20th October 2016

The Bishop of London, the Right Reverend and Right Honourable Richard Chartres, celebrated the Huguenot heritage of Spitalfields today by offering a mulberry sapling to Christ Church, on Commercial Road. Receiving the tree, the Rector of Christ Church, Rev. Andy Rider, explained that it would be planted prominently in the church’s new community garden, which is undergoing major new landscaping, to be completed in 2017. The sapling, grown from a black mulberry cutting (Morus nigra) taken from a James I tree in the Chelsea Physic Garden, has been donated by the Morus Londinium project as part of its mulberry heritage and conservation programme.

Left: Trustees of Huguenots of Spitalfields, Rt Rev Richard Chartres, Bishop of London and David Shreeve, co-founder of the Conservation Foundation. Right: The Bishop of London presents the mulberry sapling to Rev. Andy Rider, Rector of Christ Church.

As the U.K. receives the first of 100 unaccompanied refugee children from the so-called ‘Jungle’ informal camp in Calais today, the Bishop reminded us that the very word ‘refugee’ was coined to describe the Huguenot settlers fleeing religious persecution in France (i.e. seeking refuge). French reformed Protestants (Huguenots) had been protected from persecution by the Edict of Nantes, promulgated in 1598 by King Henry IV, himself a Huguenot. But on 22 October 1685, the catholic Louis IX revoked the Edict of Nantes, opening the way again for persecution, this time on a massive scale.

By 1710, as many as 50,000 Huguenots had found refuge in England, fleeing their native France. Many settled in Spitalfields, bringing with them sought-after skills of silk weaving. Relative to the present population of England, explained the Bishop of London, this influx would be equivalent to about 650,000 refugees today.

The Bishop of London with the Rector of Christ Church, Rev. Andy Rider and Charlie de Wet.

It was particularly appropriate that the Bishop should present the mulberry tree to Christ Church. He has long championed green issues, pledging to reduce the carbon footprint of the Church. Himself a descendant of Huguenots who settled in Ireland, he will retire on Shrove Tuesday 2017, after 22 years in service. Before his nomination in 1995, he was Bishop of Stepney, the medieval parish from which Spitalfields was carved in 1729, when Christ Church was consecrated.

With mulberry leaves providing the food for silkworms, French Huguenot weavers would have been cheered to see mulberry trees growing in London. But these would not only have been rare, they would have been black mulberries, unlike the white mulberries they would have known in the Cévennes and Ardèche regions of France. As the Huguenots prospered in Spitalfields they may even have planted mulberries in gardens and open spaces as reminders of their ancestral home. Several possible descendants can be found in and around Spitalfields today, though it’s unlikely any are 300 years old.

Presenting the mulberry, the Bishop said: “I am delighted to present this Morus Londinium mulberry, which I hope will remind Spitalfields and its Huguenot community of its amazing heritage.”

Stanley Rondeau, who acts as a volunteer guide in Nicholas Hawksmoor’s 1729 Christ Church, can trace his Huguenot ancestry back to 1596, two years before the promulgation of the Edict of Nantes.

Article and pictures by Peter Coles

See also an article on Spitalfields Life
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