historic tree,” the Bishop said.
Receiving the tree, the Rector of Christ Church, the Revd Andy Rider, said that he was honoured to be the Rector of Spitalfields, an area that had opened its doors to successive groups of immigrants over the centuries.
When Christ Church first opened in 1736, its organist was a Huguenot, evidence of how quickly the community assimilated into Spitalfields, Mr Rider said. Today, it is thought that about one in six people in Britain have Huguenot ancestry.
After the ceremony, Tottenham cake was served, topped with pink icing made with mulberries.