By Amber Kinloch
St. Edmund Campion
Priest & Martyr
Born January 24, 1540
Died December 1, 1581
Feast Day: December 1
The World at His Feet
At age 26, Edmund Campion had the world at his feet. A brilliant student, he attended Oxford and attained a position of great prestige. As if this weren’t enough, Queen Elizabeth I visited the university in 1566. Campion gave a speech and impressed her greatly with his keen wit and charming presence. Besides, he was young, just the sort of fellow she was looking for to appoint to a high position in the heretical Church of England over which she was cementing her authority.
Campion, however, was restless and unhappy. His parents were Catholics, and he, though not properly raised Catholic, disapproved of Protestantism. Besides, in his earlier years at Oxford, Catholicism was tolerated. It was not until 1564 that Campion took the Oath of Supremacy, acknowledging the spiritual supremacy of Queen Elizabeth I.
From that point on, he grew more entangled in the conflict between Catholics and Protestants. Protestantism seemed an easy choice. Already, he was an eloquent orator, of sweet and amiable temper, with a large number of followers (“Campionists”) who imitated even his gait. He was ambitious with a golden future ahead as an Anglican cleric. Yet his doubts and thirst for the truth held him back.
In 1567, as part of his continuing theology studies, he began reading the ancient Church Fathers. His conscience troubled him as the Fathers’ writings pointed to the truth of the Faith. But still he did not embrace it. He consulted others, hoping to ease his mind. Instead, the arguments for Catholicism strengthened.
His lowest point came when he yielded to the persuasions of friends and was ordained a deacon in the Church of England in 1569. His conscience smote him for this error. Besides, a Catholic friend named Gregory Martin appealed to Campion to join him at the English college at Douay, France, where Martin himself was studying for the priesthood.
Finally, Campion took a step forward, sailing away to Ireland in 1570. There he lived openly as a Catholic (though it is unclear if he was formally reunited with the Church). Trouble soon followed as England clamped down its hold on Irish Catholics and hunted down those suspected of Catholic leanings. Campion became a fugitive.
In 1571, he escaped to the English College in Douay. Here he definitely embraced the Faith and began training as a seminarian. At 31, Campion at last surrendered his life to Christ.
Training for Battle
The next several years of Campion’s life were peaceful compared to what was to come. After a period of study at Douay, he became dissatisfied with his position. He wanted more rigorous training.
About 1573, he left for Rome where he joined the Jesuits, many of whom were passionate missionaries in an age of spiritual turmoil. Campion, however, seemed destined for quieter pastures. He studied, taught at Prague, and there was ordained a priest.
Then, in 1580, a summons came—the Father General of the Jesuits had decided to send English members of the order back to England. Campion was one of the first men selected.
By then, the situation was desperate. In 1570, Pope Pius V had excommunicated Elizabeth I (“the pretended queen of England”) and released her Catholic subjects from obedience to her. The Pope meant well, but his hard approach fanned the fire of hatred for Catholics, who now were all indisputably counted as disloyal papists.
Undaunted, Campion set sail in June of 1580. News of his coming ran ahead of him, unfortunately. Campion avoided capture upon his arrival, as he would many other times. Nevertheless, the die was cast. From now on, each day he frankly confronted the possibility of death.
“Come Rack! Come Rope!”
Over the next several months, Campion traveled throughout England bringing the Faith and the sacraments to staunch, loyal Catholics in their homes. Plenty of times, he was nearly caught, and was forced to hide in a priest hole.
During this time, he also wrote his famous Brag, a forthright defense of his mission. If ever he were captured, this document could be published, and the truth known despite all the lies of his enemies. As it was, his Brag slipped out into circulation soon after he composed it. Catholics took heart while the Protestants ground their teeth over passages such as this:
“And touching our Society, be it known to you that we have made a league—all the Jesuits in the world, whose succession and multitude must overreach all the practice of England—cheerfully to carry the cross you shall lay upon us, and never to despair your recovery, while we have a man left to enjoy your Tyburn, or to be racked with your torments, or consumed with your prisons. The expense is reckoned, the enterprise is begun; it is of God; it cannot be withstood. So the faith was planted: So it must be restored.”
The Last Offer
After one of the most intensive manhunts in English history, things came to a head in July of 1581. Campion was captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London. There he endured the torture of “Little Ease”, a cell so cramped that a man could neither stand upright nor lie down at full length in it.
A few days later, a surprise came. He was removed from the Tower and taken to a nearby house where Queen Elizabeth herself awaited him. She offered Campion a high position in the Church of England if only he’d publicly deny the Pope’s authority and the Church of Rome. Campion refused.
His reward for his boldness was torture on the rack. Four separate examinations with Protestant clergymen followed, and then a despicable mockery of a trial. Campion, browbeaten and weak with pain, held his ground throughout those long weeks of suffering, until the end came. On December 1, 1581, he was hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn before a large crowd. He was 41.
Forty-one. Think about that. For three-quarters of his life, Campion wasn’t truly a Catholic. After his conversion, he had only a decade to live. A decade and he became a saint. Why not you and I?
St. Edmund Campion, pray for us!
Looking to read more about St. Edmund Campion? Check out these books.
Edmund Campion: A Definitive Biography by Richard Simpson, Tan Books
Edmund Campion: A Life by Evelyn Waugh, Ignatius Press
Amber writes from the bunker of her living room. There she hunkers down with her laptop and a blanket while keeping an eye and ear tuned in to the activity of family life. Music set on loop keeps her energy flowing as she muses on the deeper happenings of ordinary life and what food to restock the fridge with.