At the start of his episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, Sir Derek Jacobi says he’s an actor in part because he likes the security of knowing the script, what’s going to happen. But what about his roots? The star of Last Tango In Halifax wishes he’s asked his parents more about his family and so now, when it comes to his roots, he says “I don’t know the plot, and that is very frightening but also very exciting”.
Sir Derek particularly wants to know about his mother’s side of the family. While his East End parents were a “bit cor blimey”, his great grandmother’s name, Salome Laplain, speaks of a foreign influence. Meeting historian Sarah Wise at a pie and mash shop in Walthamstow, he learns Salome was born in 1859. Her father, Armand, was a brass worker and later a woodcutter who fell on hard times, and applied for poor relief in 1847. He lived in Digby Walk, a filthy slum. “I was hoping there’d be money in the past,” says Sir Derek, gloomily.
It’s a sad tale of working class poverty, but there’s an intriguing detail. The 1891 census records show Salome’s aunt, Hannah Sudbury, applying to live at the French Hospital, Hackney, East London, which aided the descendents of French Protestant refugees. It seems likely a branch of Sir Derek’s family came to England when the Huguenots were forced to flee France.
Sir Derek is curious to know more, but there’s a twist in the tale. While the 1685 Revocation of the Edict of Nantes made it impossible to live as a protestant in Louis XIV’s France, Sir Derek’s ancestor, his 6x great grandfather Joseph de la Plaigne, didn’t arrive in England until 1702.
Something doesn’t quite fit here, so Sir Derek heads to Paris to learn more. At the city’s Protestant Historical Society, he meets Dr Frank Tallett, who says there are a number of references to Joseph in the French archives. Joseph, it turns out, was a high-ranking official in the French establishment, a financier and lawyer. He even had a crest: a white dog chasing an orange stag. “We’re going up in the world,” says Sir Derek.
In 1699, there’s a reference to Joseph as a councillor of the King, yet as the new century dawned, he was arrested and imprisoned at the Château de Loches in the Loire Valley. What went wrong for Joseph? It seems he was “a cunning old thing” who hid his Protestantism for many years, before being caught out. However, Joseph didn’t stay locked up. Likely through bribery, he escaped and headed for England. “His whole story zings with resourcefulness,” says Sir Derek.
The next record of Joseph in 1703 in London, when he tried to recover money he said he was owed, cash he’d spirited out of France and equivalent to around £80,000 today. In 1708, aged 70, he married Salome la Bastide, who was 25.
A year later, the couple’s son, William, was born, and the child’s godfather was the Duke of Devonshire. How to explain this high-ranking connection? Salome was the sister of Armand de la Bastide, a professional soldier and officer who fought for William of Orange, the monarch who in 1688 took the throne from James II in the ‘Glorious Revolution’. Armand was so trusted that he was a standard bearer in the Horse Guards, forerunners to the Household Cavalry.
Sir Derek is delighted by what he’s found and says he would have loved to have met Joseph. More than this, “I’ve discovered the people from whom I have emerged are admirable people”.