Immigrants and refugees at Westminster: the foreign ancestry of mid-17th century MPs

With refugee crises and immigration back in the news, Dr Vivienne Larminie, assistant editor of our Commons 1640-1660 section, considers how these issues impacted on the character of the House of Commons nearly 400 years ago…

Business involving immigrants and refugees was not uncommon in mid-seventeenth century Parliaments. Petitions for naturalization, the trading rights of ‘stranger’ merchants, provision for destitute fugitives arriving in England and sending relief for those fleeing atrocity abroad – all received attention during this period. As noted in a previous post, a significant proportion of MPs had had experience of education and travel abroad, giving them international perspectives with which to approach such issues. Others had overseas commercial interests. But in addition to that, a number of MPs were of fairly recent immigrant descent, some had married foreign wives, and a few were foreign-born.

In the second category, for instance, was William Gibbs, goldsmith and MP for Suffolk, who had been married at the French Church, Threadneedle Street, to Fleurie, daughter of a man from Rouen and widow of a man from Lyon. In the last category was Westminster resident William Wheler, whose English father had traded partly from Middleburg in Zeeland and who had a Dutch brother-in-law. First elected to Parliament in the autumn of 1640 to sit for Westbury in Wiltshire, William had been naturalized only the previous year, at the age of about 39. The pronounced piety revealed in his membership of the vestry of St Margaret, Westminster, and his tireless activity on religious matters in the Commons evidently owed a good deal to his upbringing in the Netherlands.

Tympanum of the French Protestant Church of London, depicting the granting of its foundation charter by Edward VI in 1550 (1950)

In contrast, there were a few MPs who had left their origins far behind. Sir Martin Lumley, elected to sit for Essex in 1641, was a great-grandson of Domingo Lomelyne, who had left the port of Genoa to become a jester at the court of Henry VIII. As the family anglicised their name and prospered, Sir Martin’s father had been a member of the high-status Drapers’ Company and served as lord mayor of London in 1623-4, while the future MP himself moved further up the social scale, becoming a country gentleman. But there was, even here, a faint evocation of his roots when in 1642 he became briefly a member of the Commons Committee of the Navy and Customs when it discussed the supply of timber for shipbuilding. Meanwhile the family of Stephen Phesant, twice Member for Huntingdonshire in the 1650s, had arrived in London from Venice at about the same time as Lomelyne, but took a different path to success. Like the Caesar clan, from nearby Treviso and Padua, they established themselves as a dynasty of lawyers, accustoming themselves to a very different legal system (common law) to the one they had left behind (civil law).

For these migrant families, the primary motivation was probably the search for employment or pursuit of mercantile opportunities, but for many the trigger was flight from religious persecution, even if economic considerations were not entirely absent. The most common foreign ancestors of MPs at this period were Protestant refugees – Flemings and Walloons from the Habsburg-ruled southern Netherlands (now Belgium) and other Huguenots escaping the religious civil wars that blighted later sixteenth century France.

Often, as with Lumley, such ancestry was obscured by a very English-sounding surname. Thus, Cornish brothers Piers Edgcumbe and Richard Edgcumbe were grandsons of Sir Thomas Coteel, born in Antwerp, and his wife, born in Augsburg [see also Thomas Coteel]; William James’s grandfathers were Roger van Haestracht from Cleve, near Utrecht, and Henry Kule from Bremen; Joachim Matthews’ paternal grandfather was burgomaster of Helven in the duchy of Brabant. Meanwhile, Abraham Johnson was the son of Anne Verake of Bailleul in Flanders and a saymaker of Colchester, where many refugees had brought their skills to the local cloth trade, and future royalist Henry Killigrew was the son of a Cornish diplomat and Jaél de Peigne, a Frenchwoman naturalised in 1601 and a patron of internationally renowned Huguenot refugee scholar Isaac Casaubon. Others’ foreign origins were in plain sight. If the parentage of Southwark dyer and MP Peter De Lannoy is sometimes obscured in the record under the spelling Delaney, appreciation of his quarter of London soon corrects that, and there is no mistaking the antecedents of Sir John Wittewronge. Baptized at the Dutch church, Austin Friars in 1618, his parents were a brewer from Ghent and the daughter of a merchant from Antwerp and Rotterdam. Nearly fifty years later Wittewronge wrote down for the benefit of their descendants a dramatic story of their escape from religious persecution, emigration to England and worldly success in their new country.

The Dutch Church, Austin Friars, London, c.1825

Such origins are to be found not just among the more self-effacing MPs. Regicide John Barkstead was the son of a London goldsmith whose family had come from Germany via Staffordshire. The maternal grandfather of Michael Oldisworth, who was right-hand man to Philip Herbert, 4th earl of Pembroke, an attentive father-in-law to another regicide, Edmund Ludlowe, and an influential figure in the later 1640s and early 1650s, was an Antwerp-born merchant. The family of Samuel Vassall, a stalwart of the Commons’ executive committees in the 1640s, were Huguenots who had fled Normandy.

Perhaps most intriguing are the roots of the most prolific diarist of – and vital source for the proceedings of – the Long Parliament, Sir Simonds D’Ewes. His great-grandfather Adrian D’Ewes was a religious refugee from the Netherlands who died in England in 1551 apparently without ever being naturalized – a disconcerting fact established by Simonds after exhaustive search. The latter’s antiquarian interests, his fascination with the Protestant Dutch and his puritanism, nurtured by this and by native East Anglian piety, shaped his view of contemporary politics and his contribution to Parliament.


Biographies or further biographies of John Barkstead, Peter De Lannoy, Sir Simonds D’Ewes, Piers Edgcumbe, Richard Edgcumbe, William Gibbs, William James, Abraham Johnson, Henry Killigrew, Sir Martin Lumley, Joachim Matthews, Michael Oldisworth, Stephen Phesant, Samuel Vassall and Sir John Wittewronge are being prepared by the Commons 1640-1660 project.

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