Seeking Sanctuary – a History of Refugees in Britain | History Hit

Seeking Sanctuary – a History of Refugees in Britain

Jane Robinson

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The media has many, often negative, stories about asylum seekers trying to arrive in Britain. More sympathetic interpretations exhibit shock that people would risk their lives in flimsy dinghies to attempt to cross the English Channel; less sympathetic accounts say they should be physically rebuffed. However, crossing the sea to Britain is not a new phenomenon for people seeking sanctuary from persecution.

Religious conflicts

In the 16th century the Spanish Netherlands, roughly equivalent to modern day Belgium, was ruled directly from Madrid. Many people living there had converted to Protestantism whilst Spain, ruled by Phillip II, was fiercely Catholic. In Mediaeval times religion was of overwhelming significance to people’s lives. It ruled their rituals from birth to death.

Philip II by Sofonisba Anguissola, 1573 (Image Credit: Public Domain)

However, corruption in the Catholic Church had begun to undermine its authority in parts of Europe and many had renounced the old faith and embraced Protestantism. This led to intense conflicts and in the Spanish Netherlands in 1568 a revolt was ruthlessly suppressed by the Duke of Alva, Phillip’s senior general. Up to 10,000 people fled; some north to the Dutch provinces but many took to boats and crossed the often perilous North Sea to England. 

Arrivals in England

In Norwich and other eastern towns they were warmly welcomed. They arrived bringing special skills and new techniques in weaving and allied trades and they are credited with reviving the cloth trade which was in serious decline.

The Museum at the Bridewell in Norwich celebrates their history and recounts that the Norwich City Football Club acquired its nickname from the colourful Canaries that these ‘Strangers’ kept in their weaving rooms. 

London as well as towns like Canterbury, Dover, and Rye equally welcomed the strangers. Elizabeth I favoured them not only for their contribution to the economy but also because they were fleeing the rule of the Catholic monarchy of Spain.

There were, however, some who found these new arrivals a threat. Thus three gentlemen farmers in Norfolk plotted an attack on some strangers at the yearly fair. When the plot was uncovered they were put on trial and Elizabeth had them executed.

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St Bartholemew’s Day Massacre

In 1572 the occasion of a Royal wedding in Paris lead to a blood bath which escalated way beyond the palace walls. Some 3,000 Protestants died in Paris alone that night and many more were slaughtered in such towns as Bordeaux, Toulouse and Rouen. This became known as the St Bartholemew’s Day Massacre, named after the saint’s day on which it occurred. 

Elizabeth condemned it outright but the Pope had a medal struck in honour of the event. Such were the geo-political and religious divisions in Europe.  Many of the survivors came across the Channel and settled in Canterbury.

Like their counterparts in Norwich they established successful weaving enterprises. Once again, recognising their importance, the Queen gave them permission to use the undercroft of Canterbury Cathedral for their worship. This particular chapel, Eglise Protestant Francaise de Cantorbery, is dedicated to them and is still in use to this day.

St Bartholomew’s Day massacre by François Dubois, c.1572-84 (Image Credit: Public Domain)

The Huguenots flee France

The largest group of refugees came to Britain’s shores in 1685 after Louis XIV of France revoked the Edict of Nantes. This edict, established in 1610, had given some tolerance to the Protestants or Huguenots of France. An increasing onslaught of oppressive measures had been unleashed on them in the period leading up to 1685.

This included Dragonnades being billeted in their houses and terrorising the family. Contemporary lithographs show children being held out of windows to force their parents to convert. Thousands left France at this time with no chance of returning to their native soil since Louis had their nationality irrevocably revoked.

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Many went to the Americas and South Africa but an overwhelming number, some 50,000 came to Britain with a further 10,000 going to Ireland, then a British colony. Dangerous crossings were undertaken and from Nantes on the west coast where the Huguenot community was strong it was a rough journey across the Bay of Biscay.

Two boys were smuggled in wine barrels aboard a ship that way. Of these Henri de Portal made his fortune as an adult producing bank notes for the Crown.

The Huguenot legacy

Huguenots succeeded in many fields. It is estimated that a sixth of the UK’s population are descended from the Huguenots who arrived here in the late 17th century. They brought major skills to this country and their descendants live on in such names as Furneaux, Noquet and Bosanquet.

Huguenot weavers’ houses at Canterbury (Image Credit: Public Domain).

They too were favoured by Royalty. King William and Queen Mary made regular contributions for the upkeep of the poorer Huguenot congregations.

Modern day refugees

The history of refugees arriving by boat and seeking sanctuary in the UK extends further into the modern era. It recounts the stories of people such as the Palatines, the Portuguese refugees, 19th century Jewish refugees from Russia, Belgian refugees in the First World War, child refugees from the Spanish Civil War and Jewish refugees in the Second World War. 

Belgian refugees in 1914 (Image Credit: Public Domain).

In 2020 and with no safe and legal routes, asylum-seekers often feel they have no choice but to take to flimsy boats. How people seeking asylum have been received here has been dependent on many factors including leadership from the government of the day.

Being a stranger in a strange land is made much easier by being welcomed and supported. Some of those fleeing persecution found a warm welcome for their skills but equally for political reasons. Refugees fleeing a regime that England, the host country, was in conflict with received strong support here. The 250,000 Belgian refugees who fled the German invasion of their country in World War One are a notable example.

They were met with an outpouring of support across the country. However not all refugees have been so warmly welcomed.

Seeking Sanctuary, a History of Refugees in Britain  by Jane Marchese Robinson seeks to reveal some of these stories, set them in an historic context and illustrate this through the use of a few personal journeys seeking sanctuary. It was published on 2 December 2020 by Pen & Sword Books.

Tags: Elizabeth I

Jane Robinson