In 1575, much as he loved Oxford and had a promising academic career before him, influenced by his uncle, Father John Woodward, Ralph decided to travel abroad to train for the priesthood. Together with two friends, Martin Array and John Curry, he crossed the channel under the pretense of traveling to study medicine but in truth he made for Douai, France, and the English seminary in exile.
The two years that Ralph spent at Douai were among the happiest in the history of the College. Numbers were growing, spirits were high and the seminary was well supported financially by a generous pension given by Pope Gregory XIII. At this point in the colleges history no spies from the English establishment had yet darkened its doors and there was a great camaraderie among the students, an openness about the mission in England and a zeal to return to their native land.
Ralph was ordained on the 23rd of March 1577 for the Diocese of Lichfield. two weeks later Martin Array who had left England with Ralph was also ordained and the two of them set out for Rome with Edward Rishton and three others. They had been chosen as vanguard members of a new college, the English College, sponsored by Pope Gregory XIII. The English College is still the principle base for the training of English seminarians in Rome and Ralph’s name is the first in the college register. (see left-hand image)
Ralph had come from Douai full of excitement at being a part of this pioneering new college but instead it had more the appearance of a home for retired clergy. The excitement and zeal for a return to England that had been at the heart of Douai was totally lacking in Rome. Disagreements in the college escalated and rivalries grew up, particularly with regards to the blatant favouring of the Welsh students by the Rector, Doctor Clynogg, himself a Welshman. Ralph and Martin Array seeing no prospect of a return to England and a college falling apart petitioned the Pope to hand the English College over to the Jesuit order to administer saying:
“We do not ask for freedom but for discipline.”
When summoned by Cardinal Horone and threatened with explosion Ralph explained to the Cardinal that he was not willing to let the matter drop as it would contradict his conscience and that remaining under the Rectors roof would, in his opinion, imperil their souls. Ralph then took the matter to the Pope where he called for the Rectors resignation. The students then themselves elected the Jesuits as their governance. The Cardinal intervened demanding the obedience of the student body to the Welsh Rector. Ralph went to beg the Pope’s blessing on their actions and received his approval and with that Ralph and the 32 other students involved in the revolt packed and left the following day taking up residence where they could in the city of Rome.
The Jesuits took up their cause and pleaded for money from their pulpits to send Ralph and his companions to the mission in England. Pope Gregory seeing the zeal of the students and perceiving the mounting scandal that was being caused placed the English College in the hands of the Jesuits and the students returned in triumph.