1550 THE FOUNDATION

Wishing to strengthen the Reformation, the young King Edward VI invited to England theologians from the continent, including John a Lasco, a Polish baron and preacher. Sensing the intensification of religious persecution on the continent, and with John Calvin’s support, he interceded with the Court and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cranmer, to obtain the foundation of a refugee church (‘strangers’ church’).

On 24th July 1550, Edward VI signed the charter granting freedom of worship to Protestant foreigners from France, Wallonia, the Netherlands, as well as to small Italian-speaking and Spanish-speaking communities, making John a Lasco their leader and giving them the use of the Chapel of the Augustinians in the City of London.

© EPFL, Tympanum sculpted by J. Prangnelli 1950 and representing the departure of the French Huguenots, their arrival in England and the granting of the Royal Charter by Edward VI
© EPFL, Tympanum sculpted by J. Prangnelli 1950 and representing the departure of the French Huguenots, their arrival in England and the granting of the Royal Charter by Edward VI

1562-1629 THE EARLY YEARS AND THE IMPACT OF THE WAR OF RELIGION

The difficulties arising from the use of different languages ​​encouraged the French community to find another place of worship after a few months. They settled in another chapel in the City, that of St. Anthony in Threadneedle Street. Today the Dutch church still occupies the original site of St. Augustine’s chapel.

With the accession to the English throne of a catholic monarch, Mary Tudor, in 1553, the church closed and John a Lasco had to find refuge on the continent.

After the death of Mary Tudor in 1558, her sister, Queen Elizabeth I, of protestant faith, appointed the Bishop of London as superintendent of the church, authorizing it to resume services in 1560. The original discipline of the Church was given in 1561 by the Genevan pastor, Nicolas Des Gallars, especially dispatched to London by Calvin himself to organize the young church of the Strangers.

1669, AFTER THE GREAT FIRE OF LONDON

During the English Civil War (1642-1649), the congregation of Threadneedle Street was torn between royalists and Cromwell’s supporters. With the establishment of the Republic, the pastor Louis Hérault, a convinced royalist, had to quit his office and was swiftly replaced by the republican pastor Louis de la Marche. With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Louis Hérault was recalled as pastor and the community commissioned a royal coat of arms, as a display of loyalty to the English crown. It is still preserved in the church’s library.

© FCPL, Royal Coat of Arms, 17th century, library of the French Protestant Church of London
© FCPL, Royal Coat of Arms, 17th century, library of the French Protestant Church of London

1680-1715, THE GREAT REFUGE

In 1661, Louis XIV began to systematically dismantle the Edict of Nantes and multiply discriminatory measures, such as the destruction of churches, the prohibition of practicing some professions, as lawyer, doctor, or printers … The exodus of French protestants increased from 1681 onward with the beginning of the dragonnades  and even more after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.

It is estimated that out of the 200,000 to 250,000 Huguenots who fled from France during Louis XIV’s reign, about 40,000 to 50,000 went to England.

Following the Declaration of Indulgence of King James I in 1687, many new French churches were founded to cope with this massive influx. The church’s archives still hold some of those royal charters authorizing the construction of new churches.

Huguenot refuge major routes © Robin Gwynn, Huguenot Heritage, 2000
Huguenot refuge major routes ©Robin Gwynn, Huguenot Heritage, 2000
© FCPL, Boundaries of the districts of the church, c. 1765, La Ville district
© FCPL, Boundaries of the districts of the church, c. 1765, La Ville district

There were about twenty churches in the provinces, and thirty in London and its suburbs. The capital’s churches were mainly located in two districts: Spitalfields, to the east, with its concentration of weavers, but also in Soho, where you could find craftsmen such as goldsmiths, watchmakers, jewellers, cabinet makers or printers. In Soho, Protestant refugees occupied empty houses of a failed project (Frith project).

The two main French churches were that of Threadneedle Street, in which services were performed according to the rites of the reformed churches of the continent, and the Savoy church, founded under Charles II, which conformed to the liturgy of the Church of England.

The Church of Threadneedle Street was considered as the mother church, addressing spiritual, material or disciplinary issues the other churches faced. One of the notable pastors of that time was Jacques Saurin  pastor at Threadneedle Street (1701-1706).

Refugees arriving in England needed to produce témoignages, certificates of membership, of conduct and attendance provided by their former church, attesting of their compliance with the Reformation principles. A system of coins made of wood or metal, the méreaux, was used as an identification device to detect any Roman Catholic spy. Huguenots had to show

their méreaux when they entered the Church as proof of their membership of their Protestant faith.

Despite riots in 1675, 1681 and 1683 against the massive influx of weaver refugees in East London, the Huguenots were generally welcomed. Collections were even organized to assist them. The Threadneedle Street church set up its own charity in 1718 for poor relief, the French Hospital, La Providence, in Clerkenwell

©FCPL, MS 226, 1681, Accounts rendered to the Lord Mayor and the Bishop of London showing the distribution of money to poor refugees
©FCPL, MS 226, 1681, Accounts rendered to the Lord Mayor and the Bishop of London showing the distribution of money to poor refugees

1713, THE PROCESS OF ASSIMILATION

The Huguenots were generally highly skilled and came to England with a trade that facilitated their assimilation. The French Protestants contributed significantly to English society, especially in the fields of textiles, watchmaking, cabinetmaking or printing, but not only. The names of John Houblon, the first governor of the Bank of England, Romilly, champion of the Reform of Criminal Law, of Minet in insurance … highlight the contribution of this community.

The Marriage Act of 1753 obliging all marriages to be celebrated in an Anglican church also contributed greatly to this assimilation movement.

1893, SOHO SQUARE

©FCPL, Interior of St. Martin le Grand, John Crowther, 1886
©FCPL, Interior of St. Martin le Grand, John Crowther, 1886

The French Protestant congregation stayed in the church of St. Martin le Grand from 1842 to 1887, before it was destroyed as part of the extension of the General Post Office.

At the end of the 19th century, Soho was London’s major French neighbourhood and was therefore the obvious setting to build a new church. The £26,000 expropriation indemnity allowed the purchase of the site and the construction of the present church where the first service was celebrated on 25 March 1893.

The French community was sufficiently important to allow the pastor Leon Degrémont to regularly celebrate open air services on the square on Sunday evenings.

The church also built a French school just a few steps away from Soho Square at Noël Street, offering instruction in English and French to the children of the church and the neighbourhood (this school closed after the Second World War).

1940-1945, RESISTANCE SPIRIT

Discover how the French Protestant Church of Soho Square became one of the centres of the Free French during the Second World War!