Edmund Campion carried the name of his father, a Catholic bookseller in London.
As a young schoolboy, he was chosen to give the Latin salutatory to Mary Tutor, who had just entered London. At age 17, he was already appointed a junior fellow at St. John’s College at Oxford. He became renowned for his orations and it was said that his style became one of the most imitated by other speakers in an English university.
His bearing, wit and good looks so captivated the chancellor and Queen Elizabeth herself on a visit to Oxford that that offered him whatever he desired.
His many successes, local responsibilities, attractiveness, his natural ease of disposition, the representations, above all, of his friend Bishop Cheyney of Gloucester, blinded Campion in regard to his Catholicism. He ultimately took the Oath of Supremacy, and deacon’s orders according to the new rite.
Rethinking this rash break from his faith developed into anguish and he broke off his happy Oxford life when his proctorship ended. He traveled to Ireland to await the reopening of Dublin University, an ancient papal foundation which had been closed for some time.
Considered too Catholic-minded Anglican, Campion was considered suspicious, and exposed to danger. Hidden in friendly houses, he composed his treatise called “A History of Ireland” written from an English standpoint it offended the native Irish, and was severely criticized.
Encouraged by others, he crossed to England in disguise and under an assumed name, reaching London in time to witness the trial of one of the earliest martyrs of Oxford, Dr. John Storey. Campion now recognized his vocation and retreated to the seminary at Douai. He studied theology and took a lesser degree while there and then set out for a pilgrimage to Rome.
It was his intention to join the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) and achieved that goal in 1573. Campion was first assigned to enter his novitiate in Bohemia (the present-day Czech Republic) because there was not yet established a Jesuit presence in England. While there he taught in the college and wrote sacred dramas. He was ordained in 1578.
Edmund would eventually be sent to England to reclaim the lapsed Catholics who, wavering in the face of political oppression drew closer to the Anglican church. It would not be an easy task. In fact, prior to his departure for his native land he had a vision in which Our Lady foretold to him his martyrdom. Comrades at Prague were moved to make a scroll for P. Edmundus Campianus Martyr, and to paint a prophetic garland of roses within his cell.
Our saint would make a profound impression while in London, which did not go unnoticed by the authorities. An alarm was raised, and he fled to the North, where he fell again to writing and produced his famous tract, the “Decem Rationes.” He returned to London, only to withdraw again, this time toward Norfolk. A spy, hot upon his track, ran him and others down at Lyford Grange near Wantage in Berkshire on July 17,1581.
Campion was paraded through the streets of London, bound hand and foot, riding backwards, with a paper stuck in his hat to denote the “seditious Jesuit.” He was first thrown into the Tower then he was carried privately to the house of his old patron, the Earl of Leicester.
There he encountered the queen and received proffers of liberty and preferments if would forsake his papistry. Campion did not crumble. He was severely tortured on the rack before being brought to trial. He requested a public hearing but was denied one. His interrogators falsely said he revealed coconspirators who were rounded up and arrested.
He was forced stand through the whole farcical trial even though his body had been decimated by his ill treatment. He defended himself eloquently even though too weak to raise his own arm (a fellow prisoner helped him to do so), but he was condemned to death. Historians of all schools are agreed that the charges against Campion were wholesale sham.
On the scaffold, when interrupted and taunted to express his mind concerning the Bull of Pius V excommunicating Elizabeth, he answered only by a prayer for her, “your Queen and my Queen.” He was a Catholic Englishman with political opinions which were not those of the state. The people loudly lamented his fate; and another great harvest of conversions began.
A wild, generous-hearted youth, Henry Walpole, standing by, got his white doublet stained with Campion’s blood; the incident made him, too, in time, a Jesuit and a martyr.
Adapted by A.J. Valentini