On June 10th, as part of of Still Reforming, a year-long series of events in London to mark the quincentenary of the Reformation, Tessa Murdoch, Victoria and Albert Museum, and Barbara Julien, Huguenot Society, led an evening of celebration on the contribution of French Huguenots to British society.
Barbara Julien (here pictured with the church’s pastor Stephane Desmarais) has kindly agreed to publish an edited version of her talk on our website for those who couldn’t make it on the night. We warmly thank her.
Good evening and welcome to our talk in this magnificent Aston Webb church, completed in 1893 to house the French Church of London on its relocation to Soho from the City of London. As many of you know, the Soho church is the lineal descendant of the first French-speaking Walloon church, founded in 1550 in the heart of the City, at Threadneedle Street, and widely considered throughout its long history as the mother church of French Protestantism in Britain. The second church building, constructed by its community within three years of the original premises being destroyed in 1666 in the Great Fire of London, served for over 170 years; subsequently, on the expansion of the Bank of England, the congregation moved to St Martin le Grand, only to relocate again in 1887 when the General Post Office was extended.
This evening’s talk is taking place within the framework of Still Reforming, a year-long series of events in London to mark the quincentenary of the Reformation. Tessa will be talking to you about the impact of Huguenot craftsmen in London, but first I will briefly evoke those aspects of the movement which led to the creation of the French Church of London, and outline the role played by the Church and other agencies during the two main waves of French Protestant immigration to the English capital in the 16th and 17th centuries.
To understand the presence of Protestant strangers seeking sanctuary in London and England in the mid 16th century we need to look back 500 years to 1517, when an Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, famously published at Wittenberg in Lower Saxony the 95 theses which were to transform Christian worship across Europe. Luther had studied both theology and law, and his courageous indictment of corrupt practices within the Catholic Church, in particular the sale of indulgences, was to be the major galvanizing factor in the Reformation, a movement of protestation taken forward in the following decades by a number of international scholars: prominent among them was the Frenchman Jean Calvin, who gave his name to the particular movement which spread throughout France, but whose influential ministry was spent in exile in the Protestant City of Geneva. Calvin’s doctrine emphasised the importance of spiritual progress through faith, a journey accompanied by didactic sermons and study of the bible in the vernacular. However, it was a lesser known Polish reformer, Jan à Lasco, active in London in the mid 16th century under the protection of Archbishop Cranmer, who was to obtain from Edward VI the 1550 royal charter setting up the first foreign Protestant churches in London; they were to serve the Dutch, Italian and French-speaking stranger communities. After Edward’s premature death, and during the reign of his Catholic half-sister Mary Tudor, à Lasco and his followers returned to the continent, and the French Church went into hibernation. It was formed again in 1559 after the accession of Elizabeth I, and Calvin was asked to send one of his trusted lieutenants, Nicolas des Gallars, to draw up an ecclesiastical discipline based on the Geneva model, but adapted to the Queen’s via media for English Protestantism; the London church was to be separate from the continental reformed churches and their synods, and was to operate under the superintendence of Edmund Grindal, Bishop of London, a Calvinist sympathiser who had spent his exile during Mary’s reign at Strasbourg.
Three smaller French Walloon churches allied to London were set up at Norwich, Southampton and Canterbury between 1565 and 1575. With the French Church of London they formed a network of francophone churches well known on the Continent, and able to provide a haven both from Spanish Hapsburg persecution in the Walloon region bordering Northern France and from the wars of Religion [1562-1598] within France itself, notably after the 1572 St Bartholomew’s Day massacre of Protestants. The long French civil wars were brought to a close by Henri IV, first Bourbon King of France, who had alternatively embraced the religious persuasions of his protestant mother and catholic father. During his reign he was able to considerably promote the Protestant cause, and to a large extent, his 1598 Edict of Nantes made France a bi-confessional state. However, less than 100 years later, his absolutist grandson, Louis XIV, having resumed the erosion of Protestant rights which had taken place under his father, Louis XIII, was finally to revoke all vestiges of religious toleration and civil liberties for his Protestant subjects.
The French Church of London played a vital role in receiving and caring for the flood of Huguenot refugees who consequently arrived in London throughout the 1680s, and this is well documented in its archives. The term refugee was in fact coined at that time, from the French refugié, meaning one who seeks refuge. They came first as a result of the Dragonnades, which started in the Poitou region in 1681 when brutal dragoons were first billeted on Protestant families, a policy which was then rolled out in many other parts of the country. Numbers fleeing their homeland dramatically increased in the years after the 1685 Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, when the pastors were exiled and the majority of their temples destroyed. Although the lay people were forbidden to leave, many thousands did follow their ministers, at great risk to themselves, since to stay and abjure their faith, as the King commanded, was for them tantamount to a fall from God’s grace. The result was a substantial movement of displaced people trying to reach the various Protestant countries of Le Grand Refuge; in some cases families split up and fled in smaller groups so as not to attract attention, with some parents forced to leave behind children removed from them and placed in Catholic convents from the age of seven. Unlike the 16th century strangers, this second larger wave of refugees to arrive in London was essentially French, and transformed the nature of the congregation at Threadneedle Street. Throughout the relief process the French Church consistory worked closely with the dedicated protector of the Huguenots and superintendant of the foreign churches, Henry Compton, Bishop of London.
Though some of the 17th century refugees were given royal grants to go to communities forming outside the capital, in Ireland, or in new England colonies, very many remained in London, and by 1700 numbered around 25,000. Originally, they did not intend to stay, and hoped for a reversal of’ Louis XIV’s religious policies. In London, there was a divide from the outset between the Calvinists who worshipped at non-conformist Threadneedle Street and those prepared to adopt the form of Anglicanism practised at the French Church of the Savoy, following the example of a number of the exiled pastors. The smaller Savoy Church in Westminster, founded in the 1640s, had been reconfirmed at the restoration by Charles II, on condition it used a French translation of the Anglican liturgy. On the other hand, the years following James II’s 1687 Declaration of Indulgence saw the construction of several new non-conformist temples at Spitalfields in east London and Soho in the west, set up under royal letters patent to cater for new arrivals resulting from James’s Declaration. In some cases, congregations gathered around former pastors from France, attracting others from the same region. Of the new temples, La Patente de Spitalfields was originally favoured by refugees from Poitou, whereas St Jean Spitalfields drew refugees from Normandy and Picardy. By 1700 there were around 24 Huguenot churches in London alone, twice as many non-conformist as conformist. Among them was a conformist church here in Soho Square, L’Eglise du Carré, which moved to nearby Berwick Street in 1694.
In 1713, the Peace of Utrecht brought to an end the European War of the Spanish succession; by its absence of guarantees for French Protestant worship and rights, the treaty signalled the end of all hope of a return to their native land for the 17th century refugees. It was clear they were here to stay, and in their wills many offered thanks to God for guiding them to a country where they had enjoyed religious freedom.
Some had been able to bring little more than their skills when they fled, especially the weavers and other textile workers who settled in London’s East End, but in hard times they and other refugees were able to turn to the various self-help institutions for which the Huguenots became famous: – the French Church of London operated its own poor relief organisation, through its deacons; The French Hospital, La Providence, established in Clerkenwell in 1718, provided out gift aid to the needy as well as a home for the sick and elderly; Huguenot soup kitchens regularly functioned in Spitalfields and in Soho, and there were a number of free Huguenot schools. Under William III Royal Bounty grants were set up for individual Huguenots in need as well as for whole refugee communities in London and in the provinces. It is interesting to note that alongside the relief structures, several regional Friendly Societies sprung up in London, linked by name and membership to the province of origin: La Société de Paris, de Nimes, de Normandie, de St Onge et Angoumois, de Poitou et du Loudunois, and so on. This suggests a strong sense of regional identity, and indeed, coming from regions as diverse as Normandy and Poitou, the various French idioms spoken by the refugees would have been quite different. Their books of rules, some of which are preserved at the Huguenot Library, seem initially to have limited integration with immigrants from other regions, or with the host community. For example, article 12 of the rules of the Société de Poitou et du Loudunois stipulated that any widow or daughter of a Poitevin who married a man not from the region would forfeit her right to hardship benefits. But the melting-pot effect of London eventually prevailed, and over time strict membership rules were relaxed. Moreover, these were now being drawn up in English. Double fees for baptism exacted from Huguenot congregations by parish priests, and the 1753 Act requiring all marriages to take place in the Church of England, contributed to many second and third generation refugees forsaking the temples for Anglican churches such as Christ Church Spitalfields and St Anne’s Soho, leading to a fusion of regional groups, and the decline of their own places of worship. By 1830, as assimilation increased, most churches had either closed or merged with larger ones, notably with the mother church, and by the end of the 19th century only three Huguenot churches remained in London. Surviving records of several former churches are preserved in the French Church of London Library alongside its own manuscripts, and others are held at the Huguenot Library.
The Huguenots had constituted a highly-skilled and resourceful minority in France, and with their strong Protestant work ethic were well suited both to contribute to and benefit from a rapidly expanding City such as London. For those with entrepreneurial flair able to bring capital with them, there were opportunities to be seized, and the possibility of becoming denizens or naturalised subjects. Astute financiers, they were quick to embrace new investment opportunities, such as those provided in insurance and banking, where they worked alongside anglicised descendants of the original Walloon refugees who in 1694 played such a significant role in the formation of the Bank of England: men such as the Houblon brothers, the Lethieulliers, and the Du Quesnes. Some had close relatives who had remained in France in the 1680s to avoid the total confiscation of family property, or had taken refuge in mercantile centres such as Amsterdam, and such international family networks facilitated trade. Others pursued scientific or artistic careers in London, became men of letters, Anglican ministers, doctors, army officers, surveyors and cartographers, or French tutors to the aristocracy. Very many were consummate craftsmen with much to offer a country short on innovative skills: goldsmiths, clock makers, cabinet makers, book binders, printers and engravers. For this group, it was often the suppression of the right to practise their craft, coupled with religious persecution, which had caused them to flee their native land. Tessa is going to talk to you about their legacy, the contribution they made to London, and in particular to Soho, where large numbers of craftsmen are known to have settled.
Barbara Julien, June 2017