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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 its current site. The original foundation of our illustrious establishment lies in the sixteenth century, during a time of Reformation, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. In 1559, the Queen outlawed traditional Catholicism, and made the practice of many people's whole lives beyond their reach.
Despite the oppression and terrible lives that those who practised Catholicism in England faced, a number of priests resisted the changes in their country, and continued to practise their religion in secret, despite increasing fines, imprisonment, and the risk of death. Many escaped abroad to continue to practise their faith in lands where Catholicism was still accepted, such as France and Spain. Among these was William Allen, who opened a house of studies for Catholics at Douai, in Flanders. Until the late 17th century, Douai was under the rule of the Catholic Kings of Spain, but was later annexed to Catholic France.
Douai College opened its doors to six initial students in September of 1568. Allen’s ambition was to train priests to minister to the hard-pressed Catholics back in England, who could not keep bibles or discuss their religion with those around them. The College grew rapidly and by the time Elizabeth I died in 1603, nearly 500 priests had completed their training at Douai. These young men travelled to 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 their perceived treason; death by hanging, drawing and quartering. Over 100 members of Douai College were martyred in this barbaric way.
Despite the danger that came with ministering in England, the number of men seeking education and training for the priesthood at Douai continued to increase. Over time, 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, continuing to send newly ordained priests back to preach in England. When the French Revolution broke out, Catholics at Douai were once again threatened.
The aftermath of the French Revolution signalled the end of the College as it stood at Douai, when Britain found itself at war with France. The French Government confiscated all British property within their country, and imprisoned the few remaining staff and students of the College who had not fled elsewhere. These events coincided with a gradual lifting of the laws which had for so long restricted Catholics in England and Wales, so those that escaped persecution in France, or following the release of those who were captured, the students were able to return home.