The Benedictine community of St Gregory the Great was founded at Douai, France, in 1606 by a group of English and Welsh monks who were in exile because of the laws in England against Catholics at that time.
As the community expanded, it started a school for English Catholic boys, who were unable to find a Catholic education at home: this was the very start of Downside School, in 1617. The monks were engaged not only in teaching but also in scholarly work, writing and lecturing, and in priestly and pastoral work.
By the beginning of the 18th century the School was held in such high esteem in England that Queen Anne ordered the Duke of Marlborough to spare it when he stormed Douai in 1710. In the 1790s, however, French revolutionaries plundered the Abbey and School, but the monks and boys were allowed to escape to England in February 1795.
The Community returned to England, seeking refuge in Shropshire, at Acton Burnell Hall, from 1795 to 1814. We have been based in Somerset since 1814, and as you look around our site you’ll learn that a lot of the places you visit have been named after those who risked their lives to establish Downside School during the earlier turbulent years.
- Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia of Spain and Portugal – protected the community (we’ve named Isabella House after her).
- Philip de Caverel, Abbot of St Vedasts’s in Arras – furnished the community with buildings. (we furnished one of our boarding houses with his name, Caverel House)
- St John Roberts and St Ambrose Barlow – two members of the community who travelled to England in the 17th-century to exercise their priestly duties, risking the death penalty. They were canonized in 1970 and are recognized as martyrs. (Two of our Senior Boys’ houses have been named in their memory)
- Blessed Philip Powell – another martyr from the community who was put to death in 1646. (Powell House is the house for our Junior Boys)
- Sir Edward Smythe – a former pupil who hosted the community and School in his home, Acton Burnell in Shropshire before the 1814 move to Somerset. (Another of our Senior Boys’ boarding houses is named after Sir Edward)
The School has been on its present site since 1814; when you arrive here you’ll notice the magnificent cedar tree near the main entrance, it was planted here when the community arrived.
Downside became a fully co-educational school, admitting boys and girls in all year groups, in 2005. We welcomed our first lay Head Master, Dr James Whitehead, in April 2014.
‘It’s the little traditions that make Downside so lovely’
(Tatler Schools Guide 2016)