Allen, William

views updated May 14 2018

William Allen

BORN: 1532 • Rossall, Lancashire England

DIED: October 16, 1594 • Rome, Italy

English cardinal; scholar

William Allen was the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England during the years when Catholics were harshly persecuted under the rule of Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603; see entry). Because Catholics were not allowed to practice their religion legally in England, Allen left the country. In exile in Europe, he became the leader of England's Catholics and worked to restore Catholicism in England. He established training schools for English Catholic priests in Europe, and he arranged for them to return to England and minister to Catholics there in secret. Many of these priests were captured by the English government and put to death as traitors. Though Allen did not succeed in his plan to restore Catholicism to legal status in England, his work did ensure that the religion did not die out as English government authorities hoped it would.

"[My students] not only hold the heretics in perfect detestation, but they also marvel and feel sorrow of heart that there should be any found so wicked, simple and reckless of their salvation."

Studied for the priesthood

William Allen, the third son of John Allen, was born in Rossall, Lancashire, in 1532. When he was fifteen Allen was sent to Oriel College at Oxford University. An outstanding student, he completed his bachelor's degree in 1550 and was elected a fellow, or senior member, of Oriel College. In 1554 he earned his master's degree, and in 1556 he became principal of St. Mary's Hall at the university. He also served as a canon, or member, of York Cathedral.

Allen planned to pursue a career in the church, as was customary among those who received a university education during this period. But just as he was completing his studies and preparing to become a priest, the question of religious loyalty became a matter of great political importance. King Henry VIII (1491–1547; see entry) had broken away from the Catholic Church in the 1530s, refusing to acknowledge the authority of the pope. (The pope is the head of the Catholic Church.) Instead, Henry declared himself the head of the church in England. Those who wished to continue practicing their religion under the traditional leadership of the pope were often suspected of disloyalty to the king, and they were subjected to fines and imprisonment.

Henry's daughter, Mary I (1516–1558; see entry), was a devout Catholic, and when she became queen in 1553 she made Catholicism legal once again. But many government advisors disapproved of this move because they believed it made England vulnerable to the influence of Spain, a rival country that was strongly Catholic. When Mary died and Elizabeth ascended to the throne in 1558, Elizabeth declared Protestantism the official religion of the nation. She established the Anglican Church (also known as the Church of England) as the official church of the country. Anyone who wanted a career in politics or the church had to sign the Oath of Supremacy, a document stating that they accepted the queen as the head of the church.

Allen, a committed Catholic, refused to sign this oath. Realizing that he would not be able to continue his career in England, he went to Louvain (also spelled Leuven), Belgium, in 1561. Many English Catholic students had fled to this university town after Elizabeth outlawed the practice of their religion in England. Allen joined them and continued his studies in theology. He also began to write religious essays. By 1562 he had returned to England to help reestablish Catholicism there. He had not yet been made a priest, but he wanted to support people who wished to remain loyal Catholics. He encountered many people who told him that they had become Protestants against their will. They had sworn the Oath of Supremacy only to keep the government from seizing their homes and possessions, not because they truly wished to become members of this new church. This experience convinced Allen that the majority of English people would prefer to go back to the Catholic Church, and that Protestant rule would be a temporary thing.

The queen's advisors soon discovered that Allen was in the country. Since any attempt to bring people back to Catholicism was against the law, Allen risked serious danger to himself by continuing his work. He went back to Oxford, where he had the opportunity to speak with students who were interested in his ideas about religion. Later he was forced to seek protection from the Duke of Norfolk's family in Norfolk. In 1565, fearing arrest, he returned to Belgium.

Establishes seminary at Douai

Allen was ordained a priest in Belgium, and he began to teach theology in the Catholic college in Malines (now Mechlin). In 1560 he was appointed a professor of divinity at the University of Douai, a Catholic institution that had been founded by King Philip II (1527–1598; see entry) of Spain in 1559. As was the case in Louvain, many English Catholics had found their way to this university in order to continue studying for the priesthood. Seeing a need to unite these English students in their own particular college, Allen traveled to Rome in 1567. He hoped to persuade the pope to allow him to establish a seminary, a type of college that trained men for the priesthood, specifically for English students in Europe. The priests who graduated from this seminary could then return to England once Catholicism was restored there. The pope agreed, and Allen returned to Douai, a city that is now part of northern France but was then under Spanish rule, to open his new seminary.

Within just a few years, more than 150 students were enrolled at Allen's seminary. In addition to Latin, they studied Greek and Hebrew, the original languages in which the Bible was written. Allen instituted this course of study to make sure that students would not be influenced by Anglican ideas about the scriptures, some of which might be found in the Latin translations of the Bible. Seminary students read through the Old Testament, the first half of the Bible, at least twelve times. They read through the entire New Testament, the second portion of the Bible, at least sixteen times. Allen believed that this rigorous course of study would, as quoted in Alice Hogge's God's Secret Agents: Queen Elizabeth's Forbidden Priests and the Hatching of the Gunpowder Plot, ensure that his priests would "all know better how to prove our doctrines by argument and to refute the contrary opinion."

Allen and the other professors wrote and published numerous articles about theology. One of the most important scholarly works to come from the seminary at Douai was an English translation of the Bible. The New Testament portion was published in 1582, and the Old Testament translation was completed in 1609. The Douai Bible, based on the Latin translation of original Hebrew texts, became the Catholic Church's official English version of the Bible.

In 1576 the pope asked Allen to help establish a second English seminary, this one to be located in Rome. Allen accepted this assignment and then returned to Douai. But the situation there was no longer safe. The English government had reportedly sent spies to Europe to assassinate Allen. In addition, Spain was growing increasingly distrustful of England, and Belgian authorities began to believe rumors that students at the Douai seminary were undercover agents of the queen. In 1578 the students were expelled from Douai, and Allen was forced to move the seminary to Rheims, in France.

Sends missionaries to England

The two schools trained hundreds of priests, many of whom eventually returned to England to work as missionaries. (Missionaries are people sent by the church to help people of other countries and convert non-believers to the church's doctrines.) This had not been Allen's original goal. At first he had planned only to train priests who would be ready to return to England when it became legal to do so. But Allen realized that Catholics in England could not wait, and that they needed priests to support them immediately. So he developed plans to send priests back to England in violation of the law. In 1580 the first two priests, Robert Persons (1546–1610) and Edmund Campion (1540–1581; see entry), who were both members of the Jesuit order, crossed the English Channel and began their missionary work. By late 1581 Campion had been captured and condemned to death. His execution made Allen and his students even more determined to restore Catholicism to England. During the 1580s, 438 priests who had studied at the English College at Douai were sent to England. Ninety-eight of them were executed, and many others were imprisoned.

In 1584 Allen wrote a pamphlet defending English Catholics from the charge of treason brought against them by the queen's advisor, William Cecil (Lord Burghley; 1520–1598; see entry). In 1585 Allen went to Rome once more with Robert Persons. War between England and Spain now seemed inevitable, and Persons hoped that English Catholic missionaries could ally themselves with Spain and work to overthrow Elizabeth. He convinced Allen to support this plan. Allen had given up hope that Catholicism could be restored in England by peaceful means, and he published works that urged rebellion against the

Robert Persons

Robert Persons often worked closely with William Allen on plans to restore the legality of the Roman Catholic religion in England. Born in Somerset, England, in 1546, Persons began a promising career at Oxford University but, partly because he was a Catholic, was forced to resign. He was known to be stubborn, argumentative, and willing to take risks. He traveled to Italy, where he began studying medicine. After two years, however, he changed his mind and joined the Jesuit order of priests in 1575. Persons soon began trying to persuade Jesuit leaders to begin missionary work in England. In 1580 Persons led a secret mission there with his fellow Jesuit Edmund Campion. They were ordered to minister to English people who wished to remain Catholics, despite the law banning practice of the religion. When Campion was captured, Persons returned to Europe. He spent the rest of his life in exile there.

Persons founded several seminaries in Spain, as well as a school for English Catholic boys in France. He established another English Catholic school at St. Omers, France in 1594; this institution later moved to Stonyhurst Hall in Lancashire, England. Stonyhurst became one of the largest Catholic colleges in the country. Persons published many books, the best-known of which was The Book of Resolution. When Allen died in 1594 Persons hoped that the pope would appoint him the new head of the Catholic Church in England. But Persons did not receive this honor. He died in 1610 in Rome.

queen. In 1587 he wrote a book defending Sir William Stanley (1548–1630), an English military leader who had captured the city of Deventer, Netherlands, for the English but then surrendered to Spain and pledged allegiance to the Spanish king. Allen wrote that this action was justified because Elizabeth was a heretic, a person whose religious opinions conflict with the doctrines of the Catholic Church.

Conspires with Spain

After Elizabeth's Catholic cousin, Mary Stuart (Queen of Scots; 1542–1587; see entry), was executed in 1587 for her part in an assassination plot against Elizabeth, Allen saw his chance. He wrote to King Philip II, urging him to attack England and reestablish the Catholic Church there. Allen also wrote a book, An Admonition to the Nobility and People of England and Ireland Concerning the Present Warres [Wars] made for the execution of his Holines Sentence, by the highe and mightie Kinge Catholike of Spaine. It described Queen Elizabeth as an "incestuous bastard, begotten and born in sin of an infamous courtesan" (quoted by J. P. Sommerville). It also urged the English to rise up against the queen and surrender to the Spanish army. This book, known simply as Allen's Admonition, had been prepared in hopes that Spain's planned invasion of England in 1588 would succeed. With a much larger navy, Spain had every reason to believe it would easily conquer England.

Allen, who led the English Catholic Church even though he lived in exile, helped to plan this invasion and hoped that it would advance his career. The pope had made him a cardinal, the highest position in the church except for pope, in 1587. After Spain conquered England, Allen hoped to become Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor of England—positions that would have made him one of the most powerful men in the country. But the invasion failed. Several battles were fought in the English Channel, with neither side winning a clear advantage. Then the weather intervened. First, strong winds blew the Spanish Armada, or navy, off course. Retreating to Spain by sailing around Ireland, the Armada was caught in a severe hurricane—a type of storm unusual in those northern seas. Many ships were destroyed. The English considered the defeat of the Armada as a sign that God approved of Elizabeth's reign. Little hope remained that Catholicism could be restored as England's official religion.

In 1589 Allen helped establish a new English seminary in Valladolid, Spain. He spent his remaining years in Rome, but he continued to keep in touch with Catholics in England. He was named Librarian of the Holy Roman Church by Pope Gregory XIV (1535–1591). Allen participated in four church conclaves, meetings in which cardinals discuss and vote on important church matters such as the election of a new pope. But after the defeat of the Armada, Allen's influence among church leaders decreased. He lived the rest of his life in poverty and debt. He died on October 16, 1594, and he was buried in Holy Trinity Chapel at the English College in Rome.

Late in his life Allen expressed some doubts about his decision to send Jesuit missionaries to England. This mission, he realized, had given the English government a reason to suspect his seminary students of treason. This suspicion increased the danger to his priests. When Allen died English Catholics found themselves without effective leadership.

For More Information


Hogge, Alice. God's Secret Agents: Queen Elizabeth's Forbidden Priests and the Hatching of the Gunpowder Plot. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.


"History of the Douay Rheims Bible." (accessed on July 11, 2006).

Sommerville, J. P. "History 123 Lecture Notes." University of Wisconsin Madison. (accessed on July 11, 2006).

"William Allen." Catholic Encyclopedia. (accessed on July 11, 2006).

Allen, William

views updated Jun 08 2018


Cardinal, founder of the college at Douai; b. Rossall, Lancashire, 1532; d. Rome, Oct. 16, 1594. He was admitted to Oriel College, Oxford (1547) and took his Master of Arts in 1554. He became principal of St. Mary's Hall, Oxford, in 1556 but resigned soon after the accession of Elizabeth I. He remained in Oxford until 1561 and then went to Louvain to join the distinguished group of English scholars in exile. He returned to England for health reasons in 1562 and spent three years in Lancashire, Oxfordshire, and Norfolk attempting to stiffen Catholic resistance to the religious changes, taking what was then an unusual line among English Catholics, that it was not permissible to be present at Anglican services. He went into exile for the second time and was ordained in 1565. In 1568, with the help of John Vendeville, one of the professors in the new University of douai (douay), he established, by his own initiative and in the face of considerable criticism and opposition, a college at Douai for the training of priests for England. Douai became the major educational center for English Catholics, and its longterm significance is summed up by Philip Hughes's comment: "Here, under God, was the principal means of preserving the Catholic Church in England for the next two hundred years."

Leader of the Exiles. William Allen was regarded as the leader of English Catholics and was called to Rome as adviser on English affairs in 1575, 1579, and 1585, after which he remained in Rome until his death. In 1587, at the request of Philip II, King of Spain, and because of the role he was intended to play as archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor if the Armada succeeded, Sixtus V made him a cardinal.

Probably from about the mid1570s Allen was deeply involved in various enterprises to overthrow the Elizabethan government and to support a rival claimant to the throne when Elizabeth I was removed from the scene. With Robert persons and others he was a leader of the "Spanish party" among English Catholics abroad. Allen maintained that the seminary priests sent to England came purely for religious reasons and had no political intentions. In his Defence of the English Catholics (1584), he argued that the priests were not traitors and were not working for the overthrow of the regime. With few exceptions this is undoubtedly true, but Allen and his associates were certainly using political means to try to secure their endthe preservation of the Catholic religion in England. They believed that unless action were taken by Catholic rulers in Europe, English Catholicism would be destroyed. Allen's own actions from the mid1570s and his own statements in his Defence of Sir William Stanley's Surrender of Deventer (1587) and in his Admonition to the Nobility and People of England and Ireland (1588), which was intended for distribution if the Armada secured a bridgehead, show clearly that he considered that Elizabeth had forfeited any claim to the loyalty of Catholics. This attitude is logical and understandable, but it placed the seminary priests and the Jesuits in an awkward position in relation to the government and lent weight to the charge that the priests were softening up English Catholics so that they would become traitors as soon as the invaders landed.

Allen's Achievements. Allen's varied activities included important contributions to contemporary controversial writing. His profound interest in the Scriptures led, among other work, to the production of the RheimsDouay New Testament. His remarkable personality and his deep charity helped to ensure the success of Douai and the holding together of the English Catholic body. After his death the college ran into many difficulties, partly because of the absence of any formal regulations, which he had considered unnecessary. The divisions among English Catholics at home and abroad, which were already considerable in his lifetime, became even more deepseated after his death and did lasting harm to the Catholic cause in England.

Bibliography: Works. Letters and Memorials, ed. t. f. knox (London 1882). The First and Second Diaries of the English College, Douay, ed. t. f. knox (London 1878). "Some Correspondence of Cardinal Allen, 157985," ed. p. ryan in Publications of the Catholic Record Society (Aberdeen 1911) 7:12105, additional letters. Literature. p. k. guilday, The English Catholic Refugees on the Continent 15581795 (New York 1914). a. c. southern, Elizabethan Recusant Prose, 15591582 (London 1950). b. camm, Cardinal William Allen (New York 1909). m. haile, An Elizabethan Cardinal (New York 1914). g. mattingly, The Armada (Boston 1959). "William Allen and Catholic Propaganda in England," Travaux d'Humanisme et Renaissance, 28 (1957) 325339. p. hughes, The Reformation in England, 3 v. in 1 (5th, rev. ed. New York 1963). t. cooper, The Dictionary of National Biography from the Earliest Times to 1900, 63 v. (London 18851900) 1:314322. f. stegmÜller, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche 2, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765) 1:346347.

[p. mcgrath]

Allen, William

views updated Jun 11 2018

Allen, William (1532–94). Founding principal of Douai College (1568–85) and cardinal (1587). A Lancashireman, educated at Oriel College, Oxford, he became principal of St Mary's Hall (1556–60), then joined catholic exiles at Louvain (1561). Briefly in England (1562–5), he was ordained at Mechlin, visited Rome, and founded the college at Douai (1568) to give English catholics university education and train missionary priests for reconverting England. He also instigated the Douai translation of the Bible (1582). Visiting Rome again (1575, 1579), he advised the pope about founding the English college there and inspired the Jesuit mission to England (1580). He retired to Rome (1585) in poor health, became cardinal-priest, and died there. Despite his political ineptitude in corresponding with Mary, queen of Scots, supporting the Armada, and misjudging the strength of English catholic patriotism, he was a fine teacher, ardent for the reconversion of England. His college kept the core of English catholicism alive against government attempts to extinguish it.

Revd Dr William M. Marshall

About this article

William Allen

All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About content Print Topic