Part II- English Catholic exiles in Spain: religion, money and intrigue

The number of exiled English Catholics present in Spain during the late 15th and early 16th centuries never surpassed that of France or the Low Countries. Spain presented a variety of problems, from the precarious economic winds of the Spanish Crown to the climate. Many contemporary accounts point to the preference of English Catholics for areas similar to the weather and climate of the British Isles. Perhaps that proclivity accounts for the greater number of exiles in northern Spain and the success of the seminary in Valladolid when compared to the lesser numbers in the south and the struggles of St Gregory’s in Seville. The exile Catholic experience in Spain was characterized by economic difficulties, religious fervor and the struggles of being pawns in the larger game of Anglo-Spanish relations.

Seminaries for priestly formation were key in preserving the Roman Catholic Faith for the English after the “reforms” of Henry VIII. Seminaries were established primarily in Louvain, Douay, Rome, Valladolid, and Seville.
These seminaries provided not only priestly formation but became havens from the persecution being unleashed against Catholics in England. Their success was proven by the deep concerns , as expressed in documents , emerging in England during this period. Relations between England and Spain became increasingly strained as the support of Philip II and subsequently Philip III for the seminary of Valladolid as well as other seminaries was publicized in the religious tug of war of the period through propaganda literature.

The Valladolid seminary, St Alban’s , trained English priests in the Faith and in the needs of ministering to persecuted Catholics back home. The seminary was painfully aware of the dangers these future priests would encounter each time one returned home to guaranteed persecution, imprisonment and even martyrdom. Between 1590-1591, 16 new priests returned to England for this fate. The very first and best known was Henry Walpole. Such tragedies did not deter Englishmen from the seminaries and provide a testament to the vitality of the Faith and the willingness to resist the rising tide of Protestantism. That tide played a crucial role in Spanish royal politics and the seminaries were not exempt from becoming pawns in the Habsburg power plays. Although St Alban’s enjoyed a wonderful reputation for its scholarship under its Jesuit director, Fr. Joseph Cresswell , it was completely dependent on the Spanish Crown for its very survival. The first English students of St Alban’s were given monetary help by the town council of Valladolid at the orders of Philip II when they requested help to remain in Spain in 1589. Such monetary assistance continued through the existence of the seminary. Father Cresswell himself received remuneration and , in addition, was given a residence in Madrid for himself and any students who needed it by Philip II. This residence eventually became the third seminary established by royal patronage. At St Alban’s, monetary support allowed it to thrive under Philip II and Philip III but it waned as the needs of Spain vs England changed in later years. As a result of royal involvement, the seminaries were cradles of sedition and the English Crown watched them closely. The Seville seminary existed, partly because it was less expensive to run due to a smaller student population, through donations from local nobility as well as royal support.

As Elizabethan policies strengthened against Catholics at home, the number of men and women willing to seek exile increased. All social classes attempted to leave but not everyone was lucky enough to do so. Merchants took to sea to find a suitable market. Many prominent families sought the support of Spaniards at the English court for resettlement. Some of these were lucky enough to obtain pensions from the Spanish crown or obtain employment with the Spanish nobility as tutors or retainers. The issue of the pensions was always a difficult one as the Spanish court was at times not able to secure funds to maintain certain individuals. Annual sums were granted but remained precarious from year to year and forced many to emigrate to other European centers of English exile activity. Other exiles in Spain became soldiers of fortune. Still, the vast majority of exiles were men entering the seminaries. Added to the mix were criminals or spies ,employed by the Elizabeth government to destabilize the exile community and provide information about exile activity and Spanish policies. These very often succeeded in blending in due to the preservation of “Catholic” practices still present in England. It was not so difficult to pretend to be Catholic as of yet. In fact, the presence of these criminals and spies was so worrisome for the Spanish that governors and royal officials in border towns and other points of entry were told to be on the lookout. Spies were found in the towns of Fuenterrabia, San Sebastian and Seville and also identified in the Spanish Court. The latter were often artfully used as vehicles to spread Spanish propaganda but remained nevertheless dangerous infiltrators in the exile world in Madrid and other towns. The seminaries were not exempt from this activity and two “priests”, John Cecil and John Fixer, provided the English court with information about the people and practices of St Albans. The seminaries themselves adopted various methods to scrutinize students before admission. Many of the identities of the priests returning to Catholicize England from Spain were already in the hands of the English prior to arrival. This information also was used to track down their families and other recusants.

Many of the prominent families who sought refuge in Spain had been retainers at the court of the Catholic Mary Tudor. One of her closest ladies in waiting was Lady Jane Dormer. The Dormer children were born into a family eventually divided along religious lines as the father retained his Catholicism and the the mother became increasingly attracted to the emerging heresy of Henry VIII. The premature death of the mother , coupled with a very. Catholic maternal grandmother who would also become an exile, ensured that the children would be brought up as Catholics. Lady Jane grew up in the court of Henry VIII and even spent her childhood as a playmate for future Edward VI but she was well-known for her piety. During Mary’s reign, she met and married the interim ambassador from Spain, the Duke of Feria, who was staunchly anti-Elizabeth. Upon Elizabeth’s accession to the throne, the Duke and Duchess of Feria returned to Spain. Jane Dormer took with her several other exiles for her household, including a secretary ,Henry Clifford ,and her cousin through marriage, Margaret Harrington. Soon ,the new and wealthy Duchess of Feria became a benefactor to the exile community in Spain, first through her husband and then her son’s position at court. She secured pensions, aided the English seminaries financially and became a contact point between the community of exiles and the Royal Court. Under her patronage, Henry Cock completed a historical geography of Spain. Under her devoted patronage, saints’ relics were obtained and churches benefitted from her commissioning of sacred art, especially altar pieces. In the case of Margaret Harrington, the Duchess supported her until her marriage to a Spanish nobleman, even providing a dowry of 20,000 ducats. Upon Margaret’s death, the Duchess executed her will to found a Franciscan monastery in the Feria ancestral town of Zafra and provide a burial place for her cousin there. A statue of a praying Margaret in her tertiary habit is displayed to this day at the Church of Santa Marina, seat of a congregation of Poor Clares (see picture). Unfortunately for the Duchess, she also became a lightning rod for English spies and court intrigues. Intrigue and money reared their heads in attempts to set her up as governor of the Low Countries , where some of her family had emigrated, to benefit English exiles there and bolster Spanish power completely failed.

All exiles hope that at some point they can return to their homeland. Sadly, the experience of the English Catholics in Spain and in other countries was not much different from the exile experience throughout history. It became very clear upon the death of Elizabeth I that Protestantism had won in England and that the laws enacted to prevent the exercise of Catholicism and stamp it out could not be eradicated by alliances, not even with powerful Spain. The Habsburg penchant for utilitarian politics also meant that the interests of English Catholics would eventually be abandoned or ignored in favor of Habsburg interests.

This is the second part of a two-part longer version of an article I wrote for Regina Magazine in 2013 found here


For topics on Catholics and the English Reformation, i highly recommend under the wise of Stephanie Mann

Lady Jane Dormer has been a character in two novels by Philippa Gregory

A supposed portrait of the first Duchess of Feria is at the Prado Museum

For more academic reading:
1. Michael E. Williams, St. Albans College, Valladolid: Four Centuries of English Catholic Presence in Spain (London-New York, 1984).
2. Berta Cano-Echevarria and Ana Saez-Hidalgo, “Educating for Martyrdom:
British Exiles in the English College at Valladolid,” in Religious Diaspora in Early Modern Europe: Strategies of Exile, eds.
Timothy G. Fehler, et al. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2014. ISBN:
3. The standard work is the scholarship by Albert Loomie in articles and books, particularly The Spanish Elizabethans available at
4. Current work and research in progress by Berta Cano Echevarria and Mark Vaughan Hutchings





About bemonzon

Historian, Educator. My areas of interest are medieval Spain and England, the history of medieval women, Catholicism, popular religion and Anglo-Spanish relations.
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