The links between England and the Eternal City go back to 597 when Pope Gregory the Great sent St Augustine to convert the English. In the centuries that followed English pilgrims travelled to Rome in ever greater numbers, staying in hostels known as hospices. In 1362 a guild of English residents bought a house in Via di Monserrato, owned by the rosary-bead sellers John and Alice Shepherd, and turned it into a pilgrim hospice dedicated to the Trinity and St Thomas Becket. Up to 100 pilgrims could lodge there for a few days. The hospice was turned into a seminary in 1579, as a place for preparing priests to serve on the English Mission.

An exhibition celebrating its long and varied history opened in the English College on April 14, and was accompanied by a symposium with visiting academics and historians, and some 200 delegates. The exhibition, Memories, Martyrs and Mission, has items from the 12th to the 20th centuries drawn from the English College’s extensive archives, the collections of Stonyhurst College, the British Jesuit Province and the Archdiocese of Westminster.

The first exhibit is an arresting baroque silver statue of Thomas Becket with a relic of the saint’s skull and a piece of his hair shirt. The exhibition traces the development of the hospice from the 14th century to its foundation as a seminary in 1579, displaying the foundation deed of that year signed by Pope Gregory XIII.

The First Douai Diary is a register of the principal occurrences in the English College at Douai, rather than a diary, and is the first of a series of six surviving manuscript diaries documenting the life of the college up to the French Revolution. It shows that the seminary at Douai was overflowing with men training for the English priesthood, which prompted the opening of the English College in Rome.

The exhibition displays many powerful and poignant relics of English and Welsh priests who were martyred for their faith, such as the rope that tied Edmund Campion to the hurdle as he was dragged to execution at Tyburn in 1581. The rope was secretly collected from Tyburn by an unknown Catholic, smuggled out of England and taken to Rome, where it was given to Robert Persons SJ, rector of the Venerable English College, who had been Campion’s companion while they were in England. Persons wore it around his waist. Following his death in 1610, it was given to the English College at Saint-Omer and was eventually taken to Stonyhurst in 1794.

Cardinal Henry Benedict Stuart (Henry IX to legitimists) was a great benefactor of the English College, and the exhibition has a portrait of the prince as a boy, in addition to his Missa Pontificalis and other Jacobite relics. Artefacts from other cardinals, such as Wiseman, Newman and Weld, are on display, along with a passport demonstrating the college’s perilous evacuation from Rome at the outbreak of World War II, and photographs of seminarians’ six-year sojourn in the sanctuary of St Mary’s Hall at Stonyhurst.

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