St. Edmund Campion

(c. 1540-1581)

Persecution in England after the Reformation called forth many Catholic martyrs. Most heroic of those who died under Queen Elizabeth I was Edmund Campion, called by his enemies “the seditious Jesuit”.

Edmund’s father was a London bookseller. The parents had left the Catholic Church when Queen Elizabeth re-established Anglicanism, so Edmund became Protestant. The brilliance of his mind was evident from childhood. As a boy he had been selected to give a speech of welcome to Queen Mary Tudor in 1553. Thirteen years later he was chosen to give an oration of welcome to Queen Elizabeth when she visited Oxford. Leading figures, including Queen Elizabeth, were interested in the potentialities of this young Oxford scholar. William Cecil, Elizabeth’s counselor, did not hesitate to call him “a diamond of England.” A born leader, Campion was the most notable figure of his day at the University. He exercised there a magnetic influence comparable to that of John Henry Newman three centuries later.

The Anglican bishop of Cloucester persuaded Edmund to take the oath of Supremacy to the Queen and receive the Anglican order of deacon. But Campion’s studies thereafter convinced him that the Anglican Church was invalid. Falling under suspicion as pro-papist, he went to Dublin to assist in the foundation of a university. In 1571, when Pope St. Pius V’s excommunication of Elizabeth made people like himself ever more subject to prosecution, Campion fled to Belgium. At Douay he was reconciled to the Catholic Church, and ordained a subdeacon. Then he went to Rome and joined the Society of Jesus. He was ordained a Catholic priest in Prague, Bohemia, in 1578.

In 1579 the general of the Jesuits began to send English Jesuits back to Britain to carry on a secret apostolate. The first two chosen for this dangerous mission were Fathers Robert Persons and Edmund Campion. Persons entered England disguised as a returning soldier. Campion came later, posing as a jewel merchant, accompanied by Jesuit Brother Ralph Emerson as his “servant”. Not all Catholics welcomed them. They feared that the trio came with some political purpose. The priests had to reassure them that their mission was “only apostolical-without any pretense in knowledge of matters of state.”

The British government quickly learned of their arrival, so they had to move out into the provinces. To the government also, Fr. Edmund asserted that their presence in England was spiritual, not political. He did this in a leaflet “Challenge to the Privy Council,” which soon became known as “Campion’s Brag”. In 1581 he was able to print and distribute “Decem Rationes” (“Ten Reasons”), a leaflet addressed to Protestants to persuade them to return to the Catholic faith.

Campion, now all the more prominent - and hated - by his enemies, led a life of joyful adventure, going about on his mission often only a step ahead of the police. The success of his religious contacts was great, so the hardships were worth it. He wrote to his superior in Rome: “I am in apparel to myself very ridiculous; I often change it and my name also.” He knew he could not escape forever, but as he said, “Fear itself hath taken away all fear.”

On Sunday, July 16, 1681, after he had celebrated Mass in a private house, a traitor in the congregation called the police. Campion was arrested and tortured within an inch of his life, but he did not break down. Government leaders, including, it is said, Queen Elizabeth herself, tried another tack. They would give him high positions in the Church of England if he would give up his Catholicism. Campion’s sister also tried to persuade him to recant. Edmund rejected this ploy, too. The court finally tried him and all other Catholic missionaries on the charge of fomenting rebellion. Even the packed jury didn’t really believe the verdict of guilty. Before sentence, Fr. Campion said to his judge: “In condemning me - you condemn all your own ancestors. To be condemned with these old lights … is both gladness and glory to us.”

On December 1, 1681 Campion and three others were hanged in London. At the scaffold, he publicly prayed “for your queen and my queen, unto whom I wish a long reign with all prosperity.”

As he was later beheaded, disemboweled and quartered, some of his blood splashed on Henry Walpole, a young gentleman in the front row. Walpole subsequently became a Jesuit and was martyred in 1595. This is one example of the great spiritual influence of Campion, the “diamond of England”.

Walpole and Campion were canonized together in 1970.

--Father Robert F. McNamara