The Stranger Churches and their Link with Scotland

Morvern French
Friday 10 April 2015

This post explores, following the Reformation, the many connections between Scotland and the Low Countries via networks of Flemish exiles in England. It examines the topic from the perspective of the refugees in England and the sources they left us. In London, as well as in certain other English towns, thousands of refugees from France and the Low Countries flocked together in exile communities in the second half of the 16th century. Edward VI first granted a charter, which Elizabeth I renewed, that protected and privileged the Reformed churches around which their communities grew. Here Silke Muylaert draws on her own research on the London Stranger Churches to provide examples of the connections between Scotland, the English exile churches, and the Continent.

Flemish Emigration

The success of Protestantism led to significant persecutions in many regions in Europe and set in motion large migratory streams from the sixteenth century onwards. In the Low Countries too problems arose between citizens with Protestant opinions and a government under the rule of the Catholic kings Charles V and Philip II of Spain. This was especially the case in Flanders, perhaps due to its proximity to France and its trading links with Antwerp, a city in the Low Countries which formed a cross road for ideas, books, and trade in Europe. Initially these refugees went into exile to reside in some of the large Protestant cities such as Geneva or Zürich, but they also found an ally in the English King Edward VI. In 1550 he established London as a place of refuge for Calvinists from the Low Countries and France by giving them a chance to gather and celebrate their beliefs in their own language and according to their own customs, in the so-called Stranger Churches. Yet in 1553 Edward died and his Catholic sister Mary ascended the throne. She ordered the Protestant immigrants to leave the country, but she too died after a short reign, namely in 1558.

In January 1559 the influential Protestant theologian Petrus Martyr Vermigli proclaimed his happiness about the accession of Elizabeth to the English throne in a letter to Johannes Utenhove, a Flemish aristocrat and leading figure in the formation of the Reformed Stranger Churches in England. Elizabeth’s accession incited Martyr’s hope that she would continue her half-brother Edward VI’s diligence in reforming the English Church and denounce Catholicism. Being optimistic about Elizabeth’s intentions concerning religion, Martyr decided to dedicate one of his forthcoming books to her.[1] Elizabeth indeed allowed the re-establishment of the Stranger Churches in England in 1560 and thus Protestant immigrants soon flocked to England again. The churches initially served as outposts of Continental Reformation movements in London.[2] The consistories, which made up the organisational committee of the churches, constructed links between England and the Continental Calvinists, but also formed part of a network with Scottish Protestants, as we will see.

These outposts soon came to be a popular place for refugees from the Low Countries to settle in. In the Low Countries any form of Protestantism was still illegal in 1559, yet in the same year there was speculation on whether or not Philip II of Spain would establish religious freedom in the Low Countries. In the same letter Martyr reported rumours that Philip had announced that ‘nobody shall suffer death for the sake of religion’ at Valladolid and that the same would shortly be proclaimed in Flanders.[3] Such a declaration promised a halt to the persecution of religious dissenters and to their migration to more tolerant countries such as England. However this optimistic promise was to be unfulfilled, since religious tolerance was not generally proclaimed in the Low Countries. Instead, the persecution of religious dissenters turned thousands of refugees towards the English Stranger Churches and some towards Scotland. Hard evidence relating to religious migration to Scotland is difficult to find but the sources of English refugee churches do shed some light on the issue. The Stranger Churches consisted of a Dutch or Flemish church, a French or Walloon church, and an Italian church. Several smaller communities found a residence in smaller towns such as Rye (French/Walloon), Sandwich (Flemish), Maidstone (Flemish), Canterbury (Walloon), Norwich (Flemish and Walloon), Southampton (French), and Colchester (Dutch).

The exile churches in England consisted of a few influential figures who developed a network, through an exchange of letters, with Calvinists on the Continent. They maintained regular contacts with Reformed scholars or immigrants in Scotland too and tried to form a Flemish church in Scotland. In this way they formed a link in an information chain with the Continent. Although some Flemish and Walloon Protestants travelled from London and perhaps Norwich to settle in Scotland, this stream of migration remained small.[4] Yet there seems to have been regular contact between refugees from the Low Countries in England and Scotland. One clear example is found in the consistory records of the Walloon Church of Canterbury in 1577. This example indicates that the Scottish churches had sent money to London for the ‘needful’ refugees in England. It is not clear if this money came from the Kirk of Scotland in general or from a sub-set of them. The congregation at Canterbury received the large sum of ten pounds.[5] In the London Dutch Church’s letter collection we find regular mention of Scotland and its Reformation through the letters of Continental Calvinists writing to Flemish refugees in London.

The Archives of the Dutch Church in London

The London Dutch Church’s Archives provide a source of information on the Scottish Reformation and Flemish migration to Scotland. Dutch in this case stands for the Dutch-speaking part of the Low Countries, yet the church is also often called Flemish.[6]

The Dutch church’s letter collection sheds some light on the migration of Flemish Calvinists from England to Scotland. That there was a movement of Flemish migrants between Edinburgh and London is shown through the warm welcome which the London Dutch Church appears to have given to a Flemish ambassador in Edinburgh and the recurrent theme of travelling between both places in his letter. This Flemish Calvinist, and ambassador of the Dutch States General to the Court of James VI and I, Hadrianus Damman, visited London and the Stranger Churches in 1605, but presumably had also done so earlier. Although it is not clear what the occasion for his visit was, he did write about his departure back to Edinburgh from the London Dutch Church, which he himself calls the Flemish church. He recommended his daughter to the church and maintained networks between the Flemish in Edinburgh and in London.[7]

It is well known that entrepreneurs and governmental authorities regularly attempted to lure Flemish and Walloon weavers and other craftsmen to Scotland and England throughout the later Middle Ages and the Tudor times, but authorities in England also instigated the migration of Netherlands’ Calvinists indirectly from England to Scotland regularly. In these letters we also find evidence that clearly points out the role of the Stranger Church in England in influencing the migration from Flanders to Scotland. Thus some push factors for Flemish migration to Scotland came from within England. In 1586 Francis Walsingham, secretary to Elizabeth, sent a letter to the Stranger Churches asking them to accomplish several things, one of which was to establish a community in Scotland.[8] Even before that, in 1561, there is evidence that the Dutch Church considered sending Flemish weavers from England and Flanders to Scotland.[9] Moreover, throughout the first two decades of Elizabeth’s reign migrants came to London in large groups. One of the reasons why the first exile communities outside London were established was because of the perceived necessity of the dispersion of these migrants throughout the country to avoid the danger of xenophobic mobs.[10] The earliest settlement after London was the one in Sandwich, where by 1565 one third of the population was Flemish, with a minority of Walloons and other inhabitants of the Low Countries.[11] Hence one reason for Walsingham’s demand to establish a community in Scotland was to foster the spread of both religious ideas and people.

There was also a large pull for Flemish and Walloon immigration coming from Scotland. Again the role that the Stranger Churches played in fostering this migration stream is noteworthy. In 1603 James I declared in a letter to the London Stranger Churches that he had formerly attempted to draw the Reformed migrants to Scotland but failed in doing so because of geographical difficulties.[12] In that respect London was well-located to serve as a staging point via which migrants who initially settled in England would more easily be able to travel to Scotland. We do not know which attempt James himself was referring to in this letter from 1603, but it is likely that he was thinking of the endeavour to bring Flemish and Walloon weavers and looms from Norwich to Edinburgh in 1601 by some citizens. Moens believes that the commissioners of the Royal Burghs of Scotland contacted the Norwich communities with the hope of introducing their weaving techniques and looms into Scotland. This attempt was not entirely successful as, according to Moens, most masters were very protective of the secrets of their crafts, yet a few journeymen took advantage of the opportunity.[13]

Throughout Elizabeth’s reign there were regular attempts to attract Flemish migrants, especially those who could offer new skills and bring economic advantages. Another example of the Scottish pursuit of Flemish weavers through the London Stranger Churches which is documented in the Dutch Church’s letter collection is very explicit about the Scottish aims and London’s involvement. In 1586 a certain Gualterus Balcanquellus wrote to the Dutch Church in London about bringing ‘Belgian’ weavers over to Scotland.[14] He explicitly mentions that one Edinburgh citizen thought of sending a servant to ‘Belgium’ in an effort to induce the weavers to settle in Scotland. The name Belgium already existed to denominate the area of the Low Countries. Yet Gualterus, afraid of ‘importing’ ‘papist or wicked persons’, rather advised this citizen to contact the London Dutch Church to select some of its members, or refugees from other exile centres in England, to migrate to Scotland.[15]

A second aspect characteristic of references to Scotland in the archival sources of the London Dutch Church is their interest in the development of the Scottish Reformation. Protestants on the Continent were very keen to hear news about the Reformation in Scotland and regularly asked the Stranger Churches to keep them informed. Theodore Beza, a disciple of Calvin and influential scholar in his own right, showed a particular interest in Scotland in the 1580s. He regularly wrote to representatives of the French churches in order to keep himself updated about affairs in England and Scotland, and to send his regards to Walsingham and a few Scotsmen who he does not call by name.[16] Similarly Henry Bullinger kept in touch from Zürich with Jan Utenhove about the affairs in Scotland as early as 1559, around the time of the resettlement of the Stranger Churches.[17] He was presumably looking for more outposts for Swiss Calvinism. Some of the English clergy had been in exile in Switzerland during the reign of Mary and a few of the strangers such as Utenhove and Micronius held Swiss Calvinist views. The same Utenhove also received letters from the Peter Martyr, as mentioned before. The latter talked about his happiness on the preaching of the Gospel and the public administration of the Sacraments in Scotland, notwithstanding its illegality. According to him, this was the will of the people and these people were slowly turning rebellious against the Catholic Queen Regent, perhaps seeking to unite with England.[18] These mentions do not only indicate an interest in Scotland from the side of the Protestant movement on the Continent, but also show the importance of the London Stranger Churches as a link with Scotland for the circulation of news.

Trade links between Scotland and the Low Countries were important during the 16th century. There are no specific references to this in the letter collection, however we can assume that trading connections stimulated marriages, migration, and cultural exchange between Scotland and Flanders. In 1576 the consistory of the Reformed Church of Veere in the Northern Netherlands wrote to the London Dutch Church concerning the marriage of a woman from their congregation to a Scotsman who had previously resided in London. The letter was seeking information about his conduct in the city and the rumour that he still had a wife there.[19] The networks established by the wool trade encouraged migration to Scotland. It is thus not surprising that according to Hallen many Flemish came to Scotland via Veere, the staple market for Scottish wool.[20] Hallen rightfully asserts that although evidence is sparse, it seems clear that there was a relatively large presence of Flemish and Walloon Calvinist and Anabaptists in Scotland in the 16th century, which would decline in the following centuries.[21]

The extracts springing from the London Dutch Church’s archival material discussed above demonstrate that Scotland, England and Flanders were connected through networks of refugees. The material aids in the understanding of relations between the Scottish Reformation and the Continent’s Calvinist movements. Moreover these sources provide new information and a different lens through which to investigate Flemish migration to Scotland in the Elizabethan period and the early reign of James I. The presence of Flemish and Walloon migrant communities in England, and especially the ones in London, led to them functioning as gateways for negotiation, migration, and the exchange of information between Flanders and Scotland.

Silke Muylaert
April 2015

Silke Muylaert is currently undertaking a PhD at the University of Kent on the topic of the Elizabethan exile communities and their connections to the Dutch Revolt. Coming originally from Ghent University in Flanders, she has found the topic of Flemish migration into England and Scotland in both the medieval and the early modern periods an intriguing field for research.


[1] Petrus Martyr (Vermigli) to Johannes Utenhovius, (Zurich, 7 Jan., 1559), published in Johannes H. Hessels (ed.), Ecclesiae Londino-Batavae Archivum. Tomus Secundus. Epistulae et tractatus cum reformationis tum ecclesiae Londino-Batavae historiam illustrantes (1544-1622). Ex autographis mandante ecclesia Londino-Batava (Cambridge, 1889), pp. 107-109.
[2] Edward VI first formally established these by granting the Reformed strangers in London a royal charter in 1550. See Andrew Pettegree, Foreign Protestant Communities in Sixteenth-Century London (Oxford, 1986), pp. 23-45.
[3] Petrus Martyr (Vermigli) to Johannes Utenhovius, (Zürich, 7 Jan. 1559), published in Ecclesiae Londino-Batavae Archivum. Tomus Secundus, pp. 107-109.
[4] See David Dobson’s blogpost ‘Flemish Migration to Scotland in the Early Modern Period – Preliminary Research Findings’ from 17 January 2014 on this website.
[5] CCA U47/A1, fol. 49.
[6] More about the terms ‘Dutch’ and ‘Flemish’ and their use can be found in Alastair Duke, ‘The elusive Netherlands. The Question of National Identity in the Early Modern Low Countries on the eve of the Revolt’, in Alastair Duke, Judith Pollman and Andrew Spicer (eds.), Dissident identities in the Early Modern Low Countries (Ashgate, 2009), pp. 10-39.
[7] Johannes H. Hessels (ed.), Ecclesiae Londino-Batavae Archivum. Tomi Tertii Pars Prima. Epistulae et Tractatus cum Reformationis tum Ecclesiae Londino-Batavae Historiam Illustrantes, ex autographis mandante ecclesia Londino-Batava (Cambridge, 1897), pp. 1157-1158.
[8] Ecclesiae Londino-Batavae Archivum. Tomus Secundus, pp. 794-796.
[9] Aart A. van Schelven (ed.), Kerkeraads-protocollen der Nederduitsche vluchtelingen-kerk te London. 1560-1563 (Amsterdam, 1921), p. 237.
[10] Lionel Williams, ‘The crown and the provincial immigrant communities in Elizabethan England’, in Harry Hearder and Henry Royston (eds.), British government and administration. Studies presented to S.B. Chrimes (Cardiff, 1974), pp. 117-131 (pp. 118-122).
[11] Marcel Backhouse, The Flemish and Walloon communities at Sandwich during the Reign of Elizabeth I (1561-1603) (Wetteren, 1995), p. 32.
[12] Ecclesiae Londino-Batavae Archivum. Tomus Secundus, pp. 922-923.
[13] William J.C. Moens, The Walloons and their church at Norwich, 1565-1832 (Lymington: Proceedings of the Huguenot Society of London, 1888), p. 85.
[14] His identity is uncertain. Perhaps he is the father of another Walter (=Gualterus) Balcanquell, who was a Scottish clergyman and royal chaplain to James I. He is the only namesake that I could identify which might be related to him, via Clergy of the Church of England database (CCEd), ‘Balcanquall, Walter’, [last accessed 31/03/2015].
[15] Ecclesiae Londino-Batavae Archivum. Tomus Secundus, pp. 841-842.
[16] Ibid., pp. 771-772.
[17] Ibid., pp. 113-115.
[18] Ibid., pp. 88-89, 107-109.
[19] Ecclesiae Londino-Batavae Archivum. Tomi Tertii Pars Prima, pp. 268-269.
[20] A. W. Cornelius Hallen, ‘Huguenots in Scotland’, Proceedings of the Huguenot Society of London 2 (1887-1888), 166-181 (p. 174).
[21] Ibid., p. 169.

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