The English College at Douai was established by William Allen, later Cardinal, on Michaelmas Day, 29th September, 1568. It offered an opportunity to form clergy for England in accordance with the system laid down by the Council of Trent.
Originally it was intended as a college home for exiles from England, a place where they could continue their studies in a way no longer possible for Catholics at the English universities. In time Allen recognised its potential as a place for training clergy ready for the return to England when ‘the new religion’ had run its course. The new priests, however, proved unwilling to wait for that event and quickly Douai College found itself dedicated very largely to the training of missionary priests.
Between 1577, the date of the martyrdom of St Cuthbert Mayne, the college’s protomartyr, and 1680, the date of the execution of Thomas Thwing, the college’s last martyr, one hundred and fifty eight college members, priests and layman, secular and religious, met with a martyr’s death.
The College was suppressed in 1793, and the seminarians imprisoned for thirteen months at Doullens, Picardy. They were released in November 1794, returning to Douai for only a few months before obtaining permission to return to England. They found their first refuge at Old Hall Green, Ware, and dedicated the new work of the college to St Edmund of Canterbury on his feast day, November 16th, 1794.