Campion, Edmund

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Edmund Campion

BORN: January 25, 1540 • London, England

DIED: December 1, 1581 • London, England

English priest; scholar

Edmund Campion, a brilliant scholar at Oxford University, abandoned the chance to have a powerful career as an Anglican priest under the protection of Elizabeth I (1533–1603; see entry) because he believed in the supremacy of the Roman Catholic Church. He fled England and became a Jesuit priest, later returning to England to minister to Catholics there who were strictly forbidden to practice their religion. After publishing a pamphlet denouncing the Anglican Church, Campion was arrested as a traitor. He was imprisoned and tortured before being put to death in 1581. Recognizing him as a martyr, or someone who died for his faith, the Catholic Church made him a saint in 1970. (A saint is a deceased person who, due to his or her exceptionally good behavior during life, receives the official blessing of

"My charge is, of free cost to preach the Gospel, to minister the Sacraments, to instruct the simple, to reforme sinners, to confute errors—in brief, to crie alarme spiritual against foul vice and proud ignorance."

the church and is believed to be capable of interceding with God to protect people on earth.)

Early life and education

Edmund Campion was born in London, on January 25, 1540, into a Catholic merchant family. He had two brothers and one sister. His father, also named Edmund, was a bookseller. From a very early age, young Campion showed exceptional intelligence, and an organization of merchants in the city arranged for him to attend a grammar school and to study at Christ Church Hospital. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Campion was the schoolboy chosen to give a formal Latin greeting to Mary I (1516–1558; see entry) when she first entered London as queen in 1553. Later he attended St. John's College at Oxford University, becoming one of the first students admitted there under the college's founder, Sir Thomas White (1492–1567). Campion became a junior fellow at St. John's when he was only seventeen. By 1560 he was well-known as a public speaker, and he went on to excel as a professor.

During the years before Campion's birth and throughout his youth, England underwent numerous political and religious changes. In the 1530s King Henry VIII (1491–1547; see entry) broke with the Roman Catholic Church and declared himself head of the church in England. He tried to eliminate Catholic influence in the universities. At that time the universities educated students to become priests, and for centuries they had been under the control of Catholic monks and scholars. Henry fired many professors and pressured others to accept his religious authority. Instead, however, many high-ranking clergy members resigned from their positions as church leaders. As a result the church faced a great shortage of priests who could serve as its bishops and teachers. Henry's oldest daughter, Mary, was a devoted Catholic and when she became queen she reinstituted Roman Catholicism as the official religion of the nation. By this time the Reformation, a sixteenth-century religious movement that aimed to reform the Roman Catholic Church and resulted in the establishment of Protestant churches, had gained considerable support in England. During her five-year reign, Mary had many Protestants burned at the stake as heretics, or people whose opinions oppose established church doctrines (principles).

Elizabeth, a Protestant, took the throne in 1558. She established the Anglican Church, also called the Church of England, as the country's official church. The practice of Catholicism was outlawed. In 1566 the queen visited Oxford with her advisors, Robert Dudley (Earl of Leicester; 1532–1588; see entry) and William Cecil (Lord Burghley; 1520–1598; see entry). Elizabeth hoped to strengthen some of the scholastic traditions that had suffered under her father's reign. During her trip to Oxford, she also hoped to find talented scholars who would agree to be ordained as Anglican priests and lead the new church.

Impresses Queen Elizabeth

The university welcomed the queen with many days of speeches and ceremonies. Since Campion's college at Oxford, St. John's, was known as a place that was still predominantly Catholic, Cecil ordered that professors giving speeches to the queen should choose nonreligious subjects so that the visit would not be spoiled by controversy. Campion was assigned to explain how the tides are influenced by the moon, and how the planets are influenced by the higher bodies of the universe. Speaking in Latin, he first praised the queen at great length for her learning and her support of scholarship. He then spoke briefly about the tides. So eloquent was his speech that Elizabeth was thoroughly charmed. She recommended Campion to Dudley, who offered to become Campion's political patron and help him build a powerful career.

Campion continued his studies at Oxford and was ordained a deacon, or helper, of the Anglican Church in 1568. In order to be ordained, he was required to sign the Oath of Supremacy, which proclaimed that the queen was the supreme head of the church in England. But Campion had strong doubts about Protestantism and the validity of the Anglican Church, and he did not hesitate to express these doubts in public. Since it was against the law to worship as a Catholic, Campion's friends worried that he was placing himself in political danger. In 1569 he left his post at Oxford and soon afterward made his way to Dublin, Ireland.

In Ireland, where the people still practiced Catholicism without much interference, Campion was able to resume his scholarly work. He lived with the Stanihurst family in Dublin and hoped to obtain a position at Dublin University, which had been temporarily closed. He also wrote a book, The History of Ireland. Since Campion did not read Gaelic, the Irish language, he based his book on sources from English writers, who often held negative stereotypes of Irish people. Not surprisingly, his book presented an inaccurate and insulting picture, and it was not popular in Ireland.

By 1572 the political situation had worsened for Catholics in Dublin, and Campion returned to England. He remained there for a brief time, and he was among the crowd who witnessed the trial at Westminster Hall of the Catholic scholar John Storey (1504–1571), who had supported Mary I's persecution of Protestants. Campion was deeply impressed with Storey's courage during his trial, and this experience strengthened his desire to remain a Catholic. In danger of being arrested himself, Campion arranged to go to France. While crossing the English Channel, however, his boat was stopped and he was taken into custody and returned to Dover. Reportedly bribing the officer in charge of his arrest, Campion was able to escape. Staying with friends nearby, he raised enough money to sail to France again, this time successfully. According to Evelyn Waugh, author of the biography Edmund Campion, when Cecil learned that Campion had fled the country, he stated, "It is a great pity to see so notable a man leave his country, for indeed he was one of the diamonds of England."

Joins the Jesuit order

Campion made his way to the town of Douai, in northern France, where William Allen (1532–1594; see entry) had established a Catholic seminary for English students. (A seminary is a school similar to a university that trains students in religion, usually to prepare them to become members of the clergy.) This seminary preserved Catholic teachings and trained priests in the hope that, once Catholicism was restored in England, educated clergy would be ready to return. Campion studied divinity there and taught rhetoric, the art of debate. He finished his degree in 1573 and then traveled to Rome, Italy, where he planned to enter the Society of Jesus, a Roman Catholic order of priests more commonly known as the Jesuits.

After having been accepted as a novice, or new member, in the Jesuit order, Campion was sent to study in Brunn, then part of Austria, and later in Prague, which is now the capital of the Czech Republic. Campion spent six years in Prague, advancing his studies and teaching at the university. He was ordained a priest in 1587. In Brunn, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Campion experienced a vision in which the Virgin Mary told him that he would be put to death for his faith. In 1580 the pope called Campion to Rome. There the Jesuit received the assignment that would make this prophecy come true.

On Allen's recommendation, Campion, along with his fellow Jesuit Robert Persons (1546–1610), was chosen to return to England and work to strengthen Catholicism there. The two men would have to operate in disguise and hide their behavior from the political authorities. Although their orders stricdy forbade them to get involved in political matters, they knew that their mission would place them in grave danger. Indeed, English law stated that it was high treason—punishable by death—to engage in any activities that would bring people back to the Catholic Church. Knowing he faced the prospect of eventual capture, trial, and execution, Campion sailed back to England disguised as a jeweler and made his way to London.

The first missionary priest in England to be executed was Cuthbert Mayne (1544–1577), who had been raised as an Anglican and was ordained an Anglican priest. But when he went to Oxford University to pursue further studies, he was inspired by influential Catholic teachers there, especially Edmund Campion. Mayne decided to convert to Catholicism. He fled England and studied at the Catholic seminary at Douai, returning to England as a missionary priest in 1576. Soon after, he was arrested as a traitor. He was executed in 1577.

In 1584 and 1585 Parliament strengthened laws against Catholics. Before this, it had been illegal for priests to say Mass or try to persuade Anglicans to return to Catholicism. The new law, though, stated that any Englishman proved to have been ordained a Roman Catholic priest could be put to death. But this did not stop the work of the missionary priests. During the 1580s, Douai College sent 438 priests to England. Of these, 98 were put to death. The people who helped to hide priests were also in danger. Between 1581 and 1588, eighteen men and two women were put to death for hiding priests.

An estimated three hundred English Catholics, many of them priests, were executed between 1535 and 1679. In 1970 the Catholic Church canonized forty of these martyrs as saints. They are known as the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. Mayne and Campion were among the Forty Martyrs.

A life in hiding

English Catholics were overjoyed at Campion's return, and many prominent Catholic families helped give him shelter while he traveled through the countryside saying Mass, hearing confessions, and preaching. At the suggestion of friends who worried that he and Persons would be captured and killed without having a chance to defend themselves, Campion wrote a pamphlet describing the purpose of their work. Published as Decern Rationes (Ten Reasons), but more popularly known as Campion's Brag, the document stated that Campion's mission was to minister to Catholic souls. As quoted by Waugh, the document added that Campion was "strictly forbidden by our Father that sent me [the pope], to deal in any respect with matter of State or Policy of this realm, as things which appertain [relate] not to my vocation." But the pamphlet also presented a complete argument rejecting the Anglican Church in favor of Catholicism. Its publication outraged the queen's advisors, and they intensified their efforts to find Campion and arrest him.

In July 1581 Campion left Persons and was staying with a Catholic family in Lyford, Norfolk. There an informer, George Eliot, discovered him and two local priests saying Mass for a group of people in the house. Eliot alerted the magistrate, who brought a band of soldiers with him to the house to arrest the Jesuit. Hoping to save the others from being arrested as well, Campion wished to surrender himself, but the family insisted on hiding him. The house had several secret rooms, and Campion and the other priests were hidden in a tiny room behind a bedroom on the top floor. The soldiers searched the house, but despite discovering several hiding places, they could not find Campion. They searched all day without success. The next morning, July 17, diey were ready to give up. They thought that Campion must have somehow escaped before their arrival. Just then, however, Eliot's partner noticed a chink of light in the wall above the stairs. Tearing at it with a crowbar, he exposed the secret room. Campion and his companions were caught at last.

Campion did not resist arrest. With his companions, and a fourth priest who had been arrested when he came to visit the house at Lyford, he was brought to London as Eliot's prisoner. The Jesuit was thrown into a dungeon in the Tower of London, and he was held in solitary confinement until the queen sent for him a few days later. (The Tower of London was a fortress on the Thames River in London that was used as a royal residence, treasury, and, most famously, as a prison for the upper class.) Dudley, Campion's old patron, sat beside the queen at this meeting and questioned the priest about his activities. Campion replied that his work was purely religious, and that he would obey the queen in all matters not relating to the Church. Then they posed the most important question. Would he publicly renounce Catholicism and become a priest in the Anglican Church? They hoped that Campion would take this chance to avoid execution for treason. But he refused, and Elizabeth sent him back to the Tower.

Refuses to betray his faith

Cecil and Dudley ordered Campion to be tortured on the rack. He was tied by his wrists and ankles to a frame that was then stretched until his limbs were dislocated. In intense pain, Campion blurted out the names of a few people who had sheltered him. But he did not disclose any information that could implicate them in any deliberate plot against the Elizabeth. Campion was then required to participate in four formal conferences in which Anglican officials demanded answers to questions about his pamphlet. Without any opportunity to prepare for these debates, and despite being severely weakened by his brutal torture, Campion presented arguments that the officials could not refute.

The queen's council was frustrated. Its members wanted to condemn Campion to death and they had the legal authority to do so, but they preferred to have evidence of political treason first. Campion still had many supporters, and the council did not wish to provoke their anger by executing him on religious grounds. So the council invented charges that Campion was part of a plot initiated in Rome to assassinate Elizabeth and to persuade foreign armies to invade England. Though these charges were completely false, Campion was put on trial at Westminster Hall on November 20.

Campion was so weak after months of imprisonment and torture that he could not even raise his right arm to swear his oath at his trial. A fellow prisoner kissed Campion's arm and helped him hold it up. Campion pleaded innocent and presented a defense that many witnesses considered brilliant, but the council pronounced him guilty and sentenced him to death. According to Waugh's biography Campion responded: "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."


During the eleven days he lay chained in his Tower cell between his trial and his day of execution, Campion rejected one last chance, brought to him by his sister, to reject Catholicism and thus spare his life. He spent his last days in fasting and prayer. Finally on December 1,1581, he and two fellow prisoners were driven through the muddy streets of London to the gallows at Tyburn.

Executions in Elizabethan England were gruesome affairs that attracted large crowds of spectators. Those convicted of high treason were sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. They were first hanged on the gallows until almost dead, then cut down—preferably while still conscious—and disemboweled. After that, their limbs and head were hacked off. Addressing the crowd at Tyburn just before his death, Campion forgave the council for condemning him. He also asked forgiveness for any harm he might have caused by giving names under torture. With his last words he prayed for the queen and wished her a long and prosperous reign.

Though Elizabeth and her advisors hoped Campion's death would lead to the end of Catholicism in England, it had the opposite effect. Many were so inspired by Campion's eloquence and courage that they were strengthened in their determination to remain Catholics. Others decided to convert. Campion's example also inspired other Jesuits to carry on his work; many of them, in turn, were executed as martyrs. Historians consider Campion one of the most brilliant scholars and writers of his age. A building at Oxford University, Campion Hall, was named after him. In 1970 the Catholic Church canonized Campion as a saint.

For More Information


Hogge, Alice. God's Secret Agents: Queen Elizabeth's Forbidden Priests and the Hatching of the Gunpowder Plot. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.

Waugh, Evelyn. Edmund Campion. Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1946; reprinted, 1956.


Brennan, Malcolm. "English Martyrs: Saint Cuthbert Mayne." The Angelus. (accessed on July 11, 2006).

"Edmund Campion." Catholic Encyclopedia. (accessed on July 11, 2006).

"Edmund Campion." Tudor Place. (accessed on July 11, 2006).

"Forty Martyrs of England and Wales." (accessed on July 11, 2006).

"Saint Edmund Campion." SJ Web. (accessed on July 11, 2006).