Statue of Oliver Cromwell next to a bas relief commemorating the 1689 Glorious Revolution, Wall of the Reformers, Geneva. Photo Vivienne Larminie
Alongside providing a sanctuary for those fleeing religious persecution, by the mid-seventeenth century England also embraced public fund-raising for aid to religious refugees. A significant development came from late 1641, when rebellion and massacre in Ireland led many Protestants to flee. Parliament used the collections taken at their monthly days of prayer – ‘fast days’ observed at Westminster and throughout the kingdom – not just for local charitable relief but also for foreigners in need. Thus, the official record of proceedings in the House of Commons recorded on 1 April 1642 that, of the £45 ‘gathered at the last Fast here, at St Margaret’s Westminster’, £15 was to be distributed to the poor of the parish and £30 was to be handed over to William Wheler, a lay leader of the church and an MP, ‘to be distributed among the Poor Protestants of Ireland’. The Commons also ordered that ‘the Committee for the Distributions’ should sit and consider ‘the poor Irish that are come out of Ireland to Bristoll’ [Journal of the House of Commons ii. 506].
A decade or so later, another atrocity prompted action. This was the Easter massacre of Waldensians (also then known as Vaudois), members of a community established in the mountainous region on the borders of France and present-day Italy, who practised a form of Protestantism which had developed from origins before the Reformation. When in January 1655 their overlord, the duke of Savoy, issued an ultimatum that they convert to Catholicism, they had initially fled to the upper valleys of Piedmont. But the duke’s troops pursued them there, and on 24 April [14 April English style] had unleashed horrific, deadly, and systematic violence. Estimates of those who died range from at least 1,700. Destitute survivors fled over the mountains into the Swiss Confederation.
Owing to networks of friendship and correspondence between Protestants across Europe, news spread quickly. Protector Oliver Cromwell’s cousin, Oliver Fleming, former ambassador to Switzerland, was probably a key link. So too was Jean-Baptiste Stouppe (Giovanni Battista Stoppa, 1620-1692)), a native of the Grisons/Graubünden, who had been briefly a pastor of the French church, Threadneedle Street, but who was now a Cromwellian agent on the continent. The poet John Milton, secretary ‘for foreign tongues’ in Cromwell’s administration, was an early recipient of information and memorably registered his anguished reaction in his poem beginning ‘Avenge, o Lord, thy slaughtered saints/Whose bones lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold.’ These martyrs were from a people who had kept God’s ‘truth so pure of old’; they were His sheep, violated as they sheltered ‘in their ancient fold’.
This time there was no influx of refugees to England, but contribution towards relief funds were soon solicited. On 25 May Cromwell announced a national fast on 14 June in solidarity with ‘the poor inhabitants of the valleys’. This was not the first time such an occasion had been used to invoke God’s intervention on behalf of co-religionists – for instance, a fast called for 18 February 1629 had noted ‘the deplorable condition of those who professe the true Reformed Religion’ and ‘the distressed estate of those of the Religion in forreine parts’ – but in 1655 there was added a specific instruction that on that day ministers in the parishes should ‘stir up the People to a free and liberal collection for their relief’ [National Prayers: Special Worship since the Reformation ed. Natalie Mears et al., vol. 1, Church of England Record Society no. 20, 2013, pp. 348-9, 602-3].
By 11 July the council of state Committee on the Protestants in Piedmont reported that £10,000 was ready to be sent to the Swiss Protestant cantons for distribution to refugees. Six days later, instructions for the envoy to be despatched with it, George Downing, were approved, and £300 entrusted to him as a personal donation from Cromwell. By 24 July the full subvention to be transported was given as £15,000 and it continued to rise. This was a generous response considering the unstable domestic political context – there was a major royalist rising that spring – and the background of recovery from civil war destruction to property.
Yet, as still happens all too often with generous impulses, unforeseen problems arose. Intercepted intelligence showed that royalists were spreading conspiracy theories that the money – by September put by one correspondent at £20,000 – was really designed to pay for Swiss mercenaries to come to England as a bodyguard for Cromwell, who could not trust his own army. More seriously, that autumn civil war broke out between the Catholic and Protestant cantons of Switzerland, distracting the latter from helping the refugees. By the end of November, Samuel Morland, the English resident in the republic of Geneva, reported that he had received £5,000 of the relief funds, but was having the utmost difficulty in finding secure means of sending it on. A month later, he had found a potentially workable solution, thanks to M. Calandrini, of the Huguenot banking family, but he had lost patience with the Protestant Swiss, uncharitably pronouncing that they had brought God’s wrath on themselves for their limpness towards the Piedmontese.
In England there were further collections. In a speech to Parliament in January 1658, Cromwell referred approvingly to ‘the money that you parted with in that noble charity that was exercised in this nation, and the just sense you had of those poor Piedmonts’ [Diary of Thomas Burton ed. J. T. Rutt (1828), vol. 2, pp. 346-71]. But there were persistent problems with administering the relief funds. Parliaments in 1659 and 1660 heard that thousands of pounds remained in the hands of the treasurers for the relief collected for the ‘distressed Protestants in Piedmont and [now also] in Poland’; in October 1659 there remained ‘unapplied for the use for which it was contributed’ a further £9,450.
These problems resurfaced at Westminster after the Restoration. Nonetheless, an important principle of raising money to assist foreign refugees had been established. Much later, in the nineteenth century, a new bridge to the Protestants of Piedmont and the Alpine Valleys was established. The English Committee in Aid of the Waldensian Church Missions is still active.
The Journal of the House of Commons, the Diary of Thomas Burton and A Collection of the State Papers of John Thurloe ed. Thomas Birch (1742), which all provide background to this subject, are free-to-view via British History Online at https://www.british-history.ac.uk/