Saints Edmund Campion SJ and Companions, Priests and Martyrs

Today’s feast commemorates 10 saints and 18 blesseds, all Jesuits of England or Wales, who were martyred on their native soil between 1573 and 1679, a time of fierce persecution of the Catholic Church. Two of the best known in the group are Edmund Campion and Robert Southwell (whose feast is now celebrated on 21 Feb).

Edmund Campion was born in London, England, on 24 January, 1540, the son of a bookseller. His Catholic parents later became Protestant. Campion received his early education at Christ’s Hospital. As the best of London’s scholars, he was chosen to represent them in making a laudatory oration when Queen Mary visited the city. He won a scholarship to St John’s College in Oxford University, where he became a Junior Fellow in 1557. In 1564, on graduating, he took the Oath of Supremacy (recognising the queen as head of the English Church). When Sir Thomas White, the founder of the college, was buried in 1567, it was Campion who was asked to give the Latin oration.

Two years later he formally welcomed Queen Elizabeth to the university and she was very impressed by him. He was chosen to lead a public debate of scholars in the queen’s presence. By the time the queen left the university, Campion had the patronage of the powerful William Cecil and the Earl of Leicester (tipped to be the future husband of the young Queen). He was ordained a deacon in the Church of England, and people were even speaking of him as a future Archbishop of Canterbury in the Church of England, now cut off from Rome.

Yet, the more Campion studied to be an Anglican priest, the more convinced he became that truth was with the Catholic Church. In 1569, he moved to Dublin, Ireland, in the hope of finding a less hostile environment. He helped found a university (later Trinity College) and wrote a History of Ireland, later incorporated in much altered form in Holinshed’s Chronicle (1587). But Dublin showed an anti-Catholic bias that brought him back to London.

In June 1571, he left England for Douai in Belgium. Here the recently established English College was training seminarians to work in England. He rejoined the Catholic Church and was ordained subdeacon in 1573. In the same year he went to Rome with the intention of joining the Jesuits and, within a month, was accepted. As the Jesuits had not yet an English Province, he joined the Austrian Province and went to Prague and Brno for his novitiate. After taking his first vows and being ordained priest in 1578, he remained in Prague expecting to spend the rest of his life there. He impressed people with his powers of oratory.

The situation changed radically when the Jesuit Superior General decided to set up a Jesuit mission in England. At the suggestion of Dr (later Cardinal) Allen, Edmund Campion and Robert Persons were chosen. Campion set out from Rome in 1580, visited Charles Borromeo at Milan, and successfully landed at Dover disguised as a jewel merchant.

During a short stay in London, Campion wrote his famous manifesto which came to be known as Campion’s Brag. He described his mission as one:

…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 of my dear countrymen are abused.

Widely distributed, it became a rallying point for Catholics. Campion now kept constantly on the move in different parts of England, not staying more than one or two nights in any place preaching, hearing confessions and celebrating Mass. A book addressed to the academic world, entitled Rationes decem (“Ten Reasons”), to prove the truth of Catholicism and the falsity of Protestantism, was printed by the end of June 1581. Many of the 400 copies printed were left on the benches of Oxford’s University Church of St Mary (a church later made famous by another convert, Cardinal Newman).

In July of that year, he left London and stayed with a family in Berkshire. Unfortunately a professional priest-hunter was in the congregation pretending to be Catholic. But when the authorities came back to arrest him they could not find him.

After another search, they found Campion with two other priests in a hiding hole in the house. On 22 July, they were taken to the Tower of London. Campion’s cell was so small he could neither stand nor lie down. Even Queen Elizabeth wanted to save him, and he was summoned into her presence. In spite of great promises of high position if he defected, he declined and was returned to the Tower. A few days later he was put on the rack.

Four discussions with Anglican theologians got nowhere and it was finally decided he should be executed. As being a Catholic priest was not enough to justify the death penalty, Campion and the other priests were charged with a conspiracy against the queen by exhorting foreigners to invade the country. During their trial Campion told the court:

In condemning us you condemn all your own ancestors, all the ancient bishops and kings, all that was once the glory of England. . . posterity’s judgment is not liable to corruption as that of those who are now going to sentence us to death.

They were found guilty of high treason and condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered. The full sentence passed upon those convicted of high treason up to 1870 was as follows:

That you be drawn on a hurdle to the place of execution where you shall be hanged by the neck and being (still) alive cut down, your privy members shall be cut off and your bowels taken out and burned before you, your head severed from your body and your body divided into four quarters to be disposed of at the King’s pleasure.

On hearing the verdict, the priests sang the Te Deum.

Campion, with Alexander Briant and Ralph Sherwin, a diocesan priest, were dragged through the streets of London. On reaching the place of execution at Tyburn, Campion’s cart was driven from under him leaving him hanging. While still alive, he was cut down, his heart and intestines removed and then his body cut up. The date was 1 December, 1581, and Campion was 41 years old.

As one commentator has said:

By his death was lost a brilliant thinker and literary stylist comparable to any in the Elizabethan age, one who might have contributed no less effectively to his cause by the spoken and written word than by heroic suffering.

He was canonised by Pope Paul VI in 1970 as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.

These martyrs are revered for their fidelity to the Catholic Church and their zeal in working for their fellow persecuted Catholics.

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