Feast of Saint Edmund Campion (1st December)

[PART ONE] Penal Times: The Early Life and Arrest of St Edmund Campion

From ‘Venite Prandete’ on Facebook

Edmund Campion was the son of “very honest and Catholic” parents. He was born on the feast of St Paul, 25 January 1540, in Paternoster Row, London, “in the thirtieth year of the reign of Henry VIII”, a year described by his biographer, Richard Simpson, as, “marked by the suppression of the great religious houses in England, the inauguration of a persecution of which, forty years later, Campion was to be a victim – and the solemn Papal approval of the Society of Jesus, of which he was to be an ornament.”

A brilliant scholar, Campion was chosen at age 13 to make the complimentary speech to Queen Mary on her coronation procession in 1553.

After the Catholic reign of Mary Tudor, the accession of Elizabeth I to the throne saw the coercion of the State thrown behind acquiescence by the people to the protestant worship, which, tied to loyalty to the Crown, was pitted against the portrayal of the Catholic faith as treachery. The Act of Supremacy, proclaimed in 1559, reasserted the legislation of Henry VIII affirming the Anglican Church and the abjuration of the Church of Rome, attaching the anti-papal oath of 1536 which “all the clergy, all taking degrees at all universities, all judges, justices, mayors and other royal officials were required to take, acknowledging the Queen to be “Supreme Governor in all matters ecclesiastical and spiritual”. The penalty for refusing the oath was loss of goods and imprisonment for a first offence, a second offence being counted as treason and so punishable with death.

The second Act of 1559, the Act of Uniformity, imposed the Protestant concept of worship, with the abolition of Catholic sacraments and the Sacrifice of the Mass. “Any clergyman refusing to perform divine service according to the [Protestant] Prayer Book was now, for a first offence, to lose a year’s income and to be imprisoned for six months. A third offence was to be punished with imprisonment for life. Any layperson who criticized the new service was to be fined a hundred marks. Everyone in the country was now bound, under pain of a fine of twelve pence, to attend the Protestant service every Sunday in his own parish church.” Those refusing to attend Protestant service were termed “recusants” and suffered varying penalties, starting with loss of office and monetary fines, advancing to imprisonment and execution.

Campion attended St John’s College, Oxford, a College which was, “at that time, a breeding-ground for Catholics. The founder, Sir Thomas White, was a devout Catholic…who, in Elizabeth’s first Parliament, had protested, in a reference to the young Cecil and Bedford, [William Cecil, Lord Burghley and the Earl of Bedford – Elizabeth’s advisers and promoters], that ‘it was unjust that a religion begun in such a miraculous way, and established by such grave men, should be abolished by a set of beardless boys.’”

Campion’s intellectual superiority was apparent when, as a representative of his College, he was picked to debate before the Queen, who was much impressed with his oratory skills. Amusingly, the debate had been carefully cultivated by William Cecil and the Queen’s advisers in the Privy Council so as to avoid discussion of any topic that could touch upon religion, a topic of much passion at the time, and discomfort to the Privy Council, but a subject difficult to avoid in a philosophical debate about any topics that mattered. Campion’s friends had extorted from him, for his safety, “a promise to avoid all controverted points in his orations. Nor was the council less anxious to keep such disputes from the queen’s ears.

”The records show Cecil’s tortured attempts to avoid theology, his notes beginning with the inquiry, “Why is opthalmia catching, but not dropsy or gout?”

Campion’s opinion of the power-base of the time may be illustrated by his description of Cardinal Wolsey, the once-powerful prelate who had fallen, to be charged with treason by Henry VIII upon his failure to procure a divorce but, unusually, pre-empting the charge by dying of natural causes:

“A man of excellent genius, not unlearned: born at Ipswich, of humble origin, of most lofty ambition; passionate, confident, impure, insincere. He built two colleges: one at Ipswich, which Henry VIII destroyed; the other at Oxford, so magnificent there is no college in Europe equal to it. This he endowed with an annual income of about 3,000 (pounds). At the present day, Henry is called its founder, simply because he did not upset it and confiscate its revenues after the Cardinal came to the end of his days. Witness the verses carved in great letters over the entrance when Elizabeth made her visit; the last line of the inscription was Imperfecta tui subiens monumenta parentis [Entering the unfinished monument of your father]. I never saw anything more saddening: the memory of the noble patron [Wolsey] obliterated and the honour conferred on one [Henry] who had violated every principle of honour, trampled under-foot all laws, human and divine and destroyed the religion and commonwealth of England.”

Campion was (confusingly), ordained an Anglican deacon and left England for Ireland. There, however, he initially lived openly as a Catholic as the persecution was not at that time rigorous, The Papal Bull excommunicating Elizabeth, however, gave impetus to a renewal of the persecution by the State of English Catholics. When Parliament sat in 1571, a series of Acts made it treason to be Catholic, to reconcile any person to the Catholic faith, to possess Catholic devotional items or to harbor a priest. All priests were liable to execution. The penalty for treason was death.

By that time Campion was on the run; it was too dangerous for him to stay in one place for too long. He was given shelter at Turvey, in the Pale, which saved him from arrest and torture at the hands of the protestant party in Dublin. He authored “A Historie of Ireland” during the three months in which he spent hiding.

He travelled to Rome to join the Jesuits and was accepted into the Society of Jesus in 1573. He was ordained a deacon and priest and said his first Mass in September 1578. He then taught rhetoric and philosophy at the Jesuit College in Prague.

The Jesuit mission to England commenced in 1580, Campion entering England, disguised as a merchant. Intending to meet up with him were three other Jesuits; Thomas Cottam was a former schoolmaster and brother of William Shakespeare’s school teacher; Robert Debdale, a cousin of Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Shakespeare; and Robert Persons, Campion’s Jesuit superior, who was a close friend of Edward Arden, (a second cousin of Mary Shakespeare). Campion stayed at Park Hall, Edward Arden’s residence, near modern-day Birmingham. Edward Arden was later executed and decapitated for keeping a priest, Hugh Hall, at his house.

“Campion went to Northamshire, Oxfordshire and East Anglia; Persons to the West Midlands, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire. Their portable altars and surplices hidden in packs, they told travellers whom they met on the road that they were merchants. Persons headed into Warwickshire. Cottam too had planned to come this way, and Debdale wrote a letter commending him [Cottam] to his parents at Shottery. But the letter was intercepted and Cottam captured.”

Campion remained at liberty for a year. A massive manhunt through the winter of 1580-1 tried to track him down. In the south he used a secret printing press to print his tract Decem Rationes, (“Ten Reasons”), against the validity of the Anglican Church. He printed a challenge to the Privy Council, called “Campion’s Brag” which was effectively, a declaration of the stance of the recusant Catholic English against the persecution by the State.

He then “moved up to Lancashire and stayed with the Hoghton family at Lea Hall and Hoghton Tower where he was for Easter and Pentecost 1581. But in June Robert Debdale was captured, followed by Campion and Cottam. Taken under armed guard to London, Campion arrived beneath a banner reading, ‘Campion the Seditious Jesuit’”.

On arrival in London, in the evening, Campion was taken “secretly by boat to a meeting with three Privy Councillors, the Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas Bromley at his house, the Vice Chamberlain of the Royal Household, Sir Christopher Hatton and Robert Dudley the Earl of Leicester. On behalf of the Queen, they asked Campion his position on her authority and the Papal excommunication. He was offered his freedom, wealth and honours including the possibility of the Archbishopric of Canterbury, if he recanted his religion, an offer which he refused.

“His lengthy interrogation was reinforced by starvation, thumbscrews, needles under fingernails, compression in the metal frame known as the Scavenger’s Daughter and eight days in the pit, a dank and dark well-shaft. On 30 July warrants were issued to use the rack.”

Richard Simpson stated that he was imprisoned in the Tower for more than 4 months and tortured on the rack 2, possibly 3 times, (15th and 22nd August), to extract information about the whereabouts of his fellow priests and the identities of those who had provided shelter, assisted or attended illegal Masses. Answering a letter sent by a fellow prisoner in the Tower, Campion assured him that he would betray no secret, ‘Come Rack, Come Rope”. Nevertheless, false reports of his confession were circulated by William Cecil, “in a desire to destroy the reputation of this popular hero.” The [Privy] Council, however, repeatedly refused to allow him to be publicly interrogated about the purported confession. Different accounts, furthermore, refute the attempted slander, one Protestant account stating:‘

“Whereunto he answered that forasmuch as the Christians did in old time, being commanded to deliver up books of their religion to such as persecuted them, refused to do so, and mislike with them that did so, calling them traditores [traitors], he might not betray his Catholic brethren, which were (as he said) the temples of the Holy Ghost.’”

On 31st August, and 18, 21, 27 September, he participated in theological discussions with Protestant theologians in the Tower, and emerged the victor.

He was arraigned and indicted on 4 November 1581 at Westminster with treason -having conspired ‘to raise a sedition in the realm and dethrone the Queen.’ The trial was held on 20th November 1581.

[PART TWO to follow]

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2 Responses to Feast of Saint Edmund Campion (1st December)

  1. kathleen says:

    A very appealing Saint and Martyr, St Edmund Campion. In everything I have read about him he comes over as brave, kind, joyful, intelligent and, like St Thomas More, possessing a great sense of humour.

    His last words at his trial with two other priests were: “In condemning us, you condemn all your own ancestors, all our ancient 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.”

    How could any of those listening to him who had embraced the church of Henry VIII (i.e., the C of E) deny the truth in those words?


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