St Edmund’s College, the oldest Catholic college in England, is a continuation on English soil of the famous English College that was founded by Cardinal William Allen at Douay in Flanders in 1568. This College was perhaps the strongest single agency by which Catholicism was kept from perishing in England. Originally intended as a seminary to prepare priests to work in England to keep alive the ancient faith, it soon also became a boys’ school for Catholics, debarred as they were by the laws of the land from having such institutions in their own country.
Many of its students, both priests and laymen, returned to England to be put to death under the anti-Catholic laws. The College boasts among its former alumni 20 canonised and 133 beatified martyrs for the Catholic Faith. Later on, sometime during the second half of the 17th century, a small Catholic school was begun in Hampshire. It was opened by a priest at Silkstead prior to 1662 and then transferred to Twyford, near Winchester. It was conducted in great secrecy and was for boys of preparatory school age, intending to proceed to the English College to complete more advanced studies. The poet, Alexander Pope, was a student at this school, although he did not proceed to Douay. Twyford was closed in 1745 on account of the anti-Catholic feeling caused by the Jacobite rebellion. Still, Bishop Richard Challoner re-established the school here in Hertfordshire at Standon Lordship in 1749, in the property owned by the Aston family. In 1769, Bishop James Talbot, Bishop Challoner’s coadjutor bishop, moved the school to the current site, and it became known as ‘Old Hall Green Academy’.
The work of the English College in Douay was brought to an end by the French Revolution. In October 1793, the College property was confiscated. Professors and students came back to England; due to the Relief Acts, the penal laws against Catholics were considerably relaxed. Bishop John Douglass, Vicar Apostolic of the London District, realised that the time had come to replace Douay College with a college on English soil. The earliest ‘refugees’ from Douay joined the students at the Old Hall Academy. Bishop Douglass recorded the inauguration of this new foundation in his diary: “1793. On the 12th of November, I took Messrs William Beauchamp and John Law to Old Hall, and on the 16th, the Feast of Saint Edmund, Archbishop of Canterbury, we commenced studies and established the new College there, a substitute for Douay.”
After celebrating Mass and Benediction, Bishop Douglass instituted the new College under the patronage of St Edmund, Archbishop of Canterbury, “Felix faustumque sit!” The establishment of St Edmund’s was the first sign of better times and was the beginning of the restoration of colleges and seminaries throughout England. The remaining staff and students arrived from Douay by 1795, and but not before students from the Northern District had left, eventually making the separate foundation, Ushaw College, near Durham. A gift of £10,000 from John Sone, a Hampshire Catholic, enabled St Edmund’s to be established in new buildings designed by James Taylor of Islington, who had himself been a student at the Old Hall Academy.
Archivist: David Kay