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Downside Abbey

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Near Bath, Somersetshire, England, was founded at Douai, Flanders, under the patronage of St. Gregory the Great, in 1605 by the Venerable John Roberts, first prior, and some other English monks who had received the habit and taken vows in the Spanish Benedictine Congregation. In 1611 Dom Philip de Caverel, Abbot of Saint Vaast's at Arras, built a monastery for the community in Douai, and consequently is revered as its founder. For some years the foundation was embroiled in attacks from without, and also in disputes as to a union with other English Benedictines, all of which were settled in 1633 by the Bull "Plantata" of Urban VIII.

From the first a school or college for lay pupils, sons of English Catholic gentry, has been an integral part of the institution. This undertaking, conducted on traditional English public school lines, has always absorbed much of the energies of the community, whose other chief external work has consisted in supplying various missions or parishes in England. When Charles II established for his queen a Catholic chapel royal at St. James's palace, the community to serve it was supplied from St. Gregory's at Douai, and certain relics and church-plate then presented are still in existence at Downside. On the outbreak of the French Revolution the school was disbanded and the monks put in prison, where they remained nearly two years. At length in March, 1795, they were allowed to proceed to England where an asylum was supplied by Sir Edward Smythe, fifth Baronet, a former pupil, who lent his Shropshire seat of Acton Burnell to his old masters for use as a monastery and school., In 1814 the establishment was moved to Mount Pleasant, Downside, a small manor-house with sixty-six acres of land, bought for £7000, largely the savings of the economy of the previous nineteen years. In 1823 Dr. Baines, Vicar Apostolic of the Western District, proposed to the community that they should abandon the monastic state and become a kind of diocesan seminary under himself. This extraordinary suggestion being rejected, the bishop applied to the Holy See for the suppression of the monastery on the ground of some alleged flaw in its canonical erection; after much litigation the pope decided in favour of the monks on every point. Since then the establishment has increased steadily in size and importance, new buildings being added in 1823, 1853, and almost continually since 1870. In 1899 Pope Leo XIII raised the priory to abbatial rank, the forty-fifth prior, Dom Edmund Ford, being elected first abbot, on whose resignation in 1906, Dom Cuthbert Butler was chosen to succeed him.

Six monks of St. Gregory's have died martyrs for the Catholic Faith and are already pronounced Venerable, viz. Dom George Gervaise, martyred 1608; Dom John Roberts, the first prior, 1610; Dom Maurus Scot, 1612; Dom Ambrose Barlow, 1641; Dom Philip Powell, 1646; and Brother Thomas Pickering, 1679. Besides these the community has given to the Church three archbishops, Dom Bede Polding and Dom Bede Vaughan, the first two archbishops of Sydney, New South Wales; and Dom Bernard Ullathorne, first bishop of Birmingham and titular Archbishop of Cabasa, well known as an ascetical writer. Also six bishops, Dom Philip Ellis, Dom Laurence York, and Dom Gregory Sharrock, all three successively Vicars Apostolic of the Western District; more recently Dom Placid Morris, Vicar Apostolic of Maritius and for many years assistant to Cardinal Wiseman; Dom Joseph Brown, first Bishop of Newport and Menevia; and Dom Charles Henry Davis, Bishop of Maitland, New South Wales. From many other notable names may be mentioned Dom Serenus Cressy, author of the "Church History of Brittany"; Dom John Huddlestone, who was instrumental in saving Charles II after Worcester and reconciled him to the Church on his death-bed; the Abbot Sweeney, the well-known preacher; Dom Jerome Vaughan, founder of the Abbey of Fort Augustus, N. B.; Dom Aidan Gasquet the historian, Abbot President of the English Benedictines and also head of the Pontifical Commission for the revision of the Vulgate. Among the alumni of St. Gregory's School, though not monks in the community, were Bishop Charles Walmesley, who consecrated Dr. Carroll the first Bishop of Baltimore, U.S.A.; John Steevens, editor of Dugdale's "Monasticon"; Henry Carey, author of "God save the King"; Sir John Day, one of the best known English judges; and Bishop Patrick J. Donahue, of Wheeling, U.S.A.

The abbey buildings now consist of a monastery for about fifty monks; school buildings for 1340 boarders; guest-house, the original building bought in 1814; and the abbey church, for exterior view of which see THE CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA, I, 14. The last-named building consists at present of transepts, choir, and fifteen side chapels only; it is 230 feet long, and 70 feet high internally Even in its unfinished state it ranks as one of the finest modern Gothic buildings in England, and contains the tomb of the Irish martyr, Venerable Oliver Plunket, Archbishop of Armagh. The community numbers eighty-four choir monks; there are no lay brothers. About half the monks work on the twenty-two missions or parishes in various parts of England, which are dependent on the abbey. Besides the school attached to the monastery, Downside has two other schools at Ealing, London, W, and at Gorey, Co. Wexford, Ireland; a house of studies for its monks at Cambridge University and another for students in London, near the British Museum. The "Downside Review", a periodical now in its twenty-eighth year, devoted chiefly to local, monastic, and liturgical interests, and in which are many articles of value, is published every four months. The "Downside Masses" and "Downside Motets" indicate the abbey's interest in the revival of polyphonic music; a similar interest in Christian art being shown in the "Downside Prints", a series of small devotional pictures reproduced from ancient masters. Attached to the abbey are the titular Abbacies of Glastonbury and St. Alban's, and the cathedral priories of Canterbury, Bath, Coventry, and Norwich. The arms of Downside are: Or a cross moline gules; the abbot's seal bears an effigy of Bl. Richard Whiting, martyr, the last abbot of the neighbouring Abbey of Glastonbury.


     WELDON, Chronological Notes on English Congregation O. S. B. (Privately printed, Worcester, 1881); TAUNTON, English Black Monks of St. Benedict (London, 1897), II; BIRT, Downside (London, 1902); SNOW, Necrology of English Benedictines (London, 1883); Sketches of Old Downside (London, 1903); HUDLESTON, Guide to Downside Abbey Church (London, 1905); Illustrated articles in Christian Art, I, 135; Architectural Review, (XXIII, 40; Downside Review, I-XXVII, many articles passim.

About this page

APA citation. Huddleston, G. (1909). Downside Abbey. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Huddleston, Gilbert. "Downside Abbey." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. <>.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. May 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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