Posted: 25 Nov 2010 09:00 PM PST
St. Edmund's College, a small Catholic boarding school in Ware, England, is full of history. Not the usual type of history at the usual high school. St. Edmund's actually traces its history back to 1586 and the founding of the English College at Douay, France. Cardinal William Allen started the college in order to educate young Catholics not allowed to exercise their religion under the harsh laws of Elizabeth I, who reigned from 1558 to 1603.
English Catholics who hid priests from authorities, who desired to practice their faith, or who simply bought Catholic books smuggled into the country, faced severe punishments, including fines, imprisonment, and even death. For Elizabethan Catholics, faith was hazardous to one's health. Yet Catholics remained faithful in large numbers and the English Church, although heavily persecuted, never succumbed. The English College at Douay flourished during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and sent scores of priests into England as missionaries.
With the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789, it once again became rather dangerous to be an English Catholic, this time for a different set of political reasons. The Catholic Church was one of the primary targets of the revolutionaries' violence. With few options available and in the face of imminent destruction, Douay College moved from France back into England and became St. Edmund's College in 1793.
Now over two hundred years old, St. Edmund's College educates more than five hundred students each year. Church history and institutional history saturate St. Edmund's in manifold ways. Pictures of every English bishop beginning from 1793 hang in a row on the way to the dining hall. Original buildings from 1793 are still in use today. Amazingly, archivists know the names of all 12,100 students and teachers who have studied and taught at the College from its founding in 1568.
The Witness of English Martyrs Born under dire circumstances, the Douay College at St. Edmund's also preserves the story of martyrdom. Few American Catholics, of course, fully appreciate martyrdom. Although anti-Catholicism is as American as apple pie (especially entrenched in Hollywood and secular universities), religious freedom remains the law of the land. We do not and have not had to die for our faith.
English Catholics, on the other hand, count forty martyrs from the reign of Elizabeth I alone. For them, the altar is stained with the blood of ancestors. This reality manifests itself in a variety of ways. At St. Edmund's, the living tradition of martyrdom envelops the entire school. Perhaps largely unnoticed or quietly assimilated by the students and faculty, this sense of martyrdom is, to the outsider, both disturbing and awe-inspiring, both shocking and spiritually edifying.
I didn't travel to St. Edmund's looking for martyrs. I am, by training, a university professor, and my research interests include Shakespeare and sixteenth-century books. St. Edmund's houses a spectacular collection of Catholic books from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, so my trip had everything to do with this collection, the remnants of the library from the English College at Douay."