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  • Writer's picturejoyce hampton

The Huguenots of Blackfriars, London – during Shakespeare’s time

People often assume, quite wrongly, that Huguenots did not arrive here before the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. However, records show a number of Huguenot individuals and families came here to settle long before then, in fact, during the Elizabethan era.


Within this short resume can be found a taster of life for those who chose to leave their homeland to begin a new life here. A good example is that of Thomas Vautrollier (or Vautroullier) who emigrated to these shores from either Paris or Rouen in 1558. He was granted Letters of Denization (a form of partial citizenship) in 1564. Within six months, on the 2 October 1564 he was admitted as a ‘brother’ to the Stationers Company (one of the City of London Livery Companies) now known as The Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers.


In 1574, Vautrollier received a patent of great value, that covered a number of very important books. They were mostly Latin books by French Reformation writers and included Théodore Bèze’s Latin New Testament. The patent also granted him the right to employ six ‘strangers’ in his printing works. This would be in addition to the three French refugees employed as servants at his house in Blackfriars.


The Queen’s government viewed printing as a necessary evil as it was a useful propaganda tool. The Government granted the Court of the Stationers Company the duty of licensing books for publication. It became best practice for potential publishers to formally enter their projects in the Registers of the Company in order to pre-empt their rivals staking their intent. This did not always lead to accord amongst printers, on more than one occasion Vautrollier’s right to print was challenged and several times, he was fined by the Stationers Company for breaches of duty in printing unlicensed books, including in 1578 when he printed ‘Special and Chosen Sermons of D. Martin Luther’. Unfortunately, he had not obtained a licence to print this and so subsequently was fined 10s (50pence in decimal coinage). During the 14 years that he was actually printing and publishing, he produced almost 150 books; quite a feat for a man who never had more than two printing presses.


Certainly by 1568 he was living in the area of Blackfriars with his wife and one child, a boy and the couple were still living in the area nearly twenty years later having been blessed with a further three sons.

At least one example of Vautrollier’s work does carry his personal emblem: the Anchor of Hope, on a book printed by Vautrollier in 1576: the English version of the life of Coligny, the murdered Huguenot leader.


Vautrollier, although a French refugee, was favoured enough to gain patents from the Crown. However, due to the rivalry among other printers often there were disputes, as an example, in August 1578 Abraham Veale, claimed a property in the French Littleton of Claude de Sainliens, also a Huguenot, who was one of the earliest teachers of French in England. Veale and Vautrollier were ordered by the Court of the Stationers Company to accept arbitration, which compelled Vautrollier to give to Veale 100 copies of every impression of 1,250, and Veale was ordered to provide the paper for these copies.


In 1579 Vautrollier produced a very notable book, Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s lives of the noble Greeks and Romans, incidentally this work was considered the source for Shakespeare’s classical plays.


Vautrollier was also approached by the Queen Elizabeth’s composers, Thomas Tallis and William Byrd, who had been awarded a twenty-one-year monopoly for the publication of music. They commissioned their first book from him, which was a set of six part-books for Sacred Motets and dedicated to the Queen. It is understood that Vautrollier ordered new music-type from Nuremberg to print this commission.


Over the years, Vautrollier continued to build a successful career as a bookseller and publisher in London. Then, as his health failed him, he signed his will on the 10 July 1587, and within twelve days of putting his affairs in order he died. In his will he left £3 to the French Church and bequests to two brothers, a sister and a nephew. To his eldest son Simeon he left his ‘piece of gold of the King of Scotland and to his second son Manasse ‘the printing press which I brought back from Scotland’.


A year after his death, his widow, Jacqueline, married Richard Field, who had come to London in 1579 to become an apprentice of Vautrollier. Field was also a long-standing friend of William Shakespeare, and they had both come to London from Stratford-on-Avon. Given their enduring friendship it had been natural for Shakespeare to ask Richard Field for lodging advice.


Richard, through his marriage to his wife Jaqueline, had become acquainted with the Mountjoy’s, who like Jacqueline and her first husband, were also Huguenot refugees, and so he probably recommended their house in Silver Street, within the parish of St Anne and St Agnes on the northside of St Martin Le Grand. Christopher and Marie Mountjoy are listed among the households of ‘strangers’ although the names are often spelt in different formats depending upon the mother tongue of the scribe at the time of writing down the occupiers. The Mountjoys are not a notable Huguenot family, their major claim to fame is that Shakespeare rented a room from them between the years 1598-1612.




Detail from Visscher's View of London, 1616.

© Image from Library of Congress (out of copyright work).



Further recommended recommended reading:


Proceedings of the Huguenot Society of Great Britain and Ireland Vol. XX issue 1 pp.14-15 and 17-21.

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