Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Strangers in London

The Dutch Church, Austin Friars (photo by NN)
Academics are increasingly encouraged to engage the public in their research - via ‘impact’ initiatives or through active collaboration with non-scholars in what is termed ‘knowledge exchange’. It was therefore refreshing to participate in an academic conference on the Reformation which was entirely conceived, curated and organised by the Dutch Church in the City of London (and not by early modern historians). Last week, the conference ‘John a Lasco: I am A Stranger’ heard speakers from the United States, UK and the Netherlands. Johannes a Lasco (or Jan Łaski the Younger, 1499-1560), was the most significant Reformation figure produced by Poland: nephew of a powerful Polish archbishop, furnished with the best possible foreign education, Johannes a Lasco went on to play a leading role in Protestant communities northern Germany, England and his native Poland. Here in England, it was to Johannes a Lasco that Edward VI entrusted leadership of the ‘Strangers Church’ in 1550 – a place where London’s foreign refugees and immigrants could worship together.
            It was marvellous to hear papers about Lasco and the Strangers’ Church in the very place where that church once stood. Originally part of the enormous Austin (Augustinian) Friars monastery, the building was given to the Strangers, destroyed in the Blitz, and rebuilt by the Dutch community in London. It is an inspiring, beautiful and resonant space. Thomas Cromwell’s great mansion was built just across the road (as readers of Wolf Hall will know). The speakers delivered their lectures before an enormous stained glass window showing John a Lasco, bearded and in green robes, and the two children connected with this church, the boy-king Edward VI of England, and Princess Irene of the Netherlands who laid the foundation stone of the new building in 1950.
            We heard from Michael Springer about Lasco’s magnum opus, the Forma ac Ratio, an extended ‘how to’ guide on running a Calvinist congregation, from Andrew Spicer about the foreign residents of London in the 1550s, from David Gehring about a parallel life to that of Lasco, the Elizabethan Robert Beale. Silke Muylaert spoke on how the Stranger Church in London reacted when the Netherlands erupted in religious revolt, bringing traumatised and impassioned refugees to their corner of London. The Dutch Church had however also organised this conference to pose broader and contemporary questions about refugees, immigrants and toleration. We therefore heard how in 16C eastern Germany, or 17C Prague, or 16C Poland, very different religious communities could coexist in curious, unexpected and usually precarious ways. This conference was most timely, in light of the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe, and the UK’s own referendum debate about identity and migration. It was sobering to hear that in late 16C London, the government had conducted a full census of foreign residents, quizzing them in depth about their reasons for coming to England; that other Londoners complained about immigrants driving up 16C house prices and taking jobs; that the Elizabethan government deeply feared that refugees from a savage European war would bring religious and political radicalism to these shores (Andrew Spicer, Michael Springer).

It is always a pleasant surprise when research on 16C Europe speaks so directly to communities in the UK today. A Lasco was in London only three years, forced to flee by ship along with his congregation of ‘Strangers’ in 1553, when the Catholic queen Mary I ascended the throne. The Dutch Church is soon to unveil a new plaque commemorating Johannes a Lasco and his time in London: it will mark how a unique life, and a unique building, connect England, Poland and the Netherlands and their respective histories. The plaque will also be a prompt to reflect on the different experiences which foreigners, immigrants and refugees have had in our capital city (welcome, warm coexistence, expulsion) over the centuries, as the United Kingdom again finds and articulates its place in the world.


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