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In 2008 Ushaw College celebrated its second centenary, but its origins go back further than its two hundred years here at Ushaw. The original foundation in the sixteenth century came at the time of Reformation, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The law in 1559 outlawed traditional Catholicism.
However, a number resisted the changes and continued to practise their religion in secret, despite increasing fines, imprisonment, and even death. Some escaped abroad to continue to practise their faith. Among these was William Allen, who opened a house of studies at Douai in Flanders. Until the late 17th century Douai was in the dominions of the Catholic Kings of Spain. It was later annexed to France.
Douai College opened its doors to six students in September 1568. Allen’s ambition was to train priests to minister to the hard-pressed Catholics back in England. The College grew rapidly and by the time Elizabeth died in 1603 nearly 500 priests had completed their training. They entered England in secret, for it was a treasonable offence for them to minister as priests and say Mass. If caught they paid the price for treason which was death by hanging, drawing and quartering. Over 100 members of Douai College were martyred in this way.
Despite the danger in ministering in England, the number of men seeking education and training for the priesthood at Douai continued to increase. The English College became known as the principal centre of education for Catholic priests and laymen of England and Wales for more than two centuries. The aftermath of the French Revolution signalled the end of the College, when Britain was at war with France. The French Government confiscated all British property and imprisoned the few remaining staff and students. These events coincided with a gradual lifting of the laws which had for so long restricted Catholics in England and Wales, so when they were released students were able to return home.