As one drives through northern France, it is easy to ignore the signs to Douai. It has no cathedral to match Amiens, no world-famous gastronomic speciality. For some reason, it is twinned with Harrow-on-the-Hill. Most tourists will drive on to more fashionable destinations, such as the Loire or Burgundy.
Yet Douai was once the home of the English, Scots and Irish Colleges as well as houses for the English Benedictines and Franciscans, making it the ‘capital’ of the British Catholic diaspora for over two centuries. The town was, of course, situated near the Channel, making it eminently accessible. As of 1562 it was the seat of a new university, designed to be part of the Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation. British Catholic exiles had already made their home there by the time William Allen (pictured) founded an English College there in 1568, many of them university men who had informally arranged themselves into houses called “Oxford” and “Cambridge”.
Today, in its 450th anniversary year, nothing remains of the English College, although the buildings were only demolished in the 1920s. Much of the site is now covered by the nondescript Place Carnot. Yet Douai’s importance cannot be overemphasised: the college essentially ensuring the survival of the English Church through the dark days of persecution. It became a celebrated school and seminary, the first in the Anglophone world, producing a new type of missionary: the “seminary priest”, highly trained in theology and controversy, and eager to return to his homeland, despite the obvious dangers. Allen thought his men were an improvement compared with “the common sort of curates [we] had in old time” and effectively prevented the “Old Faith” from dying out or becoming an irrelevance.
The first of this new generation of priests returned to England in 1574. Three years later St Cuthbert Mayne became the proto-martyr of Douai; 116 of its priests were executed during Elizabeth’s reign alone. The college also produced well-formed laymen who, according to Allen, furthered the mission through their contact with their families or by working as tutors.
The first years of the college were marked by financial difficulties and concerns surrounding security: it proved easy enough for the English authorities to plant spies, which led to the custom of students and staff adopting aliases (sometimes several of them). Further trouble was caused by the fact the Low Countries were a hothouse of religious politics. Between 1578 and 1593 the college was relocated to Rheims.
Famously, the college also sponsored a translation of the New Testament in 1582. The volume included extensive notes and, although it was described as a translation from the Vulgate, use was clearly made of the existing English Bibles of John Wycliffe and Miles Coverdale. The Old Testament followed in 1609-10, which meant the complete Douai-Rheims Bible was already available by the time the King James Bible was produced in 1611. Indeed, the Douai-Rheims New Testament was one of the sources used by the translators of the King James. In the mid-18th century the text was substantially revised by Bishop Challoner and others, and it remained standard among English-speaking Catholics until the second half of the 20th century.
The English College, therefore, especially in its first decades, was not simply a convenient centre for disgruntled exiles but a forward-looking place of education and formation. Its staff included some of the most celebrated minds of the day – not only those who helped translate the Bible but also figures such as Thomas Stapleton, whom Pope Clement VIII rated so highly that he had Stapleton’s works read to him during dinner. Part of the college’s immense legacy was its contribution to an unexpected flourishing of English Catholic theology.
The college survived in Douai until the French Revolution, which led to a period of imprisonment for some of the collegians and heroic escapes from the guillotine (stories long treasured by alumni). The Douai tradition continued in seminaries across the Channel: Ushaw in the north and Old Hall Green and Allen Hall in the south. A secondary school in my west London deanery bears the name of the “Douay Martyrs”, complete with recusant spelling.
John Penswick, the last surviving member of the Douai Collegians, who died in October 1864, recalled as an old man: ‘‘There was a sort of prestige acting silently, but efficaciously, in the breasts of all the inmates when they reflected that their house had been the home of so many eminent men who had done honour to religion by their learned and voluminous writings; that it had been the alma mater of at least 160 pious and devoted priests who had laid down their lives in defence of religion … Surely this was a home to live in. No one ever left it without reluctance; no one ever recollected it without delight.’
We should never forget the great legacy of Douai. Next time you find yourself in northern France, visit the town and pay tribute to its martyrs and its history.
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