The English College at Douai was established by William Allen, later Cardinal, on Michaelmas Day, 29th September, 1568. It offered an opportunity to form clergy for England in accordance with the system laid down by the Council of Trent.
Originally it was intended as a college home for exiles from England, a place where they could continue their studies in a way no longer possible for Catholics at the English universities. In time Allen recognised its potential as a place for training clergy ready for the return to England when ‘the new religion’ had run its course. The new priests, however, proved unwilling to wait for that event and quickly Douai College found itself dedicated very largely to the training of missionary priests.
Between 1577, the date of the martyrdom of St Cuthbert Mayne, the college’s protomartyr, and 1680, the date of the execution of Thomas Thwing, the college’s last martyr, one hundred and fifty eight college members, priests and layman, secular and religious, met with a martyr’s death.
The College was suppressed in 1793, and the seminarians imprisoned for thirteen months at Doullens, Picardy. They were released in November 1794, returning to Douai for only a few months before obtaining permission to return to England. They found their first refuge at Old Hall Green, Ware, and dedicated the new work of the college to St Edmund of Canterbury on his feast day, November 16th, 1794.
The presence of the seminary at Douai in France came to an end with the French Revolution. In October 1793 the college property was confiscated, so the professors and students returned to England where the penal laws against Catholics had been relaxed. Bishop John Douglass, Vicar Apostolic of the London District, sent the earliest refugees to stay at Old Hall Green Academy, a school near to Ware, Hertfordshire.
On 16 November 1793 – the feast of Saint Edmund, Archbishop of Canterbury – a new college was instituted. The establishment of St Edmund’s College was the beginning of the restoration of colleges and seminaries throughout England. Many of the boys of the school continued in the seminary and trained for the priesthood.
In 1904 Archbishop Francis Bourne had a new wing built to house the seminarians. This part of the college eventually became known as Allen Hall, after the founder of the English College at Douai. 1975 saw the departure of the seminarians: moving to Chelsea allowed them to be more involved in pastoral work in London, and allowed St Edmund’s College to expand as a school. The name Allen Hall has been retained to this day.
Inconspicuous from the road, quiet and tranquil amidst the busyness and bustle of Chelsea lies Allen Hall and its seminary community. It is easy to understand how the house might be overlooked by passers by, yet the staff and students that live here are immersed in a rich heritage, surrounded by history. Our tradition is threefold and a true blessing, greatly appreciated by those of us discerning our vocation to the priesthood within the walls of Allen Hall.