Edmund Campion (1935)
Evelyn Waugh (Continuum, 2005)
127 pp. First reading.
Posted 31 January 2007.
Since my recent trip to London, during which I visited the Tower of London and the site of St. Thomas More’s imprisonment and martyrdom, I have begun to take a special interest in the plight of Catholics under the Tudor state. I have also recently been reading, more or less systematically, through the novels of Evelyn Waugh. These two reading streams met unexpectedly in this short biography of Edmund Campion.
Written in 1935, just five years after Waugh’s conversion to Catholicism, I think it is fair to see this as his homage to his new faith. He is not a scholar, and has not written a scholarly work. Instead, he has written a frankly admiring account, enlivened on every page by his literary gifts, but even more by the feeling he clearly has for his subject.
Edmund Campion was born in 1540, under Henry VIII, but lived his adult life under Elizabeth I. He was a scholar, living and working in Oxford, where he gained considerable fame as an orator. In his early adulthood he accomodated himself to the new Anglican church, but as his studies brought him into contact with the Church Fathers he came to doubt the faithfulness of Anglican theology. In 1570 the question came to a head when Pope Pius V excommunicated Elizabeth. Campion fled to Ireland, and then in 1572 sailed for the Catholic seminary in Douai, France.
The Douai seminary had been established to train Catholic priests for service in England. It is a sobering thing to consider the dedication of these men. This was a school for martyrs, not scholars. Approximately 160 graduates of the seminary were eventually killed under Elizabeth. Though Campion lived and studied with the others for a time, the year after his arrival he set off, on foot, for Rome, with the intention of joining the Jesuits.
At that time the Jesuits had no English mission, and it might seem that Campion was leaving danger behind. And, indeed, it must have seemed so to him as well. Not that the Jesuits were slouches, mind you. Consider the series of questions addressed to postulants to the Order:
“Are you willing to renounce the world, all possessions and all hope of temporal goods? Are you ready if necessary to beg your bread from door to door for the love of Jesus Christ? Are you ready to reside in any country and to embrace any employment where your superior may think you to be most useful to the glory of God and the good of souls? Are you willing to obey in all things in which there is evidently no sin, the superiors who hold toward you the place of God? Do you feel resolved generally to renounce without reserve all those things which men in general love and embrace, and will you attempt and desire with all your strength what our Lord Jesus Christ loved and embraced? Do you consent to put on the livery of humiliation worn by Him, to suffer as He did and for love of Him, contempt, calumnies, and insults?”
Campion did consent, and in time he would be tested, and found true to his word. First, however, he was sent to teach at a newly founded university in Prague. Several years later, at the age of 38, he completed his novitiate and was ordained a priest. After a few years the Jesuits began their mission for “the preservation and augmentation of the faith of the Catholics in England”, and Campion was called upon to go. On the eve of his departure, a fellow priest inscribed the words Edmundus Campianus Martyr over the door of Campion’s cell. Everyone knew what the journey might mean.
The difficulties of Elizabethan Catholics are often forgotten; the Anglican church does not have much of a reputation for persecution today. Waugh takes pains to set the record straight: the system of exorbitant fines for failing to attend services of the state church, the summary imprisonment for attendance at Catholic services, the confiscation of property for possession of Catholic devotional items, the exclusion from education and professional careers, and, for priests, the mortal danger. Yet what astonishes me about these priests, like Campion, is that they were not content to merely avoid danger. In some cases they even raised a valiant challenge against their powerful foes. Campion, for instance, shortly after his landing, wrote a short manifesto that has come to be called Campion’s Brag. Originally written as a declaration of purpose, to assert that his mission was religious and not political in nature, its elegance and refreshing confidence made it an instant hit in the underground Catholic community, and it spread Campion’s fame throughout the country. Addressed to the Queen’s Privy Council, it reads in part:
…be it known to you that we have made a league — all Jesuits in the world, whose succession and multitude must overreach all the practices of England — cheerfully to carry the cross you shall lay on us, and never to despair of your recovery, while we have a man left to enjoy your Tyburn [the site of executions], 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.
He travelled in disguise, relying on the hospitality of Catholic families for his room and board, and rarely staying more than one night in any one place. After several months he completed a scholarly discourse, the Ten Reasons, on matters of discord between Anglicans and Catholics. This, too, achieved wide popularity, and served to raise his profile, in a negative way, with state officials. His itinerant mission continued until, in July of 1581, approximately one year after landing at Dover, he celebrated a morning Mass at a manor house in Berkshire. Among the communicants was another traveller spending the night, Mr. George Eliot by name, who was a professional priest-hunter. Realizing his good fortune at having stumbled across the famous Campion, he immediately summoned the authorities, and before Campion could depart the grounds were surrounded. Campion was hidden, along with two other priests, in a priest-hole, but the search was assiduous, and the next day they were discovered.
What occurred during the next five months, until the date of his martyrdom, throws an appalling light on the shamefulness of the authorities. He was tortured on the rack three times, the combination of which broke his body utterly. He was clapped in solitary confinement for weeks on end. Because of his fame as a scholar it was considered advantageous to have him humiliated in public debate before his death. Accordingly, he was periodically plucked from his cell, without warning, and ushered into a debating hall where he confronted panels of eminent Anglican clergy. In these contests, however, he acquited himself extremely well.
He was brought to trial, along with several other priests, for treason, the usual charge brought against Catholic priests. Though there was no evidence that Campion, or those tried with him, had planned or supported any violence against Elizabeth, the charge was rammed through. At his sentencing, Campion rose and addressed the court and jury in ringing tones:
“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 have 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… by their degenerate descendants, is both gladness and glory to us. God lives; posterity will live; their judgement is not so liable to corruption as that of those who are now going to sentence us to death.”
When the verdict was read, the condemned men sang a Te Deum.
During his last days, the man who had betrayed Campion to the authorities came to him in prison. Since that day he had lived in fear of Catholic reprisals, and sought Campion’s protection. Reassuring him that he need not fear, Campion nevertheless offered to arrange for safe passage and a secure living with a German Catholic duke. Awed by the generosity of this offer, Campion’s gaoler himself converted to Catholicism a short time later.
On the morning of December 1, 1581, Edmund Campion was brought to Tyburn. Addressing the crowd one last time, he said, “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 for other treason I never committed any, God is my judge.” He was hanged, drawn, and quartered.
Who can know what was in the minds of those who crowded around the scaffold that day? At least one, Henry Walpole, upon whom some of Campion’s blood splashed as he was gutted, returned home other than he had come. Thirteen years later he too died a priest on an English gallows.
Campion was beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1886 and canonized in 1970.
It is a marvellous story, and Waugh tells it with all of the very considerable art at his disposal. It seems to me a good and important thing to reflect on these men, these priests who sacrificed their lives for the sake of the faith. Of course there have been, and continue to be, martyrs, but for me this story, set in the very land of my ancestors, has a special potency. That they did what they did is startling enough; that they so often did it with wit, calm confidence, and even valour, is inspiring and bracing. They readily, even cheerfully, abandoned themselves to Christ, and lived in the freedom that such dedication brings. To remember that they laboured and died for this faith that comes to us, in these unheroic times, without danger, or even without sacrifice, should disturb our complacency. They did all this to sustain the Church of Bede, of Anselm, of Becket, and of More. They ought not to be forgotten.
[Campion’s inner strength]
Campion stands out from even his most gallant and chivalrous contemporaries, from Philip Sidney and Don John of Austria, not as they stand above Hawkins and Stukeley by finer human temper, but by the supernatural grace that was in him. That the gentle scholar, trained all his life for the pulpit and the lecture room, was able at the word of command to step straight into a world of violence, and acquit himself nobly; that the man, capable of the strenuous heroism of that last year and a half, was able, without any complaint, to pursue the somber routine of the pedagogue and contemplate without impatience a lifetime so employed — there lies the mystery which sets Campion’s triumph apart from the ordinary achievements of human strength.
The Queen’s government had taken away from them the priest that their fathers had known; the simple, unambitious figure who had pottered about the parish, lived among his flock, christened them and married them and buried them; prayed for their souls and blessed their crops; whose attainments were to sacrifice and absolve and apply a few rules-of-thumb precepts of canon law; whose occasional lapses from virtue were expected and condoned; with whom they squabbled over their tithes, about whom they grumbled and gossiped, whom they consulted on every occasion; who had seemed, a generation back, something inalienable from the soil of England, as much a part of their lives as the succession of the seasons — he had been stolen from them, and in his place the Holy Father was sending them, in their dark hour, men of new light, equipped with every Continental art, armed against every frailty, bringing a new kind of intellect, new knowledge, new holiness.
[A morning Mass]
It needs little fancy to reconstruct the scene; the audience hushed and intent, every member of whom was risking liberty and fortune, perhaps his life, by attendance. The dusk lightened and the candles paled on the improvised altar, the tree tops outside the window took fire, as Campion spoke. The thrilling tones, the profusion of imagery, the polish and precision, the balanced, pointed argument, the whole structure and rich ornament of rhetoric which had stirred the lecture halls and collegiate chapels of Oxford and Douai, Rome, Prague, and Rheims, inspired now with more than human artistry, rang through the summer dawn. And when the discourse had mounted to its peroration and the fiery voice had dropped to the quiet, traditional words of the blessing, a long silence while the priest disrobed and assumed once more his secular disguise; a hurried packing away of the altar furniture, a few words of leave taking, and then the horses’ hooves clattered once more in the cobbled yard; Campion was on his way, and the Catholics dispersed to their homes.