Take a stroll from one end of Kensington Gardens to the other and the chances are you won’t hear a word of any language but French. This most soigné part of town is the tip of a Gallic iceberg — in fact, the number of citoyens français resident in the Smoke has led the French media to jokingly (if not entirely inaccurately) dub it ‘la sixième ville de la France’.
This is nothing new, though. Multicultural modern-day London has been as much shaped by migration from France as from anywhere else. The full story of French culture in London could fill several volumes, but in preparation for Bastille Day (14 July), we’ve picked 10 addresses that together make up an alternative potted history. On y va!
Deans Yard, SW1
Any fule kno that Modern British History begins in September 1066, when Saxon king Harold Godwinson got one in the eye from a French archer. Hastings, of course, falls 90 minutes outside Londonist’s jurisdiction, but just as significant is William the Conqueror’s coronation at Westminster Abbey that Christmas Day. Every English monarch since (with the not-particularly-notable exceptions of Edwards V and VIII) has been crowned here. The Abbey bears little resemblance to its 11th century predecessor, but if it’s a good enough beginning for the Monarchy as we know it, it’s a good enough beginning for our tour de Londres.
Lambeth Palace Road, SE1
Whoever begat the myth that England has not been invaded by a foreign army needs some extensive history lessons. After signing the Magna Carta, King John — he of Prince of Thieves fame — refused to stick to it, causing his barons to revolt, supported by the army of Louis VIII of France. After capturing London and proclaiming himself King of England, Louis was defeated several times by John’s son Henry III and coaxed into signing a treaty at Lambeth Palace in which he retroactively renounced his brief reign.
Soho Square, W1
In 1685, Louis XIV signed the Edict of Fontainebleau, which denied French Protestants — the Huguenots — the right to practice their religion. Thousands fled to London, mostly settling in Spitalfields, Wandsworth and Soho and bringing various skilled trades, particularly silk weaving and beer brewing. The Huguenot community was openly welcomed by Londoners and became one of the largest and most successful groups in the city, with this Church as a focal point.
Apsley House, W1
Forget Waterloo Station and Nelson’s Column, the best bit of Napoleonic War-related memorabilia is — somewhat appropriately — to be found here in Number 1 London, once home to the Duke of Wellington. Created by Italian artist Antonio Canova at Napoléon Bonaparte’s behest, this idealised interpretation of the corpuscular Corsican’s body screams megalomania in all respects but one — not to drop too much of a hint, but have a look at the crotch. It’s unsurprising, then, that the Prince Regent bought the statue and gave it to Wellington as a birthday present — but, as the Emperor of the French and conqueror of Europe would surely have agreed, it’s not the size that counts...
Chislehurst (Bromley), BR7
19th century France was not a great place to be head of state — no fewer than three violent régime changes took place between the Bourbon restoration of 1814 and the establishment of the Third Republic in 1871. France’s last monarch — the ambitious, self-styled ‘emperor’ Napoléon III — spent much of his youth living in London, and after defeat and overthrow in 1870 fled to Camden Place, Chislehurst. After his death in 1873, a special mausoleum was built at St Mary’s to house his remains. His body was moved to a new site in 1888, but this odd church annex — quite literally the tomb of the Second French Empire — remains to this day.
8 Royal College Street, NW1
The 19th century was a time of enormous creativity in France, but censorship and political turmoil meant that many artists and writers too keen to speak their minds were forced into exile. Naturally, more than a few ended up in London, including the great poètes maudits Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, who lived in extreme poverty at this seedy Camden address in the early 1870s. Alcohol and arguments seem to have taken up most of their time, but it was here that Rimbaud allegedly began work on his masterpiece, A Season in Hell. If you’ve ever spent the winter in an unheated north London bedsit, you’ll see why he chose the title.
Victoria Embankment, WC2
When Georges-Auguste Escoffier (cheesy video link) and César Ritz accepted a job offer at the newly opened Savoy Hotel in 1890, they inadvertently managed to invent both the modern restaurant and French haute cuisine as we know it. Ritz took care of the hotel’s management while master-chef Escoffier handled the elaborate catering, creating many famous dishes including Peach Melba. The Savoy became a byword for glamour and an instant success with the glam set, with the Prince of Wales as a regular visitor. In 1897, the pair were implicated in the theft of £3,400 worth of superior booze and were dismissed, going on to found the legendary Ritz and the Carlton hotels nearby.
Grosvenor Gardens, SW1
France and Britain’s longstanding love-hate relationship ended — diplomatically, at least — with the signing of the Entente Cordiale at Whitehall in 1904. The shared experience of World War I, in which 1.7 million French lost their lives, put the old imperial rivalries into perspective, and established an enduring if fractious solidarity. As a memorial to the 1914-18 alliance, Paris named the elegant Avenue Georges V after our wartime monarch; in London, we settled for this modest sculpture of France’s army supremo Ferdinand Foch, marooned on a traffic island by Victoria Station — some gratitude, eh?
Dean Street, W1
The summer of 1940 may not have been Britain’s ‘finest hour’, but with Paris in Hitler’s hands, it was certainly France’s darkest. This infamous Soho pub became an unofficial HQ for Charles de Gaulle’s French Government in exile, which formally operated from Carlton Gardens on the other side of Piccadilly (where you'll find a statue and plaque to the great man). De Gaulle’s time in London left him with a life-long suspicion of Anglo-American deviousness, which subsequently did much to shape France’s fiercely proud tradition of cultural exceptionalism.
Queensberry Place, SW7
French directors have been filming in London since the 1890s, and the Smoke has responded with a fervent filmic francophilia. Opened in the late 1990s by the Institut Français, the Ciné Lumière screens everything from early silent films to classic Nouvelle Vague to recent hits like Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone. It is perhaps an obvious note to end on, but no other institution symbolises the unique relationship between London and its French community quite so well — or with quite such comfy seats.
By Digby Warde-Aldam