During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, it was the Government’s objective that the Catholic Faith should die out in England. To this end, new laws were introduced forbidding the training and ordination of Catholic priests. According to their plan, once the Marian priests (those ordained under Catholic Queen Mary) died, there would be no priests to take their place and, of course, no priests would mean the end of Catholicism in the country. They reckoned without the tenacity of the Catholics!
Cardinal William Allen conceived of a plan to alleviate the situation. In 1568, Cardinal Allen opened a seminary in Douai, Flanders, for the training of boys and young men from Britain. Then in 1576, he converted the English Hospice in Rome into a seminary. Its first students arrived in 1577. Many of its students, upon ordination, were destined for the “English Mission”, having to steal back into their homeland in disguise. Being a time of great persecution, the College quickly gained a reputation as a training ground for martyrs. Its protomartyr, St Ralph Sherwin, was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn on 1st December 1581.
In 1638, David Lewis, a 21 year old Welshman, entered the English College in Rome. Because of the persecution at home, it was necessary for the British students to assume an alias. David Lewis assumed the name of Charles Baker. On 20th July 1642, David Lewis was ordained priest at the English College.
Owing to the number of its martyred students, the custom arose of a student of the English College preaching on the theme of martyrdom before the Pope on St Stephen’s Day. On St Stephen’s Day 1642, that honour fell to the recently ordained Fr David Lewis. Fr Lewis preached eloquently before Pope Urban VIII in the Lateran Basilica. His Latin homily, entitled “Corona Christi pro spinis gemmea”, was on the Martyrdom of St Stephen, the first Christian Martyr.
The College produced a long line of priests who, for their faith, suffered imprisonment or exile. More than 40 former students were martyred. The last Alumnus to suffer martyrdom was St David Lewis who was executed at Usk on 27th August 1679. Because of its many martyrs, the College has been known since 1818 as “The Venerable English College”.
(The photograph of the two Martyrs is taken from a stained glass window in the Catholic Church, Tenby, South Wales)