Strangers in the House: immigrant business in Parliament in the mid-17th century

A view of Westminster, from an original etching by W. Hollar, 1647. Wikimedia Commons

To those who follow Westminster politics, the phrase ‘a stranger in the House’ may be familiar as denoting someone who has intruded into the Commons or the Lords, having no right to be there.  When such a person is detected, proceedings are suspended until they have left the chamber.  But in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the word ‘stranger’ was also applied to those who were foreign-born, and this category of people regularly received attention in parliamentary business.

As appeared in an earlier blog, in this period it was possible for a second-generation immigrant to find a seat in the House of Commons.  Peter de Lannoy was MP for Southwark in 1656.  Others who made it included Samuel Vassall, who sat for London in the Short and Long Parliaments and whose father hailed from Caen, and Sir John Wittewronge, MP for Hertfordshire in 1654 and 1656, who was baptised at the Dutch Church in 1618 and whose parents came from Ghent and Rotterdam.  Even the English-sounding Abraham Johnson, MP for Colchester in 1659, had a mother from Bailleul in Flanders.

 The Dutch Church, Austin Friars, from an etching
by Edward Wedlake Brayley, 1820. Wikimedia Commons


Notwithstanding the political success of these men, as may be seen from the parliamentary Journals [Commons and Lords] available online, ‘strangers’ often surfaced in the chamber as a nuisance.  Foreign-born merchants trading outside guild restrictions and other native regulations were periodically subjects of complaint.  In November 1644, for instance, the Commons heard how, despite an order issued nine months earlier forbidding the export of wool, ‘two several parcels’ of it had been ‘endeavoured by night to be transported by some Walloons of Canterbury’ [Journal of the House of Commons, iii. 701].  Five years later MPs approved ‘an act for Relief of Feltmakers and Hatbandmakers, against Aliens and Strangers importing such Wares to the Hindrance of their Manufacture’ [ibid. vi. 273, 290].

During the civil wars an additional problem was the foreigners who, armed with experience of fighting in the Thirty Years’ War, offered their services as mercenaries to both sides.  While some royalist officers might be ‘papists’ with all the negative stereotyping that brought, even continental Protestants who served Parliament could become unwelcome.  In 1645, as Parliament prepared to replace its regionally-based forces with the nationally-directed force which soon became known as the New Model army, it heard ‘divers grievous complaints’ about many great Outrages and Insolencies committed by divers Walloons, and other Strangers’ who belonged to the regiments of Hans Behre and John Dalbier [e.g. ibid. iv. 26].  Measures were taken to ‘reduce’ or discharge such troublesome officers and soldiers, although Dalbier, for one, regained a command later.

Foreigners without employment were a threat to the authorities and an embarrassment to the stranger churches.  In September 1643, following a petition from John de la Marche and other ministers, Samuel Vassall (an appropriate choice) was first-named to a small committee ordered to review certificates from the French and Dutch churches concerning ‘such poor Strangers that are not able to continue here without begging, by reason of the Decay of Trade’ and inform Speaker William Lenthall so that he could grant them ‘his warrant to pass beyond Seas’ [ibid. iii. 238] – effectively deportation.  Yet Parliament could also be generous.  In July 1642 ‘Francis De Nevile, a French Gentleman, of good Descent, who left a large and considerable Fortune in his own Country, for his Conscience sake; and is come now into this Kingdom, the more freely to embrace the true Protestant Religion’ was granted £10 from each of the next three collections to be taken at the monthly ‘fast’ services to be held for MPs at St Margaret’s, Westminster [ibid… ii. 686].  Five weeks later this was rescinded, but because ‘the House [is] intending to provide for him in another Manner’ [ibid. ii. 747].

St Anthony's Hospital on Threadneedle Street, site of 
the original French Church of London, 1550 - 1666.
By Stan Allen, from an old picture map. Huguenot Library


Generosity, where it occurred, was sometimes doubtless driven by reciprocation.  There was a tradition of calling on merchant strangers to provide loans to meet spending in particular crises.  Shortly before the grant to de Nevile, they advanced a one-year loan at 8% interest towards the relief of Protestants who had suffered in the Irish rebellion which had erupted the previous winter.  That cause was also the chief beneficiary of the fast service collections.

Treatment of foreign Protestants was in practice mixed.  Like native petitioners to Parliament, they often faced an interminable wait for an answer.  Obtaining naturalization could take years.  But sometimes the response could be prompt and sympathetic, even in the unpromising context of civil war.  It was thus with the grant in 1643 to the congregation led by Jean Despagne of the right to hold services in Durham House chapel in the Strand, to the annoyance of the Threadneedle Street church [discussed in Huguenot Networks, see below].  Similarly in 1646, with the petition of the ‘Walloones at Dover’ for the establishment of a church there.  Bearing the signatures of ‘Iaques le Candele, Solomon Maurisse, Pierre Oden, Anthony le Candle, M. de Haze, David Neven, Philippe le Keux’, it is printed apparently verbatim in the Journal of the House of Lords for 2 March [viii. 193].  The ordinance giving them permission to go ahead had passed both Houses by 16 April.

Durham House, from an etching by
John Thomas Smith, 1806.
Wikimedia Commons


Free online access to the printed Commons and Lords Journals via British History Online enables the tracing of various themes related to Huguenots, as well as of the fortunes of some individuals.  Like naturalizations, the issue of passes to travel abroad give insights into traffic to and from the continent.  In August 1642, for instance, ‘Lawrence Soubera, a French Gentleman, and a Protestant, shall have Mr Speaker’s warrant to transport himself beyond the Seas into France’ [Journal of the House of Commons ii. 739].  Regrettably, the reason for the journey is not given in this case, but other examples, like that of the Saladin family, discussed in the Huguenot Society Journal [see below] reveal the complex family and business networks across Europe which characterised the Huguenot fraternity from the early days of the Refuge.


Vivienne Larminie

History of Parliament Trust 


Further reading:

V. Larminie, ‘The Herbert Connection, the French Church and Westminster Politics, 1643-1661’, in Huguenot Networks 1560-1780: the interactions and impact of a Protestant Minority in Europe ed. Larminie (2018), 41-59

V. Larminie, ‘Herbert Saladin (1627-1710) and the earls of Pembroke: Genevan Huguenots and the English nobility’, Huguenot Society Journal 32 (2019), 15-25

'Observations of weather: the weather diary of Sir John Wittewronge, 1684-9', Eds. M. Harcourt Williams and J. Stevenson, (Hertfordshire Record Office,1999), in Short Reviews, Proceedings of the Huguenot Society, vol. 27 no. 3 (2000), 457-8.


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