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San Tommaso di Canterbury

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San Tommaso di Canterbury is the 19th century church of the Venerable English College, at Via Monserrato 45 in the rione Regola. Pictures of the church on Wikimedia Commons are here.

The dedication is to the archbishop and martyr St Thomas Becket of Canterbury in England.


Unlike most Roman seminaries, the College here has a church -not merely a chapel.

However, it is not a national church. The English have one of these at San Giorgio e dei Martiri Inglesi (note -not San Giorgio in Velabro!) and, according to the Diocese, share San Silvestro in Capite with the Scots and Welsh. This used to be the major national church of England, until the Scots stupidly abandoned their own church of Sant'Andrea degli Scozzesi. The Welsh have never had a national church in Rome.

The English language, because of its premier international status, is not sufficient to define a worshipping group in Rome. This is noticeable here. As well as the seminarians, the Sunday Mass here is apparently well-attended by expatriates and visitors from England who prefer not to worship with "too many" of those of other English-speaking nationalities (unfortunately, some here have allegedly said that they are avoiding the Filippinos at San Silvestro).



There is a tradition that the English presence on this site arose when a pilgrim hospice was founded here by King Offa of Mercia in 630. There is no evidence of this, and the English actually established their first institution in Rome when the Schola Saxonum was founded in 727 by King Ine of Wessex. This survived as a pilgrimage hospice and centre for expatriates until the late 12th century.

Also, it used to be thought that the first church on the site was called Santissima Trinità degli Scozzesi, "Holy Trinity of the Scots". This was built for a monastery in the 8th century, and its placement on this site is supported by the Roman church historians Armellini and Hülsen.

The word Scozzesi derives from the Latin Scoti, and actually referred to the Irish. Scotland is named after those Irish settlers who invaded its west coast from the 6th century onwards.

However an alternative view is that this church was situated on the Aventine, on the Clivio Scauri near the present monastery of San Gregorio Magno al Celio. The monastery it served was one of the twenty great Benedictine abbeys of Rome in the 12th century, but it collapsed in the early 13th and the property was granted to San Gregorio in 1249. That was the end of the church of the Scoti.


The actual origins of the church here lie in the 14th century, when a Societas Pauperorum Anglorum was founded to help poor English pilgrims. In 1362, this confraternity bought a house from an expatriate English couple trading in items of devotion such as rosaries (their names were John and Alice Shepherd), and founded the "Hospice of the Holy Trinity and St Thomas of Canterbury".

It is now thought that the dedication to the Trinity led to confusion with the old church mentioned above, perhaps maliciously in order to enhance the prestige of the institution.

The hospice would have had a chapel from the start, but initially this would have been a room in the house. However, a purpose-built chapel was erected in 1376 and this is the ancestor of the present church. It is clamed that that it was a substantial edifice. Architectural salvage from it is to be found in the college garden, comprising window frames and pillars.

The complex received royal patronage for the next hundred and fifty years, and many distinguished visitors as well as thousands of ordinary pilgrims.

In 1527, the hospice was looted and damaged in the Sack of Rome and was hardly repaired in time for the English Reformation which began in the following decade. This dried up the flow of pilgrims, and the institution became moribund.

In 1559 Thomas Goldwell , Bishop of St Asaph in Wales, arrived as an exile in Rome with one of his priests, Morus Clynog. The latter became the hospice's chamberlain in 1567.

Foundation of collegeEdit

In 1576, the expatriate Cardinal William Allen obtained possession of the hospice with the intention of turning it into an English seminary. He rebuilt the complex, including the church, and obtained the approval of Pope Gregory XIII for the foundation in 1579. Clynog was made the first rector in the previous year.

The church that Allen built was on the footprint of the present building.

Unfortunately, things did not start well. The seminarians were both Welsh and English, with Clynog as a Welshman in charge. The Italians tend not to be familar with the intricacies of nationalisms in the United Kingdom, so a good comparison for them would be to imagine a seminary with Italian and Albanian students, and an Albanian in charge. The atmosphere quickly became poisonous; the English government was in the process of destroying the last remaining native social institutions in Wales, and forcing the Welsh to worship in English instead of Latin.

Mission policyEdit

Clynog left in 1580, and a Jesuit called Alfonso Agazzari was appointed as rector. This settled a dispute about the purpose of the seminary. One faction wished it simply to train Englishmen as priests, while the other wished the training to be specifically to go on mission to England. The latter view won out.

The ultimate reason for this was odd. In other Protestant countries such as Denmark or Sweden, the government completely suppressed the Catholic Church by confiscating the assets of those loyal to it, especially landowners. However, in England the government confined itself to fining the so-called recusants and barring them from public office. The motivation was the enhanced revenue that the land-holdings of Catholics provided for the government.

However for an Englishman to be ordained abroad as a Catholic priest was declared to be treason, and any such priests in England were hunted down and judicially murdered.


The first priest of the college was martyred in 1581, St Ralph Sherwin. The last was Edward Mico, who died in prison in 1678 or 1679.

Of the forty-one martyrs, thirty-seven have been canonized or beatified (the last four to have been martyred are classed as "Venerable", including Mico). Eight were Jesuits, and two Franciscans.

In 1583, Niccolò Circignani painted a fresco cycle depicting the Reformation martyrdoms in England to that year. This has been destroyed, although a copy survives in the present church's gallery.

17th and 18th centuriesEdit

From 1681, most of the college was rebuilt in a project that took until 1685. The present campanile was part of the result. It was initially intended to rebuild the church as well, but this was never started. The intention was to have been an elliptical edifice with a dome. A surviving plan of the proposal is here.

In 1773, the Society of Jesus was suppressed and the administration of the college passed into the hands of the secular clergy.

The church was desecrated during the French occupation of Rome after 1798, when the church roof was plundered for firewood and the lead coffins in the crypt recycled for bullets. The college, however, just about managed to survive as a functioning institution although there were no students.

19th centuryEdit

Students returned in 1818, but apparently the church was left derelict for the next fifty years.

This is odd. One contributing factor might have been a clause in the foundation charter of the college in 1579, which stipulated that the premises were to be restored to being a pilgrim hospice should the English governing establishment become Catholic again. Incredibly, in the first half of the 19th century the delusion grew up in Rome that this was about to happen (the so-called "Conversion of England"), and this fantasy influenced some missionary outreaches at the time -for example, by the Passionists and the Subiaco Benedictines. It is clear that English expatriates in Rome were maliciously crafting this myth to their own advantage.

Finally, a rebuilding project was initiated in 1864 when Pietro Camporese the Younger oversaw the clearance of the site and the planning of the new structure. However he was replaced by Luigi Poletti by 1866, when Pope Pius IX laid the foundation stone of the new edifice. (There seems to be a suspicion that some fabric from the earlier building remains in the present one, but if so it is invisible.)

Unfortunately, Poletti died in 1869 and responsibility passed to Virginio Vespignani after a pause. He worked from 1873 to 1888, and so completed the project. 


The church was re-modelled in the 1970's, which historians of church art are already regarding as one of the most unfortunate periods aesthetically in the Church's history. Here, enthusiasm for liturgical changes to the Roman rite in 1970 led the College authorities to mutilate the furnishings of the church without putting anything worthy in their place.

The high altar was demolished, and its canopy allegedly sold to an antique dealer. In the place of the altar were put three armchairs (!) for the celebrants, and the former altarpiece was re-hung on the wall above these. A new altar was erected in the middle of the nave, and consecrated in 1980. This is in the form of a white rectangular box with the two largest sides missing, and a gilded metal chest inserted into it. The chest contains relics of English Reformation martyrs. 

The 19th century pews were thrown out, and replaced with longitudinal wooden seating that looks like a collection of the more expensive sort of park bench. (To be fair, several other Roman churches did this.)

Most stupidly, the two side altars were needlessly removed. The one on the left had been dedicated to the Sacred Heart, and that to the right to the Assumption of Our Lady. 

The overall result is a church that is still richly decorated, but has a very serious shortage of devotional items -no candle stands, statues or holy pictures. Our Lady is notable by her absence, and where is the Blessed Sacrament?

This sort of thing is already dated.


Layout and fabricEdit

The plan of the church is a simple rectangle, and the five-bay edifice consists of an entrance vestibule and a four-bay central nave with aisles. Unusually, there is no structural sanctuary. The aisles and vestibule have galleries over them, which allows the whole structure to be sheltered under one pitched and tiled roof.

The ends of the church abut the adjacent buildings, so only the right hand side wall is visble. This performs the function of the church's façade.


The church's campanile, the only result of the 17th century project to rebuild the church, is not attached to the building but is over a wing of the college behind it. If you stand in the piazza you 

2011 Tomaso in Canterbury, campanile

The campanile.

can see it over the church's roofline. It was built in 1685 in the style of Borromini, and has two storeys over the roof of the wing. The first storey has blank walls. The second storey has a clock face on each side, flanked by inwardly curved volutes on the corners and with an ogee-curved cornice. The bulbous cupola, in lead, has a large elliptical piercing on each side. The bells are actually in here.


The brownish-red brick façade, with white stucco architectural details, clashes somewhat with the other buildings of the locality and is obviously 19th century. The design is rather odd, and difficult to describe. 

There are four rectangular zones, divided by a horizontal line following the vault of the right hand side aisle inside, and a vertical one separating the entrance bay from the nave. Each of these four zones is framed in white, with the two lower ones having the top edges of their frames incised into little semi-circular pendant arches. The two lower zones and the two upper ones are separated by a string-course with a line of beaded molding.

The largest lower zone, to the right, fronts the nave side aisle. It contains a row of four oculi or round windows, with dished frames each having a circle of twisted cord molding. Below these,  near the ground plinth, is a simple string-course.

The right hand upper zone has a similar string course, on which are four round-headed windows within recessed dished frames. These light the right hand gallery. Over them runs a string course with dentillation, which curves over the top of each window and also does an identical blind curve between each pair of them.

The left hand upper zone, the smallest, also has a string course. On this is an arcade of three arched windows separated by little vaguely Corinthian columns, with molded archivolts and a string course to each side from the springers.

The roofline has an ornate cornice, with two rows of dentillations sandwiching a row of modillions (little brackets).


The left hand lower zone contains the very impressive Romanesque entrance doorway. The broad archivolt has a total of eight moldings of different widths, plain alternating with decorated. The tympanum that it encloses has a small wheel window with twelve spokes, flanked by vine-scroll decoration.

The inner curve of decorative molding continues down the doorcase on each side. The door itself is a fine example of carpentry, being covered in a grid of little coffers. The piers on either side each have two engaged Corinthian columns, diagonally placed.

Unfortunately, this spectacular entrance is now rarely used.



The church has an entrance vestibule, which occupies its first bay. Then comes the nave with four bays, having side aisles. There is no separate sanctuary, or any side chapel. Over each aisle and the vestibule is a second-storey gallery.


The nave arcades have four arches on each side, springing from dumpy Corinthian columns in polished grey marble. At the ends of the arcades are engaged semi-columns, the far ones being attached to the sanctuary wall and the near ones to two square piers flanking the vestibule. A further single column supports two arches leading from the vestibule to the nave.

Above the arcade arches runs an entablature (which does not cross the sanctuary wall), and above this in turn are four arches on each side for the galleries. These have piers without imposts, and each contains an arcade of three smaller arches with Corinthian columns in what looks like red granite. Above each arcade, and within the larger arch, is an oculus with a sextafoil aperture.

The aisles and vestibule are cross-vaulted with transverse archivolts dividing the bays. However, the galleries have flat coffered ceilings. The main roof is open and is in planks, with trusses dividing the bays.

The floor is imitation Cosmatesque work.


All the walls are covered by fresco work, involving superb geometric detail in gold and royal blue with details in red and green. This was by Silverio Capparoni. In the spandrels of the nave arches there are tondi with portraits of saints associated with England.

The gallery walls have a fresco cycle imitating the lost one by Niccolò Circignani. It shows the sufferings of the Reformation martyrs, done rather graphically. Apparently the original cycle was used to test the resolve of the seminarians, by warning them of what might have been in store for them.

The vestibule has lunette frescoes depicting events from the College's history.

Other artworksEdit

The major artwork in the church is the former altarpiece, a Holy Trinity of Durante Alberti. This is known as "The Martyrs' PIcture", and features SS Thomas Becket to the left and Edmund, King and Martyr to the right. The fine Baroque memorial to Thomas Dereham was designed by Ferdinando Fuga, with sculptural details by Filippo Della Valle 1739.

From the previous church was salvaged the superb tomb-slab effigy of Cardinal Christopher Bainbridge, Archbishop of York in England, which is thought to have been executed by one Niccolò Marini 1514. As it now is, the slab is supported on two carved lions but this cannot have been its original situation. The lions look like they once flanked the old church's entrance (see San Lorenzo in Lucina for a pair in situ).

The oculus windows in the right hand aisle have stained glass roundels in mediaeval style.

Martyrs' ChapelEdit

On the ceiling of the so-called Martyrs' Chapel in the college itself there is a fresco depicting the Assumption by Andrea Pozzo of 1701. This is probably the most important artwork in the college.


The church should be open to visitors between 9:30 and the start of the Mass thirty minutes later. It shuts after the Mass, about 11:00.

If you are an appropriately dressed priest or religious, or have a member of the College expecting you, ask at the porter's lodge at the entrance for access. This entrance is just to the left of the church door.

Otherwise, serious visitors and groups can try contacting the Administrator who is Barbara Donovan on


Mass is celebrated on Sunday at 10:00, except in July and August.

1 December is "Martyrs' Day", and the tradition has been to have a ceremony in front of the Durante picture in their honour.

External linksEdit

Official diocesan web-page

Italian Wikipedia page

Nolli map (look for 697)

Website of the college

"De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr

"Romeartlover" web-page

Info.roma web-page

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