With the arrival of the reformation in England, and the reign of Elizabeth I, pilgrimage to Rome became much less common. Accordingly, during a visit in 1576 of Cardinal Allen, who had already founded a college at Douai, the idea of turning the Hospice into a house of formation was proposed. The first students arrived in 1577, two years before the formal foundation of the College by Gregory XIII on 1st May 1579.
The Missionary Oath
In the earliest days there were differences of opinion as to whether the College was to be a place of refuge for exiles or a place for formation of priests to return to service in England. However the introduction of the missionary oath to return to England when requested by one’s superiors settled that discussion. Ralph Sherwin, one of the first students and the first to be executed, famously replied ‘better today than tomorrow’, a fact that is recorded in the record of students—the Liber Ruber.
The College Martyrs
Sherwin fulfilled his oath when he set out, in the spring of 1580, with Edmund Campion and others to England. He was arrested in November of the same year. On the 1st December 1581 he, along with Campion and Alexander Bryant, was hanged drawn and quartered at Tyburn, as illustrated in this copy of one of Circignani’s rather gruesome frescoes in the tribune of the church. In all, between 1581 and 1679, at least forty former students of the College would die for their faith. Of those 10, including St Ralph Sherwin, have been canonised, and a further 26 beatified. There are lists on a plaque opposite the refectory and in a frame underneath the stained glass window on the staircase.
A History and A Future
With the exception of two periods—1798-1818 following the Napoleonic invasion, and 1940-1946 as a consequence of the Second World War– the College has served as a house of formation for priests to the present day. The College was run by Jesuits from quite early on, who were replaced by Italian clergy when the Jesuits were suppressed in 1773. At the post Napoleonic restoration in 1818 English secular clergy were given charge of the College, and that remains the case to this day.
At present there are about forty seminarians at the College, and numbers have been rising in recent years. We hope and pray that the College will be a place of formation for many years, indeed centuries to come. We also hope that the tradition of hospitality, still a vital part of the life of the College, will remain.