A Living History

The Royal English College of St Alban in Valladolid has a long and proud history.


The bloody persecution of Catholics that began during the 16th-century reign of Elizabeth I made the training of priests in England impossible. Instead, the Church turned to sympathetic countries in Europe to help keep the faith alive and Cardinal William Allan established the English College at Douai in France under the protection of King Philip II of Spain in 1568.


In 1588, the same year that the Armada set sail in the hope of restoring Catholic rule in England, the Douai diaries record three students leaving for Spain with the intention of founding a new college. They joined a small group of priests and other supporters in Valladolid but in the atmosphere of suspicion of foreigners that prevailed, they were arrested sometime later.


The following year Jesuit priest Father Robert Persons, a leading figure in the movement to return England to the Catholic faith, met Philip II to appeal for help in establishing seminaries to train priests for work in England. He was met with sympathy and he was given a document that is still in existence allowing him to appeal for funds from the authorities in Valladolid.


This allayed the city’s fears and the priests and students were released from custody on the security of Father Persons and took up lodgings in the attic of a house near the convent of Santa Clara. In 1589 the Royal and Pontifical English College of St Alban was founded. Father Persons rented a house on the site now occupied by the college’s new library and theatre, lamenting the fact that the king had given “but 100 crownes”.


Father Persons talked about “gathering together such Englishmen as were there and providing for them until the weather and time and other opportunities did serve for them to continue their intended journey to England”.


The original group of five students was enlarged the following year by 20 students from Douai, including future martyrs Robert Drury and Roger Filcock. These developments did not go unnoticed in England, although the first thing many people heard about its existence was a proclamation from Elizabeth I in 1591 explicitly denouncing the work of the priests and Jesuits of St Alban’s in Valladolid…

"The King of Spaine, for furthering of other intentions against Englande, has dealt with Cardinal Allen and Father Persons to gather together with great labour uppon his charges a multitude of dissolute youthes to begin this seminary of Valladolid and others in Spaine."
- Elizabeth I

By 1592 the college was sufficiently established to be able to receive the king. It attracted students from Douai, Rheims and St Omers, as well as attracting financial support from Spanish nobility and some exiled English nobility.


From St Alban’s, further English colleges were established in Seville (St Gregory’s) in 1592 and Madrid (St George’s) in 1610. Once they had completed their training, St Alban’s students returned as priests to a country where they were considered traitors and were at a constant risk of arrest and execution.


In 1593 Father Henry Walpole, one of the college founders, was arrested for the crime of Catholic priesthood shortly after arriving back in England. He was taken to the Tower of London where he was tortured and interrogated before being sent for trial in York. Refusing steadfastly to save himself by renouncing his faith, he was hanged, drawn and quartered on April 7 1595 and became the first martyr of the English College in Valladolid.


The example of the martyrs appealed to many others who yearned to imitate their heroic behaviour.


By the 17th century, the corridors of St Alban’s were decorated with the portraits of students who had followed Father Walpole’s example and been executed.

  • St Henry Walpole
  • St Thomas Garnet
  • St John Roberts
  • St Ambrose Barlow
  • St John Plessington
  • St John Lloyd
  • Blessed Marc Barkworth
  • Blessed William Richardson
  • Blessed Ralph Ashley
  • Blessed Richard Reynolds
  • Blessed Thomas Holland
  • Blessed Ralph Corby
  • Blessed Thomas Benstead
  • Blessed Thomas Palaser
  • Blessed Roger Filcock
  • Blessed Robert Drury
  • Blessed Roger Cadwallador
  • Blessed William Southerne
  • Blessed Thomas Bullacker
  • Blessed Arthur Bell
  • Blessed Edward Bamber
  • Blessed Thomas Whittacher
  • Venerable Edward Morgan


There were some tensions along nationalistic lines between the Spanish Jesuit rectors and English students during the college’s early days. Some students escaped both the strict St Alban’s regime and the threat of death on their return to England by joining the Benedictines of San Benito in Valladolid.


Amid unrest over where students attended lectures, the king sent the Duke of Lerma to tell then the college would close unless the seminarians did as they were told.


From 1663 it was decided that there would be an intake of students only once every seven years so that each group stayed together for their entire formation and this remained the case through the 18th century. However, the college’s fortunes waned and by the time King Charles III expelled the Jesuits from Spain in 1767 there were only two students remaining.


A court official, accompanied by troops, took possession of St Alban’s on the night of April 2. In August, the Secretary of the Holy Office in Valladolid became the college administrator. However, the Catholic Bishops of England wrote to the Spanish ambassador in London saying that all three colleges were the property of the Catholic Church in England.


On July 26, Bishop Richard Challoner, Vicar Apostolic of the London District, suggested there should be one English college in Spain rather than three, with Valladolid remaining as it had the best climate and the colleges in Madrid and Seville closing and he asked the king to establish an annual pension for Valladolid.


Charles agreed, saying that the clergy of England could immediately send 10 students and a rector to Valladolid and he issued a royal decree stating that St Alban’s would now be governed by an English secular priest. A sum of 10,000 pesos would be available through the royal bank for his travel costs. To this day the rector is officially appointed by the king and his name appears in the official Gazette of Spain.


The first such rector, from 1768, was Father Philip Mark Perry (1720-1774), who brought stability to the college during a period of great political turmoil in Spain. However, many of the students of that time chose not to return home to England, despite having taken “the missionary oath”, which was a promise to do so. Father Perry also convinced the Scots’ College in Madrid to move to Valladolid in 1771. They remained in the city until moving to Salamanca in 1988.


From 1775 to 1796 the college was under the guidance of Father Joseph Shepherd as events in England gradually took a turn for the better for Catholics. King George III stopped short of giving Catholics full equality but was far more tolerant and seminaries were to be tolerated in England. Why, then, should an expensive college so far away from home as Valladolid continue top to be supported? This question came into sharp focus when a rift developed between the college and the English hierarchy. After the death of Father Thomas Taylor in 1808 the bishops did not initially send anyone to replace him.


Even though the college was almost bankrupt and Spain had been invaded by France and was in the middle of a huge economic crisis, enough former Valladolid seminarians were now professors and bishops and were determined the college would not close, although vestments, silver and some books were sold to stave off financial ruin. However, the college’s situation worsened and even the visit of King Ferdinand VII in 1828 did little to help as a tide of anti-clericalism rose in Spain. By 1838 the English bishops had ordered all their students home, sending Father James Standen as custodian of an empty college, although he was never officially appointed rector.


Father Standen arrived in Spain after a journey from Ushaw College in Durham as a stranger unable to speak the language. At first he found the experience dispiriting but he later became convinced the college was essential if England was to be fully converted to Catholicism and fought courageously to save it. By the time he was succeeded by his only student, Father John Guest, in 1846, the support of the English hierarchy was returning, especially from Cardinal Wiseman and Bishop (later Cardinal) Vaughan, and 30 students once again filled the college’s halls.


Father Guest also began production of the college’s own wine, which was exported to England for use on the altar. He died in 1878, on the day a new group of students arrived who would herald a new period of prosperity for the college that would last until the outbreak of World War I in 1914.


Monsignor Charles Allen (1878-1904), Father William Wookey (1904-1906) and Father Thomas Kennedy (1906-1911) presided over extensive modernisation and gas and electricity was installed.


With Spain now politically stable, the college settled back into its old rhythm.


Monsignor Edwin Henson was one of the college’s longest-serving rectors, taking up the post in 1924 at the relatively youthful age of 28 and continuing in the role throughout the Spanish Civil War and World War II. The college was isolated during the conflict, with travel to England almost impossible and the constant threat that Spain’s General Franco would join the German side. However, Monsignor Henson bravely remained in the college, occupying his time by painstakingly cataloguing the 16th- and 17th-century books contained in the big library.


As soon as hostilities the college was opened, welcoming its first students in 1947 and gradually establishing a full six-year training course. Since 1998 the college has run a Propaedeutic year for men discerning a vocation to the priesthood, giving candidates a foundation before they enter full-time training in a major seminary.

Visiting The College

Although our primary focus is always priestly formation of the seminarians, when we are able to do so we warmly welcome groups and individual visitors who would like to learn more about St Alban’s crucial role in the life of the Catholic Church.

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