Tuesday, 8 March 2016

The Beginnings of Ushaw College (NZ219438)

The building complex which was, until very recently, known as Ushaw College was for many years the principal Roman Catholic seminary in the north of England. It acted as a training facility for young catholic priests, but was closed in 2011 due to falling numbers of scholars. From its founding in 1808, it grew into an institution of substantial proportions over its 400+ acres.

Despite its high profile history (in the catholic world at least) the most interesting aspect of its 200-year existence is the backstory to its establishment. Amazingly, the tale begins in the early years of the reign of Elizabeth I and the re-imposition of Protestantism in England, which led to the exile (voluntary or otherwise) of many of those of the catholic faith. At Douai in northern France (then in the Spanish Netherlands), a small community of English exiles assembled, who, in turn, helped establish the University of Douai – indeed, the institution’s first chancellor was an Oxford University import. Almost immediately the idea of an ‘English seminary’ was mooted for the little commune – and so was founded Douai’s ‘English College’ in 1568.

The academy effectively became a ‘Catholic University of Oxford in exile’, readying itself for the reconversion of England to the catholic faith. Although this, of course, never transpired, a great number of priests were secreted into England in the decades and centuries that followed – though the fortunes of the college ebbed and flowed over the years. Then, when the French Revolution hit in the 1790s, the great majority of the officials fled back to England and the college was quickly suppressed.

The fleeing clerics and their students were eventually able to establish new college sites in Ware, Hertfordshire, and at Crook Hall, Durham – the second of these relocating, in time, to Ushaw. As for the Ushaw site, a building programme spanning 1804-1808 saw a new seminary opened as ‘St.Cuthbert’s College’ – under the guidance of Bishop William Gibson and to the designs of James Taylor. In the following decades it was much expanded with the aid of several other eminent architects.

Since its closure as a seminary in 2011, the site has been run by a charitable trust with a view to long-term educational use (possibly, eventually, as a catholic scholarship/heritage centre). It is also, in stages, being opened up to the public, including as a venue for concerts, etc.

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