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The English College, in Rome

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Some historians (e.g., Dodd, II, 168, following Polydore Vergil, Harpsfield, Spelman, etc.) have traced the origin of the English College back to the Saxon school founded in Rome by Ina, King of the West Saxons, in 727. To an antiquity so great, however, the college, venerable though it be, has no just claim. It dates from about the middle of the fourteenth century, when the Hospice of St. Thomas of Canterbury was founded. This hospice owed its establishment to the jubilees, which brought pilgrims to the Holy City from every country of Europe. Those who arrived from England in 1350 to perform their devotions, found it difficult to obtain suitable accommodation. This suggested an institution, national in character, where English pilgrims might receive shelter and hospitality. The archives of the English College seem to point to the establishment of a guild of laymen, which acquired certain property on the Via Monserrato, the principle persons who took part in the transaction being John Shepherd and Alice his wife, who devoted themselves to the service of the pilgrims in the hospice, and William Chandler, chamberlain, Robert de Pines, syndic, and John Williams, officials of the community and society of the English in the city. The deeds show that the property in question was acquired in the year 1362, which therefore may be taken as the date of the foundation of the hospice. But from the time of Henry VII the hospice began to decline, After the persecution had broken out anew under Elizabeth, many of the clergy went into exile. Some of those who found their way to Rome were received into the hospice, and formed a permanent community therein. During Dr. William Allen's visit to Rome in 1576, it was arranged with Pope Gregory XIII that a college should be founded there for the education of priests for the English mission. As soon as he returned to Douai (30 July, 1576) he sent ten students to Rome to form the nucleus of the new college; six more went in 1577, and again six in 1578. Dr. Gregory Martin, writing on 26 May, 1578, to Father Campion, tells him that twenty-six students are living either in the hospice itself or in the house next door, which has internal communication with the hospice (Douai Diaries, Appendix, p. 316). Indeed, the Pope had already determined to convert the hospice into a seminary, and at Christmas, 1578, "there came out a Breve from the Popes Holines commanding all the ould Chaplines to depart within 15 dayes, and assigning all the rents of the Hospitall unto the use of the Seminary, which was presently obayed by the said Priests" (Father Person's Memoirs: Catholic Record Society, II, 144). Unfortunately, however, Cardinal Morone, the Protector of England, and also therefore of the College, appointed as its rector Dr. Clenock, the warden of the hospice, who was assisted by two Jesuit Fathers as prefect of Studies and procurator. Dr. Gregory Martin, again writing to Father Campion, 18 Feb, 1579 (from Rheims) informs him that there are in the college at Rome, "at the present moment forty-two of our students, most of whom are divines, one rector, three Fathers of your Society, and six servants. They live in the hospital, and in the adjoining house. The revenues of the hospital have been transferred to the seminary, except what is required for the entertainment of the pilgrims" (Douai Diaries, lviii, and Appendix, p. 319). However, internal dissensions soon arose. Most of the students of the college were, of course, English; but there were also seven or eight Welshmen, for no national distinction was made between the Cambrian and the Saxon, all being considered as English for the purposes of the institution. The Welsh rector was accused of favoring his fellow countrymen; and finally the English students broke out in open mutiny. They petitioned the Holy Father that the college should be entrusted to the Fathers of the Society of Jesus, and declared that they would rather leave the college than remain under Dr. Clenock.

The students were ordered by the Cardinal Protector to submit under pain of expulsion; but they preferred to go, and began to make preparations for the journey back to Douai and Rheims, or to England. Much sympathy, however, was a shown for them in Rome, and, intercession being made with the Pope on their behalf, they were reinstated in the college after two days, and their petition was granted. Dr. Clenock was removed from the rectorship, and the college handed over to the Jesuits, the famous Father Robert Persons being given temporary charge till the appointment of the first permanent rector, Father Alphonsus Agazzari, on 23 April, 1579. This day is the real birth day of the English College in Rome; for on this day the Bull of Foundation was signed by Pope Gregory XIII; on this day the students took an oath to lead an ecclesiastical life, and proceed to England when it should seem good to their superiors; and on this day the College Register begins. The Bull, however, was not published till 23 Dec., 1580. Under this date, the entry occurs in the College Annals (Liber Ruber) II, 12; of which the following is the translation: "A.D. 1580, on the 23rd of December, to the praise and glory of the Most Holy Trinity and of St. Thomas the martyr, was expedited the Bull of the Foundation of this College, which, though it was granted by Pope Gregory XIII in April of last year, did not reach our hands before the above date, and in which, as besides many faculties and spiritual and temporal favours, all the goods of the English Hospice were united with the College, we received possession of them on 29th. Dec., which is dedicated to St. Thomas the Martyr; and although it does not explicitly appear in the Bull, yet the Pope declared by word of mouth that this college is bound to receive and maintain the English pilgrims according to the statutes of the sia Hospice. This Bull has been deposited in the College Archives."

Thus the English College, the oldest but two of all the national colleges of Rome (the German College and the Greek College), was launched on its career, the number of students at the time in the college being fifty, a number which later rose to seventy-five. That the college did its work efficiently, and fulfilled the purpose for which it was founded, is abundantly attested by the list of names of the priests sent into the mission field, and especially by the roll of its martyrs. During the period 1682-1694, under the Cardinal Protector Howard, O.P., the greater part of the college was rebuilt.

The eighteenth century was a period of decline. Contrary to the original constitutions of the college. boys were admitted for the course of humanities, and some, of very tender years, for more elementary studies. In August, 1773, the Society of Jesus was suppressed, and the administration of the college was handed over to Italian secular priests. During this period, the students were ill-treated, the college was mismanaged, and a large portion of the archives sold for waste-paper. "At the time of the suppression, the number of students was reduced to four divines, three philosophers, and three grammarians . . . Of those divines and philosophers, only three were ordained at Rome, and two at Douay; and the whole number of those ordained at Rome from 1775 to the year 1798, a period of 23 years, did not exceed seven, and of those, two never performed any missionary duties, and the third but for a short time. In that same period four died in the College, and 34, if not more, quitted the house re infecta! — Six, however, afterwards pursued their studies in other Colleges, and were ordained priests." (Catholic Magazine, 1832, pp. 359-360.) Bishop Challoner, and afterwards the three vicars Apostolic, Bishops James and Thomas Talbot and Matthew Gibson, entreated the Pope to restore the college to its first administrators, the English secular clergy; and finally on 12 April, 1783, the Congregation for Propaganda answered that when the rectorship fell vacant, an English priest might be appointed to the post. Cardinal Baschi, the Protector, wrote to Bishop Douglas on 4 November, 1797, informing him that the rector was about to resign, and requesting him to choose, in consultation with Mgr. (afterwards Cardinal) Erskine, an English priest for the office. But before this could be done, the French had invaded Rome, the college seized and suppressed, and the students sent to England. On the 30th of July, 1814, Cardinal Litta, Prefect of Propaganda, wrote to Bishop Poynter, vicar Apostolic of the London District, informing him that the college was about to be reopened, and inquiring about the fitness of the Rev. Stephen Green, who had been recommended by Bishop Milner for the rectorship. But Fr. Green died, and other obstacles arose, and nothing more was done for three years. Then Cardinal Consalvi, Secretary of State, acting as protector of the college, directed the English vicars Apostolic to suggest a priest as rector, and to send him to Rome at once. They chose Rev. Robert Gradwell, who received his appointment on 8 March, 1818. Ten students, among whom were the future Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman, arrived in the following December. Thus the English College began to live again, and continued to flourish in its career of usefulness to the Church in England.

Scholastic status

In the Bull of Foundation, Gregory XIII confers on the college the privileges and rights of a university with the power of conferring the degrees of Bachelor, Licentiate, Doctor, and Master in Arts and Divinity. The students, from the beginning, attended the lectures of the Roman College, and then during the suppression of the Society of Jesus, at the University of St. Apollinare (the Roman Seminary). They returned, however, to the Roman College or Gregorian University, in 1855, and still attend it, taking its degrees in philosophy and theology, as the English College does not exercise its faculty of conferring degrees. The college is immediately subject to the Holy See, which is represented by a cardinal protector. The immediate superiors are the rector, appointed by the pope on the recommendation of the English hierarchy, and vice-rector, appointed by the rector. The first rector, Dr. Maurice Clenock (1578-9), belonged to the English secular clergy. The Jesuits took the reins of government in 1579, and held them for one hundred and ninety-four years. Three of the rectors were Italians, and the rest English, the last one being Wm. Hothersall, who, on the suppression of the Society, handed the college over to Italian secular priests. From the restoration in 1818 the rectors have always been chosen from the English secular clergy. The college has the privilege of extra-parochiality, the rector being parish-priest for all it members, and exemption from the jurisdiction of the cardinal vicar and other ordinaries and tribunals.

Illustrious students

Among the names of those included on the college lists, who have laid down their lives for the Faith, and the supremacy of the Holy See, six have been beatified, and thirty-six declared venerable. The former are Ralph Sherwin, John Shert, Luke Kerby, Laurence Richardson (vere Johnson), William Lacy, and William Hart. Shert was the first missionary priest from the college to enter England. The Venerables are: George Haydock, Thomas Hemerford, John Munden, John Lowe, Robert Morton, Richard Leigh, Christopher Buxton, Edward James, Christopher Ba(y)les, Edmund Duke, Eustace White, Polidore Plasden (Palmer). Thomas Pormont, Joseph Lampton, John Cornelius, S.J., John Ingram, Robert Southwell, S.J., Henry Wallpole, S.J., Edward Thwing, Robert Middleton, Thomas Tichborne, Robert Watkins (Wilson), Edwards Oldcorne, S.J., John Roberts, O.S.B., Richard Smith (Newport), John Almond, John Thules, John Lascelles (vere Lockwood), Edward Morgan (John Singleton), Henry Morse (alias Claxton), S.J., Brian Cansfield, S.J., John Woodcock (alias Farrington), O.F.M., Edward Mico (alias Banes), Anthony Turner (alias Ashby), S.J., John Wall (alias Marsh) O.F.M., and David Lewis (alias Charles Baker), S.J.* The cause of beatification of the following, who all died in prison, has not yet been introduced: Roche Chaplain, James Lomax, Martin Sherson, John Brushford, John Harrison, and Edward Turner.

The famous Father Robert Persons was rector of the college in 1588, and again from 1598 until his death in 1610. Father Muzio Vitelleschi, afterwards General of the Society of Jesus, held the rectorship from 1592 to 1594, and again from 1597 to 1598. Cardinal Wiseman went to the College as a student in 1818, became rector in 1828, and became bishop in 1840. The English College may claim as teachers the great Jesuit theologians of the Roman College: Bellarmine, Francisco Suárez, Vasquez in the distant past; and in modern times, Perrone, Franzelin, Ballerini, Billot.

Influence on the Church in England

The College shares with Douai and other continental seminaries, the honour of having kept alive the lamp of the Faith in England during the dark days of persecution. Without these colleges, the supply of priests for the English missions would have entirely failed. Moreover, the college in Rome was for English Catholics a connecting unit with the Centre and Head of Christendom; and the missionaries sent thence formed a visible and tangible bond of union with that Holy See for the supremacy of which the faithful in England were suffering so much. When we turn to the nineteenth century, it suffices to mention the name of Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman, the "Man of Providence" who had the greatest share in the work of the re-establishment of the Catholic Hierarchy in England in 1850, and as its head, by his genius reconciled the English people to what they first regarded as "Papal Aggression". It was he who put the Church in England on a firm basis, and, under God, whom we have to thank for the "Second Spring". But Wiseman was not alone. Of the rectors of the nineteenth century, all but two were made bishops, and in every part of the country the English College alumni may be found in positions of responsibility, vicars-general, canons, and especially professors of the ecclesiastical colleges and seminaries, whence the purity of the Roman Faith is diffused throughout the length and breadth of the land.


The Diary of the English College (1579-1783); published in English by Foley, S. J., Records of the English Province of the Society of Jesus (London, 1880, VI. The title of the original MS. is Annales Collegii, Pars I, Nomina Alumnorum (i.e., the College Register), and Annales Collegii, Pars II, (the real Diary). Foley's version is sometimes inaccurate and defective in both the transcript and the translation, names having been omitted from the Register without any indication of such omission; Catholic Record Society, Miscellanea, II (London, 1906), The memoirs of Father Robert Persons, S.J.; Dodd, Church History of England, Tiernet, ed. (London, 1839), II and III, with documents in the appendices; Knox, Records of the English Catholics I, Douai Diaries (London, 1878); II, The Letters and Memorials of William, Cardinal Allen (London, 1882); The Catholic Magazine (Birmingham, 1832): Various letters relating principally to the period 1773-1818; and A Short Account of the English College in Rome; Probably by Dr. Gradwell, rector, 1818-1828; Challoner, Memoirs of Missionary Priests (Derby, 1843); Camm, Lives of the English Martyrs (London, 1905), and William Cardinal Allen (London, 1908); Wiseman, Recollections of the Last Four Popes (London, 1858); Ward, The Life of Cardinal Wiseman (London, 1897); Choke, Dublin Review (July and October, 1898), and in the Atti del Congressio internaz. di Scienze stor. (Rome, 1903), The National English Institutions of Rome during the Fourteenth Century; Gillow, Biog. Dict. of Eng. Cath.; Bartoli, Dell' Istoria della Compagnia di Giesu, L'Inghilterra (Rome, 1667).

About this page

APA citation. Cronin, C. (1909). The English College, in Rome. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Cronin, Charles. "The English College, in Rome." 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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