Pilgrims from England and Wales have been coming to Rome for centuries. We do not know who the first English pilgrim was - the visit of St Wilfrid in 653 is one of the first recorded. His contemporary, St Benedict Biscop, Abbot of Wearmouth-Jarrow, came to Rome no less than five times, and brought back from his final visit John the Arch-Cantor of St Peter's in order to train his monks in plainchant and liturgy. The long journey to Rome was not without its dangers. One notable pilgrim, the newly-appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, Ælfsige, was trapped in a snowstorm over the Alps and died from its effects in 959. Around the same period, we read of pilgrims being killed en route by Saracens.
English visitors to Rome included royalty. King Cædwalla of Wessex was baptised in Rome on Holy Saturday 689. He died shortly afterwards and was buried in St Peter's. His successor, Ine, "set out for Rome, to exchange a temporal for an eternal kingdom" in 725. King Ine is normally accredited with founding the Schola Saxonum, a sort of English colony near St Peter's on the site of the modern hospital and church of Santo Spirito in Sassia ("Sassia” from Saxia, the place of the Saxons). Despite the great fires and raids of the ninth century, the Schola flourished until the eleventh century, giving hospitality to numerous English pilgrims who had come to visit the shrine of St Peter, including the likes of Alfred the Great (854 and before).
However, by the late eleventh century the Schola was in decline, partly as a result of pilgrim fervour being directed towards the "armed pilgrimages" of the crusades, and in 1201 Innocent III turned the dwindling Schola into a hospital.
The Hospice of St Thomas (1362-1579)
By the fourteenth century Rome had once again become an important centre of pilgrimage, especially with the proclamation of the Holy Years of 1300 and 1350. Over a million pilgrims are reported to have come to Rome during the Jubilee of 1350 and the city seems to have been caught unaware - innkeepers gave rooms designed to accommodate four people to groups of eight or more and often treated the pilgrims with violence and extortion. A remedy was clearly necessary. By the mid-fourteenth century some of the English in Rome organised themselves into a Society or Guild. In 1362 an English couple, John and Alice Shepherd, rosary sellers by trade, sold this Guild a house on what is now the via di Monserrato so as to provide lodgings for English pellegrini and care for the "poor, infirm, needy and wretched persons from England".
The English Hospice of the Most Holy Trinity and St Thomas was thus born. The English were not the only "nation" to found a hospice in Rome - the Hospice's most famous neighbour at the time of its foundation was St Bridget of Sweden, who founded a hospice for Swedish pilgrims next door.
Some notable English pilgrims to Rome
The Hospice of St Thomas grew into an important centre for the English in Rome. In 1376 a chapel was built on the site of the present College church. It attracted royal patronage, and by the reign of Henry VII it had become known as "The King's Hospice", with a warden appointed by the Crown.
The wardens included Thomas Linacre, founder of the Royal College of Physicians, and Cardinal Christopher Bainbridge, Archbishop of York and Papal Legate, who was poisoned by one of his chaplains at the Hospice on 7 July 1514 and whose magnificent tomb remains in the College church to this day.
Foundation of the English College (1579)
The religious settlement of 1559 and the sheer length of Elizabeth I's reign (1558-1603) contributed greatly to the success of the Protestant Reformation in England. The Government hoped that Catholicism would gradually fade from memory as the Marian priests died out and people found compulsory attendance at the parish church a more attractive option to financial penalties or social marginalisation. Catholics were still a substantial minority, especially at Court (for example William Byrd, the composer), but they increasingly found it difficult to find priests.
The situation was largely changed by Cardinal William Allen, the founder of a system of English seminaries overseas which would provide the struggling Catholic Church in England with an orthodox education and new blood in the form of priests. In 1568 he founded the first of these colleges at Douai in Flanders, which already had 240 students by the mid 1570s. Then, in 1576, he converted the moribund English Hospice in Rome into a seminary. Its first students arrived there from Douai in 1577 and Gregory XIII issued the Bull of Foundation in 1579. The Pope gave the new English College a yearly grant and property, including the Abbey of San Savino at Piacenza. Moreover, the tradition of hospitality continued, and the College received the likes of the physician, William Harvey (1636), the poets John Milton (1638) and Richard Crashaw (1646), and the diarist, John Evelyn (1644).
Division and disorder marked the first years of the College. A Welshman, Morus Clynnog, was made perpetual warden in 1578, an appointment unpopular with both the students and the Hospice chaplains, whom he had just expelled. The students accused Clynnog of undue partiality to the Welsh students. But deeper issues were at stake.
Clynnog, together with Owen Lewis, an influential curial official, saw the new college as a home for exiles, rather like the Hospice, which would wait for the restoration of the old order. In fact, the students were encouraged to learn Italian so that they could take up posts in Italy while they waited for England's conversion. However, many of the students shared the missionary ideals of the Jesuits, equating the jungles of heathen South America with the woods of Protestant England. What they wanted was a house of studies preparing ordinands for immediate mission. For over a year the two factions circulated petitions and memorials, including one that called the Welsh barbarous savages who dwelt in a remote mountainous corner of Britain. Students even waylaid the Pope to ask for his assistance. Finally Clynnog was dismissed and replaced by a Jesuit, Alfonso Agazzari. The Jesuits would be in control until 1773.
The English Romayne life and Anthony Munday
One of the most interesting descriptions of life in the early days of the seminary comes from the pen of Anthony Munday, poet, storyteller and spy. Coming to Rome in 1578 with a friend, Thomas Nowell, he stayed at the College and later published his impressions in The English Romayne Life (1582). However, on returning to England, he turned anti-Catholic informer and helped to betray St Edmund Campion and other Jesuit priests. Nevertheless, his account provides an invaluable picture of the daily routine at the College. Here, for example, he describes a typical dinner at the College of the martyrs:
"Every man has his own trencher, his manchet, knife, spoon and fork laid by it, and then a fair white napkin covering it, with his glass and pot of wine set by him. And the first mess, or antepast (as they call it)….is some fine meat to urge them to have an appetite….The fourth is roasted meat, of the daintiest provision that they can get, and sometimes stewed and baked meat....The first and last is sometimes cheese, sometimes preserved conceits, sometimes figs, almonds and raisins, a lemon and sugar, a pomegranate, or some such sweet gear; for they know that Englishmen loveth sweetmeats.”
The College has been known as the "Venerable English College" since 1818 because of the 44 students who were martyred for the Catholic faith between 1581 and 1679, as well as the 130 who suffered imprisonment and exile. 41 of these have since been canonised or beatified by the Church.
The College's "Protomartyr" was St Ralph Sherwin. He was born in Roddesley, Derbyshire, around 1550 and educated at Exeter College, Oxford, before leaving for Douai and then Rome. His name stands first in the famous Liber ruber (a list of students who took the missionary oath in Rome before returning to England), where he is recorded as saying that he was ready, "today rather than tomorrow, at a sign from his superiors to go into England for the helping of souls".
His time soon came, and within four months of landing he was captured, imprisoned, tortured and finally hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn on 1 December 1581. Many others followed - including St Robert Southwell, the Jesuit poet (1595) and St Henry Morse, the "Priest of the Plague" (1645). The last College martydoms were in 1679 during the anti-Catholic hysteria following the "Popish Plot", when St David Lewis, St John Wall and Bl. Anthony Turner suffered.
The College soon gained a reputation as a nursery of martyrs. A custom arose of a student preaching before the Pope every St Stephen's Day on the theme of martyrdom - Bl. John Cornelius called the College the "Pontifical Seminary of Martyrs" in his St Stephen's sermon of 1581. St Philip Neri, the "Second Apostle of Rome", who lived opposite the College at S.Girolamo della Carità, used to greet the students with the words Salvete flores martyrum (Hail! flowers of the martyrs), and the great Oratorian historian, Cardinal Cesare Baronio, paid tribute to the English martyrs in his 1585 revision of the martyrology. In the College church Pomarancio painted a series of frescoes of English saints and martyrs which began with St Joseph of Arimathea's supposed visit to England and ended with the College martyrs, their sufferings shown in graphic detail. Copies of these frescoes can be seen in the tribune, and afforded important evidence of contemporary veneration of the martyrs during the process of their beatification and canonisation.
"The Martyrs' Picture” is the first thing one notices upon entering the College church. It was painted by Durante Alberti in 1580, just after the foundation of the College, and depicts the Blessed Trinity with two English martyrs: St Thomas of Canterbury on the left hand side and St Edmund, King of East Anglia, on the right. Blood from Christ's wounds is shown falling onto a map of the British Isles, and from this blood fire is springing up. This ties in with the College motto, held by a cherub: Ignem veni mittere in terram (I have come to bring fire to the earth). According to tradition, students gathered around this picture to sing a Te Deum whenever news reached Rome of a martyrdom of a former student. This custom continues today when the Te Deum is sung in front of the painting on 1 December, "Martyrs' Day”.
The College Martyrs
Jacobites and Jacobins
The last College martyr suffered in 1679. Two years later most of the College was rebuilt, although plans to build a new oval church with a double dome never materialised. The great Jesuit artist Andrea Pozzo designed the fresco of the Assumption in the domestic chapel, for which, as College documents attest, he was paid 22 scudi. Between 1682 and 1694 part of the College site was rebuilt as a palazzo by the Cardinal Protector of Great Britain, Philip Howard, third son of the Earl of Arundel.
During the eighteenth century the College attached itself to the Jacobite cause, praying for a restored Stuart monarchy which would be sympathetic to the Catholic faith. The Stuart pretenders, who lived nearby at the Palazzo Muti, were occasional visitors to the College. This, however, could be dangerous. Shortly after the death of the "Old Pretender" in 1766, "Bonnie Prince Charlie" was received by the Rector and attended Mass here.
A rumour spread around Rome that the Prince had been crowned during the service and proclaimed as "King Charles III". The Pope, who had recently withdrawn his support for the Stuart cause, was furious and dismissed the unfortunate Rector forthwith. However, Jacobite sympathies lingered on in the College until the death of the last Pretender, Henry, Cardinal Duke of York, in 1807.
More serious trouble followed in 1773 when Clement XIV was persuaded to suppress the Society of Jesus, which until then had run the affairs of the College. The General of the Jesuits, Father Ricci, was actually imprisoned in the College for a month before being removed to Castel Sant'Angelo. The College passed into the hands of Italian secular priests.
In 1796 Napoleon invaded Italy and in 1798 General Berthier entered Rome. The Pope, Pius VI, fled to Siena and the students of the English College left for home. The College buildings were sacked, turned into a barracks and finally a police station. The church roof was used as a supply of timber and the lead coffins were taken up from the crypt and melted down to make bullets. Mass obligations were farmed out to neighbouring churches. The future looked very bleak indeed.
It was amazing that the College, without staff or students, survived the Napoleonic period. Account books and legal meetings continued throughout the period, largely due to the support of the Cardinal Protector, Romualdo Braschi, nephew of Pius VI. In 1818 an English rector, Robert Gradwell, was appointed and started the life of the College anew with a small group of students, including Nicholas Wiseman, who subsequently became rector at the age of 27 (1828) and the first Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster (1850).
Wiseman succeeded in making the College a centre of intellectual and social life. He became a professor of Syriac at the University of Rome and received many distinguished visitors to the College, such as Newman, Macauley, Gladstone, Manning, Lamennais and Lacordaire. One of his students was Ignatius Spencer, who later joined the Passionists and died in the odour of sanctity. His great-nephew was Winston Churchill and his great-great-great-niece Diana, Princess of Wales.
In 1866 Pius IX laid the foundation stone of a new College church, designed by Count Virginio Vespignani, the old Hospice church having been unusable for decades. This was completed in 1888. In the meantime, Papal Rome had fallen and the Kingdom of Italy founded. During the occupation of Rome in 1870 the College was slightly damaged by cannon fire, as it had been in 1849, and students sheltered in the cellar, where they were provided with hot wine.