Of Lice and Men : the Palatine emigration to Britain, 1709
Honorary President of SAES
Paris-Sorbonne University, France
Over the spring and early summer of 1709, over 10,000 Germans collectively referred to as « the poor Palatines », made their way to England from south-western Germany. These immigrants, or « refugees » (the term was used in the contemporary literature), were driven from their homeland by the desire to escape from the grinding poverty in which they lived, a poverty induced by the repeated ravages of war over the past decades. As a result, whole families left Germany for England, which was viewed as a staging-post towards America, where the « poor Palatines » hoped to settle with the help of queen Anne. The queen’s generosity had been extolled in the so-called « Golden Book », that had been widely circulated, in the Palatinate and beyond, in the months prior to this mass migration.
The sudden influx of these thousands of immigrants took the British authorities by surprise, and it took some time for the inflow to decrease and finally stop. The arrival of the Palatines triggered an intensely polarizing national debate, which exacerbated political and religious differences. While the Whigs and the Low Church wing of the Church of England immediately proved to be vocal supporters of the « poor Palatines », the Tories and the High Church clerics no less determinedly branded the immigrants as enemies of Queen, Church and Country. At one extreme, the anonymous author of a particularly abusive satirical tract referred to the Palatines as « lice » ; at the other extreme, the Bishop of Oxford called his flock to exercise Christian charity towards these fellow « men ». In between, a whole gamut of arguments were deployed, ranging from economic and demographic ones – in the wake of the General Naturalization Act that had been recently past – to historical and theological ones, placing this episode in the wider context of both English, and universal, sacred history. These various, conflicting narratives, were so many attempts to come to grips with and make sense of one of the most important migrations within Europe in the early modern period.