When you think about the Elizabethan persecution of Catholics, you don’t tend to think of Rome. But in fact many of the Catholic priests who were martyred during the reigns of Elizabeth and her successor James were educated right here in the Eternal City–and these days a special exhibition includes rarely seen documents and other artifacts from the period.
When Catholics ran afoul of Queen Elizabeth I, their seminaries were outlawed in England, so English Catholics established one here. And it’s still functioning today, although its students thankfully don’t need to prepare for possible martyrdom when they return home! The Venerable English College has been here in Rome for centuries, preparing young Englishmen for the priesthood.
Under the main altar of their chapel is a stark reminder of what quite a few alumni of the College endured in another era. The casket contains the remains of St. Ralph Sherwin, the first graduate of the English College in Rome to be martyred. In 1580, after less than six months of secret ministry in his native land, Fr. Ralph was caught by the authorities and eventually sentenced to death for “treasonable conspiracy.” He was hanged, drawn, and quartered. (What does that mean, exactly? Our guides can tell you more…)
These days, a free exhibition in the crypt of the Venerable English College displays letters, portraits, clothing and other memorabilia pertaining to the college, the persecution, and the brave Catholic priests who were involved in both. If you think that an exhibition with a bunch of documents sounds pretty tedious, take a look at this reliquary of the eyeball of Blessed Edward Oldcorne, an English Jesuit executed in 1606. A Catholic layman who was present at his execution managed to get hold of the eye and stuck it in his pocket without being noticed. The silver reliquary that holds the eye today is part of the exhibition. As gruesome as it may be to look at the reliquary now, imagine what it must have been like to witness the martyrdom of a Catholic priest in person!
Other martyr-alumni of the Venerable English College include Sts. Henry Walpole, Robert Southwell, and Henry Morse, and there are plenty of Blesseds on the list as well. They’ve set a pretty high standard for the current crop of future English priests, wouldn’t you say?