Edmund Campion, born in London in 1540, was soon recognised as one of the most talented scholars of his generation. He was a master of Latin and Greek literature and philosophy, and distinguished himself for his oratory while at Oxford. After speaking before Queen Elizabeth, he won the patronage of Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and the Queen’s favourite.
Truly, my ingenious young man, you are much beholden to the Queen’s Majesty. I have been commanded by her to ask diligently of you what you would have her do for you or for any of your friends.
But as Elizabeth re-established a form of Protestant Christianity as the national religion, many at Oxford found they could not in conscience be a part of it and left for the continent, to train as priests in Douay or Rome. Edmund stayed and took orders as an Anglican deacon, but began to have doubts. The Company of Grocers, which was giving him a scholarship, became suspicious of the fact that he still had not preached a sermon in an Anglican Church.
…it is now agreed that he shall [preach] between this and the second Sunday after Michaelmas…and if he refuse, then his exhibition is to cease.
In the end Campion had to leave Oxford and go to Ireland – without preaching his sermon – where there was less pressure to conform. But he left to join his friends at Douay to train as a Roman Catholic priest. An appeal he later wrote to his friend, Bishop Cheney, who had shared his scruples, gives us a glimpse of his own experience:
Spare yourself, spare your soul, spare my grief. Albeit your ship is wrecked, your merchandise lost; nevertheless seize the plank of penance, swim as you can, and come even naked to the port of the Church. Doubt not that Christ will preserve you with His hand, run to meet you, kiss you, and put the white garment on you; the heavens will rejoice
Campion was summoned to the dangerous new mission to England, to support and develop the underground network of priests ministering to the needs of English Catholics. The Pope had excommunicated Elizabeth in 1570, and there were political and military activities afoot involving Spain and Ireland even as Campion and Robert Persons SJ were on their way. Roman Catholic priests were now by definition traitors. But this is how Campion, unaware of the political manoeuvres writes on the road:
I am now on the way to my warfare in England… Robert Persons and myself, seven other priests, and three laymen. I see them all so prodigal of blood and life, that I am ashamed of my backwardness… Though we should fall at the first onset, yet our army is full of fresh recruits, by whose victory our ghosts will be pacified.
Campion and Persons both wrote reports for the Jesuit General Fr Mercurian, describing their experience on the English mission.
I made it to London, and my good angel guided me unawares into the same house that had previously hosted Father Robert. Young gentlemen came to me on every hand; they greet me, dress me, furnish me, arm me, and convey me out of the City.
I ride about some piece of the country nearly every day. The harvest is wonderfully great. On horseback I meditate my sermon; when I come to the house I polish it. Then I talk with any who approach me, or hear their confessions. In the morning, after Mass, I preach; with such eagerness their ears strain to listen, and they very often receive the Sacraments…
We cannot long escape the hands of the heretics; the enemies have so many eyes, so many tongues, so many traps. I read letters myself that in the first page tell the news that ‘Campion is captured’. This so re-echoes in my ears repeatedly now, wherever I go, that fear itself has driven out all my fear. ‘My life is ever in my own hands’… Truly the consolations intermingled with these affairs are so great, that they not only countervail the dread of punishment, but by infinite sweetness compensate for any sort of pain.
Campion and Persons had some hopes that through reasoned argument they could make the case for Catholic Christianity against the Protestant criticisms. When the accusations were flying that the Jesuits were there to overthrow the Queen and her government, he wrote a challenge to the Lords of the Privy Council asking them to give him a series of hearings, and explained what was at the heart of the Jesuit mission:
My charge is, of free cost to preach the Gospel, to minister the Sacraments, to instruct the simple, to reform sinners, to confute errors – in brief to cry alarm spiritual against foul vice and proud ignorance, wherewith many my dear Country men are abused.
This challenge was widely circulated as ‘Campion’s Bragge’. And earned him a reputation among his enemies for arrogance.
He later published a book, through the secret press set up by Persons, protesting that he was not relying on his own ingenuity and powers of persuasion, but on the force of truth and tradition itself. His ‘Ten Reasons’ for accepting the Catholic position offered a genuine challenge to the establishment theologians. But all the while he was writing he was also ministering and preaching in Catholic houses in the Midlands and North England. Sixty years later a fellow Jesuit reports on the effects:
Campion’s memory has remained fresh in the North, where they have still remembered his sermons…
They were drawn not so much by his eloquence or elocution, although he was admirable in both respects, as by his fire, and by a certain hidden force in his way of speaking which they considered could only flow from the Holy Spirit.
But the spies were everywhere and in the end, George Eliot, former Catholic turned government agent managed to track him down at Lyford Grange, with two other priests. After a long search they eventually found the hiding place:
Yet still searching, although in effect clean void of any hope of finding of them, the said David Jenkins, by God’s great goodness, espied a certain secret place, which he quickly found to be hollow; … he forthwith did break a hole into the said place, where he perceived the said Priests lying all close together. The said Jenkins then called very loudly, and said, ‘I have found the traitors’;
The priests were well treated at first, but eventually confined to the Tower of London, where they were tortured. The government made a spectacular series of arrests of Catholic gentry and put it about that their names had been revealed by Campion. Person’s spoke in Campion’s defence.
When Campion had been caught and afflicted with torments, it was being said that he had confessed whatsoever they had demanded of him…Many gentlemen and noblemen were summoned from their homes to London, and charged on a confession of Campion, although in reality (as it later became apparent) he never yielded one word to his tormentors.
The government were anxious to show that they were able to meet the intellectual challenges Campion had posed in his ‘Ten Reasons’ and a series of disputes was held in the Tower of London. Campion was weak from torture and had no access to books, though he was eventually given a Bible. After three sessions, the disputes were cancelled. The government report eventually came out, after Campion’s death.
We trust that all those Catholics… that have any spark of shamefulness left, may blush for Master Campion’s sake, being so manifestly deprehended in so many lies so braggingly avouched, and in print in the Latin tongue published to the world.
But a street ballad at the time of the disputes – swiftly banned by the authorities – gives a more immediate sense of how the people thought the disputes had gone.
A Jesuit, a Jebusite? Wherefore I you pray?
Because he doth teach you the only right way?
He proffereth the same way by learning to prove,
And shall we from learning to rack him remove?
His reasons were ready, his grounds were most sure,
The enemy cannot his force long endure
Campion, in camping on spiritual field,
In God’s cause his life is ready to yield.
Then came the trial. Campion and seven others had to face judge and jury together under a single charge.
That being traitors against the Queen… they did falsely, maliciously and traitorously conspire not only to deprive, cast down, and disinherit the said Queen from her title, power and rule of her realm of England, but also to bring and put the same Queen to death and final destruction.
A later English legal commentator has this to say about the trial:
Of those brought to trial the most eminent was Campion … If we may confide in the published trial, the prosecution was as unfairly conducted and supported by as slender evidence, as any perhaps which can be found in our books.
When the inevitable verdict came, Campion responded:
It was not our death that ever we feared. We knew that we were not lords of our own lives, and therefore for want of answer would not be guilty of our own deaths. The only thing that we now have to say is, that if our Religion do make us traitors, we are worthy to be condemned; but otherwise are and have been as true subjects as ever the Queen had. In condemning us you condemn all your own ancestors-all the ancient priests, bishops, and kings – all that was once the glory of England, the island of saints, and the most devoted child of the See of Peter.
On the day of execution Campion and Alexander Briant SJ were dragged from the Tower to Tyburn (modern Marble Arch), there to be hanged, disembowled and quartered before the huge crowds. The prisoners were allowed some moments to speak before their execution.
I protest that I am guiltless and innocent of all treason and conspiracy; and I crave credit to be given to this answer, as my last answer made upon my death and soul. The jury might be easily deceived and more also put in the evidence than was true, but I forgive all, as I wish to be forgiven; and I desire all them to forgive me whose names I confessed upon the rack.
I pray for the Queen
I die a true Catholic
Jesus, Jesus, esto mihi Jesus.
In his later report, the prosecution witness, Anthony Munday, tried to see in this nothing but hypocrisy and arrogance.
This man, always covetous to make himself famous, at this instant made a perfect discovery of himself; for being somewhat learned… all matters whatsoever he bore away with a majestic countenance, the visor of vanity aptly fitting the face of only hypocrisy.
But perhaps Campion’s own description of the ideal Christian student can give us a better insight into the sort of scholar he aspired to be
In diction and style so pure, elegant and religious, that he seemed to have digested Cicero… so intelligent and ready that he seemed to have investigated every field of knowledge…
Holy thus in mind and in body, with equal care and delicacy of conscience he avoided superstitions, hypocrisy, presumption, sadness and that critical, superior attitude which sometimes lurks around even good works.
And for the meaning of his life, death and mission, we do best to listen to the final words of his ‘Bragge’.
If these my offers be refused, and my endeavours can take no place, and I having run thousands of miles to do you good, shall be rewarded with rigour, I have no more to say, but to recommend your case and mine to Almighty God, the Searcher of Hearts, who send us His grace, and set us at accord before the day of payment, to the end we may at last be friends in heaven when all injuries shall be forgotten.