The English Hospice of the Most Holy Trinity and St Thomas was founded in 1362 when the English community in Rome purchased a house from the rosary sellers John and Alice Shephard. The Jubilee Year of 1350, which had seen the influx of over a million pilgrims anxious to gain the Plenary Indulgence offered by Pope Clement VI, had exposed the notorious shortcomings of accommodation in the Eternal City. English pilgrims had paid extortionate prices to stay in damp and filthy hostels far from St Peter's and the Holy Door through which they had come to pass. Innkeepers gave rooms designed to accommodate four people to groups of eight or more and often treated the pilgrims with violence and extortion. Many had drowned in the Tiber after the collapse of a temporary bridge and others died from the disease endemic to their rat-infested lodgings. The foundation of the Hospice was in direct response to this situation, with the stated aim of caring for "poor, infirm, needy and wretched persons from England".
The Hospice of St Thomas grew into the major centre for English visitors and residents in Rome. In 1376 a Chapel was erected on the site of the present College Church, and remnants of the impressive structure still remain in the College Garden. The new Chapel attracted royal patronage, and by the reign of King Henry VII the institution had become known as "The King's Hospice", with a Warden appointed by the Crown. Evidence of this early royal connection may be seen in the present day building, which contains a corbel of fumed oak and a stone shield, both bearing the arms of the Plantagenet Kings.
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 marble tomb remains in the College Church to this day.
During the 237 years of its existence the English Hospice received many thousands of pilgrims, one of the most famous being the saintly mystic, Margery Kempe, who visited in 1416. In 1481, 218 pilgrims stayed here, and during the plague of 1482 the Hospice cared for 96 sick pilgrims. However, two events in the early sixteenth century led to a radical decline in the fortunes of the Hospice.
During the Sack of Rome in 1527 troops of the Holy Roman Emperor broke into the Hospice and carried away the greater part of its gold and silver ware, its moveable property and its extensive archive of papers and manuscripts. At the same time, King Henry VIII made his fateful decision to break with Rome, and almost entirely impeded the flow of English pilgrims to the See of Peter. In response to this moment of crisis, Pope Paul III took over the Hospice in the year 1538 and placed it in the hands of Cardinal Reginald Pole, himself cousin to King Henry VIII. When Cardinal Pole returned to England as Archbishop of Canterbury under Queen Mary, it seemed that the Hospice would revive as a pilgrim institution, but the accession of Elizabeth I brought darker days. Acting as little more than a refuge for a few decrepit chaplains and exiles, the Hospice spent less than a tenth of its income on welcoming guests. The future seemed bleak indeed.
The arrival of Cardinal William Allen in Rome in the High Summer of 1576 heralded a new and more glorious chapter in the history of the English Hospice. Cardinal Allen, who, like Cardinal Newman three centuries later, had resigned a Fellowship at Oriel College, Oxford, had already founded a seminary at Douai in 1568, and had drawn to it 240 students, many from his former University. In 1576, with the aid and encouragement of the reigning Pontiff, Gregory XIII, he converted the moribund Hospice into a seminary, known as the Collegium Anglorum or English College. 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 several eminent guests, including the physician, William Harvey (1636), the poets John Milton (1638) and Richard Crashaw (1646), and the diarist, John Evelyn (1644).
Division and disorder overhung the first years of the English 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, and the future Martyr, St Ralph Sherwin, famously drew his sword in the Refectory (the kitchen of the present-day building). Finally Clynnog was dismissed and replaced by a Jesuit, Alfonso Agazzari. The Jesuits would be in control until 1773.
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). 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 Eton College and at Exeter College, Oxford, before leaving for Douai and then Rome, where he studied like every subsequent generation of seminarists at the Pontifical Gregorian University. 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 Saint 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”, and the relics of the Martyrs, preserved beneath the Altar, are venerated by the students.
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. Of particular note is the fresco of St George slaying the dragon on the ceiling of the College Refectory.
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. Even today, some English College seminarians maintain an annual St George's Day tradition of laying white roses on the tomb of the Stuart monarchs at St Peter's and praying for the souls of these exiled pretenders to the thone of Great Britain. In 2005 Cardinal Francesco Marchesane, Archpriest of the Vatican Basilica, instructed the security personnel not to apply the usual rules excluding flowers from the building.
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 second great crisis in the history of the College had arrived.
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, Macaulay, 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 Pope 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. To this day, the recently restored Clock Tower of the College bears the marks of this unfortunate chapter of European History.
The inter-war period saw the rectorships of Arthur Hinsley (1917-29) and William Godfrey (1929-39), who both later became Cardinal Archbishops of Westminster. They encouraged a highly Anglicised type of Romanitas in which a consciousness of Imperial superiority was tempered by a deep affection for Italy and all things Italian. Students put on concerts, plays and Gilbert and Sullivan operas, organised debates and societies, and ran a successful in-house journal, The Venerabile, as well as the famous periodical "Chi Lo Sa?" (Who Knows?), in which the Superiors of the College were mercilessly satirised. Edward VII visited the College in 1903, and King George V sent a signed photograph to the students during his visit to Rome exactly twenty years later. The products of this healthy regime, including Cardinals Griffin and Heenan, were to lead English Catholics into the 1970s.
Hinsley did a great deal of restructuring work, including the buying of a new villa at Palazzola. This former Franciscan Friary replaced the cramped summer house at Monte Porzio which students had used since the seventeenth century and which they had come affectionately to call "dear old Monty P". Eager to move into the new property, seminarians helped with their own hands to dig the swimming pool and surface the tennis court. A cricket pitch was also set out, known to this day as The Whiggery, and an annual cricket match played with the staff of the British Embassy. In 1926, with the help of front page support from The Times, Hinsley saved the College from a scheme of the Roman city planners to destroy some of the buildings to make room for a covered market.
The Second World War resulted in a second period of exile for the College. Dressed in civilian clothes, courtesy of the stage man, the house left Rome on 16 May 1940 and narrowly secured places on the last boat for England from Le Havre, which was about to fall. The College buildings were used as a hospital organised by the Knights of Malta from 1941 to 1944. Students continued classes and seminary life first at Ambleside in the Lake District and then at the Jesuit school of Stonyhurst, returning to Rome in the autumn of 1946.
The English and Welsh bishops stayed at the College during the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), as they had done during the First Vatican Council (1869-70). As a measure of their gratitude, the Bishops undertook to repanel the Refectory of the College in a contemporary style, also installing a new pulpit in anticipation of continued reading during silent meals. The Refectory had previously been lined and furnished with seventeenth century walnut. Frescoes that previously adorned the walls of the hall were whitewashed in the 1950s by the incumbent Rector, Monsignor Jock Tickle, who later became Bishop-in-Ordinary to Her Majesty's Forces.
The 1970s were a period of change in the history of the College, as for much of the Catholic Church in the West. During a reordering of the College Church, a new Altar was consecrated on 1 December 1980; the side altars of the College Church were removed, the Tabernacle containing the Blessed Sacrament was re-positioned, and old carved walnut pews were replaced with new seating. The Baldachino which had hung over the previous High Altar for almost a hundred years was sent to a local antique shop, where it could still be seen awaiting a buyer into the 1990s. Other changes at this time included the abolition of the College dress, which dated back to the time of the Martyrs, and the relaxation of most of the old seminary Rule.
In 1979, on the occasion of its Fourth Centenary, the College was honoured by a visit from John Paul II who celebrated Mass in the Church and joined the students for a festive banquet in the refectory.
The Coat of Arms of the Venerable English College derives its legitimacy from the Holy See. The official icon of the Pope's Apostolic Authority, the Triple Tiara, is used in conjunction with the silver key (symbolising the power of St Peter's successor to bind and loose on earth) and the golden key (symbolising the power of St Peter's successor to bind and loose in heaven). Cardinal Allen and Pope Gregory XVI, who co-founded the College, donate from their personal arms the dragon rampant and the three hares, whilst the two Lions Rampant come from the Arms of King Edward III. This represents the patronage bestowed on the College by every English King between the fourteenth century and the Protestant Reformation. During this period the Warden of the College was often England's Ambassador to the Holy See. The shell at the bottom of the arms is the traditional emblem of the pilgrim and recalls the origins of the present institution as a hospice for English visitors to Rome. The motto "Ignem Veni Mittere In Terram" (Luke 12:49) is taken from the Martyrs' Picture, which hangs behind the Altar in the College Church, and may be translated as "I have come to bring fire to the earth"; it reflects the apostolic zeal with which the first Martyrs returned to almost certain death in Protestant England and Wales.
Although located in central Rome, the College possesses an extensive garden, laid out substantially as it was in the days of the Martyrs, and a swimming pool, recently refurbished with the aid of the Friends of the Venerabile. As swimming pools were for many years prohibited for reasons of water conservation, it was once classified as a water storage facility, and a remnant of this former association survives in the College slang term for the pool, The Tank. The garden contains a number of Roman columns and other pieces of classical stonework, as well as pillars and window frames from the 14th century Chapel.
On Sunday, Solemn Mass is celebrated in the College Church at 10.00am, and Solemn Vespers at 7.00pm. The College Church is due to undergo extensive restoration in the near future; recently, the Martyrs' Chapel, Refectory, Library and Archives have all been restored.