Installed since 1893 in its magnificent Aston Webb building in Soho Square, the French Protestant Church of London is the direct lineal descendant of the 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 England. The second church building, erected by the congregation within three years of the original premises being destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, was to serve its congregation for over 170 years. In the 1660s, Samuel Pepys the diarist and naval administrator, who had links to influential members of the congregation, is known to have worshipped at Threadneedle Street with his French wife, Elizabeth de St Michel.
On the expansion of the Bank of England, the Church relocated in 1840 to imposing premises in St Martin le Grand, City of London, only to be expropriated in 1887 when the General Post Office was extended, and finally settling in Soho Square.
French-speaking protestant strangers seeking sanctuary in London and England had arrived in the 16th century following the Reformation, the movement of protestation set in motion by Martin Luther's 1517 indictment of corrupt practices within the Catholic Church, in particular the sale of indulgences. The Reformation swept across northern Europe, and was taken forward in the following decades by a number of international scholars, prominent among whom was the Frenchman Jean Calvin, who gave his name to the movement which spread throughout France. 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 the boy King Edward VI the 1550 royal charter setting up the first foreign Protestant churches serving the Dutch, Italian and French-speaking stranger communities.
After Edward's premature death, and during the reign of his Catholic half-sister Mary Tudor, Jan 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 sent one of his trusted lieutenants, Nicolas des Gallars, to draw up an ecclesiastical discipline based on the Genevan model, but adapted to the Queen's via media for English Protestantism.
Three smaller French Walloon churches allied to London were set up at Canterbury, Southampton and Norwich between 1565 and 1575, forming a network of francophone churches able to provide a haven from Spanish Hapsburg persecution in the Walloon region bordering Northern France, and from the Wars of Religion within France (1562-1598), particularly after the St Bartholomew's Day massacre of Protestants in 1572. The French civil wars were brought to a close by the first Bourbon King of France, Henri IV, who had alternatively embraced the religious persuasions of his Protestant mother and Catholic father. During his reign he considerably promoted the Protestant cause, and his 1598 Edict of Nantes attempted to establish France as a bi-confessional state. However, less than 100 years later, his absolutist grandson, Louis XIV, resumed the attack on Protestant rights pursued by his father, Louis XIII, and 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 refugiés who consequently arrived in London throughout the 1680s, and this is well documented in the archives which form part of its Library collection.
Arriving first as a result of the Dragonnades, which started in the Poitou region in 1681 when brutal dragoons were billeted on Protestant families, 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 Huguenot temples destroyed. Although forbidden to leave, many thousands of lay people followed their ministers, at great risk to themselves, resulting in a substantial movement of displaced people trying to reach the Protestant countries of Le Grand Refuge. In some cases families split up and fled in smaller groups, with parents often 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 England 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 superintendent of the foreign churches, Henry Compton, Bishop of London.
Originally, hoping for a reversal of' Louis XIV's religious policies, they did not intend to stay, yet by 1700, there were around 25,000 refugees in London, worshipping in 24 Huguenot temples, twice as many non-conformist as conformist. From the outset, there had been a divide between the Calvinists who followed non-conformist Threadneedle Street, and those who adopted the form of Anglicanism practised at the French Church of the Savoy, which used a French translation of the Anglican liturgy.
Highly-skilled and resourceful, the Huguenots 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 naturalized subjects. Astute financiers, they were quick to embrace new investment opportunities in insurance and banking, where they worked alongside anglicized descendants of the original Walloon refugees who played such a significant role in the formation of the Bank of England in 1694: families such as the Houblons, the Lethieulliers, and the Du Quesnes, influential members of Threadneedle's Street's congregation. Others were consummate craftsmen with much to offer: 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. Many Huguenot craftsmen are known to have settled and worked in Soho, where they enjoyed the patronage of the Court of St James.
Many of the journeymen weavers who settled in Spitalfields and in London's East End had brought little more than their skills when they fled, yet in hard times they and other refugees were able to turn to the self-help institutions for which the Huguenots became well known: notably, close by at Threadneedle Street, the French Church of London organised extensive poor relief, through its deacons.
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 decline of their own places of worship. By 1830, as assimilation increased, most of the temples had either closed or merged with the Mother Church, and by the end of the 19th century only three Huguenot places of worship remained in London. The surviving records of several former temples are preserved in the French Church of London Library, alongside its own manuscripts.
During the Second World War, under the leadership of pastor Frank Christol, chaplain to the Free French Forces, the French Protestant Church of London provided a rallying point for protestant soldiers who had joined General de Gaulle, and in 1942 the 'resistez' badge, incorporating the Huguenot Cross and the Croix de Lorraine, was created as their insignia
Today, with its links to the network of French Reformed Churches in France and worldwide, the Church ministers to a vibrant French Protestant community living in London, as well as to a number of Huguenot descendants. After a successful three-year renovation programme, followed by the Covid-19 closure during which Sunday services continued online, the Mother Church is preparing once more to open its doors.
Further reading: https://www.egliseprotestantelondres.org.uk