Huguenots and Catholics in London’s Soho

SOHO SQUARE IN London’s West End contains two places for Christian worship: St Patricks Church (Roman Catholic); and The French Protestant Church. After Henry VIII came to the throne, life in Britain began to become awkward and sometimes dangerous for Roman Catholics. At around the same time, the same was the case for French Protestants (the Huguenots) across the English Channel in France. Life for the Huguenots was perilous in their native land. For example, in 1545 several hundred Waldensians, people who questioned the truth of the teachings of the Catholic Church, were massacred in Provence, and about ten years before that, more than 35 Lutherans were burnt elsewhere in France. Things got worse for the French Protestants during The Eight Wars of Religion (1562-1598; https://museeprotestant.org/en/notice/the-eight-wars-of-religion-1562-1598/). Even before the war broke out, Huguenots began fleeing to places where Protestantism was either tolerated or encouraged. England was one of these. Under the Tudors, the country became home to Huguenot refugees from France and Holland.

When the Huguenots began arriving in London, that is during the 16th century, the metropolis covered mainly what is now the City of London and areas just east of it such as Spitalfields. So, it was in what is now the City and East End that the Huguenots settled and added significantly to the richness of London life. Fournier Street in Spitalfields is one of several streets where they worked and lived. As the centuries passed, London expanded westwards and what some now call the West End began to be developed. Soho Square was built in the 1670s. As increasing numbers of Protestant refugees arrived in England, some of them settled in the newly developed western parts of London. Writing in his “Huguenot Heritage” Robin D Gwynn noted:


“If Huguenot taste made an impression in the cramped quarters of Spitalfields, it was stamped more deeply on the life of the nation through the work of the refugee settlement in Westminster and Soho. Here was the centre of French fashion, cuisine and high society in England, located conveniently near Court and Parliament.”

The churches used by the Huguenots in London were mainly in Spitalfields before the West End was built. By the 18th century, there about 14 in Westminster and Soho. By the 18th century, there were 31 Huguenot churches and their number increased to such an extent that the Anglican Church began to feel that its churches were becoming outnumbered in London. A version of the Marriage Act that was in force between 1753 and 1856:

“…required marriages other than those of Jews and Quakers to take place in a Church of England church, and led to the demise of some French churches. Some Huguenots of Spitalfields chose Christ Church as their place of worship. It was also the case that Huguenots gradually assimilated and intermarried into English society during the century since their arrival, eliminating the need for separate French churches.” (www.thehistoryoflondon.co.uk/huguenots/2/)

By the latter part of the 19th century:

“Soho was London’s major French neighbourhood and was therefore the obvious setting to build a new church …” (www.egliseprotestantelondres.org.uk/en/heritage/history-2/huguenot-refuge-england/)

The church that was constructed is that which is located on the west side of the northern edge of Soho Square and was completed in 1893. It was designed by Aston Webb (1849-1930), who also designed a façade on the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington.  The ornamental details on the mainly red stone façade were created by William Aumonier (1841-1914), a sculptor with some Huguenot ancestry. A bas-relief in the demi-lune above the main entrance attracted my attention. On the left, there is a depiction of a crowded sailing ship. On the right, there is a man holding a document, which is being signed by a man (a king) holding a quill pen. Both panels are surmounted by angels. The base of the sculpted demi-lune has the following inscription:

“To the glory of God & in grateful memory of HM King Edward VI who by his charter of 1550 granted asylum to the Huguenots of France.”

Edward the Sixth (lived 1537-1553) was only nine years old when he succeeded his father King Henry VIII, yet even at this tender age he was an ardent promoter of Protestantism as the state religion. Following the visits to London by Protestant leaders such as John Laski (Jan Łaski or Johannes à Lasco (1499 – 1560), King Edward VI issued Letters Patent, which permitted the establishment of the (protestant) Dutch and French churches of London. Robin Gwynn wrote that:

“The nature of the letters patent was most unusual. In an age which set great store on stringent religious conformity, they allowed foreigners in London to worship … freed even from the jurisdiction of the Bishop of London.”

A reason that Edward VI might well have sanctioned these foreign Protestant churches was because he hoped that they would be, to quote Gwynn:

“… the model, the blueprint, for a pure, reformed Church of England. The twin refugee churches [i.e. French and Dutch*] offer us a window into the future envisaged by Edward, a future in which there might be superintendents but not bishops.”

Laski had been a superintendent in Emden before he came to England. As such, he:

“… instituted the first example in England of fully-fledged reformed Protestant discipline, based on elected, ordained ‘elders’.”

At the end of Edward’s short reign and his successor Lady Jane Grey’s even shorter one, Queen Mary, a committed Catholic, temporarily put the brakes on the advancement of Protestantism in Britain, and Laski fled to the European mainland with some of his congregation.

The Roman Catholic Church of St Patricks that stands close to the French church was designed by John Kelly (1840-1904) and built between 1891 and 1893 on the site of one of the first Catholic buildings to be allowed in England after the Reformation (which countered Catholicism). It is interesting to note that many of the Catholics who came to London (from, for example Italy and Ireland) over the centuries were economic refugees rather than religious fugitives, as were the Huguenots. 

Despite the passage of time, Soho remains a richly cosmopolitan district of London. Although there are fewer than in than in the past, the area is still home to some fine purveyors of imported foods, notably delicious ingredients from Italy. Back in the 1960s, when I was a child, my mother used to do much our food shopping in these stores as well as in French and Belgian shops, which have long since closed. The disappearance of shops such as these is probably partly a reflection of the migration of members of communities such as the Huguenots out from the centre of town to the suburbs.

*Note: the Dutch Church is currently in Austin Friars in the City. It was first established in 1550.

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