Saint Edmund Campion -- English Catholic Martyr

Saint Edmund Campion
This story also appeared on Church Militant.

Living in the Bible Belt of the United States, I find many people in this area are shocked to learn that Catholics were persecuted by Protestants in England. Many of them have been raised on legends about the 'evil popish religion' (Catholicism) that 'killed so many Christian martyrs across the centuries'. They've never heard of Catholics ever being persecuted by Protestants. The main reason for this lack of historical knowledge is that they themselves are Protestants, though many of them don't know it, and that much of their world view has been shaped by English Protestant propaganda. The truth is that Catholics suffered terribly for their faith in England, and that in turn led to thousands crossing the dangerous Atlantic Ocean to seek refuge in the English colonies of North America, where sadly they weren't treated much better.

The story of Saint Edmund Campion serves as a highlight in this tragic episode of English history when; Catholics were second-class citizens, and were subject to unacceptable forms of persecution for their faith. Saint Edmund Campion was born on January 24, 1540 AD. This was about six years after King Henry VIII formerly broke England away from the Roman Catholic Church by declaring himself, in the Act of Supremacy, the supreme head (essentially pope) of the Church of England. Prior to this, England was known as the most Catholic country in all of Europe, and bore the nickname of 'Mary's Dowry'. King Henry VIII changed all that. So Campion was born in Protestant England, even though he was raised as a Catholic. While this may seem a bit confusing at first, we need to understand that King Henry's initial break with Rome was primarily over legal matters, particularly those regarding the annulment of his first marriage with Catherine of Aragon. Henry made all the clergy of England, as well as many others, swear an oath of allegiance to him (called the 'Oath of Supremacy') over the pope, but beyond that, no significant changes were made to worship or doctrine in the Church of England. If one were to enter a Church of England parish in 1540, it might be virtually indistinguishable from a Catholic parish. At that time, a Catholic could blend into the Anglican population, and if he/she didn't call too much attention to his/her self, nobody would be the wiser. That would gradually change in the most tumultuous way as young Edmund Campion came of age.

Campion received his primary education at Christ's Hospital boarding school in West Sussex. At the age of thirteen, he was chosen to make the complementary speech when Queen Mary visited the city in August of 1553. That was quite an honour for such a young man, and it denotes how well he succeeded in academics. Now Queen Mary was the daughter of Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII, and she (like her mother) remained a faithful Catholic. It was under her reign that England was briefly restored to Catholicism. However, she had many enemies loyal to the Protestant ideals of her father. Many attempts were made to unseat her, and as a result she had 284 Protestants burned at the stake for religious dissent and treason. For this she was known as 'Bloody Mary' by her political opponents, even though this number was small in comparison to the 4,000 Catholics that her father (Henry VIII) had killed for similar reasons. (As a side note, you can see the historical bias here that comes to us from Protestant England. If you murder 4,000 Catholics than you're just a misunderstood king with a sex scandal. However, if you murder 284 Protestants than you're 'Bloody Mary'!) Queen Mary was eventually unseated by her half-sister Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife Anne Boleyn, who followed her father in schism from Rome and subsequently had many Catholics killed as well. It was under Queen Elizabeth I (AD 1558-1603) that England truly transformed into a Protestant country, and this is when life started to get 'interesting' for Edmund Campion.

In a twist of history, Campion, having moved on to Saint Johns College Oxford during this time, took the required Oath of Supremacy upon receiving his Bachelors degree in 1560. He then earned his Masters degree in 1564. In 1566, Campion welcomed the new Queen Elizabeth I to Oxford, and led a public debate in her presence. For this he captured her attention and earned her respect. It is said the queen held him in high regard, as did some powerful members of the aristocracy.

Even though Edmund was raised as a Catholic, as I said above, in those early years of his life, there was little practical difference between Catholicism and Anglicanism. That was changing though. Still, at the persuasion of Richard Cheyney, the Anglican Bishop of Gloucester, Edmund was ordained as a deacon in the Anglican Church of England in 1564. Edmund later indicated that he regretted this and he left Oxford in 1569 and went to Catholic Ireland for further study and to write the 'History of Ireland'. In 1571 he left Ireland and settled in France where he was reconciled with the Catholic Church, and began receiving Holy Communion again, which he had denied himself of for twelve years! He began teaching at the English University in Douai France, where he received minor orders as a sub-deacon. Campion then travelled to Rome and joined the Jesuits where he was ordained as a Catholic deacon, and then a priest, in 1578. For six years after that, Campion taught at the Jesuit college in Prague in Bohemia.

In 1580, Fr. Edmund Campion was selected to accompany Fr. Robert Persons on a missionary trip back to England. The mission was strictly evangelistic in nature, and was forbidden to intrude upon English politics. Campion arrived in England in June of that year and immediately began preaching. However, rumours began to spread that Campion's mission was political in nature, seeking to undo the queen's Protestant government. This would have made his mission illegal, and because he was English, treasonous! Campion was hunted during his ministry in England. He preached, baptised, heard confessions, and administered the sacraments wherever he could. During this time he wrote Decem Rationes ('Ten Reasons') which argued against the validity of the Anglican Church. Pamphlets were printed and smuggled across England, four-hundred of which were found in the pews of St Mary's, at Oxford, during the Commencement on June 27, 1581. It is unlikely that Campion had any knowledge of this. The hunt for Campion was then stepped up. A month later Fr. Campion was captured and taken to London. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London and interrogated. Campion acknowledged that Queen Elizabeth was the true queen of England, and had no desire to unseat her from the throne. So, in exchange for his loyalty to the Protestant regime of England, he was tempted with freedom and wealth, including a chance to become the Archbishop of Canterbury. He refused. So he was then tortured on the rack multiple times. Though false rumours of his retraction and confession circulated through London, Campion was given four public hearings in September of 1581. In each he was tested by Anglican scholars on his mission and writings. Though given no time or resources to prepare, and still suffering from the injuries of his torture, he performed so well in defending his position, and the position of the Catholic Church, that the public spectators in the court sought his acquittal.

In November of 1581, Fr. Edmund Campion was formerly charged (with others) with the bogus allegation of conspiracy with Rome to raise sedition in England and dethrone Queen Elizabeth I. On November 20, 1581, Campion and the others were found 'guilty' of 'treason'. Upon hearing the verdict, Fr. Campion responded with the words: '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.'

Lord Chief Justice Wray then gave the sentence with these words: 'You must go to the place from whence you came, there to remain until ye shall be drawn through the open city of London upon hurdles to the place of execution, and there be hanged and let down alive, and your privy parts cut off, and your entrails taken out and burnt in your sight; then your heads to be cut off and your bodies divided into four parts, to be disposed of at Her Majesty’s pleasure. And God have mercy on your souls.'  Upon hearing this sentence, Campion and those condemned with him, broke out in song with the prayer of Te Deum.

On December 1, 1581, Fr. Edmund Campion was executed in this manner with two of his fellow priests. He was forty-one years old. He was beatified by Pope Leo XIII over three-hundred years later on December 9, 1886. Incidentally, it was this same pope who formerly declared the absolute nullity of Anglican holy orders in Apostolicae Curae on September 18, 1896. (Pope Benedict XVI wore Leo XIII stole in his visit to Westminster Abbey on the one-hundred-fourteenth anniversary of Apostolicae Curae in September of 2010. This came just before he established the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham in 2011 for Anglicans seeking to return to the Catholic Church.) Fr. Edmund Campion was canonised as Saint in 1970 by Pope Paul VI as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales with a common feast day of May 4. His particular feast day is December 1, the actual day of his martyrdom. The actual ropes used for his execution are now kept on display at Stoneyhurst College, a Jesuit school, in Lancashire. On his feast day every year, a school holiday, they are placed on the altar in the chapel. Saint Edmund Campion serves today as a model for Catholic orthodoxy and courage in the face of extreme social and political pressures in a Protestant land.



Shane Schaetzel is a published author and columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of 'FullyChristian.Com -- The random musings of a Catholic in the Ozarks.'

Catholicism for Protestants

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