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Five famous historical French figures who were exiled to Britain

Some loved it, some hated it, we share the stories of five exiles who fled across the Channel

Voltaire asked to be exiled in England instead of rotting in jail after a duel with an aristocrat Pic: German Vizulis / Shutterstock

When the going gets tough politically in your own country, what else can you do but flee over the nearest border and seek asylum with the nearest friendly regime? 

French exiles who have fallen foul of the authorities have always had the easy option of going across a land border to Belgium or Switzerland;  but many of them felt safer putting a narrow strip of sea – the English Channel (aka La Manche) – between them and their persecutors.

Read more: Did you know? French monarchs and emperors were exiled

Britain, with its tradition of stability, civic freedom and tolerance, has accommodated a number of fleeing Frenchmen and women over the years, not all of them anglophiles. 

Here’s a selection of five of them, with the dates they spent abroad. 

1. Gabriel I de Lorges, count of Montgomery 1560-1562 

In 1559, the hapless Montgomery killed his friend king Henry II in a tragic jousting accident. 

Although it wasn’t his fault, he was branded as the “regicide” (the inspiration for the Kingslayer in Game of Thrones?) and hounded out of Paris. 

He fled to the England of Elizabeth I to escape his shame. 

The Reformation was in full swing and he converted to Protestantism. 

He returned in the thick of the Wars of Religion to lead a Huguenot army but was captured, tortured and executed for treason in 1574.

2. Voltaire (Francois-Marie Arouet) 1726–1728 

Imprisoned in the Bastille for insulting an aristocrat and fighting a duel, the great Enlightenment wit and author of Candide asked to be exiled in England instead of rotting in jail. 

His request was accepted and he was escorted to Calais. 

He lived for two and half years in Covent Garden, wrote a couple of essays in English and moved in high society – he may even have attended Isaac Newton’s funeral. 

3. Victor Hugo 1855-1870

After Napoleon III had seized power in an anti-parliamentary coup d’état in 1851 Hugo fled to the Channel Islands and stayed there until the empire fell and the Third Republic was inaugurated. 

Much of Les Misérables was written in his home, Hauteville House, on Guernsey.

4. Napoleon III 1871-1873

Having been taken prisoner at the humiliating defeat of the Battle of Sedan (1870), the emperor no longer with an empire was initially held captive in Germany. 

On his release, going back to France in ignominy wasn’t an option and he decided to go into exile in England instead. 

He lived at Chislehurst in Kent where he died two years later, aged 64.

5. De Gaulle 1940-1944

When General de Gaulle flew (possibly reluctantly) from Bordeaux to Britain on 17 June 1940 he knew he was disobeying the army and committing treason. 

For the next four years he had a fractious relationship with his hosts, whom he referred to as “the Anglo-Saxons”, while he oversaw a government-in-waiting. He returned home shortly after D-Day in time to take part in the Liberation of Paris.

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