Nantes in My Pants: The Huguenots and Decorative Arts in England

Huguenots Meeting in Secret, The Granger Collection, New York
Huguenots Meeting in Secret, The Granger Collection, New York

Remember the good old days of Western Europe, when the biggest religious drama was Catholic vs. Protestant? My modern mind always wondered why two sects of the same religion couldn’t get along better, until I learned about the Latin phrase cuius regio, eius religio. It means “Whose realm, his religion,” and it raised the stakes for who was in power on the thrones of Europe. It’s one of the reasons why King Henri IV of France couldn’t just be Protestant if he wanted to be (and he did). As king of France, the principle of cuius regio required him to be Catholic, because his subjects were overwhelmingly Catholic.

Henri IV of France
Henri IV of France

Henry IV was raised Protestant, but converted to Catholicism upon his accession to the throne. “Paris is worth a mass,” he famously said. Even though his job as king sort of required him to be Catholic, he still showed a lot of tolerance to the Protestants, especially when he issued the Edict of Nantes, which granted civil rights to Huguenots. This was huge because the Huguenots had been persecuted in France for awhile. The Edict of Nantes acted as a truce between French Catholics and Huguenots: Huguenots could work in any field and were afforded some protections from the French government, but Catholicism was also reaffirmed as France’s established religion. The Pope didn’t like it, but it actually turned out well for everyone else, Catholic and Huguenot alike, for almost 90 years.

The real drama happened when Henry’s grandson, Louis XIV, issued the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which made Protestantism illegal and forced Huguenots to convert or flee. More than 400,000 Huguenots fled to England, the Netherlands, Prussia, Switzerland, or the Americas.

 Portrait of the French King Louis XIV by Hyacinthe Rigaud
Portrait of the French King Louis XIV by Hyacinthe Rigaud
Huguenot refugees arrive in England. Source: Getty Images
Huguenot refugees arrive in England. Source: Getty Images

The Revocation happened in 1698, which, not coincidentally, was just before English furniture started to get really interesting. Up until this point, English furniture had been sort of clunky, bless its heart, with carvings that attempted but never quite achieved the sublime detail of contemporary French pieces. Now, droves of French artisans flooded into the country, ready and willing to contribute their taste, craftsmanship, and skill to English pieces.

That picture of the Huguenot refugees is making me sad, so let’s get to the good part: all the absolutely delicious eye candy that they created after emigrating to England, and America, too! The Huguenots were silk weavers, gilders, metal workers, and engravers. They truly contributed to their new cultures, and forever changed the course of decorative arts in the places that took them in.

A Queen Anne gilded pine and beech, console table with inlaid marble, by Thomas Pelletier, circa 1704-05. Royal Trust Collection.
A Queen Anne gilded pine and beech, console table with inlaid marble, by Thomas Pelletier, circa 1704-05. Royal Trust Collection.
Hampton Court Palace, originally a Renaissance palace of Henry VIII, was updated by William III to reflect changing tastes influenced by Huguenots
Hampton Court Palace, originally a Renaissance palace of Henry VIII, was updated by William III to reflect changing Baroque tastes influenced by Huguenots
Bedroom of William III at Hampton Court Palace
Bedroom of William III at Hampton Court Palace
Golden gates at Hampton Court Palace by Jean Tijou.
Golden gates at Hampton Court Palace by Jean Tijou.
English court dress in silk, circa 1750. Silks like this were made by Huguenot immigrants in England.
English court dress in silk, circa 1750. Silks like this were made by Huguenot immigrants in England.
Montrath ewer and dish, by Paul de Lamarie.
Montrath ewer and dish, by Paul de Lamarie.

Another day we’ll discuss Huguenot influence in America, and we’ll talk about my favorite patriot and silversmith, Huguenot Paul Revere.

The moral of the story is this: everybody has something to teach, and good things happen when we’re nice to people whose beliefs may be slightly different from our own.