Huguenots and the Church of England: a theological and cultural encounter

Edward VI, Head of the Church of England, granting the charter to John a Lasco to set up a church in London in 1550 for European Protestants. Attributed to J.V. Haidt, 1750s. Wikimedia Commons

When Huguenots arrived in England seeking freedom to practise their religion, they encountered a national church that differed in important respects from the Reformed church to which they were accustomed in France and Flanders. However, those differences were neither as great nor as straightforward as sometimes portrayed. It was in church organisation and (often) in worship that there was the most divergence; it was in theology – or belief about God and the salvation of mankind – that there was the greatest overlap. For this and other reasons, it is unhelpful to speak of Calvinists and Anglicans, or even Reformed and Anglicans.

Portrait of John Calvin, 1509-64, artist unknown. 
Wikimedia Commons


The Reformed Christianity to which Huguenots were accustomed was above all associated with the tradition set down by a Frenchman, John Calvin (1509-1564), and practised under his guidance from the 1540s in the republic of Geneva. His system of doctrine, Institutio Christianae Religionis or Institutes of the Christian Religion, was published in Latin in 1536 and 1559 (the latter becoming the definitive edition) and in French in 1560. It became immensely influential in Protestant Christianity. However, it had many ideas in common with other leading early reformers, such as Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531) and Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1575) of Zürich. Furthermore, later Calvin’s disciple and successor in Geneva, Theodore Beza (Théodore de Bèze, 1519-1605) pursued some of Calvin’s views, especially on predestination (to salvation), to an extreme point that his teacher had not advocated. So not only was Calvin’s not the only voice within the Reformed church, but some beliefs often labelled ‘Calvinist’ did not entirely belong to him.

Portrait of Theodore de Beza, 1519-1605,
engraved by Etienne-Jehandier Desroches,
BPUN, date unknown. Wikimedia Commons


More distinctively Calvinist was the church organisation honed in Geneva and practised among Huguenots and other groups like Presbyterians in Scotland. Theoretically, power came from the bottom up, not the other way around. Each congregation had an ordained minister and at least two lay elders, who met regularly in local groups called classes, and sent representatives periodically to regional synods and national synods. In intention, and in the eyes of many hostile witnesses, this was a church dominated by clergy and not by secular powers – an impression reinforced when some claimed that this system was iure divino [by divine right], or in other words, the only church set-up sanctioned in the Bible. But in reality, the degree of clerical power varied according to the political context. For instance, by the charter granted by Edward VI to stranger churches in England they had considerable autonomy, while in the Swiss Confederation the lay oligarchies which governed the Protestant city states exerted significant control over their churches.

On the whole, Reformed worship was austere. While the Lutherans retained a certain degree of ceremonial surrounding the Holy Communion and sang hymns, not least those composed by Luther himself, many of the Reformed confined themselves to gathering round a bare table for the Lord’s Supper and to singing only psalms, although Calvin himself was not as minimalist in his view of the Eucharist as Zwingli. Here again, there were divergences: in some places musical instruments might accompany worship, for example. All churches which called themselves Reformed or Calvinist held regularly or at times of crisis fast days or days of especially solemn prayer, but they differed as to whether they dropped any dedication to a saint (as in France) or not (as in Switzerland or the Netherlands). 

As the Reformed faith spread around Europe, there were prolonged efforts to maintain some sort of united front between its different branches. The Church of England participated in exchange of correspondence among what were regarded as sister churches. At first, this was facilitated by the fact that some of the men central to the creation of the Church of England as it emerged from the Elizabethan settlement of 1559-1562 had spent the reign of the Catholic Mary Tudor in exile on the continent. These men maintained close and cordial links with their Reformed friends abroad and although, like the Lutherans and some other Protestants, they belonged to a hierarchical church headed by archbishops and bishops, under their guidance Calvinism became its dominant doctrine. This did not go unchallenged. In time new generations of church leaders included men like archbishops of Canterbury Richard Bancroft (1604-1610) and William Laud (1633-1645) who did their best to stifle Calvinist preaching. When the Reformed of Europe gathered to debate doctrinal divisions at the Synod of Dort [Dordrecht] in 1618, the English delegation was headed by Calvinist bishops, but especially after the accession to the throne of Charles I in 1625, those of a different persuasion came to occupy most of the highest positions in the church.


Portrait of Jacobus Arminius, 1560-1609,
engraved by W. Swanenburgh, 1625.
Wikimedia Commons


That line of thinking is often labelled Arminian or Laudian, although there are difficulties in applying both terms. Arminianism was essentially a counter doctrine to Calvinism. Derived from the Dutch Reformed minister and theologian Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609), it emphasised the free grace of God available to all. Its growing influence within Protestantism had sparked the divisions debated at Dort and, as the seventeenth century progressed, it developed as a major theological strand within churches both in England and on the continent, and sewed controversy within Huguenot academies, especially at Saumur. Laudianism is a looser concept, but it could include an emphasis on beauty and order in worship, an affirmation of the importance of the sacraments (sometimes at the expense of preaching the Word), a restoration of the pre-Reformation material resources of the church, and a reassertion of clerical authority in things spiritual. The problem for historians is that different churchmen espoused different aspects of these beliefs and practices.

Portrait of William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury
1633-45, workshop of Van Dyck, c.1638.
Wikimedia Commons


After the religious upheavals of the civil wars and interregnum in the three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland, and the post-Restoration reconstruction of the episcopal Church of England, Calvinism never regained its previous stature in the state church.  But it was not absent: Calvinist bishops still existed, a leading example being Thomas Barlow, bishop of Lincoln from 1675. Although the Book of Common Prayer prescribed the liturgy, there was in practice great variety in its styles of worship and in the authority claimed by its clergy. Some argued that rule by bishops had been established by the apostles and Church Fathers, and was the only divinely-sanctioned system, setting it up in opposition to iure divino Presbyterianism. Others argued merely that it had proved convenient in England or that it was best when the emphasis was on pastoral care rather than social standing and political power. Some believed that conformity to one way of doing things was necessary to prevent disorder and schism; others who came to be labelled Latitudinarians (for instance, Gilbert Burnet, bishop of Salisbury from 1689 to 1715), preferred to accommodate different Protestant beliefs and practices where possible.

What Huguenots reaching England made of the national church depended both on their prior expectations and on whom they encountered on their arrival.  Responses varied with time, place and the individual. It is evident that there was an appetite for liturgy à l’anglaise. There was a translation of the Book of Common Prayer into French as early as 1553, issued by   denizen printer Thomas Gaultier (also Gualtier, Galtier). Pierre Delaune’s translation of 1616, apparently produced for stranger congregations in East Anglia, was reissued in 1665 by Jersey-born Jean or John Durel (1625-1683) for use at the French Church at the Savoy, and the original edition may have been employed by the earlier manifestation of that church under the theologically Calvinist Jean Despagne.  Some ministers, including Durel himself, apparently moved seamlessly between posts in French Reformed churches and in the Church of England.  In earlier generations, Pierre du Moulin the elder (1568-1658) and his eldest son Pierre or Peter du Moulin the younger (1601-1684) seemed to expect rapid promotion within the episcopal hierarchy; although they had to be content with modest preferments, the son became a noted apologist for the Church of England. Thanks to Bishop Burnet, Pierre Allix (1641-1717) became treasurer and then a residentiary canon of Salisbury Cathedral. In contrast, many other ministers without high-placed friends faced an agonising choice as to whether or not to agree to re-ordination before they could secure any post in the English church.

Title page of a pamphlet by Pierre Allix,1641-1717,
 printed in 1689. Wikimedia Commons


For lay Huguenots who arrived in England at the end of the seventeenth century, experience of the national church depended a good deal on which clergy or which lay patron they encountered in the dioceses in which they settled. Their parish church might present the alien spectacle of a railed-off altar at the east end, where communicants knelt to receive the sacrament from a vicar who behaved like a priest, or it might offer little in the way of sermons. On the other hand, it might feature only minimal ceremonial or lengthy expositions of the Bible from a preacher who was a convinced Calvinist. There was, after 1662, an ‘Anglican’ church defined over and against the ‘Nonconformists’ who had separated from it, but the Church of England did not always manifest as a stark contrast to what Huguenots were used to – any more than nonconformist denominations would have appeared more akin to their traditions. Accordingly, some Huguenots chose French congregations conforming to the English liturgy, while others chose non-conforming French congregations which followed the original dispensation of Edward VI. In time, familiarity with English ways and acquisition of English language meant that native churches absorbed most. 

Vivienne Larminie


Further reading

The Oxford History of Anglicanism. Vol. I Reformation and Identity, c.1520-1662, ed. Anthony Milton (Oxford University Press, 2017)

Robin Gwynn, The Huguenots in Later Stuart Britain. Vol. I Crisis, Renewal and the Ministers' Dilemma (Sussex Academic Press, 2017)


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