The “Revocation”: how a Stanford historian uncovered the story of Huguenot family escaping France


Henri IV signs the edict that brings religious tolerance to France… for awhile.

The work of an historian does not exhale dust – at least not all the time. It can also involve exciting detective work. Such is the case for Carolyn Lougee, who was awarded the 2016 David H. Pinkney Prize and the 2017 Frances Richardson Keller-Sierra Prize for her book, Facing the Revocation: Huguenot Families, Faith, and the King’s Will. She spoke about the book at last month’s A Company of Authors event, and this post excerpts her talk.

The “Revocation” refers to the Edict of Nantes, which Henri IV had introduced in 1598 to end the Catholic-Protestant strife between Catholics and Calvinist Protestants. It was the first time two religions were formally approved in a single political entity, introducing a measure of religious tolerance. And it worked. 

Louis XIV revoked it in 1685, requiring all the French to be practicing Catholics. Moreover, Protestants were not allowed to leave the kingdom and if they were caught doing so they would be prosecuted and imprisoned.

So where does the detective work take place? With the story of one Protestant family who faced a choice: convert, pretend to convert and remain secretly Protestant, defy the king and risk prosecution, or escape. The family decided to flee to Holland in 1687.

From her talk:

Before dawn on an April day in 1687, six children of the Protestant noble family Robillard de Champagné slipped among the wine casks below decks of an English 18-tonner and made their escape from La Rochelle to Devon. Their mother and eldest brother traced the same route to exile in June. Eleven months later the father fled overland to Holland. A baby sister was left behind, never to see her family again. Who were the Champagné, and why did they leave France? How did they manage to escape? And what became of these emigrants abroad, by contrast with those who stayed?

Interestingly, my study did not originate in an interest in Huguenots, but rather in autobiography. I was at one time on the lookout for memoirs and autobiographies written by French women in the seventeenth century, and I came across a 1928 publication of an autobiographical memoir written in 1687 by a Huguenot woman, Marie de la Rochefoucauld, Madame de Champagné, and what intrigued me was that there was an indication in the footnotes that a manuscript of the memoir existed in the hands of her descendants, of whom the person who published the memoir was one.

Author, author!

I want to say a bit about what happened after this discovery and led to the book, both because it will give you some insight into what historians go through in their investigations of the past and because it leads to an understanding of what is important about this book I have written.

First I had to find the person who published that memoir in 1928. That wasn’t too hard: within a year of searching I had found his will, which mentioned that having no living descendants, he left his family papers to the children of his sister, Mrs. Parry-Jones. So now I only had to track down one Mrs. Parry-Jones and her children. That took time and ingenuity. My good colleague Paul Seaver helped me by looking through the London phonebook and sending me all the Parry-Jones listing, with and without hyphen between the Parry and the Jones. To no avail. Eventually I found Mrs. Parry-Jones in Valparaiso, Chile, and the will she wrote there in 1951 named her three daughters. So now I only had to track down one or more of her daughters. To make a long story short, I found one of them in a chocolate-box village in North Yorkshire; she had the Marie de la Rochefoucauld memoir along with some 100 other manuscripts that the family had carried with them when they escaped from France in 1687-88 and which the daughter of Mrs. Parry-Jones stored in a small room next to her garage. For the next five years I trekked whenever possible to that small, unheated room to study the papers.

Here I found what I had been looking for and more: not only a memoir for my study of memoirs, but a family that fit perfectly the way the emigration provoked by Revocation of the Edict of Nantes is generally understood: a family that in France had been well-rooted, secure, and prosperous who decided to give it all up for the sake of religion and escape to a freer country at great peril.

What Henri IV giveth, Louis XIV taketh away…the Revocation

So I decided to look further into this exemplary family by going to their place of origin in France: in Southwestern France, just outside the coastal city of La Rochelle. I managed to visit the chateau they had left in 1687, never to return, which had been inherited by Marie de la Rochefoucauld from her grandmother and was the source of the Champagné family’s economic and social standing. The current occupants knew nothing of the Champagné or that the family inhabiting the chateau in the seventeenth century had been Protestants. But it was moving for me to be in the chateau, and the occupant mentioned to me that a bookseller had come by some years previously offering to sell a bundle of documents about the 17th-century occupants. Here again, to make a long story short, I wanted those documents desperately, and within 5 years of traveling around the area, finding and bribing the bookseller, visiting the current holder of the bundle of documents no fewer than three times I finally acquired them from him.

And this changed everything. These documents were the records of the lawsuit by Marie de la Rochefoucauld’s aunt (her mother’s sister) that claimed the chateau and estate should be hers rather than Marie’s and that set off a chain of family conflict, mixed by now with religious conflict since some members of the family including the aunt had converted to Catholicism.

It was here that my exemplary family discovered in Yorkshire turned out not to be telling the full story of their emigration. By the time of the Revocation, the Champagné had lost their chateau and with it the foundation of their economic and social standing. This was not a family that was well-rooted, secure, and prosperous in France that decided to give it all up for the sake of religion but one in a sense compelled by a collapse of family solidarity and harassment into leaving.

There are two major conclusions to be drawn from this transformation of the story.

First, any understanding of the emigration of Huguenots at the Revocation needs to look at the circumstances of the emigrants in France. If the Champagné case is any indication – and further research is of course needed in order to ascertain the extent to which it is – the emigration of Huguenots was more like other emigration streams than like the uniquely religious movement it had previously been understood to be –originating in a convergence of social and economic insecurity, family license to leave, and opportunity perceived in a new place.

And since I have mentioned opportunity in a new place, let me mention that the refugee family Champagné had a glorious afterlife. Entirely obscure in France outside their immediate locality, their near-term descendants would attain fabled wealth and fame in two countries of the Refuge that they could never have attained in France. The grandson of Marie de la Rochefoucauld would grow up to be one of the principal generals of Fredrick the Great of Prussia; his grandson would be the famous poet author of Ondine La Motte Fouqué. In Britain, the great-grandson would head the English cavalry at the battle of Waterloo against Napoleon and be made a marquess for his successes. His daughter would marry a Spencer and hence number among her descendants not merely Winston Churchill but Diana Spencer, hence the heir to the British throne, Prince William. [Marie de la Rochefoucauld an ancestor of Prince William!—I had no idea of any of this when I embarked on my search for that first memoir]

The second major implication of my findings about the Champagné before their emigration takes us back to the origin of my study – autobiography. The picture of the family available in the Yorkshire documents was crafted by Marie de la Rochefoucauld in her memoir and, interestingly enough, crafted by the choice of documents her husband decided to bring with him when he escaped. Marie mentioned none of the family disintegration or the lawsuit that wrested her chateau and estate from her. Her husband chose to bring only the confirmations of nobility and land ownership that portrayed the Champagné as secure in their standing in France. Editing the record as they did was typically done by other Huguenot emigres at the time. Huguenots writing memoirs in exile edited memory, decided what to forget and what they wanted remembered for two main purposes: to convey to their children how they wanted them to understand their displacement out of France and to persuade those in their new places of residence that their motives for coming were reputable and trustworthy – that they were religious refugees. And those memoirs bequeathed a view of the Huguenot emigres that became the canonical story of religious migration that has prevailed to date and to which my rediscovery of the Champagné seeks to provoke further investigations for revision.

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2 Responses to “The “Revocation”: how a Stanford historian uncovered the story of Huguenot family escaping France”

  1. George Says:

    Pierre Goubert, in Louis XIV and Twenty Million Frenchmen estimates that perhaps 200,000 out of a million Huguenots left. Plenty of them must have had no claim to high standing, though Goubert does say “not many peasants” left. My wife’s mother’s family is descended from weavers in Picardy, some of whom made their way via the Netherlands ultimately to southeastern Pennsylvania. They did well enough, but the wealth was modest and the fame not there. I suspect that theirs was nearer the typical story.

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    And some of my ancestors, too, came to America from France via the Netherlands. Their French name Querouaille was changed to Coriell and finally Coryell in the New World. I understand that the Huguenots as a whole were generally more well-heeled, a productive and professional class. A very bad idea to force them out.