Edmund Campion: Priest, Martyr, Historian, Poet, Playwright, Professor

When Pope Paul VI canonized the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales in 1970, one name stood out. That was Edmund Campion, who was an historian, a poet, a playwright, a professor, a priest, a renowned homilist, and a martyr.

Campion was a brilliant orator as a student and teacher at Oxford. Queen Elizabeth observed him in debate when Campion was 26 years old. She was impressed, and marked him as a future leader in the Church of England. Campion became Proctor at Oxford and took Anglican Orders as a deacon, having been raised as a Protestant. He then began to study the Fathers of the Church, and was increasingly drawn to the Catholic Faith.

Campion was invited to come to Ireland to start a college which years later became Trinity College in Dublin. While in Ireland he wrote a history of the country, which is his only surviving work of any length, because his well-regarded and -attended sermons were not recorded. After Elizabeth was excommunicated by Pope Pius V in 1570, and anti-Catholic persecution intensified, he left Ireland for England, and then went to France.

In France, Campion studied at the Catholic Douai College, which later generated the English Douai Bible. Douai prepared mainly English seminarians for the priesthood, and 160 of its graduates were ultimately executed in England for preaching the Catholic Faith. In his biography of Campion, Evelyn Waugh observed that “Martyrdom was in the air at Douai.” Campion was appointed Professor of Rhetoric at Douai, but left after graduation, traveling by foot to Rome to study to become a Jesuit.

Campion was assigned to Prague in his Jesuit formation, and taught several subjects, including rhetoric and philosophy, at the new Jesuit College in that city, which was mainly Protestant at that time. He was ordained a priest in 1578 and remained in education in Prague until 1580. While in that city, he wrote a tragedy based on the life of the Jewish King Saul. After the play’s initial performance, it was encored at the request of the Emperor.

Campion went next to England, traveling for months across Europe on his way, meeting with many influential Catholics, including Cardinal Charles Borromeo, with whom he spent eight days in Milan, Italy. He was sent to England at a time of increasing persecution of Catholics, and published two notable pamphlets. “Campion’s Brag” defended the Catholic religion, while his “Ten Reasons” summarized the failings of all Protestant religions, from Luther, to Calvin, to Zwingly, and to the Church of England. These pamphlets received wide distribution, but were quickly destroyed by English authorities, such that only four copies of the first edition of “Ten Reasons” are still extant.

During his one plus years in England, Campion traveled house to house, saying Masses for Catholic families or their servants, and hearing confessions at night. His sermons were celebrated for their remarkable clarity and insight, and all who heard of his presence flocked to hear him preach. He was ultimately betrayed, found, and arrested after saying Mass at a large gathering. He was paraded to the Tower of London bound on horseback, and was initially imprisoned for four days in a cell too low to permit him to stand erect and too narrow to allow him to lie flat.

Campion was taken before Queen Elizabeth and questioned at length regarding his activities and plans, but was not found to be guilty of any crimes against England or its monarch at that time. He was offered a preference and advancements in the English church if he entered the Protestant ministry. When he refused, he was sent to the Tower of London for four months, and was tortured three times on the rack. Because of his prominence with Catholics and his stellar reputation in defending the Faith, English authorities defamed him by spreading untrue rumors that he had converted to the Church of England, or had committed suicide after confessing to crimes against the state. Despite his weakened state, Campion was transported without prior notice to four separate “Conferences” where Church of England prelates and other Anglican experts forced him to answer thorny theological questions without benefit of preparation or access to books, even including a Bible.

Campion was then tried with several others on trumped-up charges of conspiracy to murder Elizabeth and support a Catholic invasion of England. The defendants were not permitted defense counsel, and Campion acted in their stead to plead their defense. The court record indicates a spirited defense launched by Campion, who debated the prosecutor and pointed out the absence of any evidence to support the spurious charges. Despite Campion’s valiant efforts, all of the defendants were convicted and sentenced to be hung, drawn, and quartered for treason. In his final speech, Campion observed that “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… God lives; posterity will live; their judgment is not so liable to corruption as that of those who are now going to sentence us to death.”

The sentences of execution imposed on Campion and on his fellow Catholic priests Ralph Sherwin and Alexander Briant were carried out after a grizzly procession to the site of execution at Tyburn on December 1, 1581. Campion was then 41 years old. Witnessing the execution in the front row was Sir Henry Walpole, a lawyer, who was splashed with Campion’s blood. After witnessing these executions, Walpole became a Jesuit priest, and was himself hung, drawn, and quartered 13 years later. He is another one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales canonized in 1970.





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