Trace your Huguenot ancestry in La Rochelle

PUBLISHED: 10:12 24 July 2015 | UPDATED: 16:58 19 November 2015

The Tour Saint Nicolas and the Tour de la Chaîne guard the entrance to the Vieux Port in La Rochelle © Fotolia

The Tour Saint Nicolas and the Tour de la Chaîne guard the entrance to the Vieux Port in La Rochelle © Fotolia

Arnaud TAFILET - Fotolia

South African-born Pierre de Villiers explores the religious heritage of La Rochelle and discovers more about his own ancestors’ dramatic escape from persecution more than 300 years ago

The Globe de la Francophonie and the Tour de la LanterneThe Globe de la Francophonie and the Tour de la Lanterne

The Globe de la Francophonie public artwork in La Rochelle is the sort of attraction that you need to track down. Placed on a rather lonely stretch of the Esplanade Saint-Jean d’Acre in the Vieux-Port in the year 2000, the metal orb pays homage to French-speaking nations and features the inscription: ‘Through the French song, it’s our culture, our language and poetry that go around the world.’

The words, by former mayor Michel Crépeau, neatly sum up why I find myself in the capital of Charente-Maritime for the first time. I’m here to learn about the people who carried French culture, language and poetry all the way to South Africa, the country of my birth. I’m here to dig for my Huguenot roots.

The statue of Jean GuitonThe statue of Jean Guiton

As far back as I can remember, having French heritage has been a big deal in my family. To go with my very French surname of De Villiers, my parents picked a very French name – Pierre. My sister is called Rochelle. The reason we have names that are more Calais than Cape Town is due to the Huguenots – French Protestants following the theological traditions of Jean Calvin who, in the 17th century, fled to all parts of the world to escape religious persecution.

Many relocated to the Netherlands, from where a handful travelled to the Cape of Good Hope as part of a recruitment drive by the Dutch East India Company to bring skilled farmers to its trade post in southern Africa. One such Huguenot was my ancestor Jacques de Villiers who, on 6 May, 1689, arrived in the Cape with his brothers Abraham and Pierre on board the ship Zion after an arduous four-month journey. What happened next is part of De Villiers family lore, as Jacques (aka Jacob) and his siblings thrived under the African sun, planting more than 40,000 vines and introducing wine to South Africa.

It is what transpired before they arrived that is more difficult to piece together, as I’m discovering on a piping hot day in La Rochelle. I have started my search for answers in the French city because of a letter. Written in 1688 by the Chamber of Delft, the document – well-known among South African genealogists – allowed the De Villiers brothers to travel from Holland to Africa and ‘earn their living as free men’. It describes the trio as experts in the laying of vineyards and mentions that they were born ‘near La Rochelle’. Given its importance to the Huguenots, it makes perfect sense that the De Villiers’ dash for freedom would have started in this most fascinating of seaports on the Atlantic coast of France.

La Concurrence beach from the Tour de la LanterneLa Concurrence beach from the Tour de la Lanterne

Stroll around La Rochelle and it becomes clear why it’s known as the Ville Blanche. As rays of sunshine hit the limestone façades of buildings, the city positively shimmers. The fact that it was one of the most important ports during the Renaissance is reflected in delightful arcaded walkways, timber-framed houses and the impressive town hall (which was badly damaged by fire in 2013). The heart of the city is the Vieux-Port – a beguiling mix of seafood restaurants, sailing boats and show-stopping sights such as the three iconic towers (the Tour de la Lanterne, Tour Saint-Nicolas and Tour de la Chaîne), which acted as the city’s first line of defence against invasion from the sea. They are imposing reminders that this White City was once stained by years of wars between Catholics and Protestants – conflicts that eventually forced the De Villiers brothers from their homeland.

To try to gauge the religious zeal that drove my ancestors I head to the Tour de la Lanterne, the only surviving medieval lighthouse on the Atlantic Coast. From the top, the pretty vistas are in stark contrast to the dank, gloomy interior where names and pictures carved into the rock walls tell of the misery of those held prisoner over the years. The Tour de la Lanterne is where the Huguenots murdered 13 Catholic priests in 1562.

Down the road I find more evidence of Huguenot religious fervour at the 18th-century Cathédrale Saint-Louis in Rue Pernelle. Attached to the cathedral is a Gothic bell tower – the only remaining part of the Église Saint-Barthélémy, destroyed by Huguenots in 1568. The same year the Protestant-dominated city declared itself an independent Reformed Republic, a decision that led to conflict with the central Catholic government. Growing tensions eventually led to the city being besieged by Louis XIII’s forces from 1627-28, a stand-off that produced one of the Huguenots’ greatest heroes.

In Place de l’Hôtel de Ville, I spend some time with Jean Guiton, the city’s mayor during the siege. Guiton’s statue captures the bloody-mindedness of a man who helped La Rochelle to hold out against the royal forces for 14 months. Cape blowing in the wind and with his hand gripping a rapier sword it’s a heroic pose straight out of an Alexandre Dumas novel.

Despite Guiton’s efforts, La Rochelle surrendered after famine and disease saw population numbers plummet from 27,000 to just 5,000. As part of the peace accord the Huguenots were able to keep their religious freedom as laid down by the Edict of Nantes, a 1598 proclamation by Henri IV granting Protestants considerable rights. The Huguenots were severely weakened by the conflict, though, and were powerless to stop Louis XIV from revoking the edict in 1685 and actively persecuting Protestants. As conditions became intolerable in La Rochelle many Huguenot families looked to escape from France. Families like the De Villiers clan.

To find evidence of my ancestors’ fight and flight in La Rochelle I visit the Musée Rochelais d’Histoire Protestante in Rue Saint-Michel, devoted to the history of Protestantism in the city and the surrounding areas. It is laid out around a courtyard next to a church once used by Catholic monks before being offered as a place of worship for Protestants in 1798. Inside I find intriguing Huguenot artefacts: a collapsible pulpit – used during clandestine sermons – bronze portraits of Calvin, baptism documents and collection boxes.

What it doesn’t have is any record of the De Villiers family. Given the destruction wrought on Huguenots and their places of worship in La Rochelle, that is not altogether surprising and a helpful museum worker points me in the direction of the Musée de la France Protestante de l’Ouest in Monsireigne to the north of La Rochelle. Here, the De Villiers name is known, in particular the three brothers who headed to the Cape in 1689. After some more digging and sifting through contradictory information online I come up with a likely back-story for the most famous South Africa-bound Huguenot family.

Pierre de Villiers, father of the three brothers, was born in 1615 in Burgundy. At some stage he moved down to Saint-Jean-d’Angély, near La Rochelle and stayed on a farm called Campagne. Exactly when is not clear, but there is a record of De Villiers marrying Elizabeth Secault in 1656 at the Temple de la Villeneuve, the main Protestant temple in the city. Eldest son Pierre was born the next year, followed by Abraham (1659) and Jacques (1661). To my astonishment I discover Pierre had a fourth son called Paul, born in 1663.

When Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, Pierre de Villiers must have foreseen the hell that was to follow and probably insisted that his sons escape to Holland. As the King’s dragoons closed in on the farm in 1688, all four brothers fled, only for a homesick Paul to turn back. It was a decision that cost him his life – Paul’s date of death is listed as 1688. It’s likely that Campagne was burnt to the ground and its inhabitants killed.

Meanwhile Pierre, Abraham and Jacques made their way to the Dutch island of Texel from where they eventually caught the Zion to the Cape in February 1689. A couple of things back up this sequence of events. The Zion’s manifest shows the brothers had nothing but their bibles with them, indicating a fast exit out of La Rochelle, and the siblings named some of their farms in the Cape colony Bourgogne, Campagne and La Rochelle in what was surely a homage to their life in France.

Back in La Rochelle I look for any remains of the Temple de la Villeneuve, where Pierre de Villiers, Snr got married and the brothers were probably baptised. Unfortunately the Sun King ordered its destruction in 1685 and the disused Saint-Louis hospital, built with the same bricks, now stands in its place. The only indication that a place of worship was ever here is a street name: Rue du Prêche (Sermon Street).

As my stay comes to an end, I again find myself in the Vieux-Port at the Globe de la Francophonie, the work of French sculptor Bruce Krebs. Even on this rudimentary representation of the world the vast distance between France and South Africa is apparent. I try to imagine the bravery it took to board a ship and head into the great unknown. As the sun starts to set over the city I can’t help but feel a sense of pride at what the De Villiers brothers achieved in their adoptive home at the other end of the world.

Same Place, Different Pace

See La Rochelle’s attractions from land, sea and air

While La Rochelle is steeped in history, it also likes to go forward at a rate of knots; whether it’s sailing, windsurfing, kite surfing, helicopter rides or skydiving. The École de Voile de l’ASPTT La Rochelle (www.larochelle.asptt.com) offers year-round sailing lessons or, if you prefer paddle power, hire a kayak at Antioche Kayak (www.antioche-kayak.com) and explore the coastline.

Landlubbers may want to hop on a Segway electric scooter at Mobilboard Segway (www.mobilboard.com) or hire a motorised tricycle at the tourist office (www.larochelle-tourisme.com) that takes you on a 38-kilometre route past parks, gateways and bridges. When the weather is fine you can see the sights from a helicopter courtesy of Bat Air Atlantique (www.heliberte.com). For those brave enough to jump out of a plane, there is Altitudes Parachutisme (www.parachutisme.net).

If you like your thrills slightly more sedate there’s the joy of drift boat fishing, with a professional guide from YD Fishing (www.ydfishing.fr) showing you how to reel in bass and pollack Children, meanwhile, will be able to burn off some energy in bumper cars and bouncy castles at Mini-Golf du Mail (www.minigolf-larochelle.com).

To complete an active day head for Place du Commandant de la Motte Rouge and take in stunning panoramic views of La Rochelle from the Grande Roule, the city’s answer to the London Eye.

Huguenot hotspots

Le Mas Soubeyran: This beautiful hamlet in the Cévennes mountains was an important location for the Protestant resistance in the 17th and 18th centuries. It is home to Le Musée du Desert (www.museedudesert.com) which focuses on the ‘Desert’ period in Huguenot history between the revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the French Revolution.

Lemé: This town in Picardy has a Calvinist temple built in 1853 and restored in 1990 by volunteers. It is now a museum (www.musee-leme02.fr) that looks at the origins of Protestantism and its development in the surrounding Thiérache area, one of the first to accommodate Calvinism.

Noyon: The house in the Picardy town where Jean Calvin was born in July 1509 was destroyed during World War I but has since been restored and now houses the Musée Jean Calvin, celebrating the theologian’s life (www.ville-noyon.fr).

Nîmes: The capital of the Gard département was the intellectual and educational centre for the Huguenots during the Reformation. The Grand Temple has been a place of worship for Protestants since 1803.

Orthez: Jeanne d’Albret, mother of Henri IV and a Huguenot leader in her own right, lived in this town in the Pays Béarn province of the French Pyrénées. The eponymous museum in her former home (www.museejeannedalbret.com) is devoted to Protestant history.

Francofile

Getting There

By road: La Rochelle is 4hr from Caen ferry port and 6hr 30min from the northern ferry ports.

By air: La Rochelle airport is served by several UK airlines.

By rail: The train journey from London via Paris takes about 7hr (tel: 0844 848 5848, www.voyages-sncf.com).

Where to Stay

Pierre stayed at:

Résidence de France, 43 Rue du Minage

17000 La Rochelle

Tel: (Fr) 5 46 28 06 00

Inspired by the opulence of an ambassadorial home, this five-star hotel has a lovely courtyard with heated swimming pool and a gourmet restaurant. Doubles from €110.

Also try:

Hôtel Saint-Jean d’Acre

3 Rue Saint-Jean du Perot

17000 La Rochelle

Tel: (Fr) 5 46 41 73 33

www.hotel-la-rochelle.com

This hotel has a great location in the Vieux-Port at the foot of the three towers. Doubles from €82.

Accostage Hôtel

6 Avenue Coligny

17000 La Rochelle

Tel: (Fr) 5 46 66 21 31

www.accostage-hotel.fr

Perfect for a short break, this renovated hotel is just 200 metres from the beach of La Concurrence. Doubles from €89.

Camping Municipal de Port-Neuf

6 Boulevard Aristide Rondeau

17000 La Rochelle

Tel: (Fr) 5 46 43 81 20

Two-star campsite close to the beach at Bay Head and the huge Minimes Marina.

For an apéro

Bar du France 1

Rue Sénac de Meilhan

17000 La Rochelle

Tel: (Fr) 5 16 85 27 72

www.bardufrance1.com

Located on the upper deck of the France 1 ship, which houses part of the maritime museum, the bar is the perfect place for a cocktail or two at sunset.

Where to eat

Pierre ate at:

Restaurant Le 28

10 bis Quai Duperré

17000 La Rochelle

Tel: (Fr) 5 46 29 61 06

www.au28.fr

Chic eatery offering some of the best seafood in town, with friendly service and great views over the Vieux-Port. Menus from €18.90.

Restaurant Le Bar André

5 Rue Saint-Jean du Pérot

17000 La Rochelle

Tel: (Fr) 5 46 41 28 24

www.barandre.com

A local institution for lovers of seafood cuisine; pricey but worth it. Platters from €19.70.

Crêperie La Galettière

9 Rue de la Chaîne

17000 La Rochelle

Tel: (Fr) 5 46 28 29 59

Bustling restaurant famous for its delicious galettes and crêpes.

Where to visit

Tour de la Lanterne

Rue sur les Murs

17000 La Rochelle

Tel: (Fr) 5 46 41 56 04

Tour Saint-Nicolas

Rue de l’Armide

Tel: (Fr) 5 46 41 74 13

Tour de la Chaine

Place de la Chaîne

Tel: (Fr) 5 46 34 11 81

Opening hours: Until 30 Sept, 10am to 6.30pm;

1 Oct to 31 Mar 2016, 10am to 1pm, 2.15pm to 5.30pm, Closed: 1 January, 1 May, 25 December. Admission €5 each or €6.5 for all three.

Musée Rochelais d’Histoire Protestante

2 Rue Saint-Michel

17000 La Rochelle

Tel: (Fr) 5 46 50 88 03

www.protestantisme-museelarochelle.fr

Musée de La France Protestante de l’Ouest

Château du Bois-Tiffrais

85110 Monsireigne

Tel: (Fr) 2 51 66 41 03

www.bois-tiffrais.org

TOURIST INFORMATION: La Rochelle tourist office, tel (Fr) 5 46 41 14 68, www.larochelle-tourisme.com

Most Read

Most Read

Latest from the Complete France