The Diamond of England: The Mission and Martyrdom of St. Edmund Campion By Avellina Balestri
St. Edmund Campion first became a major part of my life when I was assigned to read Edmund Campion: Hero of God’s Underground by Harold C. Gardiner, S.J. I was in 4th Grade at the time and already fascinated by England thanks to my earlier love-affair with Robin Hood. But the story of Fr. Campion opened up a whole new dimension of interest for me. The Forty Martyrs of England and Wales became my role-models for both their heroism and humanity, and the somewhat swashbuckling nature of Edmund Campion especially captured my imagination. This was a saint with sparkle; this was a man with know-how; this was the cream of Catholic England.
Edmund Campion was born on January 24, 1540, the son of a London book-seller on Paternoster Row near St. Paul’s Cathedral. Perhaps it was partly due to being reared among books that young Edmund was instilled with a love of learning early on. He become a star pupil at Christ Hospital School, at age 13, when the Catholic Queen Mary I came to make a visit to the city in August of 1553, he was chosen to deliver an welcome address to her. He went on to win a scholarship to St. John’s College in Oxford, becoming a junior fellow by 1557.
In 1560, he received his B.A. Degree, and since there was a new Protestant monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, he was made to take the Oath of Supremacy acknowledging her as Head of the Church in England. Even though he had been raised loosely Catholic and maintained High Church sympathies beneath the surface, he nevertheless ascribed to mandatory procedure. His future was far too promising to abandon a world of opportunity on a point of conscience, certainly this early in the game. So In 1564, he took a master’s degree in Oxford.
This self-made-man who had risen from the London middle class had high ideals and far-reaching ideas, which inspired him to write several discourses on his vision for a perfect student and Renaissance man. He insisted this was not just a matter of learning but also one of virtue, embracing the Catholic scholastic model to the fullest. A true scholar, he insisted, should always be pious modest, kind, obedient, and graceful in his deportment and manners. He should be respectful to his superiors, generous to his equals, and helpful to his subordinates, He should keep his mind “subtle, hot and clear, his memory happy, his voice flexible, sweet and sonorous, his walk and all his motions lively, gentlemanly, and subdued.”
In the course of his studies, he believed a student should master the English tongue, learn Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and cultivate his skills at writing and oration. This should proceed into learning rhetoric and debate, ethics and politics, as well as the classical logic applied by Aristotle and Plato. He should also master all histories, ancient and modern, to learn from them and better serve the present need. Campion also insisted on a study of mathematics, astronomy, and the natural sciences, so that students might deserve the title of “oracle of nature.” But in addition to all this, he also insisted that true scholar should be well-rounded in his pursuits, learning to paint, play the lute, sing at sight, write music, and delve into the arts.
Needless to say, Campion was completely in his element in the atmosphere of learning and culture that was Oxford, and he charmed everyone with his brilliant intellect and vivacious delivery, including Queen Elizabeth I who came to visit the university in 1566 and were welcomed by a speech from him. He was also selected to conduct debates for royal observation. By the end of the visit, he had not only earned the favor of the Queen but also of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, one of Elizabeth’s favorite suitors. In addition, he could count upon patronage of William Cecil, the Queen’s Chief Advisor who described him as “one of the diamonds of England.”
Life had much to offer for a young scholar in his 20’s, and Campion soon found himself gaining the admiration and idolization of many Oxford pupils, who crowded to attend his lectures, mimicked his hand gestures, figures of speech, and even smart choice of attire. This college clique proudly donned themselves “The Campionists”. He used this influence this encourage his pupils to better themselves “Proceed with the same pains and toil,” he counseled one student, “bury yourself in your books, complete your course, keep your mind on the stretch, strive for the prizes which you deserve. Only persevere, do not degenerate from what you are nor suffer the keen eye of your mind to grow dark and rusty.”
Campion could have gone on to enjoy the comfortable life of an Anglican clergyman, and even took Holy Orders as a deacon in the Church of England. But his inquiring mind would not allow him to forget the faith of his childhood altogether, even if he had never before taken it to heart. His forays into the works of the Early Church Fathers led him to believe that the authority of Christ had indeed been passed down to St. Peter and thenceforth all the Bishops of Rome. He could not accept that the fullness of the faith had been hidden upwards of 500 years, only to revealed suddenly to a select group of Englishmen in his own d ay. It defied his logical mind. As time went on, he found himself drawn more and more to the teachings Catholic Church in all their depth and complexity, but still resisted acting upon his own religious inclinations. He knew only too well the penalty that awaited “seditious papists” and was unwilling and unready to abandon all his worldly gains in a single swipe.
Determined to silence his conscience, Campion dodged several attempts to get him to debate in favor of Anglican doctrines and travelled to Ireland to tutor Richard Stanihurst, the son of a conservative-minded friend in Dublin, James Stanyhurst, who was a Speaker in the Irish House of Commons. While Campion was there, he wrote a heavily biased book on the history of Ireland (proving just how much of an Englishman he really was!) under the very generic alias “Mr. Patrick” and dedicated it to his old patron, the Earl of Leicester. In the preface, he wrote gushily:
“There is none that knoweth me familiarly, but he knoweth withal how many ways I have been beholden to your lordship…How often at Oxford, how often at the Court…how by reports, you have not ceased to further with advice, and to countenance with authority the hope and expectation of me, a single student…Thirteen years to have lived in the eye and special credit of a prince, yet never during all that space to have bused this ability to any man’s harm; to be enriched with no man’s overthrow, to be kindled neither with grudge nor emulation, to benefit an infinite resort of daily suitors…these are indeed the kernels for which the shell of your nobility seemeth fair and sightly…This is the substance which maketh you worthy of the ornaments wherewith you are attired. ”
But perhaps these overflowing sensations of warmth and fuzziness were something of an insecure reaction to Campion’s increasingly tenuous position among the establishment. Although initially anti-Catholic feeling in Ireland had been barely perceptible, things were rapidly changing. The rebellion of the Northern Earls in England in the winter of 1569, combined with the unrest in Scotland between the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots and her Protestant nobles, made the religious dividing lines more apparent. In 1570, the Papal Bull clumsily excommunicating Elizabeth and relieving her subjects of allegiance only succeeded in fuelling the fires against all Catholics, even those who had no desire to be relieved of their allegiance to the Queen at all. Priests became instantly identified as traitors, and Catholics as political agents of Rome. It was a medieval political ploy launched by the papacy to reign in an increasingly hopeless situation in England, and it back-fired miserably.
As the radical Protestants began to crack down on the Emerald Isle, Campion came under suspicion yet again, and had to furtively flee to country. But before his ship could even set sail, it was searched by the militant authorities, and his belongings were ransacked and subsequently confiscated, including the text of his History of Ireland. Finally making his way back to England or else be censured as a Papist sympathizer. After witnessing the merciless condemnation of an elderly Catholic man in London, Campion decided he had no choice but to go to mainland Europe to avoid a similar fate and determine his future. At first, his ship to the continent was stopped, and his money confiscated by officials. Only with the help of personal friends was a second ship procured and he bid adieu to his native land. Finally, he was forced to face up to himself and His God.
Campion sought sanctuary at the Catholic seminary of Douai, and was welcomed there with kindness and consideration. Gradually adjusting to his contemplative surroundings, he began to realize that although his ideals for “the perfect scholar” were in and of themselves praiseworthy, they missed something that he found in Douai. It was a depth that he found only in abandonment of self and all earthly pleasures, slowly laying down his own will for the love of Jesus Christ. It was a process of conversion that led him to reconcile with the Catholic Church, go to confession, and receive the Eucharist once again. With this, his life was transformed, and he confessed that he felt as if his old self had died to a large extent, and he was being born anew as a soul yearning to be formed in Christ.
In 1573, Campion made a pilgrimage in Rome, with the intent to discerning whether or not he was called to join the Society of Jesus as a priest. Both his scholastic aptitude and zeal for the spread of the faith made him a worthy candidate, but he wanted to be sure it was not his will instead of God’s. Upon reaching Rome, Campion was overwhelmed with the contrast of the Eternal City as an Ancient and Religious capital. “Make the most of Rome,” he wrote to his friend, Gregory Martin. “Do you see the dead corpse of that Imperial City? What can be glorious in life, if such wealth and beauty has come to nothing? But who has stood firm in these wretched changes – what survives? The relics of the Saints and the chair of the Fisherman.”
Campion did ultimately become a novitiate of the Society of Jesus, and after spending time in solitude going through The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, the venerable founder of the Jesuits, he went to Brunn in Moravia where he lived in community life among a group of fellow novitiates. Years later, he would fondly reflect his time spent there in communal brotherhood, which was somewhat similar and yet very different to the comradery he had so enjoyed at Oxford:
“How could I help taking fire at the remembrance of that house where there were so many burning souls – fiery of mind, fiery of body, fiery of word with the flame which God came upon earth to send, that it should burn there always? O dear walls that once enclosed me in your company! Pleasant recreation-room, where we talked so holily! Glorious kitchen, where the best of friends – John and Charles, the two Stephens, Sallitzi, Finnit and George, Tobias and Gaspar – fight for the pots in holy humility and charity unfeigned! How often do I picture it; once returning with his load from the farm; another from market; one sweating, sturdy and merry, under a sack of refuse, another toiling along on some other errand. Believe me, my dearest brethren, your dust and brooms, chaff and loads are beheld with joy by the angels. Would that I had never known any father but the fathers of the Society; no brothers but yourself and my other brothers; no business but that of obedience; no knowledge but Christ crucified.”
On September 8, 1578, the birthday of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Edmund Campion said his first mass as an ordained priest. For the next two years, he lived in Prague and immersed himself in priestly and scholarly pursuits, which suited his personality to a tee. He wrote, taught, spent time with fellow clergymen, and even managed to keep in touch with several of his former students in England via written correspondence. He even toyed with the idea of trying to relocate his long-lost History of Ireland and have it published abroad (it seems he couldn’t quite get its loss out of his mind!). He also had the pleasure of meeting another young Englishman of similar background who was visiting Prague: Sir Philip Sydney, the royal courtier, romantic poet, and future military hero who also happened to be the son-in-law of Sir Francis Walsingham, the Queen’s virulently anti-Catholic spymaster. Nevertheless, Campion enjoyed long conversations with the young man, and charged his Jesuit companions to pray for him, for he believed deep down he might be closer to the fullness of the faith than others assumed.
But Campion laid-back existence was about to change dramatically after he received a letter from his superior ordering him to return to England as a missionary, along with Fr. Robert Persons, to the persecuted Catholics of his native land. It was nothing short of a suicide mission; the penalty for being a Catholic priest in England was almost always execution. Now the college geek was about to be transformed into an undercover agent. Around this time, he had a mystical experience in which he claimed to see the Blessed Virgin appear to him and inform him that he would die a martyr’s death in England. A fellow priest had the same premonition, and wrote on the wall of Campion’s room in Prague “Edmundus Campianus, Martyr”.
Campion returned to England in 1580, now as an outlaw of sorts, disguising himself as a jewel merchant in order to hide his true identity, but choosing yet another uninspiring alias: Mr. Edmunds. A lay brother who accompanied him named Ralph Emerson (who Campion fondly dubbed “my little Ralph”) acted as his man-servant. They traveled across the country, administering the sacraments and keeping the faith alive in Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Northhamtonshire, Lancashire, and beyond. This inaugurated one of the biggest man-hunts in 16th century England as the “seditious Jesuits” were rumored to be on a mission to assassinate the Queen and overthrow the government. An eerie incident involving church bells throughout the country apparently ringing on their own did nothing to calm the paranoid populace. Ironically enough, Campion’s headquarters in London was a building rented from the sheriff of London, who was frantically searching the city to arrest him.
Fr. Campion had a series to close calls with the authorities, and on one occasion was almost apprehended while teaching a servant girl her catechism in the garden of a Catholic home. When the guards made their approach, the girl made quick work of pushing the priest into a nearby duck pond. Covered in mud and duck weed, sputtering and looking totally ridiculous, the guards saw nothing of the scholar-turned-priest once renowned for his impeccable attire and etiquette…and moved on along! But the net was slowly closing for the man bearing the jewels of the faith more precious than any diamonds of the world.
Realizing that he could not “long escape the hands of the heretics”, Campion wrote a letter to the Queen’s Council to be opened only in the event of his capture, explaining that his reason for returning to England were solely spiritual as opposed to political and expressing his desire to engage the Protestants in debate. He claimed that any well-formed Catholic would be able to take them on, no matter how many there were or how well-prepared they came. Thus, the letter (which, contrary to instructions from the author, was opened and circulated by the custodian prior to Campion’s capture) came to be known as “Campion’s Brag”:
“I would be loth to speak anything that might sound of any insolent brag or challenge, especially being now as a dead man to this world and willing to put my head under every man’s foot, and to kiss the ground they tread upon. Yet have I such a courage in avouching the Majesty of Jesus my King, and such affiance in his gracious favour, and such assurance in my quarrel, and my evidence so impregnable, and because I know perfectly that no one Protestant, nor all the Protestants living, nor any sect of our adversaries (howsoever they face men down in pulpits, and overrule us in their kingdom of grammarians and unlearned ears) can maintain their doctrine in disputation. I am to sue most humbly and instantly for the combat with all and every of them, and the most principal that may be found: protesting that in this trial the better furnished they come, the better welcome they shall be… 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.”
He would also go on to write an apologetics pamphlet called “Decem Rationes” (“Ten Reasons”), using logic to uphold the teachings of the Catholic faith. While some of his analogies and wording may appear excessively harsh in the light of today, it must be remembered that it was written in a time period when Catholics and Protestants were engaged in a life-or-death struggle in which neither side could afford to tread lightly. Still, it had all the same rhetorical flare that had made him famous as a scholar, and for Catholics cowering in fear of their lives, it was a strike out to prove that they were still alive and kicking. And Campion got something of a last laugh out of the operation as well, since he managed to have it published on a secret printing press and left planted on Oxford University where the students would be sure to read it.
These events just served to make the hunt for Campion a more desperate affair. The government recruited one George Eliot, a ne’er-do-well had previously been accused of assaulting a teenaged girl, to help track down the priest. Pretended to be a Catholic recusant, he managed to slip into secret mass being held in the town of Lyford in Berkshire and receive Holy Communion from Campion (who, ironically, had made his homily on how Our Lord wept over the state of Jerusalem turning against him). Then Eliot slipped out and alerted the sheriff, after which the house was raided. After failing to evade capture by hiding in a “priest hole” (a secret compartment in the house), the priests surrendered them without a struggle for fear of making things worse for their beleaguered hosts.
The guards were initially fairly decent to their prisoners, and on the road journey to London took Campion to dinner at a local tavern. Campion, still a socialite at heart, made the utmost of this opportunity, winning over his captors through his pleasant countenance and conversational skills. But the one person not enjoying this party was the brooding Eliot, who Campion purposely avoided eye contact with for much of the evening. Finally Eliot, with unmitigated gall, “Mr. Campion, you look cheerfully upon everyone but me. I know you are angry with me for this work.”
Then, for the first time since he had given him communion at mass that morning, Campion turned his eyes upon him with blazing intensity. This traitor who had come to them professing to be of one faith had not only betrayed him, but also his brother priests and the good people had risked their lives to shelter them. Now they would suffer fines, imprisonment, and possibly death. And yet Campion, remembering his role as shepherd of souls, reached beyond his own human passions with a supernatural love. “God forgive thee, Eliot, for so judging me,” he whispered with choked emotion. “I forgive thee and in token thereof, I drink to thee.” He raised his cup, and then added gravely, “Yeah, and if though repent and come to confession, I will absolve thee; but large penance must thou have.”
Campion was brought to the Tower of London and tortured to reveal the names of the members of the Catholic underground. He protested that such an act was contrary to the Magna Carta, as he had not been convicted of any crime, and boldly declared, “Come rack, come rope, I will not talk!” Through it all, he never revealed any evidence able to directly implicate those who had helped him, sparing many lives. Nearly crippled, he was brought before the Queen and offered a pardon and a prominent position in the Church of England if he would apostatize. He expressed his loyalty to the Queen, but flatly refused her offer.
When the time came for Campion’s trial, he could not even lift his hand to take the oath due to the pain inflicted by the tortures. A fellow priest kissed it and then raised it for him. Campion had always valued his friendships highly, especially those of his brother priests, and now in a cruel twist of irony, he would be their sole voice to represent them before a court where they were allowed no legal counsel, paper, or ink to take notes. The decision had already been made, long before Campion made his gallant legal struggle on their behalf. Just before the sentence of death was finally pronounced, Campion made a final statement as only his silver tongue could, not just to the judges, but for all of England, then as now, for all the Catholic Recusants who had no voice:
“It was not our death that ever we feared. But we knew that we were not lords of our own lives, and therefore for want of answer would not be guilty of our deaths. The only thing that we have now to say is that if our religion do make us traitors, we are worthy to be condemned; but otherwise are, and have been, as good subjects as ever the Queen had. 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. For what we taught, however you may qualify it with the odious name of treason that they did not uniformly teach? To be condemned with these lights – not of England only, but of the world – by their degenerate descendants is both gladness and glory to us. 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.”
After they were sentenced to suffer the gruesome death of being hanged, drawn, and quartered, the priests responded with a holy sense of irony, and sang the ‘Te Deum’ in unison, their voices echoing throughout Westminster Hall as they were led back to their cells. Back in the Tower, Campion received a surprise visit from someone who must have been continually on his mind: George Eliot. “If I had thought that you would have had to suffer aught but imprisonment through my accusing of you, I would never have done it, however I might have lost by it,” he blurted out lamely.
“If that is the case,” Campion replied patiently, “I beseech you, in God’s name, to do penance, and confess your crime, to God’s glory and for your own salvation.
But Eliot was not interested in making peace with the Divine, but rather in protecting his own life. He went on to explain that ever since his journey from Lyford, people had threateningly called him “Judas”, and he feared Catholic reprisals.
“You are very much deceived if you think the Catholics push their detestation and wrath as far as revenge,” he countered. “Yet to make you quite safe, I will, if you please, recommend you to a Catholic duke in Germany, where you may live in perfect security.”
Eliot was dumb-founded by the courteousness of his victim, but never took up the offer, either of conversion or safe-refuge, and continued his dirty work as a spy. However, Delahays, Campion’s goaler at the Tower, was equally amazed when he overheard his prisoner’s generous offer to the man who had betrayed him. He was so deeply moved that he began to look into the Catholic faith…and ultimately converted.
On the day of his execution, December 1, 1581, London was drenched in rain and the streets had been turned to mud. As he was led out of the Tower and his eyes adjusted to the light, he saw a crowd of people gathered outside the gate to observe the spectacle. “God save you all, gentleman,” Campion greeted them, weakly yet kindly. “God bless you, and make you good Catholics.” As Campion was being dragged on a hurdle to the place of execution at Tyburn, with crowds jeering and spitting at him, he managed to raise his crippled hand slightly in recognition of the of Our Lady located in the niche of Newgate Arch. At long last, her prophecy of his martyrdom was coming to pass. Turning a rough corner, mud splattered on his face, and unexpectedly a gentleman in the crowd, moved to pity, gently wiped off his face with a handkerchief.
On the scaffold, some in the crowd called upon him to confess his treason “As to the treasons which have been laid to my charge, and for which I am come here to suffer, I desire you all to bear witness with me that I am thereof altogether innocent. I am a Catholic man and a priest; in that faith have I lived and in that faith I intend to die. If you esteem my religion treason, then am I guilty; as f or other treason I never committed any, God is my judge…”
Campion started to pray in Latin, but an Anglican clergyman rudely interrupted him and tried to direct his prayers according to the Protestant form. “Sir, you and I are not one in religion, wherefore I pray you content yourself. I bar none of prayer; but I only desire them that are of the household of faith to pray with me, and in mine agony to say one creed.” When someone cried out that a good Englishman would pray in English instead of Latin, he retorted with his old wit, “I will pray God in a language which we both well understand.”
Again demands were flung from the crowd. The councilors demanded that Campion ask the Queen’s forgiveness. “Wherein have I offended her? In this I am innocent. This is my last speech; in this give me credit – I have and do pray for her.” Again they demanded him to name the Queen for whom he prayed. “Yea for Elizabeth, your Queen and my Queen, unto whom I wish a long quiet reign with all prosperity.” Then the cart was driven away from under him, and the hangman’s noose tightened. Half-suffocated, he was then taken down, and the gruesome disemboweling began. On young Cambridge student and amateur poet, Henry Walpole, was haunted when Campion’s blood splashed on his cloak. Raised loosely a Catholic, like Campion before him, he had signed the Act of Supremacy and thought nothing more of the faith of his fathers…until now. But Campion’s spirit would surge though him, and he would ultimately follow the same path to the priesthood, and to mission, and to martyrdom for the faith. His powerful words in ode of Campion were treason to publish, and yet have survived with the same intensity:
You thought perhaps when lerned Campion dyes,
his pen must cease, his sugred tong be still,
but you forgot how lowde his death it cryes,
how farre beyounde the sound of tongue and quil,
you did not know how rare and great a good
it was to write his precious giftes in blood.
England looke up, thy soyle is stained with blood,
thou hast made martirs many of thine owne,
if thou hast grace their deaths will do thee good,
the seede wil take which in such blood is sowne,
and Campions lerning fertile so before,
thus watered too, must nedes of force be more.
His quarterd lims shall ioyne with ioy agayne,
and rise a body brighter then the sunne,
your blinded malice torturde him in vayne,
For every wrinch some glory hath him wonne,
and every drop of blood which he did spend,
hath reapt a ioy which never shal have end.
Edmund Campion truly was “a man for all seasons” in his own right. He was a student, a teacher, a scholar, an author, a missionary, and so much more. He was a man of both words and deeds. His vibrant style and incandescent zeal made him a source of great light for the Church under the shadow of persecution. His patriotism and loyalty make him an excellent source of succor for the Catholic Brits of today who struggle to keep the faith in times of turmoil. Of course, his influence “transcends nationality”; he belongs to the Universal Church in every corner of the world. He has always been a diamond of many facets, and bore well the name of “Campion”, taken from an English flower also known as “Our Lady’s Rose”. I will finish with the finale of “Campion’s Brag”:
“If these my offers be refused, and my endeavours can take no place, and I having run thousands of miles to do you good, shall be rewarded with rigour, I have no more to say but to recommend your case and mine to Almighty God, the Searcher of Hearts, who send us His grace, and set us at accord before the day of payment, to the end we may at last be friends in heaven, when all injuries shall be forgotten.”
A Catholic freelance writer and Editor-in-Chief of Fellowship & Fairydust Publications. My alias is "Rosaria Marie." I love to work with talented writers and their amazing works. Want to join our literary community, where spirituality and the arts go hand-in-hand? Please get in touch with me!
View all posts by Avellina Balestri