England’s Immigrants 1330 – 1550 Resident Aliens in the Late Middle Ages

A Stranger Church at Glastonbury, 1551-1553

On 31 December 1551 one Walerandus Pollanus, or Valérand Poullain as he was known in his native Lille, was granted letters of denization for life along with a fiat to grant the same to another sixty-eight named individuals.  These men, along with their wives and children not named in the document, formed a so-called stranger church at Glastonbury, one of several communities of Protestants who had come to England fleeing Catholic persecutions on the continent in the reign of the Protestant King Edward VI.  The records of Poullain’s community can offer us a fascinating glimpse of how and why these small communities of migrants were formed, along with some of the problems they faced both through local hostility or opportunism and through unforeseen chance.

Poullain’s own career as Protestant theologian and church leader is well documented.  Born in Lille around 1509 he graduated from the University of Louvain in 1531 and in the 1540s was a prominent figure in the Calvinist church in Strasbourg.  With rising Catholic persecution across Europe in the 1540s Poullain became one of a group of prominent foreign reform theologians who were either enticed to England or sought safe haven in the kingdom.  Alongside the likes of Martin Bucer, John a Lasco and Peter Martyr, Poullain found a welcoming friend in Thomas Cranmer, Henry VIII’s and later Edward VI’s committed reforming Archbishop of Canterbury.  Thanks to the recommendation of the theologian Peter Martyr, whom Cranmer had made Regius Professor at Oxford the previous year, Poullain secured a position as tutor to the son of the Earl of Derby.  It was either this position, with its important connections to the upper echelons of England’s Protestant nobility, or the recommendation of fellow Dutch exile Jan Utenhove which brought Poullain to the attention of the Lord Protector, Edward Seymour Duke of Somerset, one of the most powerful men in England.

Through Somerset Poullain was appointed the superintendent of the fledgling Glastonbury community, a post which combined the roles of mayor and minister to the small congregation.  In this role Poullain not only cared for the physical and administrative needs of the congregation but also, on the model of John Calvin, devised his own liturgy.  It is a mark of the respect felt for the refugee theologians and for Poullain personally that his church was allowed to use this liturgy instead of Cranmer’s own from the 1549 Book of Common Prayer.

‘godly and honest folk, ready to teach their crafts’
It is hard to tell what the original purpose of the Glastonbury community was.  Poullain had a history of working to spread the Calvinist word from his days in Strasbourg from where he had dispatched preachers and disseminated books around the Low Countries, and a letter he wrote to Calvin while head of the Glastonbury community asked Calvin to write letters of encouragement to his ‘little congregation’ which ‘holds to the faith in great patience even now, and is steadfast to the uttermost in the fear of the Lord’.  For the devoutly Reforming Cranmer too, the stranger churches and their esteemed refugee theologians were an opportunity for ‘setting forth in our churches the true doctrine of God … to transmit to posterity a true and explicit form of doctrine agreeable to the rule of the sacred writings’.

On the other hand, Somerset’s reasons for establishing the Glastonbury community were distinctly worldly.  As he wrote in an apparent copy of his original promises to Poullain, ‘no greater benefit can be conferred on any people than the introduction of crafts, of which none is more useful than weaving’.  The Glastonbury settlers were almost entirely weavers, specifically weavers of worsted cloth.  This technique, while common in the Low Countries, was little known in England and could offer substantial rewards to the man who controlled the supply; and by insisting on priority trading with the new community, Somerset could effectively control that supply.  The reports of commissioners on the community’s development also made great play of how far the weavers were ‘godly and honest folk, ready to teach their crafts and likely soon to bring great commodity to those parts’, having already taught several local women to weave their signature cloth by January 1552.

The Duke of Somerset’s initial promises to Poullain envisaged a minimum of fourteen families being brought to England, specifying two dyers, two carpenters and six carders, but allowing for as many weavers as were willing to come.  In his letter to the Privy Council on 11 December 1551 Poullain said that the church then included thirty families, and one month later this figure had risen to thirty-four families in residence with another ten making their way from the continent, along with the addition of six widows.  This seems to have been the height of the community’s size, with all forty-four families and the widows present by 3 March 1552.  What we see here is a community outstripping what Somerset and Poullain anticipated, with weavers bringing their families substantial distances and at what Poullain’s letters tell us was great expense, in order to start a new life in England.

Looking at the names of the men listed in the letter of denization from the end of December 1551 we can reach a few conclusions about these otherwise little-recorded families.  Most of the surnames, where they can be associated with places of origin, suggest a French-Walloon background.  Nicholas and John Boullogne were most likely affiliated with Boulogne in northern France, Gobertus de Sirault with Sirault now in south-west Belgium, Francis Ligeois with Liege, and Nicholas du Biez with Biez in modern-day Belgium.  French surnames such as Lardenoys (also Lardinois), du Puys, du Haultoy and Roux also suggest a northern French or Walloon origin for most of the listed individuals.

In addition to this, several of the listed men were evidently related: Nicholas and John Boullogne, Simon le Febure the elder, the younger and Nicholas le Febure, Quintin and Oliver Paulus, and two John Vermeills.  This document therefore offers a rare glimpse not just into the origins of some of the estimated 50,000 Protestant refugees entering England in the sixteenth century but also the way in which they migrated; extended families travelling together, most likely pooling resources to pay for the journey and living closely together once they reached their destination.  The intriguing lack of reference to many children in the surviving documents, where unnamed wives were frequently mentioned, could suggest that many of the migrant weavers were young married couples, migrating before they had many children to support.

Unfortunately for the weavers, but fortunately for the modern historian, the establishment of the Glastonbury church did not run smoothly.  The majority of the surviving documents for the community are letters and reports between Poullain, the Privy Council and its appointed commissioners concerning the fact that, even months after the weavers took up residence, the Duke of Somerset’s promises to the strangers had not been met.  Poullain and the commissioners reported that of the fifty houses promised to the community only six were completed, another twenty-two were in desperate need of repairs and construction of sixteen more was needed; the promised land, enough for each family to graze two cows, could not be found, even with the use of Wirrall Park, one of Somerset’s hunting grounds; and the money needed for start-up costs for the weaving workshops and materials had not been forthcoming.  A further loan of £1200 would be needed, the commissioners agreed, in order to finish the construction and start producing worsted cloth.

Somerset and Poullain had, probably, arranged the details of the Duke’s promises between his release from the Tower of London in February 1550 and his second arrest in October 1551.  While the Duke languished in the Tower of London to be tried in December and executed in January, his subordinate Henry Cornish, appointed overseer of the Glastonbury community in November, seems to have grasped the opportunity to squeeze the weavers for his own profit.  He is accused in Poullain’s letters of having not only withheld the promised monies and a herbary allotted to the weavers but of having demanded the weavers’ products on false pretences by claiming he had a letter from the Privy Council.  The appointed commissioners into the affair sided with Poullain and ordered Cornish to ‘restore that which he had sold piecemeal or ordered to be removed after he heard of the arrest of the Duke’.  While Cornish sought to exploit the Glastonbury weavers in their vulnerable position as guests or clients of a discredited lord, not all of the local people seem to have shared his hostility. Poullain’s letters often refer to the generous and kind English who have dealt honestly with the weavers and even worked on constructing their houses in exchange for nothing more than the promises of an impoverished community.

‘quietlie to departe’
As with much of the Protestant project in England, Poullain’s church did not survive the accession of Queen Mary and on 5 September 1553 we find recorded an order to Sir John Sydman ‘to permit the Glastonbury straungiers quietlie to departe’.  With this order Poullain appears to have led what he could of the community first to London, where he took part in a theological disputation between Catholic and Protestant leaders, and then to the continent.  In the face of Marian persecutions and suspicion, all of Cranmer’s circle of foreign theologians left England for friendlier climes.  The Glastonbury community seems to have had little impact on the local area; its physical legacy is limited to a brass alms dish made by a member of the community as a goodwill gift for the nearby church of St John, bearing a decoration of St George, further testimony to the friendly relations between the weavers and the local population.

After leaving England Poullain and what remained of the Glastonbury community settled in Frankfurt where the city’s Lutheran authorities offered them refuge and the use of the Weissfrauenkirche (the Church of the White Ladies).  In a supreme twist of fate this displaced stranger church would, over the next few years, offer sanctuary to several exiled English theologians fleeing Catholic persecution at home.  Scholars and theologians including John Knox, Edmund Sutton and Richard Cox would formulate the foundations of much of English and Scottish Protestantism from this safe haven, offered by the remnants of a church once welcomed to England for its economic benefits and spiritual work.  Poullain himself, although not in charge of the community once it was settled in Frankfurt, died in 1557, still exercising himself in writing defences of Calvinism from Lutheran polemicists, and had been the first to offer shelter to the exiled Englishmen.

Chris Linsley


Calendar of Patent Rolls, 1550-1553
Calendar of State Papers Domestic, Edward VI 1547-1553 
Acts of the Privy Council, 1550-1552

Cowell, H.J., ‘The French-Walloon Church at Glastonbury, 1550-1553’, in Proceedings of the Huguenot Society, 13 (1923-29), 483-515
Duplessis, R.S., Lille and the Dutch Revolt: Urban Stability in an Era of Revolution 1500-1582 (Cambridge, 1991)
Muss-Arnolt, W., ‘Puritan Efforts and Struggles, 1550-1603: A Bio-Bibliographical Study’, in The American Journal of Theology, 23 (1919), 345-366
Pettegree, A., Foreign Protestant Communities in Sixteenth-Century London (Oxford, 1986)
Spicer, A. ‘Valérand Poullain’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004)

Citation: Chris Linsley, ‘A Stranger Church at Glastonbury, 1551-1553′, England’s Immigrants 1330-1550 website, March 2013 [https://www.englandsimmigrants.com/page/individual-studies/a-stranger-church-at-Glastonbury-1551-1553/]

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England’s Immigrants 1330 – 1550 (www.englandsimmigrants.com, version 1.0, 10 December 2022), http://www.englandsimmigrants.com/page/individual-studies/a-stranger-church-at-glastonbury-1551-1553