Parliament, the French church and ‘illegal’ worship

Following the recent publication of her edited volume ‘Huguenot Networks, Dr Vivienne Larminie, Senior Research Fellow in the Commons 1640-60 Section, discusses how the Huguenot French church in Westminster offered MPs and peers an opportunity to breach their own legislation during the civil wars and interregnum…

Following the Reformation, the government, discipline, doctrine and worship of the Church of England were defined by parliamentary legislation.  But when the Long Parliament opened in November 1640, there was a widespread perception among MPs and peers that the government of Charles I, the bishops, and in particular William Laud, archbishop of Canterbury, had ignored their jurisdiction and illegally introduced ‘innovations’ which asserted clerical power and introduced quasi-Catholic practices into the church.  As part of measures to address this, Parliament called a synod of clergy to advise them on reform in a more protestant direction – the Westminster Assembly of Divines, set up in 1643.  Among its results were the Westminster Confession, a statement of Calvinist belief which is still influential, and the Westminster catechisms.  Another was the Directory for Public Worship.

Approved in 1645 by both the English and the Scottish Parliaments, the Directory replaced the Book of Common Prayer as the liturgy for church services; the use of the Prayer Book was prohibited.  However, the political and religious landscape was changing rapidly.  After the ending of the first civil war in 1646, and the securing of the king by the New Model army in 1647, the English had less need to placate the Scots.  Some in the Westminster Parliament had learned to dislike Scottish-style Presbyterianism as much as they had the regime of Archbishop Laud; many preferred a church in which the laity and not ministers had the prevailing voice; a significant number hankered after traditional-style services or for toleration of a range of styles, or for both.  Even at the heart of Westminster there is evidence that the new legislation was dead in the water. [For later examples see J. F. Merritt, Westminster 1640–60: A Royal City in a Time of Revolution 23 and passim.]

One congregation which circumvented the law owed its very existence to the sympathy of high-placed parliamentarians.  This was the French-speaking church which met from 1643 at Durham House in the Strand, and from 1653 at Somerset House, where it shared space with the army and with MPs’ lodgings.  Its relations with Parliament, and its significance as a provider of traditional worship across the political spectrum, are examined in Vivienne Larminie’s chapter ‘The Herbert Connection, the French Church and Westminster Politics, 1643–1661’ in the recently-published Larminie ed., Huguenot Networks.

Installed at Durham House thanks to the patronage of Philip Herbert, 4th earl of Pembroke, steward of Westminster, and transferred to Somerset House with the assistance of Bulstrode Whitelocke, commissioner of the great seal, it drew diverse participants. As well as church members and royal physicians Sir Theodore Turquet de Mayerne and Jean Colladon, pastor Jean Despagne attracted to his sermons and catechisings Robert Boyle and John Evelyn the diarist.  Despagne’s widely-admired orthodox Calvinist preaching was enlisted to justify the engagement of Pembroke and his allies in negotiating the (ultimately abortive) treaty of Newport with Charles I in 1648.  It was in the church’s apparent use of a pre-war French translation of the Prayer Book, however, that it breached legislation.  It seemed to do so with the endorsement of no less a person than Speaker of the Commons William Lenthall.  When Despagne – dubbed by one hostile commentator ‘the pope of Somerset’ – died and a replacement was sought in 1659, it was reported that many of the nobility and several MPs were longing for his arrival.

Even after the Restoration the congregation led rather than followed the law.  Even as the Savoy conference of 1661 deliberated on whether to bring back the Prayer Book, the fashionable elite were flocking to the Prayer-Book-using French church, simultaneously meeting in another part of the building.


You can buy Huguenot Networks, 1560–1780 The Interactions and Impact of a Protestant Minority in Europe from Routledge here.

You can read more about the Huguenots and Parliament in Dr Larminie’s earlier blogpost, St Bartholomew and the Huguenots and also from Dr Charles Littleton, French observers of the early eighteenth-century British Parliament’.

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