William Allen (cardinal)

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William Allen
Prefect of the Vatican Library
Cardinal William Allen
Created cardinal7 August 1587
RankCardinal priest of Ss. Silvestro e Martino ai Monti
Personal details
Rossall, near Fleetwood, Lancashire, England
Died16 October 1594 (aged 62)
BuriedChurch of St Thomas of Canterbury at the English College, Rome
DenominationRoman Catholic
ParentsJohn Allen

William Allen (1532 – 16 October 1594) was an English Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church. He was an ordained priest, but was never a bishop.[1][2] His main role was setting up colleges to train English missionary priests with the mission of returning secretly to England to keep Catholicism alive. Allen assisted in the planning of the Spanish Armada's attempted invasion of England in 1588. It failed badly but if it had succeeded he would likely have been made Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor. The Douai-Rheims Bible, a complete translation into English from the Latin, was printed under Allen's orders. His activities were part of the Catholic Counter Reformation, but they led to an intense response in England and in Ireland. He advised and recommended Pope Pius V to pronounce Elizabeth I deposed. After the Pope declared her excommunicated and deposed, Elizabeth intensified the persecution of her Catholic religious opponents.

Early life[edit]

Allen was born in 1532, at Rossall, near Fleetwood, Lancashire, England. He was the third son of John Allen and Jane Lister. In 1547, at the age of fifteen, he entered Oriel College, Oxford, graduated Bachelor of Arts in 1550, and was elected to the Fellowship of the College. In 1554, he became a Master of Arts, and two years later, in 1556, was made Principal and Proctor of the then Saint Mary's Hall.

He seems also to have been a canon at York Minster in or about 1558, indicating that he had most likely received tonsure, the initial step towards ordination that conferred clerical status. Upon the accession of Elizabeth I, and the second schism of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church, he refused to take the Oath of Supremacy, but was allowed to remain at the University of Oxford, until 1561.

His public opposition to the newly Protestantized Church of England forced him to leave the Kingdom and in that year, having resigned all of his benefices, he left England to seek refuge at Louvain and its University, where he joined many other students from the English Universities who had refused to taking the Oath of Supremacy. There, he continued his theological studies and began to write apologetic, polemic and controversialist treatises. In the following year he returned to his native England, although not yet an ordained priest, and despite suffering from ill health. He devoted himself to the re-conversion of his native land to the old faith. In particular, he worked to dissuade the Catholic faithful from attending Protestant worship, an outward compromise of their faith and conscience that many made so as to avoid ruin from fines, confiscations and other disabilities, a fate that eventually befell members of his own family.[citation needed]

During this period as a clandestine missionary in England he formed the conviction that the people were not set against Rome by choice, but by force and by circumstances; and the majority were only too ready, in response to his sermons and ministrations, to return to Roman Catholicism. He was convinced that the Protestant hold over the Kingdom, favoured by the policies of Elizabeth, could only be temporary. When his presence was discovered by the Queen's agents, servants and representatives, he fled from Lancashire and withdrew to Oxford.

After writing a treatise in defence of the power of the priest to remit sins, he was obliged to retire to Norfolk, under the protection of the family of the Duke of Norfolk, but already in 1565 had once again to leave for the Continent. He was never to return. Traveling to the Low Countries, he was ordained priest shortly afterwards at Malines in Flanders, and began to lecture in theology at the Benedictine College there.

College at Douai[edit]

In 1567, Allen went to Rome for the first time, and conceived his plans for establishing a College where students from England could live together and finish their theological education. The idea subsequently developed into the establishment of a missionary college, or seminary, to supply England with priests as long as the schism with the See of Rome persisted. With the help of friends, and notably of the Benedictine abbots of the neighbouring monasteries, a beginning was made in a rented house at Douai on Michaelmas Day (29 September), 1568, which marked the inauguration of the English College, Douai.

Allen was to be joined by many English exiles, including Edmund Campion. Douai was thought suitable for Allen's new College because of the recent foundation there of the University of Douai by Pope Paul IV, under the patronage of King Philip II of Spain, to whose dominions Douai then belonged, and because the foundation had the active encouragement of Jean Vendeville, a law professor at the university, who had accompanied Allen on his journey back from Rome.

Allen's College became central to the "English mission" for the re-conversion of England. Amongst the "seminary priests", as they were called, over 160 former students from Douai are known to have been put to death under the Penal Laws; more were imprisoned. Students celebrated the news of each martyrdom, and, by special dispensation, said a solemn Mass of thanksgiving.

Rome and Rheims[edit]

Title page from the 1582 Douai-Rheims New Testament, "specially for the discouerie of the CORRVPTIONS of diuers late translations, and for cleering the CONTROVERSIES in religion."

When the number of students had risen rapidly to one hundred and twenty, the Pope summoned Allen to Rome to establish a similar College there. In 1575 Allen made a second journey to Rome, where he assisted by order of Pope Gregory XIII in the establishment of the English College. To that end, the ancient English Hospice in Rome was taken over and converted into a seminary for the sending over of missionaries to England, and Jesuits were placed in the College to assist Maurice Clenock, D.D. (Doctor of Divinity), Rector of the College.

The Pope appointed Allen to be a Canon in Kortrijk, now in West Flanders, Belgium (also known as Courtrai or Courtray), and he returned to Douai in July 1576, but there he had to face a new difficulty. Besides the plots to assassinate him by agents of the Queen of England, the rebels against the rule of the Spanish Crown, encouraged by Elizabeth and her emissaries, now present in Douai, expelled the students of the University from Douai in March 1578. Allen moved the College from Douai to Rheims, now under the patronage and protection of the House of Guise. The collegians took refuge at the University of Rheims, where they were well received, and continued their work as before, and Allen was soon afterwards elected a canon of Rheims Cathedral Chapter. Thomas Stapleton, Richard Bristow, Gregory Martin and Morgan Phillips were amongst Allen's companions.[3]

From the College press came a constant stream of polemic, controversialist and other Roman Catholic literature, which for obvious reasons could not be printed in England. Allen took a prominent part in this. One of the chief works undertaken in the early years of the College was the preparation under Allen's direction of the well-known Douai Bible--a translation from the Latin into English. The New Testament was published in 1582, when the College was at Rheims; but the Old Testament, although completed at the same time, was delayed due to a lack of funds. It was eventually printed and published at Douai, in 1609, two years before the Authorized King James Version prepared by the Anglican Church.

Political involvements[edit]

In 1577 Allen began a correspondence with the Jesuit priest Robert Parsons. Allen was again summoned to Rome in 1579, and was charged with suppressing an insurrection within the English College, caused by contrasts between students from Wales and the rest of the students from England. It was during this visit that he was appointed one of the Commissioners charged with submitting proposals for the revision of the Latin Vulgate Bible. Brought into personal contact with Parsons, Allen fell completely under the spell of Parsons' personality and submitted to his influence. Under Allen's orders, the English College at Rome was placed under the control of the Society of Jesus, as part of a plan to send Jesuit missions and missionaries to England by 1580. Under Allen's instructions, the first Jesuits to be sent, Parsons and Edmund Campion, were to work closely with other Catholic priests in England. The mission met with questionable success, as Campion was put to death only after a year's work, and Parsons had to once again flee abroad.[4]

King Philip II of Spain recommended Allen to become a Cardinal with the Pope in 1587.

Allen himself saw his work as "scholastical attempts" to end the English schism from Rome. His efforts to secure this were completely unsuccessful, and arguably made matters worse for Catholics in England and Ireland. Pope Pius V, in his 1570 papal bull Regnans in Excelsis, sentenced Elizabeth to both excommunication and "deposition" from the throne, and, upon the pain of excommunication, "released" and forbid her subjects from their allegiance to the Queen.

Returning to Rheims, Allen allowed himself to be drawn into Parsons' political intrigues for the furtherance of Philip's interests in England and in Ireland. Allen's political career had now begun. Parsons had already resolved to remove Allen from the seminary at Rheims, and to that end, as far back as 6 April 1581, had recommended Allen to Philip II, with a view to the King's securing Allen's promotion to the cardinalate. In furtherance of the intrigues, Allen and Parsons went to Rome again in 1585, and there, Allen remained for the rest of his life. In 1587, whilst he was the subject of the intrigue by Philip's agents, he wrote, helped by Parsons, a book in defence of Sir William Stanley, an English officer who had surrendered the town of Deventer in Overijssel, part of the territory of the modern Kingdom of the Netherlands, to King Philip's armies. Allen wrote that all Englishmen were obliged, under the pain of eternal damnation, to follow that example, as Elizabeth was "no lawful queen" in the eyes of God.

Allen helped in the planning of the attempted invasion of England, and would likely have been made Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor had it been successful. Allen was the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England under the Pope, and in this position, just after the death of Mary, Queen of Scots, he wrote to Philip II (19 March 1587) to encourage him to undertake an invasion of England, stating that the Roman Catholics in England (and in Ireland) were clamouring for the King of Spain to come and punish "this woman, hated by God and [by] man". After much deliberation, he was made a Cardinal by Pope Sixtus V on 7 August 1587, possibly to ensure the success of the Spanish Armada.

Spanish Armada[edit]

Portrait of Elizabeth made to commemorate the defeat of the Spanish Armada, depicted in the background.

Allen was then once more in Rome, having been summoned by the pope after a dangerous illness two years before. He never left the city of Rome again, but he kept in constant correspondence and communication with his old countrymen back in England. It had been due to his influence that the Society of Jesus, to which he was greatly attached, undertook to join in the work of the English mission; and now Allen and Father Parsons became joint leaders of the "Spanish Party" amongst the Roman Catholics in England and in Ireland.[citation needed]

At the advice and recommendation of King Philip, Allen was created a Cardinal in 1587, and he was prepared to return to England immediately, should the invasion prove successful. Amongst the adherents to the scheme, however, Allen and Parsons were both equally at fault. The vast majority of the remaining Roman Catholic faithful in the Kingdom of England remained loyal to their own Queen against Spain and King Philip, and the defeat of the Spanish Armada, in 1588, was to them an event that gave cause to rejoice, no less than their fellow countrymen who were instead Protestants of the Church of England.[citation needed]

Allen outlived the defeat of the Armada by some six years. To the end of his life, he reportedly remained fully convinced that soon the People of England and their Sovereign would become Roman Catholics once again. Upon his elevation, Allen wrote to the College at Rheims that he owed his Cardinal's hat (also) to Parsons. One of his first acts was to order the publication, under his own name and authority, two works for the purpose of inciting Roman Catholics in England to rise up against Elizabeth: The Declaration of the Sentence of Sixtus V, a broadside, and a book, An Admonition to the nobility and people of England (Antwerp, 1588). After the failure of the Armada, Philip, to rid himself of the burden of the financial costs of supporting Allen as Cardinal, nominated him to become also the Archbishop of Malines This, however, never received the Pope's confirmation.[citation needed]

Last years[edit]

Pope Gregory XIV granted and bestowed on him the title of Prefect of the Vatican Library. In 1589, he assisted in the establishment of the English College, at Valladolid in Spain. He took part in four Conclaves of the Church, although his influence diminished after the failure of the Armada. Before his death in Rome, he appeared to have changed his mind about the wisdom of Jesuit politics in Rome and in England. Certainly, his political activities could give grounds and cause for Elizabeth's government to regard the English seminaries on the Continent as hotbeds of treason.

Allen continued to base himself, and reside, at the English College, Rome, until his death. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, he, as a Cardinal, had lived in poverty[citation needed] and died in debt[citation needed] at Rome on 16 October 1594. He was buried in the Chapel of the Holy Trinity adjoining the College.


Allen's foundations at Douai survive today in two seminaries, one Allen Hall, in the Borough and District of Chelsea, in London, the successor in spirit to Saint Edmund's College, Ware. The second being the Venerable English College Rome founded in 1579 by Allen and Pope Gregory XIII, which still bears the coat of arms of Allen in the college crest. There existed Saint Cuthbert's College, Ushaw, or Ushaw College, of the University of Durham (where the College's coat-of-arms (granted by the Earl Marshal, who was also the Duke of Norfolk) incorporated the three hares (coneys) from Allen's ancestral arms), near Durham, in County Durham, until its closure in 2011. The English College at Valladolid continues to prepare and educate Englishmen and Welshmen for the Catholic priesthood. Cardinal Allen Catholic High School in Fleetwood, near to his original place of birth, is named in his honour. There also existed a secondary school named after him in Enfield, in the Northern part of the modern Greater London that is traditionally known as Middlesex, until its closure circa 1980; as well as a grammar school for boys in West Derby, Liverpool, until 1983, when it was renamed Cardinal Heenan Catholic High School.


A list of Allen's works is given in Joseph Gillow's Biographical Dictionary of the English Catholics. The following is a list of his printed publications:


  1. ^ Miranda, Salvador. "William Allen". The Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church. Retrieved 8 October 2010.
  2. ^ "William "Cardinal" Allen". Catholic-Hierarchy.org. David M. Cheney. Retrieved 8 October 2010.
  3. ^ "Catholic Life March 2010". Scribd.com. Retrieved 2 February 2012.
  4. ^ Law, Thomas Graves. "Parsons Robert (1546-1610)". Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900. Volume 43.



Further reading[edit]

  • Bossy, John. The English Catholic Community, 1570-1850 (Darton, Longman and Todd, 1975).
  • Carrafiello, Michael L. "English Catholicism and the Jesuit mission of 1580–1581." The Historical Journal 37.4 (1994): 761-774.
  • Duffy, Eamon. "Allen, William (1532–1594)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2008) accessed 18 Aug 2017 doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/391.
  • Duffy, Eamon. "William, Cardinal Allen, 1532–1594." British Catholic History 22.3 (1995): 265-290.
  • Tarrago, Rafael E. "Bloody Bess: The Persecution of Catholics in Elizabethan England." Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 7.1 (2004): 117-133.

Older studies[edit]

  • Thomas Francis Knox, Letters and Memorials of Cardinal Allen (London, 1882).
  • Thomas Francis Knox, First and Second Diaries of the English College, Douay: Historical Introduction (London, 1877).
  • Alphons Bellesheim, Wilhelm Cardinal Allen und die englischen Seminare auf dem Festlande (Mainz, 1885)
  • First and Second Diaries of the English College, Douai (London, 1878).
  • Ethelred Taunton, History of the Jesuits in England (London, 1901).
Catholic Church titles
Preceded by
Gabriele Paleotti
Cardinal Priest of Ss. Silvestro e Martino ai Monti
Succeeded by
Francesco Cornaro (iuniore)