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History of Heythrop (Bellarmine Institute)


Like most of the colleges at Britain’s ancient universities, Heythrop began its life as a religious foundation. Its origins lie in the persecution of Roman Catholics in these islands during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Those who remained loyal to the papacy had to depend for spiritual ministrations upon priests who were educated abroad. Among these priests were members of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), a religious Order within the Catholic Church. Among the Jesuits were the poet Robert Southwell and Edmund Campion, earlier, as a scholar at Oxford, a favourite of Queen Elizabeth. Both were put to death for their faith. Another missionary, Robert Persons, escaped to become the prototype of the villainous Jesuit of English mythology.

Jesuit College, Liège, 1626-1794. Priests such as Campion and Persons had to be trained on the continent. They were scattered throughout colleges of the Order across Europe. In a letter dated 12 October 1612 the Superior General of the Jesuits gratefully acknowledged a substantial donation by an unnamed English nobleman, which was to be devoted to establishing a house of studies for English members of the Society. The sum was 34,000 scudi; the nobleman was almost certainly Sir George Talbot who afterwards inherited the title of Ninth Earl of Shrewsbury.

The College was soon opened in a building the English Jesuits already owned in Louvain, a large property called St John’s, formerly a residence of the Knights of Malta. It was the house to which those entering the English Jesuits as novices were sent for their first formation. In 1614 the novices were allotted a house in the garden, and those studying philosophy - the next step in Jesuit training - and theology moved in. For those preparing to risk their lives across the Channel as Catholic priests it was particularly appropriate that the church attached to St John’s was dedicated to (Pope) St Gregory, the Apostle of the English.

Towards the end of 1614 the novices moved out. Louvain had a considerable English population among whom, complained the Jesuits, there were spies and informers for the English government. The novices were sent for their own safety to Liège, to a large property standing above the town and slight to the North-West of it, its long garden climbing up by four terraces to the citadel. Later, those studying philosophy and theology went there too, though it is not wholly clear when this move took place. Certainly those studying philosophy were there by the Autumn of 1624.

The choice of Liège was no accident. It was an independent city-state, part of the Holy Roman Empire, ruled over by a Prince Bishop. At the time the Jesuits bought the house the Prince Bishop was Ferdinand of Bavaria, brother of Duke Maximilian of Bavaria. The Duke was a close friend of Sir George Talbot, and a patron of the Society of Jesus. He had prayed to St Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Order, that if he were to have a son by his second marriage - he was over sixty at the time - he would call him Ignatius, and would endow a college of the Society. In the event he had two sons, the elder of whom was named Ignatius, and on 8 September 1626 he settled upon the College at Liège an annual pension.

By this time the novices had again moved on, and the College was entirely occupied by Jesuit students of philosophy and theology, though from 1624 a number of lay men were taught alongside the "scholastics", as the student priests were called. Jesuit authorities in Rome did not approve of this practice, fearing it would offend against the prerogatives of the University of Louvain, and put an end to it in 1637. These students came from the school run by the English Jesuits at St Omer.

There were several other substantial donations to the emergent College, but Maximilian’s grant has always been seen as the foundational endowment. His generosity is still acknowledged in the silver and blue of Bavaria on the College crest. The IHS symbol in the corner is taken from the seal used by the Jesuits’ founder, and the lion of Brabant in the centre represents the first establishment in Louvain of what has become Heythrop College.

The College at Liège continued, frequently with a chronic shortage of funds despite Maximilian’s donation, until 1773. In that year the Jesuits were suppressed world-wide. The papal brief ordering the suppression was issued on 16 August, but a sympathetic Prince Bishop carried out the Pope’s orders only on 9 September and, on 14 December 1773, re-established the (now former) Jesuit house as the Liège Academy, under the governance of the former Jesuit rector. He was in charge, however, not only of those studying for the priesthood, but also of schoolboys. Many of the pupils and their masters from the school at St Omer - by this time it had migrated to Bruges - made their way to Liège at the suppression of the Order.

There were problems, but the Academy managed to carry on much as if the suppression had not happened - until 1794. In that year the advance of the French army on Liège - France was by this time at war with England - made the staff of the College determined to leave. By this time England was in any case relatively safe for Catholics and so staff, students and schoolboys departed for England by barge along the River Meuse (Maas) on 14 July.

Though they had been preparing for it, their departure was confused, partly at least because the barges were overloaded, and sank in the mud. Some of the baggage had to be sold on the quay at Liège. The journey to Rotterdam took them until 31 July. On 7 August they joined the John o’Yarmouth which was bound for Hull, though some Jesuits disembarked at Harwich, which was reached on 13 August.

Those who stayed on board until Hull then made the journey across country to Stonyhurst, a remote, though impressive, house in Lancashire begun in 1592 and in 1794 the unoccupied property of Thomas Weld, a former pupil of the English Jesuits. He made it over to them, together with the lands attached. They arrived there on 28 August.

It has been commented above that the English Jesuits managed to survive as a group after the suppression of 1773. The suppression had not been effective everywhere, and in 1803 the English former Jesuits joined themselves to the surviving White Russian province of the Order, so they were in existence as a province over a decade before the Order was re-established world-wide by Pope Pius VII in 1814. They began to accept novices, and students for the priesthood. Stonyhurst was overcrowded: a new building was put up for those preparing for ordination, begun in 1828 and completed two years later. It was known unofficially as "the Seminary", and later officially as St Mary’s Hall.

In 1836 the University of London came into being. Its charter of foundation enabled it to grant degrees not only to students of the two existing colleges, University College and King’s, but to students of other colleges around the country who had reached the required standard. Stonyhurst applied for recognition as an institution preparing for London degrees, and this right was granted it in 1840, allowing both lay and clerical students to prepare for London University degrees: the lay students were called "Philosophers", as had been the students at Liège back in the 1620s.

The student priests did not long remain at St Mary’s Hall, however. A new college solely for those Jesuits undertaking theological studies was built between 1847 and 1848 near St Asaph, in North Wales, overlooking the Clwyd Valley. St Beuno’s, as it was called after a Welsh saint, was in a spot at least as remote as Stonyhurst, and even more beautifully located: the beauty of the scenery was the inspiration for the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Jesuit students of philosophy and theology were thus living far apart from each other, the former at St Mary’s Hall, the latter at St Beuno’s. Both were remote locations, not directly connected to the British universities. As the 20th century progressed, this seemed to the Jesuit superiors a lost opportunity. The Superior General in Rome urged upon the English Provincial Superior the desirability of starting a Collegium Maximum and placing it in proximity to an English university. Heythrop Hall was acquired in April 1923. It was situated some eighteen miles North of Oxford.

Rather oddly, Heythrop, which had been the property of the Earls of Shrewsbury, had, in 1718, been inherited by the Jesuit Gilbert Talbot who, had he not already renounced his inheritance and title, would have become the 13th Earl of Shrewsbury. Though the house was much admired, it was only spasmodically lived in by the Shrewsburys, and from 1819 to 1831 it was let out to the Duke of Beaufort, who hunted from there. In 1831, however, the building was devastated by fire. The Shrewsburys moved their residence formally to Alton Towers, and the ruined building lay empty until 1870, when it was bought by Albert Brassey, the brother of the great 19th-century railway builder Thomas Brassey: the skeleton of a whale in an artificial cave in the beautifully landscaped grounds was a memento of Thomas’s many travels. The new Heythrop, much revamped and endowed with a library drawn both from Stonyhurst and St Beuno’s, began to be occupied by philosophers and theologians in August 1926: it was dedicated to the learned Jesuit saint (and cardinal) Robert Bellarmine.

The College continued in its Oxfordshire location until 1970. There were certainly links with the University of Oxford but, as far as the students were concerned at least, these were slight. In the 1960s a proposal was made for the College to become a "Pontifical Athenaeum", an institution still rather less than a university, but a degree-granting body in its own right (hitherto Heythrop degrees had been degrees of the Jesuit-run Gregorian University in Rome). For that purpose it needed to open its doors to students other than Jesuits, including lay people. This it did in 1965, with the approval of the Catholic bishops of England and Wales: Cardinal Heenan, Archbishop of Westminster, was installed as Chancellor of the new entity, wearing rather splendid robes invented for the occasion. Other religious Orders were encouraged to build residences in the grounds of the College, and some did so. A vast new Library was erected.

But among the members of the College, there were those who wanted full integration within the British university system. It was clear that members of religious orders or others attracted to the study of philosophy or theology would benefit from state recognition of their degrees. A number of possibilities were canvassed, and it was finally decided to move the College to London, to become an integral part of the University of London. An application to the University was formally made on 25 January 1969. Inspectors were appointed by the University Senate, and they visited both the College and the proposed London location, the former graduate training college, with a primary school attached, in Cavendish Square, belonging to the Society of the Holy Child Jesus. The report was favourable, and the application was approved on 16 July.

It was decided that Heythrop College - the name was to be kept - should open for business as a constituent college of the University of London in October 1970 with Frederick Copleston SJ, the author of the standard English-language history of philosophy and many other philosophical works, as Principal. The fact that the Principal was a Jesuit disguised a fundamental change in the nature of the institution. It now had its own board of governors on which the Jesuits and their nominees were a minority: the College was self-governing and no longer a Jesuit institution. Nor was it any longer Roman Catholic. When, on 24 February 1971, the Privy Council gave formal permission for the College’s incorporation into the University of London, one of the requirements, inserted into the foundational charter, insisted that there should be no discrimination either among staff or students "on account of religion, race, sex or politics", although regard might be had to a person’s religion when making appointments in Theology. Nonetheless a large Jesuit presence remained, and the ethos continued to be Catholic.

The building in Oxfordshire which was abandoned in the Summer of 1970 was sold to the NatWest, then still, and more prosaically, called the National Westminster Bank, as a staff college. That into which the College moved fronted Cavendish Square on its North side. Two Palladian buildings, erected in the eighteenth century by the Duke of Chandos and acquired by the Society of the Holy Child at the end of the nineteenth, were joined by a bridge, put up after the Second World War to act not only as a way across Dean’s Mews but as a buttress to walls weakened by a bomb blast: shrapnel marks are still to be seen on the facade. The face of the bridge fronting on to the Square carried a vast, and impressive, Madonna and Child, by Jacob Epstein, put there through the good offices of Sir John Rothenstein, Director of the Tate Gallery and a sometime governor of the Graduate College run by the Holy Child Sisters.

Heythrop remained at this site just North of Oxford Street for more than twenty years. When it moved, in the Summer of 1993, it did so for financial reasons: it had simply become too expensive to stay at so central a location. Its new home became the former Maria Assumpta College in Kensington Square, which had been, like the building from which the College moved, a training college run by nuns - the Sisters of the Assumption - until the late 1960s. The amount of accommodation available was roughly similar. Moreover it had the advantage not only of a more attractive environment, including a large and beautifully kept garden, but, with the conversion of a gymnasium into a library and reading room, a more compact arrangement for the Library which, in Cavendish Square, had been scattered over four floors and seemingly innumerable rooms.

The present life of Heythrop may seem a far cry from that of the college established by the Jesuits in 1614 in Louvain. There is still, however, a substantial Jesuit presence - in absolute numbers probably larger than at either Louvain or Liège; the College still teaches philosophy and theology to degree level, as it was originally founded to do; and the mix of people - those with a religious vocation being taught alongside those just seeking a university education - reflects a practice both at Liège and at Stonyhurst - and at Stonyhurst in the nineteenth century in conjunction with the fledgling University of London. Much may have changed, but there is also a remarkable continuity in the tradition of the College over almost four hundred years.