Huguenots of Spitalfields- 11 April 2013
C’est ici lajournee que l’Eternel a faite; Quelle soit pour nous un sujet d’allegresse et de joie.
Psalm CXVIII: 24 the Huguenot chant, the verse with which we began this service; the verse which Francois Rochette, the last minister to be hanged for his faith, sang from the scaffold in 1762. By then of course Huguenots were fully integrated in the life of this country and were making a contribution to the many other lands which offered a refuge. Representatives of those many countries are here as are the community leaders of this hospitable part of London. Our Alderman and Lady Bear; Councillor Ahmed, Speaker and First Citize of Tower hamlets together with Commander Ludgate Deputy Lieutenant for greater London are witnesses to the fact that the Huguenot story is of wide contemporary significance.
The Spitalfields Huguenot Festival focusses on the eighteenth century but integration in England had been going on since 1550 when Edward VI issued a Charter permitting worshippers in so called “Stranger Churches” to use their own rites. The French Protestant Community meeting in the Black Prince’s Chantry in Canterbury Cathedral dates from this time as does the forerunner of the French Church in Soho Sq.
This festival in particular celebrates the immense Huguenot contribution to the cultural and economic life of Spitalfields and the British Isles in general. Every time I enter St Paul’s the ingeniously wrought Tijou gates are a reminder of how much we owe to the Huguenot diaspora. Even in gastronomy they made a difference. The early refugees were so poor that they used the previously discarded ox tails to make soup.
Huguenot regiments fought with the armies of William of Orange as part of a Europe wide coalition [which included the Pope] to curb the ambitions of Louis XIV. Huguenots played a significant role in defeating James II at the Boyne while Roubilliac, Garrick and Roget with his Thesaurus are witnesses to Huguenot contribution to the gentler arts.
The Huguenot part in the foundation of the Bank of England and other financial institutions has in recent years, partly thanks to the work of Robin Gwynne, received more ample recognition. Huguenot hatters from Wandsworth brought off san ironic coup in the early 18th century when they became the principal suppliers of red hats to the cardinals in Rome.
Hats off to those who have organised this festival which enables us to focus on the remarkable silk designer Anna Maria Garthwiate, the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of whose death we observe this year. With the assistance of the V & A [an event so successful and well attended that it seems that it will have to be repeated]; lectures like From Worm to Wardrobe; and the hands-on Big Weave, sponsored by the Weavers’ Company on Saturday in the Market, we shall have a better appreciation of the legacy of the Huguenots of Spitalfields.
With all this in mind, it is perhaps remarkable that to date we have not had any national centre for celebrating and exploring the Huguenot Heritage and this service will benefit not only the Spitalfields Huguenot Art Fund but also the proposed Huguenot Heritage Centre in Rochester. The Centre is planned to open in 2015 and although there is a stiff fund raising target to achieve, the early signs are encouraging and M.Duval the Deputy Governor of the French Hospital [which of course began its life just north of here] will be
able to tell us more.
I spring from the Huguenot diaspora in Ireland from where I have just returned. Two brothers, Guillaume and Alexandre Chartres arrived in
Ireland as soldiers. The family is described in Hague’s France Protestant as “assez repandue, assez mediocre”.
Being a Huguenot has taught me a great deal. I know that like many true born Brits, I am in fact a mongrel. Huguenots gave the word refugee to the English language and experienced the prejudice which nearly always attends the migrant or asylum seeker. The MP for Bristol for example Sir John Knight noting the increase in numbers of refugees after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes inveighed against what he called the “plague and great noise and croaking of the Froglanders”.
Many cultures have believed in one way or another that they could secure stability on the basis of un roi; une foi; une loi. In England all the religious groups who from the 16th century contended for a religious monopoly, Papist, Prelatist and Puritan all failed to achieve dominance and, ‘l.vithout any of them intending it, they laid the foundations for the pluralism that we now enjoy. The religious diversity of this country which was also enriched by the arrival first of Jews and then of members of other faiths ensured that
when a challenge to the political and social order was mounted in 19th century Britain, that challenge was led by people of faith. The Labour party owes more to Methodism than Marxism and the membership of the atheist British Communist Party has at no point equalled the membership of the Lord’s Day Observance Society.
Part of the Huguenot Heritage is to remember that we were once strangers and pilgrims in the land [as the reading from Deuteronomy powerfully declares]. This memory is also a call to demonstrate the generosity to the strangers of our own day which flows from the heart of our faith.
God so loved the world that he was generous and gave himself to us in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ. Huguenots were industrious but also formidably charitable. They have enriched the societies where they settled without losing their identity. When the generosity of God is lively within us then we are equipped to become agents of reconciliation able to take the risks which are always involved.
We live at a time when it is possible, thank God, to rejoice in the election of Pope Francis as Bishop of Rome and to pray for him that he may have a fruitful ministry. The Huguenot story illustrates the cost of intolerance not only to the victims of persecution but to the persecutors themselves. God so loved the world that he was generous and gave himself to us in the person of Jesus. It is the generosity of God that is transforming. It is his love and the gratitude and confidence which it inspires which has brought the Huguenot community through so many trials to make a rich contribution in the places like Spitalfields where they sought refuge.
As St Paul says in the letter to the Christians of Rome, “I am persuaded that neither death nor life shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Jesus Christ our Lord”.
The Rt Revd and Rt Hon Dr Richard Chartres KCVO
132nd Bishop of London