Religion, relief and the ‘slaughtered saints’: foreign aid in the seventeenth century

As modern-day discussions on how best to help nations across the world fight the COVID-19 pandemic continue, in today’s blog Dr Vivienne Larminie from our Commons 1640-1660 project looks into the notion of foreign aid in the 17th century. When, in 1655, a Protestant group faced religious persecution in Europe, the government rushed to their aid…

‘Avenge, o Lord, thy slaughtered saints/ Whose bones lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold.’ 

Thus in 1655 a secretary in the administration of Protector Oliver Cromwell registered a visceral reaction to news of a far-away atrocity. Keepers of the Gospel ‘truth so pure of old’, had been ‘martyred’ for their adherence to an early form of Protestantism, ‘slain by the bloody Piedmontese, that rolled/ Mother with infant down the rocks’.

The Alps in the Piedmont region of Italy, photograph by Cristian Giordano

The victims of this Easter massacre were Waldensians (sometimes known as Vaudois), members of a long-established community in the mountainous region on the borders of present-day Italy and France. Ignoring an ultimatum to convert to Catholicism issued in January by the duke of Savoy, they had braved winter conditions to abandon their land on the lower slopes and move to the upper valleys for safety. But on the pretext of quelling uprisings, the duke sent in his troops. On 24 April [14 April English style] they unleashed horrific and deadly violence in the range of forms still all too familiar round the world. The lowest estimate of numbers who died is about 1,700; destitute survivors initially sought refuge in Switzerland.

John Milton; William Faithorne; Burton Constable Hall via Art UK

John Milton, author of the sonnet quoted above, urged God to ‘Forget not’. Thanks to networks of friendship and correspondence between co-religionists, news spread quickly to the European Protestant powers. Cromwell’s cousin, Oliver Fleming, a former ambassador to the Swiss Confederation and Jean-Baptiste Stouppe, one-time pastor of a French congregation in England and a protectorate agent on the continent, were among those who ensured it gained coverage in England. Someone – perhaps Fleming – arranged for the printing of a previously unpublished treatise by Sir Isaac Wake, a former ambassador to Savoy, Of the Thirteen Cantons of the Helveticall League, which explained the fragile balance of power in the region and the dangers faced by Protestants. On 25 May Cromwell announced a national fast on 14 June in solidarity with ‘the poor inhabitants of the valleys’, requesting that on that day ministers in the parishes would ‘stir up the People to a free and liberal collection for their relief’. By 11 July the council of state Committee on the Protestants in Piedmont reported that £10,000 was ready to be sent to the Swiss Protestant cantons for distribution to refugees. By 24 July the sum quoted was £15,000 and it continued to rise.

The concept of sending some kind of government-sanctioned assistance to the victims of catastrophe abroad was not new. Nor were the administrative problems which emerged, nor the potential for controversy at home such as still attends foreign aid. In the early modern period there were domestic problems aplenty, which absorbed much parliamentary time and which had the potential to cause alarming discontent if not addressed. Perennial issues of poverty, debt, unemployment and plague were exacerbated by economic fluctuations, such as the trade depression of the 1620s. In 1641 there were needy refugees from the Irish rebellion. In the next two decades there was the fall-out from civil war – destruction of property, demobilised troops, sick and maimed ex-combatants, widows and more orphans – as well as a series of serious town fires and other local calamities.

Periodically, however, crises on the European continent captured the imagination of politicians and the wider public, resulting in rousing speeches in Parliament. In 1621, for instance, the Commons debated financing a military expedition for the relief for the Palatinate, the Protestant territory on the Rhine ruled by James I’s son-in-law Elector Frederick, overrun by forces of the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor. That November John Pym and John Wylde, both to be notable later in the Long Parliament, and Thomas Wentworth, later to be lord deputy in Ireland, highlighted ‘the misery of the king’s children’ and the need for ‘present aid’. Money was to be raised to pay for mercenaries, but William Towerson I, an international trader and former warden of the Skinners’ Company, pointed to a fundamental snag in action at a distance – the ‘great difficulty for the conveying this money by bills of exchange, which cannot be less than two months’ time’ [Journal of the House of Commons, i. 647-9]. In the event, collections were made then and later for the cause of ‘the Palatines’ and their numerous family, but the Palatinate was not recovered. 

More than thirty years later, in the midst of unparalleled political flux at home, the Waldensian cause both tugged at the heartstrings and produced a generous response – even if it was ultimately too little and too late. On Christmas Day 1655 Samuel Morland, an English resident in the republic of Geneva, reported that £5,000, a portion of relief funds which he had received from a member of international Huguenot banking family of Calandrini, had safely reached Grenoble, ready to be sent on. But by this time the Swiss Confederation was riven by religious civil war. An uncomprehending Morland expressed his frustration; the Swiss Protestants felt misunderstood and unsupported.

Statue of Oliver Cromwell on the Reformation Monument at Geneva, which commemorates innumerable strands of Protestantism and implies international solidarity; image from Vivienne Larminie

In a speech to Parliament on 25 January 1658, Cromwell referred approvingly to ‘the money that you parted with in that noble charity that was exercised in this nation, and the just sense you had of those poor Piedmonts’ [Diary of Thomas Burton, vol. 2, 346-71]. Morland kept the flame alive by his The History of the Evangelical Churches of the Valleys of Piemont (1658). There were ongoing problems with administering the money, however. The 1659 Parliament and the returned Long Parliament in 1660 both heard that thousands of pounds remained in the hands of the treasurers for the relief collected for the ‘distressed Protestants in Piedmont and [now also] in Poland’. Additionally, in October 1659 there remained ‘unapplied for the use for which it was contributed’ a further £9,450. The matter resurfaced at Westminster after the Restoration, and in the nineteenth century was to inspire the establishment of an English Committee in Aid of the Waldensian Church Missions, which is still active.


Further reading

Journals of the House of Commons, vols. 1-8

A Collection of the State Papers of John Thurloe, ed. T. Birch (1742), esp. vols. 2 and 3

The Diary of Thomas Burton, ed. J. T. Rutt (4 vols. 1828)

For context: Vivienne Larminie, ‘Anglo-Swiss relations in the seventeenth century’ in Britain and its Neighbours: cultural contacts and exchanges in medieval and early modern Europe, ed. D.H. Steinforth and C.C. Rozier (Routledge, 2021)

Further biographies of Oliver Cromwell, John Pym and John Wylde are being prepared by the Commons 1640-1660 project.

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