Treasures from the London Library: Training for martyrdom

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Treasures from the London Library: Training for martyrdom

Dunia Garcia-Ontiveros

Dunia Garcia-Ontiveros explores the work and influence of William Allen, who fought to restore Roman Catholicism to England during the reign of Elizabeth I.

In 1558, Mary Tudor’s brief Catholic reign came to an end. Just as English Protestants who had fled to Lutheran and Calvinist havens on the continent began to return home, in Oxford and Cambridge, Catholic scholars who refused to conform to the new Elizabethan order packed their bags and planned their escape to France and the Spanish-ruled Low Countries. Some travelled to the universities of Douai and Louvain, but many were scattered across Europe until an Oxford don, William Allen (1532-1594), founded an English college in Douai, in 1568, where they could study together. With Papal approval and the financial support of King Philip II of Spain, the college gradually attracted more and more learned exiles. It became so successful that a subsidiary branch was set up in Rome, in 1576, to accommodate the growing numbers of students.

Allen devoted all his energies to restore England to Roman Catholicism and he used the college to train English priests. But he did much more than that. Despite the obvious dangers, Allen encouraged his graduates to become missionaries and to travel to England to fight the apathy and fear of the Catholics back home. Many of the priests who returned to England were martyred; back in Douai, they were worshipped as heroes. New recruits may have been attracted by the prospect of being revered after death or by the allure of gaining a place in heaven through martyrdom. The London Library has a copy of Allen’s An apologie and true declaration of the institution and endevours of the two English Colleges, the one in Rome and the other now resident in Rhemes against certaine sinister informations given up against the same, printed in 1581, in which he outlines his reasons for founding the colleges. Ostensibly, his Apologie was written as an answer to his critics, but it also served to justify his methods to Catholics in England who disagreed with him.

Not content with his martyrs’ proselytising and the powerful propaganda their deaths offered, Allen also plotted an invasion of England with the pope and the Spanish king. He became the target of several assassination attempts, which he amazingly survived. Allen’s strong connections with Spain also forced him and his students to flee to Rheims in 1578, when Douai was taken over by Protestant forces. It was in Rheims that William Allen’s most enduring work was completed.

The English Catholic version of the Scriptures known as the Douai or Rheims-Douay Bible was the work of Gregory Martin, one of the lecturers at the English College; however, it was Allen’s brainchild. Allen also raised the money to finance the work. His motivations for undertaking the project are unclear: did he seek to defend Catholics against accusations of keeping the Scriptures in inaccessible Latin? Or, realising that Protestant English Bibles were everywhere, did he want to redress the balance by creating a Catholic version for English readers? Martin completed his translation from the Vulgate in 1580 and lived just long enough to see the New Testament printed in Rheims in 1582, which was as much as the funds could stretch to.

Having been made cardinal by Pope Sixtus V in 1587, Allen died in Rome in 1594. He was surrounded by powerful friends, but impoverished and disheartened after the defeat of the Spanish Armada. He did not live to see his Old Testament printed in Douai in 1609 and 1610 (the college had returned there in 1593), nor did he live to learn of his New Testament’s influence on the King James Bible of 1611. Would he have viewed the absorption of his Catholic rendering of the Bible by a new Protestant version as a victory of sorts or as the final insult?

Dunia Garcia-Ontiveros is head of Bibliographic Services at the London Library.


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