The towers guarding the entrance to La Rochelle's harbour. Wikimedia Commons
Marsh’s Library, established by Archbishop Narcissus Marsh at the turn of the 18th century, had as its first librarian a French Huguenot refugee, Élie (or Elias) Bouhéreau.
Bouhéreau (1643-1719) was born in the port of La Rochelle, a Protestant stronghold during the French wars of religion of the 16th century. His father, also Élie Bouhéreau, was a Calvinist pastor. Bouhéreau first studied theology at the Protestant Academy of Saumur in the late 1650s, before spending a few years in Paris and later moving to Orange, where he studied medicine at the University between 1664 and 1667. He practiced medicine in La Rochelle until it became illegal for Protestant physicians to do so in 1683. Some of his prescriptions have been preserved in Marsh’s Library.
French Protestants had been granted legal existence at the end of the wars of religion in 1598 by Henri IV. The Edict of Nantes was the document which guaranteed the minority’s civil and religious rights, but as the reign of Louis XIV advanced the edict was interpreted more and more narrowly, until it was hollowed out and finally revoked in 1685.
Through contacts he had made in Paris, Bouhéreau arranged for his own library and that of the consistory of La Rochelle to be shipped to England. A few months later, in January 1686, he planned his own escape out of France, with his widowed mother Blandine, his wife Marguerite, and their children, Élie, Richard, Amateur, Marguerite, and Blandine. The youngest son, Jean, was smuggled into England later. The youngest daughter, Madeleine, was retained in a Catholic convent in La Rochelle, where she died in May 1690.
From 1689 Bouhéreau kept a diary, now preserved in Marsh’s Library. Thanks to this we know that Bouhéreau was employed as tutor to the Duchess of Monmouth’s children between 1686 and 1689. Many French refugees were sought after to act as tutors at the time. His next position brought him back to the Continent, as secretary to the British Envoy to the Swiss Cantons, Sir Thomas Cox, on a diplomatic mission to the region. Bouhéreau remained there until September 1692, keeping very detailed accounts of diplomatic etiquette, treaties under negotiations and of the Envoy’s daily activities. He returned to London where he was reunited with his family after three years' absence.
Bouhéreau’s next post, which he took in November 1693, was as secretary to the Huguenot Henri de Ruvigny. Ruvigny had been the last Député Général de la Religion Prétendue Rérformée (representative of the French Protestant minority at Louis XIV’s court), diplomat to Charles II, and chose exile to England where he had family connections. Ruvigny served as colonel to one of the Huguenot regiments raised by his father for William III, making a name for himself at the battle of Aughrim in July 1691 and subsequently becoming Viscount Galway in the Irish peerage, a Privy Counsellor and commander-in-chief of the forces in Ireland. In November 1693 Galway, accompanied by his secretary Bouhéreau, was sent as Envoy Extraordinary to the Duke of Savoy in Piedmont, and as commander of the British troops there. Savoy-Piedmont was a crucial front in the war against Louis XIV and Bouhéreau’s diary provides minute details of the military and diplomatic efforts undertaken by William III in Northern Italy.
In 1696 Bouhéreau and Galway returned to England, and shortly after in January 1697 Galway was appointed as one of three Lords Justices of Ireland, leading the government from Dublin Castle. He was also elevated to an earldom, becoming Earl of Galway and receiving a grant of land, including Portarlington. Galway retained Bouhéreau as his personal secretary. Bouhéreau also acted as Galway’s financial agent, ensuring that the Huguenot veterans received their military pensions, at Portarlington and beyond. Archbishop Narcissus Marsh and Galway briefly served together as Lords Justices in 1699.
From July 1697 the Bouhérau family resided on Hoy’s Alley in Dublin. Bouhéreau recorded the marriage of his daughter Blandine in April 1699, the death of his 95 year-old mother, who is buried under the altar in the Lady Chapel of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, in April 1700, the birth of his first grandchild and his baptism in St. Patrick’s cathedral - the godfather was none other than Lord Galway. During these years Bouhéreau also lists a countless string of servants, none of whom he found satisfactory.
In April 1701 Galway was dismissed, and in May Bouhéreau was appointed first Librarian of the St. Sepulchre Library built by Archbishop Marsh, receiving £200 per year. He donated his own books – about 2,000 items - to the Library and started organising them. The same year, in June, Bouhéreau was ordained as a Church of Ireland deacon and served in this capacity at St. Patrick’s; he was ordained priest in September. In 1703 the family moved to York Street, then to Stephen Street and Georges Lane until the lodgings at the Library on St. Patrick’s Close were finally completed in December.
In May 1704 his wife Marguerite passed away. The following years he visited the family of his daughter Blandine in Co. Meath regularly, and kept a record of births, baptisms and deaths in his family, alongside changes in the government of Ireland and scholarly notes on various topics. He became Cantor of St. Patrick’s in 1708, and received his Doctorate in Theology from Trinity College in March 1709. Later that year he and his youngest son Jean were naturalized. Bouhéreau died in May 1719 and was buried in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. His books, extensive correspondence and diary are preserved in Marsh’s Library.
2019 marked the tercentenary of Bouhéreau’s death. To commemorate it, Marsh’s Library hosted an international conference in November on the topic of Huguenot culture and exile in the early modern period, entitled ‘Élie Bouhéreau and the World of the Huguenots’. One of the highlights of the conference was the launch, in his place of burial, of Bouhéreau's diary and financial accounts, published by the Irish Manuscripts Commission.
M. Léoutre, Serving France, Ireland and England: Ruvigny, Earl of Galway, 1648-1720 (London, 2018)
M. Léoutre, J. McKee, J-P. Pittion, A. Prendergast (eds.), The diary (1689-1719) and accounts (1704-1717) of Élie Bouhéreau (Dublin, 2019).