The Huguenots of Rye

The Huguenots of Rye

MASSACRE OF HUGUENOTS. The massacre of the Huguenots in Paris, France, on St. Bartholomew’s Day, 24 August 1572. The colour engraving by Granger is after the painting by Francois Dubois, a Huguenot eyewitness.

Some of the crowdThe East Street Museum was packed on Tuesday afternoon, 14th July — every single seat that could be found was taken. The eager audience had come to hear Jo Kirkham, as part of the Huguenot Summer celebration being held worldwide,  tell about the Huguenots who fled to Rye in the 16th to 18th centuries to escape persecution in France — and about the vital role they and their descendants have played in the town’s history. How much we all learned! For those who missed the talk,  here are just a few examples:


  • According to one estimate, three-quarters off all English people today have some Huguenot blood in their veins!
  • The Huguenots gave us the word ‘refugee’ — so much in the news today.
  • A massacre of 1,200 Protestant worshippers by Catholics at Vassy in 1562 sparked three decades of religious civil wars in France. The St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Paris in 1572 in which 30,000 Huguenots celebrating a wedding were slaughtered set off mass killings elsewhere in France. In all about 100,000 died — it was worse than the French Revolution!The other result of the Massacre was the largest influx thus far of refugees to Rye. Ten years later there were over 1500 Huguenots in Rye — half the population!
  • Rye was a natural destination for those escaping religious persecution: It was the largest port in Sussex in the late 16th century and the Royal Mail route to Europe was via Rye. Besides, religious non-conformity had existed in Rye and nearby communities Rye before the Reformation thanks to the Lollards, followers of John Wycliffe, who wanted to reform the Catholic Church. Protestants even managed to take control of the Rye Corporation.
  • Many Huguenots returned home when civil and religious freedom was restored, e.g. by the Edict of Nantes in 1598, but in the  17th century the tide turned against Protestants once more — and refugees again fled from persecution. In 1681 military troops called Dragoons were sent to persecute Huguenot families — just one aspect of policies condemned by contemporaries as ‘utmost barbarity’ –murder, torture, imprisonment, galley slavery.Did you know that the ‘underground railway’ used by slaves in America in the 19th century had its origins in the escape routes used by Huguenots in the late 17th century: itineraries, safe houses, disguises, ships with secret compartments, women dressed as men . . .
  • Those who came because of religious persecution included prosperous merchants and skilled craftsmen, with a strong work ethic, who were welcomed and considered beneficial to the town. Huguenots have made important contributions in finance, industry, medicine, printing, arts and crafts. They enabled England to become an exporter (rather than importer) of luxury goods. The French Church in Rye became almost an independent, parallel community in the late 16th century. After the large influx a century later, It was allocated its own times for using the Rye Church.
  •  Assimilation was not all smooth sailing, of course. Many of the refugees joined Ryers in piracy exploits — but were protected by the Mayor and Jurats of Rye who found ways of excusing them to the authorities! And yes, there were sometimes outbreaks of resentment by English residents fearful of their own jobs. And Rye suffered badly from the plague in Tudor times, serious outbreaks coinciding with new arrivals of refugees crowding the town– up to 90 burials in a week in 1563.
  • However, the achievements of the refugees and their descendants are an impressive part of both Rye and national history, for example:

– A Huguenot, Louis Billiard, brought the ‘new’ Church Clock to Rye in 1561 — reputed to be the oldest working Turret Clock in the country.   It is now believed to date from c.1390 – so was second hand!!
– The Houblon brothers set up what became the Bank of England in 1694.
– Descendents of the Meryon family (formerly Merignan or Meriniams) included the personal physician of Lady Hester Stanhope (niece of William Pitt the Younger) who accompanied her on her well-known travels in the Middle East; the man who in 1825 found a way to break the 100 year old hold of the Lamb family in Rye politics; the physician who first understood muscular dystrophy, a nine-times Mayor; and the wife of William Holloway, Rye’s eminent historian.

Jo with flagon

There are many more interesting facts in Jo’s book Huguenots in Rye and Winchelsea, published by Rye Memories: Rye College Local History Group  (ISBN 1-870600-26-6) and available from the Museum. You might like to check to see if your family name — translated or anglicized perhaps — is mentioned.





Huguenot flagonOr find out about the Huguenot flagon used for Communion wine, and now in St Mary’s church.




And did you know there is now a Huguenot Museum? It has just opened in Rochester, Kent. It tells the story of Britain’s first refugees, the crafts, trades and skills they brought with them and the impact their contribution has had on the development of this country. You can find out more at

Label for flagon

First posted in Featured, Rye Town History on 15th July 2015
Last updated: 15th July 2015