Revocation of Edict of Nantes — Preparations for flight — Difficulties and dangers — Land in England — Cheap bread — Speculate in grain — Cruelty of a ship Captain
In the month of October, 1685, the Edict of Nantes* was actually revoked. Of course there was no choice left, flight was the only alternative, and I went to Marennes to make preparations in good earnest, and was fortunate in finding an English Captain with whom I was able to make a bargain. He agreed to take me, and four or five persons in addition, at the rate of ten pistoles each, and we were to assemble at Tremblade for embarkation. I went immediately to fetch your dear mother, her sister Elizabeth, and my niece Janette Forestier; the latter was my god-daughter and course I felt it incumbent upon me to provide for her safety. I mentioned our project to some few persons who I thought would gladly have availed themselves of it, but their fear was stronger than their hope, and they dared not venture to encounter so many dangers, the Coast being carefully guarded both by sea and land to prevent emigration. We lodged at the house of a drunkard in Tremblade, who being able to speak the English language was to be our pilot. His imprudence and drunkenness combined made our position one of great danger while under his roof. After several days of cruel suspense, the Captain desired us to be in readiness on the next, and told us that he intended to pass between the Isle of Oleron and the main land, and that if we would be on the sands near the Forrest of Arvert, he would send a boat ashore for us.
“Surely this act has been incorrectly termed the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. All its provisions had been repealed long ago by royal edicts and ordinances, except the bare toleration of Protestantism in some few towns and districts. The edict of 22d. October 1685 forbade all exercise of the reformed religion, ordered the clergy to expatriate themselves within a fortnight, unless they would recant, and in that case their incomes were to be increased one third, and continued to their wives. All infants were required to receive popish baptism, and every one caught in the attempt to escape (unless he was a minister) was condemned to the galleys for life.
In 1686, the enactments were still more severe. A Protestent taken in the act of public worship was punished with death, and all Protestant clergymen whether natives or foreigners were to be executed. To increase the vigilance of the soldiery, a reward of three or four pistoles was given for every Protestant that was taken up.
In spite of the care with which the coast and frontiers were guarded, it is believed that not less than 50,000 families made their escape, and they enriched every land that received them, carrying arts and manufacturies and industry in their train, and it has been remarked by close observers that their descendants, up to this day, continue to be distinguished for virtue and respectability.”
We set off in the night and had two horses to carry our little baggage. In the course of the following day upwards of fifty persons assembled on the sands hoping to embark with us; and most of them being very young, they had not taken due precaution to conceal their intention, and it had reached the ears of the Papists, who very promptly obtained an order from the Custom House, to prevent the vessel sailing. We waited anxiously all day, in ignorance of the detention of the vessel, and while in this distressing state of suspense I called them all around me and addressed them, and then I put up a prayer suited to our condition; and when you read it (you will find a copy among my papers) you will feel certain that it must have been a prayer of the heart as well as the lips.
The Cure of Tremblade had heard some rumour of what was going on, and he set out for the shore with another person to look for us. They were on foot, and were once so near to us that we actually saw their dog which was a little in advance of them, when they were most providentially met by two fishermen who had seen us and sympathised with us, and they purposely misled them. They enlarged to them upon the great danger they were in of losing themselves amongst the sand hills, and undertaking to guide them, they led them officiously to a path by which they would be sure not to find us.
At night horses were sent down for us to return to Tremblade, and fifteen or twenty of our number were taken in by a citizen who had changed his religion. He was in a dreadful fright, for there was a fine of 1,000 crowns for harbouring a Protestant; and the houses of suspected persons were liable to be searched at any moment. After concealing us the whole day, his fear got the better of his humanity, and towards night he turned us out of his house; saying, “I have damned my own soul to save my property, and I am not going to run the risk of losing it to save your souls. You must do as I have done or take your chance elsewhere.” We were depressed by this cruel treatment, but we know not what is best for us, for in the sequel we found abundant reason to bless God for it.
We had not left his house more than half an hour before a magistrate and some soldiers went to it, and examined every part most carefully in search of secreted Protestants. We did the best we could, one finding shelter here, another there, and we experienced much greater humanity from the fishermen’s wives than from the rich people; and in the cottages of the former we spent the next four or five days.
The Captain came to us again to say that he would sail most certainly on the following day; that he would pass between the Islands of Re and Oleron, and if we were disposed to venture out to sea in small boats, he would take us on board after he had got rid of all visitors, Custom House officers, &c. and that he could not assist us in any other way. That very evening the 30th. Nov., 1685, (French or new style) we embarked in a little shallop as soon as it was dusk; our party consisting of your dear mother, your aunt Elizabeth, Janette Forestier, myself, two young men from Bourdeaux, and six young women from Marennes. Under cover of the night we passed by all the pinnaces that were keeping guard, and the fort of Oleron, without being discovered; and at ten o’clock in the morning we dropped our anchor to wait for the ship. We had instructed our boatmen that if we were pursued they were immediately to run the boat ashore, abandon her, and then ‘sauve qui petit.’ I was well armed ready for such an emergency, because I could place no reliance upon my poor lame limb helping me in the hour of need, and I had resolved to defend myself to the last gasp, and never to be taken alive. I was not put to the trial, for God guided us in safety, and closed the eyes of our enemies.
We had agreed with the English Captain that when we saw him, we should make ourselves known by hoisting a sail and letting it fall three times, and he was to answer our signal by lowering his mizzensail three times. About 3 o’clock in the afternoon we first espied the vessel; she had the official visitors and pilot still on board. On reaching the extreme point of the Isle of Oleron we saw her cast anchor, put out the visitors and pilot, take her boat on board, get under weigh, and sail towards us. We now felt a confidence that we had surmounted every difficulty, and expected in a very few minutes to be under full sail for England. Our joy was of short duration, a King’s Frigate came in sight, and gradually approached us; she was one of those vessels constantly employed on the Coast to prevent Protestants leaving the Kingdom, and all who were found were seized, and the men sent to the galleys, the women to convents. No language can describe our consternation at this sudden change in our prospects; a moment before the cup of joy, was at our lips, and now dashed to the ground. We were at the distance of a cannon shot from the Frigate, and what must she think of us; a little bit of a boat at anchor in a place which did not afford safe anchorage even for large shipping. She cast anchor, ordered the English vessel to do the like, boarded her, and searched every nook and corner without finding any French Protestants except a Minister and his family, whose departure was authorised by law.
What a blessing that we were not on board at this time! Had the Frigate been only one hour later in appearing we should all have been lost. After the search, the Englishman was ordered to sail immediately, the wind was favourable, and he could make no excuse, and we had the misery of seeing him leave us behind.
Our situation was dreadful, we were in perfect despair, and knew not what to do. To remain where we were would infallibly excite suspicion, and the Frigate would send to overhaul us. If we attempted to return to Tremblade, the chances were a hundred to one against our succeeding, and to add to our dismay our poor boatmen and his son (our whole crew) wept aloud, deploring their misery, for they having already abjured, knew well that nothing short of a halter awaited them if detected in the act of aiding Protestants to make their escape. Through the whole course of my life prayer has been my constant resource in every difficulty, and I betook myself to it on this occasion as usual, and felt a persuasion that God would not suffer us to fall into the hands of his enemies and ours.
All at once I thought of a feint which, thank God, proved successful and effected our deliverance. Having considered that the wind was fair to Rochelle, and contrary to Tremblade, I said to the boatmen.
“Cover us all up in the bottom of the boat with an old sail, then hoist your sail, and go right towards the Frigate, pretending to endeavour to gain Tremblade; and if they should hail you from the Frigate, you must say you are from Rochelle, and going to Tremblade; if they ask what you have on board; say, nothing but ballast; and it would be well that you and your son should counterfeit drunkeness, tumbling about in the boat, and then you can, as if by accident, let the sail fall three times, and so inform the English Captain who we are.” He determined to abide by my counsel, and after covering us up, he actually sailed within pistol shot of the Frigate.
As I expected, she hailed him, and asked whence he came, whither he was going, and what he had on board. To all which the replied as I had instructed him.
“But what made you cast anchor?” said they.
“In hopes,” he said, “ that the wind would change and I might make Tremblade, but it is still too strong for me.”
Just then the son fell down in the boat and dropped the sail, his father left the helm, and instead of hoisting the sail at once, took a rope’s end and pretended to chastise him, the hard blows falling on the wood and making a great noise. The son cried out lustily, and the people in the Frigate threatened that if the father would not have more patience with his son, they would come and treat him in the same way. He excused himself, saying that his son was as drunk as a hog, and he ordered him to hoist the sail a second time, and he resumed his station at the helm; the son let the sail fall as soon as he had raised it, and repeated the same manoeuvure a third time, and thus gave the English information of who we were.
From the Frigate they entreated our boatman not to think of making for Tremblade, that night was approaching and he would inevitably be lost, but recommended him to return to Rochelle with the fair wind. This was exactly the advice we wished to receive. Our course was altered, the boat was put before the wind, and we bade them adieu very cordially. In the mean time, the English vessel had answered our signal and was getting fairly out to sea, we dared not follow her because the Frigate remained at anchor; but about twilight the boatman said we must make the attempt before night, or we should be swallowed up by the waves. We had no sooner altered our course than we perceived the Frigate taking up her anchor and setting her sails; of course we thought we had been observed, and that she was going to pursue us, and we again turned towards Rochelle in great agony of mind. Instant death would to any of us have been greatly preferable to capture. Knowing our own weakness and frailty, we feared persecution might destroy our constancy. A few minutes put an end to our anxiety, for we saw the Frigate steering towards Rochfort; so we again changed our course, the English vessel slackened her rate; we overtook her, and were taken on board before the Frigate was out of sight. A day never to be forgotten by us, who effected our escape from enemies, who had not only power to kill the body but have destroyed an infinite number of souls also.
My dear wife and I have fully experienced the truth of that promise of our Blessed Saviour, to give an hundred fold more even in this present life to those who leave all to follow him. We have never wanted for any thing, we have not only been supplied with necessaries, but comforts; and oftentimes luxuries also. Certain it is that a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things that he possesseth, but in the enjoyment he has of them, and it is in this sense that I would be understood, when I say that we have received the hundred fold promised in the Gospel; for we have had infinitely more joy and satisfaction in having lost our property for the glory of God, than they can have had who have taken possession of it.
We had contrary winds, and were eleven days on the voyage; we suffered somewhat from a shortness of provisions, especially water, but we dared not put into any French port for a supply.
We landed on the 1st. December, 1685, (English or old style) at Appledore, a small town in the Bristol Channel, below the river Taw which goes up to Barnstaple. After paying for our passage, I had only twenty gold pistoles left, but God had not conducted us in safety to a haven there to leave us to perish with hunger; the good people of Barnstaple had compassion upon us, took us into their houses, and treated us with the greatest kindness; thus God raised up for us fathers and mothers, and brothers and sisters, in a strange land.
The first thing that struck me on my arrival in England was the extreme cheapness of bread. What with sea sickness and short provisions on board ship, we had suffered a good deal, and were well inclined to eat as soon as we landed. After returning thanks to God for our preservation, (of course our first act) we begged to have some bread, and they brought us very large biscuits, which in France would have cost two pence a piece, and to my surprise I was told their price was only a halfpenny. I doubted the fact, thinking I was misled by my ignorance of the language, so I gave a penny to a little girl and asked her to buy me some bread. She went to the baker’s, and sure enough brought me back two of these large biscuits. It instantly occurred to me, that if I had only some money at command to lay out in grain to send to France, I should realise a large profit. 1 knew that there were some French Refugees at Plymouth who had brought money with them, and I determined to borrow a horse and ride over there to suggest my plan to them. I went round by Biddeford to ascertain at that Corn market the price of grain; and aided by an interpreter, I found that for two shillings and sixpence or three shillings, I could buy such a sack as in France would bring two crowns; and I also found on inquiry that there was a drawback allowed at the Custom House on the exportation of grain. My Plymouth acquaintances had already made a shipment to France, so I had my trouble for nothing, and returned very pensively to Barnstaple.
Upon reflection I thought I might as well let mine host Mr. Downe have the benefit of my knowledge on this subject. He was very kind to me, therefore it seemed a duty to put him in the way of so advantageous a transaction. He entered into it very readily, the more so, from having been in trade in his youth; he had been to Spain once as supercargo of a vessel, therefore my project was quite in his way. He said he would willingly risk £300 or £400, and that I should have half the profit. I had some hesitation about accepting his offer, because it might turn out loss, and not profit, and where was I to find the means of paying him my share of the loss; but upon further consideration I thought that if I insured my half, then I could conscientiously take advantage of his generous proposal. I paid two and a half per cent for insurance both ways.
Our whole property consisted of twenty gold pistoles, a silver watch, a gold chain, a pearl necklace, two diamonds, an emerald, and half a dozen silver spoons; and surely, to look at it in the most unfavourable light, these would be enough to cover any loss for which the Insurers were not responsible. In this list I name articles that were the property of your mother as well as my own, because though we were not yet united, we had such perfect confidence in each others’ affection, that we felt as though we had but one interest.
Mr. Downe chartered a vessel of about 50 tons, loaded her without delay, and consigned her to Mr. Boursiquot (your uncle,) and Peter Robin, a distant cousin of mine. You may guess their astonishment at receiving such a consignment from their relative, who had left his home so few weeks ago in poverty. Had the vessel arrived sooner, the adventure would have been more profitable, for the King had sent to foreign countries for grain, and his importation was all to be sold before the cargoes belonging to private individuals could be opened. Nevertheless, Peter Robin sold it for twice as much as it cost, and laid out the proceeds in the best wines of Bourdeaux and Langon, which also paid a profit.
Mr. Downe prepared to make a second shipment, and was persuaded by some of his friends that the the first cargo would have done better if it had been consigned to a regular merchant, (the English seldom know when they are well off) and I from foolish diffidence did not stand up for my cousin as I ought to have done; and the vessel, much to my sorrow and our loss, was sent to a merchant at Marennes, who understood merchandise a little too well for us, for all the profits were swallowed up by his enormous charges; and instead of returning the best Bourdeaux wines as he was desired, he shipped the ‘vin du pays’ which he took in the way of trade from the peasants, and he invoiced it at the price of real good wine.
We made still another adventure, and ordered the return cargo to be of salt; this was disastrous in the extreme. I lost more than I had gained and was saddled with debt besides. I will give the particulars. The Captain, after taking in his cargo, agreed to bring away some Protestants who had pretended to change their religion, in order to gain time to turn their property into cash to carry away with them. They unfortunately placed their money in the Captain’s hands for safe keeping, and he at once began to revolve in his mind how he could contrive to keep possession of the treasure. He decided upon going to Spain as the best plan, and he let one or two of the sailors into his confidence. They joined him in representing to the passengers that the wind was contrary, and as it was impossible for them to shelter in a French port, they had better stretch over to the Coast of Spain. When between Bilboa and St. Sebastion, the wind and tide favouring their wicked designs they ran on the beach with every sail set, and the vessel was a complete wreck. Here was an end of my cargo of salt, it returned to the sea from whence it came.
The most horrible part of the story is yet to come, the Captain and crew went ashore in the boat with the money, leaving the passengers to be drowned, every wave going completely over the wreck; one of their number a lady of quality, who owned the largest part of the treasure, wore a quilted petticoat which buoyed her up so entirely that she might have floated ashore, had not the Captain seen her; he put off in his boat as though he would have assisted her, and when he got within reach he plunged her under water and held her down for a length of time, so that the petticoat, which had in the first instance resisted the water, becoming saturated prevented her rising. Auri sacra fames quot pectora cogis. After barbarously drowning those who had placed confidence in him, he sold the wreck, went to Cadiz with his ill-gotten wealth, bought a share in a Spanish Privateer, and went out in her as Captain, which is the last I ever heard of him.
My losses were so heavy that I was obliged to dispose of my watch, gold chain, and silver spoons, and still all was not paid. These transactions occupied several months, but as the commencement occurred immediately after my arrival, I have thought it better to continue the account to its winding up, so as not to break the thread of the history.
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).