It is 80 years since the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, a conflict which, according to George Orwell, provided “a richer crop of lies than any event since the Great War of 1914-18”. Much has indeed been written on the war by historians, writers and poets, but there has been little, if any, mention of the part that the Royal English College at Valladolid played in the conflict.
In the early 1930s, with political instability and anti-clerical feeling rife in Spain, the college was in the thick of things. There were several attempts to burn it down. From the onset, Valladolid was under Nationalist control and it managed to escape many of the atrocities committed in areas controlled by the Republican government. It was reported, for example, that in Asturias, a Republican controlled area, clerics were crucified on church doors and hung up on hooks in butchers’ shops under signs reading “Aquí se vende carne de cura” (“Priest meat for sale”). It is estimated that more than 7,000 priests, monks and nuns died in the conflict.
The students who remained in Spain moved out of Valladolid to the college’s country house. In a letter to the rector back in Valladolid, students and staff reported seeing “one large bus of monarchists” passing close to the country house and then, later, the “bodies of six communists were found piled in a heap” further along the road. Some students fishing in the nearby River Duero saw a corpse floating by which was reported to be that of a local communist.
In spite of such incidents the rector reported that “there is complete calm here”. Later in the war the Nationalist forces took up the rector’s offer of using the country house as a hospital and renamed it the Hospital Generalissimo Franco.
Some students from the college left to join the Spanish Foreign Legion and fight for General Franco. There are several letters from them in the college archive which tell of their experiences. One student, Paddy Dalton, the first to join up, was killed on the Castellon front on July 17, 1938, aged 23.
In an essay looking back on the war, Orwell wrote that “the only propaganda open to the fascists was to represent themselves as Christian patriots saving Spain from a Russian dictatorship”. The English secular and Catholic press certainly played their part in this, and Orwell points his finger rather accusingly at two newspapers in particular, the Daily Mail and the Catholic Herald, accusing them of publishing scaremongering accounts of Republican soldiers raping nuns.
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection