The asylum seekers who frightened Elizabethan England

Dutch and French Huguenot refugees were the targets of fear and restrictions in 16th-century England – not unlike those who seek asylum in Australia. AAP Image/Jon Faulkner

Would you be pleased to find a nation of such barbarous temper that, breaking out in hideous violence, would not afford you an abode on earth … What would you think to be thus used? This is the strangers’ case, and this your mountainish inhumanity.

Sound familiar? Deeply emotional debates about refugees were rehearsed by none other than William Shakespeare in the 16th century.

Shakespeare made his views known through the voice of Sir Thomas More in his contribution to the jointly-authored play of the same name. He captured the local feelings that had awaited the early Huguenot refugees to London; that is, fear of economic competition and suspicion about the reality of their plight.

London’s Threadneedle Street today. Wikimedia Commons

The refugees Shakespeare was thinking of were French and Dutch Calvinists, members of Protestant minorities persecuted by contemporary Catholic governments in France and the Southern Low Countries. Those asylum seekers were known in England as “aliens” or “strangers”.

My research examines the French Huguenot community of Threadneedle Street, the oldest of the French-speaking communities established in London. Established in 1550, disbanded during Mary’s reign and re-forming in 1559 after Elizabeth ascended the throne, the church provided an important support network for strangers to the city.

Acceptance without integration

It was Edward VI, who died in 1553, who first permitted the settlement of Protestant asylum seekers at a time when persecutions were being widely documented across Europe.

Elizabeth I, who took the throne in 1558, declined to ratify Edward’s position formally, leaving newly-arrived migrants with ambiguous legal status.

An early 16th-century portrait, by an unknown artist, of Elizabeth I in coronation robes. Wikimedia Commons

Refugees had to settle in designated towns, worship in their own churches, and provide for the poor and sick in their own congregations. Restrictions were placed on their ability to meet and mix with the local population, leaving refugees largely ghettoised.

The fears of the local population about the alien presence in London made the Church determined to demonstrate the exemplary behaviour of their congregation. Elders clamped down on a wide range of disciplinary offences – from quarrels and fighting, drunken, immoral and blasphemous behaviour, marital squabbles and adultery, to irregular betrothals and marriages.

The accounts also list punishments for migrants who tried to establish forbidden social and emotional connections with locals.

Economic restrictions

The exceptional events of 1572, with the bloody St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in August, saw a new influx of refugees from France.

The St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre by Francois Dubois (c 1572-84). Wikimedia Commons

Initial feelings of solidarity and sympathy soon gave way to suspicions that the more recent waves of arrival did not seek refuge from dictatorial regimes but actually better livelihoods. By the 1580s, further harsh social, legal, working and taxation conditions were placed upon the community to prevent them from taking jobs over local workers or displacing local industries.

Reading the Church accounts reveals their struggles to survive in this harsh environment, particularly for any who fell ill or were sending a portion of their meagre funds back to relatives.

Most were men with working prospects, who were sent first to establish economic security for families left behind. Surviving letters show the pressure men were under from those back home to provide extra income and support placements for other friends and family, who imagined the situation far more favourable for religious refugees in England than it actually was.

Internal community support

By the terms of their establishment, the Huguenots were required to provide entirely for their own poor.

Many of those who now received its assistance had not been poor in their homelands and were exposed to the stark realities of pauper relief as recipients for the first time.

The facade of a former London Huguenot church on Fournier Street, Spitalfields. amandabhslater

In November 1565, Nicholas le Roy, asked for help in the name of “his daughter Ezabeau and her husband, newly come from Metz and as poor as Job, begging the church to give them some assistance for he could not.” It was “decided to give them some silver tissue in the name of the church to make buttons, which is their trade”.

The Church kept an eye on families divided on either side of the channel.

In May 1577, a man named Jehan Prouvost came before the consistory when the elders discovered that his wife had been obliged “in great poverty and misery” to enter the charity hospital in Rouen. The elders were annoyed; they felt Prouvost “ought to have summoned his wife or at least written and sent her some money”.

The Church also assisted in fund-raising campaigns to support Protestant refugee camps on the continent, reporting to the congregation, for example, on “the extreme necessity of the great number of poor people taking refuge at Wesel”.

Funds were collected at the church door, services and in testaments and bequests but more innovative strategies than careful accounting were needed to raise enough funds. Calvin had said that money could be lent out for interest in special circumstances so, on November 1 1565, the elders decided they would do so.

Only in desperation did the Church turn to the English for help.

The new wave of French immigrants created intense pressure on its charity. The Bishop of London gave a generous donation because of the rise in “French refugees in this country since the last troubles and massacres of France”. The Queen allowed the poor of the community to open their workshops, exceptionally, through the winter of 1572.

Success?

Historians have looked favourably upon the refugee churches in England, praising their charitable organisation as a model the English would later follow.

A portrait of Sir Thomas More by Hans Holbein the Younger. Wikimedia Commons

By the 17th century, the new skills and networks that the immigrants had brought were recognised, including in weaving and luxury trades such as gold-smithing and silk-working. The Protestant Elector of Brandenburg even sought Huguenots to settle in his German territories in part because of the economic and technological benefits they could bring.

It was by no means plain sailing but Shakespeare lived to see emerging recognition of the benefits and broader integration of Huguenots.

For a time, the playwright even lodged in London with a Huguenot family. His Thomas More compelled Londoners to charity, asking them to place themselves in the shoes of those “wretched” strangers who asked for their assistance.

On those initial periods of fear, suspicion and inhumanity towards refugees, Shakespeare looked back with revulsion.

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