Singular proposal from a lady — Marriage — Mode of living — Remove to Bridgwater — Assistance from Committee — Why discontinued — Application for relief — Unkind treatment — Receive Holy Orders — Attempt to recover property in France
I have already mentioned that I was hospitably received into the house of a Mr. Downe at Barnstapie; this gentleman was a bachelor of some forty years of age, and he had an unmarried sister living with him, who was about thirty three or thirty-four years old. They were kindness itself, and I was as completely domesticated with them as if I had been a brother. They were in very easy circumstances; the brother was worth £10,000 the sister £3,000. This poor lady unfortunately took a great fancy to me, and she persuaded herself that it would be an excellent thing for me to marry her and her brother to marry my intended. I should have imagined that she would have had no difficulty in persuading her brother to fall in love; for in those days your dear mother was very beautiful, her skin was delicately fair, she had a brilliant color in her cheeks, high forehead and a remarkably intellectual expression of countenance, her bust was fine, rather inclined to enbonpoint, and she had a very dignified carriage which some thought haughty, but to me it appeared truly becoming in one of her beauty; altogether she seemed fitted to captivate the most indifferent, yet, I am very sure, notwithstanding all her charms (and those of her person were an index of her mind) that Mr. Downe only consented to court her in order to oblige his sister.
Miss Downe opened her project to me one day, by observing that she thought we must be two fools to think of marrying with no better prospect than beggary for our portion. I took no notice of what she said, but she persevered, and frequently gave me broad hints that I might do much better for myself. I was determined not to understand her, and our languages being different I was able to appear ignorant of her views, until one day her brother happened to enter the room when she was making an attack upon me, and she requested him to explain the matter to me. Between Latin, French and English, he and I could make ourselves very intelligible to each other. His sister’s request evidently embarassed him a good deal, he not being so much smitten as she was, though I am sure he had every reason to be so; however, after a little hesitation he told me that his sister wished to marry me, and that if I agreed to it, he would be willing to take Miss Boursiquot for his wife. I should mention that Miss Downe’s personal appearance presented a strong contrast to that of her rival, she was short, thin, sallow and marked with the small-pox. Mr. Downe was far from handsome, but much better-looking for a man than his sister for a woman. By way of reply to this singular proposition I produced our written promise, solemnly signed by both of us; but I added that my love was so sincere that I could cheerfully resign my betrothed to a rich man, if she thought it would be for her happiness, and that I would engage to deliver the message to her with all possible fidelity.
I went that very evening to Mr. Fraine’s where she was staying, and executed the delicate commission with which I had been charged; and to tell the truth, I was not altogether sorry that so good an opportunity should offer itself of discovering whether her love for me was equal to mine for her. As soon as she had heard what I had to say, she burst into tears, and was evidently under the impression that Miss Downe’s fortune had attracted me, and that I was anxious to break off our engagement. She gave me no answer but her tears, so I repeated the message, and assured her that the gallant was as much struck with her as the sister with me, and that she would have altogether the best of the bargain, because Mr. Downe’s property was more than three times as large as his sister’s. She then made an effort, and answered that I was free, she released me absolutely and entirely from every promise that I had ever made to her, and added that she was fully sensible that she was under sufficient obligation to me already for saving her from persecution, without condemning me to perpetual poverty by holding me to our contract; and as to the future, she was contented to remain as she was, and wished to hear nothing more from Mr. Downe. I was completely overpowered by this, and my tears flowed as fast as hers. I then, with the utmost solemnity, asked her if she thought she could be contented to join me in working for our living, and for the support of those whom God might give us; and I called upon her to remember that poverty was a hard mistress, and that we should probably have to suffer under it all our days; nevertheless if she was willing to run the risk, I should be infinitely happier working with my hands for daily bread with her, than living in wealth with any other woman on the face of the earth. She answered that every thing I said found an echo in her heart.
This circumstance occasioned our marrying much sooner than we otherwise should have done, for we were determined not to be annoyed by any more such proposals, but to tye the knot at once, as we both so ardently desired it.
I returned to my Host and Hostess, and gave them such an answer as might be expected from a person deeply in love; and I endeavoured to make them understand that an affection of such long standing, and cemented by so much joint suffering and anxiety as ours, could not be easily shaken. Our mutual promise was to be binding to death under all circumstances except apostacy, and of that, thanks be to God, there was no longer any danger.
Mr. Downe was a sensible man, and I verily believe he was on the whole relieved by the issue of the negotiation, not so the lady, she felt aggrieved, and was not able to conceal her discomfiture.
We were married on the 8th. Febr. 1686. at the Parish Church of Barnstaple. Mr. Fraine, at whose house my wife had lived from the day after our landing, prepared an excellent banquet and invited almost all the French Refugees in the neighbourhood to partake with us on our wedding day; and my friend Mr. Downe entertained us all in the same style on the following day.
Our funds were very low, for I had paid £5 for insurance, and £3 for the wedding ring and license, so that we could scarcely be much poorer than we were; and you may judge of the strength of our attachment by our refusal of the fortunes offered to us; and you may also see what strong confidence we placed in the good Providence of God, and blessed be his name! we have never had reason to repent of the step. We lived for the first month or two in a furnished room; then my valet Manseau contrived to send me from France a feather bed and several cover lids, and my sister Forestier made us a present of some linen, and upon this addition to our possessions we ventured to hire a small house in a back street. The inhabitants of the town were generous in the extreme, they sent us all things essential for a small family, so that our house was furnished without costing us a farthing, and their liberality did not stop here; every market day meat, poultry, and grain came in abundance without our knowing to whom we were obliged, and during the six or eight months that we lived there, I only bought one bushel of wheat, and had two left when we removed.
Our good cheer costing us little or nothing, we gladly ministered to the necessities of those French Refugees who did not experience the same kindness. Many also who disliked English cookery were glad to partake of my soup and bread, they would first assist in cooking and then in eating the food. This mode of living might be very agreeable to some persons, but it did not suit my wife or me; every gift made us feel our painful dependence, and we looked around us eagerly hoping to see some plan by which we could live without charity.
I availed myself of the first opportunity that offered, and accepted a situation in the family of Sir Halsewell Tynte, who lived two miles from Bridgewater. I was to receive £20 per annum, and I thought this would maintain my wife, as I was to eat at Sir Halsewell’s table. When I had been with him four months, I hired a small house in Bridgewater to bring my family nearer to me, and I went to fetch them. Our numbers were now increased by the birth of James our first- born, which had taken place during my absence. The restraints imposed upon me were so irksome, and your dear mother as well as myself suffered so much from our separation, that I determined to give up my employment and return to my wife; preferring the coarsest fare with her for my companion to the continual feasts at Sir Halsewell Tynte’s.
Exertion of some kind for a livelihood was absolutely necessary; we tried a little shop in Bridgewater, but our efforts were not crowned with success; the expenses we incurred were greater than any profit that we were able to realise.
You may be surprised that in my difficulties I received no assistance from the fund collected for distribution among the suffering French Refugees; so I will tell you the reason of it, tracing it from the very commencement. As soon as my friends in London were apprised of my arrival, they brought my case (unknown to me) before the Committee, and Mr. Maureau, my advocate at Saintes, drew such a picture of my zeal and constancy that there was no opposition made to placing my name in the list of Ministers, although only a Candidate, and I was to receive £30 per annum. The first I knew of it was the receipt of a letter from Mr. Maureau, congratulating me on my escape, and enclosing £7, l0s. as the first quarter of a pension that the Committee had granted me; and he added, that before I could receive the second quarter, it was necessary that I should commune according to the rites of the Church of England, and send a certificate thereof to the Committee.
I who had but just escaped from the Tempter, felt alarmed at this mode of entitling myself to receive charity. I had previously communed very cordially with the English after the manner of the Established Church, without the least scruple of conscience, but when it became the condition on which I was to receive the charities of the Kingdom, the case was altered; I who looked upon the Communion as one of the most sacred mysteries of our holy religion, which it was not lawful to approach with any other view than to receive thereby the benefits of the sacrifice of the death of Christ, seeing that it was imposed upon me for pecuniary purposes, doubted very much whether any spiritual benefit could be derived from a Communion received for the express purpose of procuring a pension. It seemed to me a very Papistical proceedings, much like what I had seen in France, — “Come to Mass and you shall be exempted from Dragoons.” I had hitherto found nothing offensive in the Church of England, I then studied it very carefully, and all its doctrines as set forth in the articles I heartily embraced, but its Church Government, especially the point so much insisted upon of Episcopacy by divine right, seemed to me to have too strong a resemblance to Popery.
I might have gotten over these objections, perhaps if I had not learnt their cruel persecution of their brother Calvinists, only for differing, upon the subject of Episcopacy,* and some ceremonies which were in themselves of no great importance.
“It is not surprising that a foreigner should confound the conscientious members of the Church of England with the disguised Papists who were so numerous in the days of Charles II. and James II., by whom the Calvinists were persecuted.”
I found that the poor Presbyterian Ministers had been imprisoned, fined, and deprived of their employments, because they would not consent to receive Episcopal ordination, in conformity with the laws passed in the reign of Charles II., and furthermore, I was told by the Presbyterians that the unfortunate people who had been executed after Monmouth’s rebellion, a few days before our arrival, and whose heads and quarters I saw exposed on all the towers, gates, and cross roads, looking absolutely like butcher’s shambles, had many of them no other crime than that of being Presbyterians. I confess that all these circumstances combined, gave me a prejudice against the Established Church, and the use which it was proposed to me to make of the Holy Sacrament went so much against my conscience, that I have never yet sent the necessary certificate to receive the second quarter of my pension.
I have another serious fault to find with the distributing Committee. The fund placed at their disposal arose from the voluntrary contributions of the whole English nation, and I believe the Nonconformists had been as liberal as the Episcopalians, and yet no one was relieved who did not hand in a certificate of his being a member of the Church of England, and surely this was unjust.
At one time, ground down by poverty, my spirit was so humbled that I went to London to make a personal application to the Committee, and my friends advised me to call upon certain Deans and other high dignitaries who were the most influential members of the Committee. My garments were old and shabby, and I found it difficult to gain an entrance to any of the great houses. The footman would leave me waiting a long time in the entry like a common beggar, and at last return to inform me that his Reverence was not then at leisure to see me. I would call again and again, till weary of opening the door, the servant, to avoid further importunity, would obtain for me the desired audience, and accompanying me through divers richly furnished apartments, watching carefully lest I should steal some of the plate that was piled up on the sideboards, introduce me to the apartment where the Dean was sitting. He enquired what I wanted with him, not even asking the poor beggar to take a seat.
In as few words as possible I told him my situation and sufferings, and was opening my papers, but he refused to read any testimonials; saying, the subject would come before the Committee.
The necessities of those who were dearer to me than life so lowered my pride, that I made a round of such visits as these, but it was all in vain, the money was for Episcopalians only. Mr. Maureau, who held the office of secretary to the Committee, took up my cause very warmly. “You will not,” said he, “suffer so worthy a man to be reduced to extremity with his wife and two children, a man who has shown that he counted his life as nothing when the glory of God was in question, and who generously and voluntarily exposed himself to uphold the faith of a number of poor country people. Perhaps there are not four Ministers who have received the charity of the Committee who have done so much for the cause of true religion as he has.”
All this was to no purpose so long as I was a Presbyterian. “He is a young man,” said they, “let him get a situation as a servant, his wife can do the same, and we will take care of his children in the house we have hired for the purpose.”
I was directed to go to the grand Almoner to receive an answer, and when he gave me the above, my eyes filled with tears, I felt indignant, and answered hastily that he ought to have put himself in my situation, according to the commandment in the New Testament, before he undertook to give me such cruel advice. His wife happened to be present, and turning to her, I said, “Madam, I sincerely pity you to be united to a man who can speak with so much indifference of separating husband and wife,” and (knowing they had no family) I added that I adored the wisdom of God who had not thought fit to give him children, seeing he felt it so easy a matter to part with them; but before I would place mine under his guardianship, and give up the spouse whom I regarded as one of the choicest blessings God had bestowed upon me, I would dig the ground all day as a common labourer, in order to share with them at night the bread that I had earned by the sweat of my brow. I had £3 given to me, which I was told was the last I could expect to receive, and I returned home sadly cast down, having spent from £7 to £8 upon the necessary expenses of travelling and making this fruitless application.
Some charitable Presbyterians, hearing of my distress, made a collection for me in their congregation which was a great help. You may be sure my feelings were still more soured towards Episcopalians, and I felt convinced by bitter experience that opposition and ill treatment, for difference of opinion, have a much greater tendency to widen the breach than to bring our opponents over to our way of thinking.
I had always been in the habit of family worship, and when we removed to Taunton three or four French families wished to join us, so I thought I ought to receive authority according to the ordinances of man, and I presented myself to the Presbyterian Synod assembled at Taunton, exhibiting testimonials which I had brought from France of my manner of life, education and sufferings, and after examination, I received Holy Orders from that body on the 10th of June, 1688. I was determined rather to labour with my hands and preach the Gospel of Christ in simplicity and purity, than to wound my conscience by joining the Episcopalians.
I found by accident, among my papers brought from France, half a sheet of stamped paper, entirely blank; and it occurred to me, that it might be the means of recovering some of the property I had left in France; and as Peter Robin had been faithful to me in his management of the consignment of wheat, he was the person I looked to as an agent. I signed my name at the foot of the sheet, and sent it to him, telling him to make use of it for my benefit, filling up the blank with a sale or lease of my estate to some one, and to antedate it so as to appear to have been executed previously to my leaving France. The letter precaution was necessary to prevent the King seizing upon it. I received no answer, but from other sources I have heard that the said Robin has lived upon my estate from that time, and considered it as his own; he took advantage of the too great confidence I had placed in him by sending my blank signature, and he has cheated me and my heirs after me; because he can produce the deed of sale signed by my own hand.
I would have you observe that I was miserable enough to request him to execute a false deed for me, in order that I might obtain something from the property I had left in France. He did execute the false deed as I desired, but it was for his own benefit, not mine. I recognise in this as in every thing else the justice of the just Judge of the Universe. I was punished as I deserved to be. At the same time, as God directs all things for the good of those who love him and serve him with faith and humility of heart, I think I can perceive that he has extracted from my sin a great advantage to my family. It puts it out of the question for any of my descendants to return to the Babylon whence he has withdrawn me, in the hope of enjoying a fine estate, as many of the children of Huguenot Refugees have done. This property is irrecoverably lost. It is very desirable that we should not be exposed to temptation, but at the same time, I will say that I feel a strong confidence that none of you would have been seduced into returning to idolatry for the sake of money, and I trust you will so instruct your children after you, that the love of God, and his true religion, may be perpetuated in our family to the remotest generation.
James Fontaine (1658) was the great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather of Jared Smith (Editor of the AHB). He wrote an autobiography, the material of which was compiled and published by some of his descendants. The first publication is called, ”A Tale Of The Huguenots Or Memoirs Of A French Refugee Family (De La Fontaine)” (1838). The second publication is called, “Memoirs Of A Huguenot Family” (1872).