Father Philip Perry (1767-1774)
Father Philip Perry was the college’s first secular rector, chosen by Vicar Apostolic of the London District Bishop Richard Challoner. A 47-year-old Staffordshire man who had studied at Douai, Father Perry obtained a Doctorate of Divinity from St Gregory’s English College, Paris, in May 1754.
On his return to England, he was appointed chaplain at Hassop Hall, Derbyshire, and then Heythrop Park, Oxfordshire, before returning to his native Staffordshire to live with Bishop John Hornyold near Wolverhampton.
On December 11 1767, Father Perry left England for his new role in Spain, travelling via France and visiting the English Colleges in Douai and Paris. Accompanied by St Alban’s new Professor of Theology, Father Joseph Shepherd, he then travelled to Madrid and finally arrived in Valladolid on April 15.
Studies resumed after Father Perry celebrated a Solemn Mass on April 21. The first eight new students came from Douai, while later intakes came directly from England.
Father Perry later helped the Scots move their college from Madrid to Valladolid and began a lawsuit to recover the property of the English College in Seville, a process that was only finally resolved in 1965.
A prolific writer, ten volumes of Father Perry’s manuscripts are held in the Scottish Catholic archives, including a life of Christ, a catalogue of English, Irish and Scots saints and an uncompleted life of St John Fisher.
On top of all this, and his regular struggles with the Spanish authorities, Father Perry found the time to learn Spanish from scratch. He died in September 1774, six years after his arrival in Madrid.
Father James Standen (1838-1845)
Father James Standen was never officially appointed Rector of Saint Alban’s, even though he governed the college after Father Joseph Brown resigned. He arrived in Valladolid during difficult times and found Spain completely devastated and impoverished by the War of Independence, with a growing national determination to abolish the absolute monarchy.
King Ferdinand VII was forced to swear allegiance to the first constitution that had been written in Cádiz in 1812. With this came some anticlerical measures and the ratification of English College rector appointments by the king were continuously postponed, bringing an atmosphere of uncertainty to the college. Previously profitable ventures such as wine selling and the production of the harvest no longer covered the college’s upkeep and it was unable to meet its debts.
Previous rector Father Brown had failed to obtain enough funding from the Spanish crown and lost the support of the English bishops. This was a crucial period for the Church in England, with the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1791 having granted limited freedoms, including the right to establish seminaries for the training of future priests. Many bishops considered this made the costly maintenance of English colleges abroad no longer necessary.
This placed English College rectors in an awkward situation. On one hand they suffered the suspicious gaze of the Spanish authorities who threatened to seize the college’s property under the Mendizábal Mortmain Laws (1836-7), while on the other they suffered the indifference of their own hierarchy, now more interested in developing their own seminaries.
Despite such turmoils, Father Standen’s brought an admirable spirit to the college. His letters and a diary about his trip from England provide an indispensable source of information about the college during this period of uncertainty, including valuable descriptions of customs and traditions.
Before leaving England, he visited all the country’s seminaries to experience their atmosphere, discipline and the variety of studies carried out in these institutions.
The description of his trip from Durham to Valladolid is spiced with moving stories depicted with a touch of irony. London made little impression on him. He compared the city with a particular type of hell where the corrupted atmosphere and the consequences of the Industrial Revolution had destroyed the slightest sign of human touch. He suffered from seasickness while crossing the English Channel and sensed signs of revolution on the streets of Paris.
When he finally arrived in Spain, his letters reflect the reality he encountered with irony and great melancholy. He tells about the soldiers escorting travellers from Vitoria to Burgos to guard them against the frequent assaults of bandits – then discovering that the soldiers had been bandits themselves!
On his arrival in Burgos, he experienced the Spanish custom of paying a sum of money for the dispensation of eating meat during Lent, a tradition he found most convenient, and he was impressed by magnificent buildings such as Burgos Cathedral.
Finally reaching St Alban’s, he devoted himself to the study of Spanish language, culture and literature, considering this to be his duty as the incoming professor of humanities. But he also felt abandoned and the indifference that came from his home bishops affected his health. Against all the odds, however, he stood alone in resisting the closure of the college. Nobody appointed him rector or came to his aid. He alone, together with the fictional character he created in his diary, became the saviour of the college.
While he acknowledged that the college might be expensive to run, he wrote enthusiastically about the benefits of continuing to educate priests, "in Catholic ecclesiastical Spain, familiar with the apostolic principles and thought of Avila and Granada expressed in their own sublime language, who has studied the same books, contemplated the same scenes and daily knelt before the same altars whence our Holy Old English missionaries drew all their knowledge, zeal and piety."
Father Edwin Henson
Father Edwin Henson, a priest of the Nottingham Diocese, was one of the college’s longest-serving and most distinguished rectors. He was appointed in 1924 at the relatively young age of 28 and helped the British promote the cause of the Allies in Spain during the Second World War.
The college was isolated and travel to England was virtually impossible. In the early years of the war, it was by no means certain that England would survive and Spanish neutrality could not be guaranteed. Father Henson took the brave decision to stay on his own in the college, while most of the remaining students made their way to the English College at Lisbon.
Father Henson occupied time by preparing a comprehensive catalogue for the big library that contains many 16th and 17th century books. This was a far from easy task – in more recent times, visiting academics have expressed admiration of the catalogue, which is typed on index cards and carefully cross-referenced.
The exact details of what else happened during this period are difficult to come by. Rumours abound of mysterious figures appearing at the college, possibly escaped prisoners of war, and of cars from the British Embassy in Madrid arriving in the small hours to take them away. Perhaps wisely, none of this was ever formally recorded.
What is known, however, is that Father Henson maintained a close relationship with the embassy and circulated information to counter propaganda from the German side. The embassy’s Press section wrote asking for his advice on publicising British material in the Spanish newspapers.
One of Father Henson’s first suggestions was to translate and distribute Pope Pius XI’s 1937 encyclical against Nazism, Mit Brennender Sorge (With Burning Concern), as it was all but unknown in Spain.
We also know that in 1940, Father Henson was invited to a private dinner with new British ambassador Sir Samuel Hoare and that October the ambassador visited Valladolid.
In the months that followed, the embassy asked him about certain individuals in Valladolid, including whether they were German sympathisers or would be able to help the British war effort. He told them of a shopkeeper who was prepared to buy wireless receivers from England if he could get an import licence and college student Father Gerald Chidgey, who was undertaking further studies at the University of Comillas, was able to circulate publications provided by Father Henson to promote the British cause.
When the tide of the war changed in 1945, Father Henson was instructed by the Embassy to take possession of the German Consulate in Valladolid. He found only a deserted office with a single table.
Father Henson also fed information to the BBC, criticising the tone of their reports and pointing out inaccuracies in their pronunciation of Spanish names and places. He advised on the best radio wavelengths for the BBC to use and how to avoid jamming by the enemy. In doing this he was building on earlier links forged with the BBC during the Spanish Civil War, when he began broadcasting to England from local station FET Valladolid. His objective and fair reports are quoted in some of the histories of the Civil War. Historian Hugh Thomas, for example, quotes Father Henson on the number of Republicans who were put to death in Valladolid following the uprising, when the city had been rapidly taken over by Nationalist forces at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1936.
Bravely, Father Henson decided to reopen the college as soon as possible after the Second World War and the first group of students arrived in 1947. Gradually, a full six-year course was established and by the mid-1950s there were 35-to-40 students.
Father Henson died in February 1961 and was buried in the college grave in the cemetery at Valladolid, known as Spes Nostra, an underground vault excavated from the dry, sandy soil. When later rector Monsignor David Greenstock was buried in 1990, the vault was opened and Father Henson’s coffin was found to be well preserved and resting on stone blocks.