Edmund, a Jesuit priest, was innocent of the crime for which he was tried. He was paraded through the streets before crowds of people who mocked and abused him. Supposedly learned Protestant ministers berated him at public disputes at which Edmund was threatened with silence and showed humility. He was severely tortured on a rack to the point at which he could not even feel his hands and feet. He had a painful journey to his death, with people both cursing him and helping him, wiping filth from his face as the priest was dragged through the muddy streets of London which was still bearing the brunt of seven days rain.
Throughout his imprisonment, torture and execution, Edmund was constantly being urged to conform to Protestantism, from which he had originally converted to the Church of Rome. He stayed loyal to his Catholic faith – even refusing to pray in English on the gallows with the Church of England minister who looked on. Edmund said: "I will pray in a language I well understand." He consistently denied the charge of treason, the evidence for which was so weak that the prosecution had to get known liars to testify against him and other priests accused of the same indictment.
Previously, I have often misread this saint’s name as "Edmund Champion". It was therefore interesting to hear that he was actually known as "the Pope’s Champion" by the authorities, who placed specific attention on him when launching an operation to apprehend the Jesuits who they claimed were planning an invasion of England.
Edmund Campion was born on January 25 1540 in the appropriately named Paternoster Row – a street so-called as many of its inhabitants were makers of "paternoster" beads, or rosaries, whilst others sold religious books. Edmund’s father was a bookseller. The street, which still exists, was a stone’s throw away from the old St Paul’s Cathedral. The Norman construction complete with 7th century additions was even more imposing than Wren’s 17th century building. It was higher and longer, therefore dominating the city of London. He probably went to his first Masses there and his birthplace was within walking distance of the Tower, where he was to face the excruciating pain of torture in later life.
After initially being educated at a London grammar school, a city company sent him to Christ Church Hospital. This was Edward VI’s 1552 foundation for orphans and poor children – indicating that Edmund may have even been an orphan himself at this young age. At this institution he flourished, winning every academic debate in which he entered. He began to become renowned as one of the best London scholars and a sensational speaker. At the age of 13, he was chosen to make the scholars’ address to Queen Mary in August 1553.
Aged just 15, Edmund won an exhibition and was accepted as one of Sir Thomas White’s first scholars at St. John’s College, Oxford, which Sir Thomas built and endowed. Two years later, Edmund became a Junior Fellow. His good looks, charm and cleverness made him popular and admired by his peers. In 1564 he took his degree and became a fellow of the college. After another degree, he became a celebrated tutor, and, by 1568, junior proctor.
In 1566, Queen Elizabeth visited Oxford. The monarch was so impressed with Campion in a series of debates in Latin and Greek that he started to be invited to the court. There is no doubt that the academic was being groomed as a potential bishop – or even for the Archbishop of Canterbury’s role. But something was niggling at Edmund which was guiding him to Catholicism.
Whether it was his studying of the Church fathers or the influence of a high church bishop (or both), his conscience was being tested. He went onto receive deacon’s orders in the Church of England but could not rid himself of a feeling of sin surrounding his role. His devotion and zeal through his continued studies led him to priesthood. Rumours began to spread about his opinions and Edmund fled to the University of Dublin in Ireland.
In 1571, he secretly left the Emerald Isle for Douai and was reconciled to the Catholic Church. As well as being a seminary, the English College at Douai was a place where priests for the mamouth task of the English mission were prepared. Having gained yet another degree, a Bachelor of Divinity, he joined the Jesuit order and trotted off to Rome disguised as a poor pilgrim. After a month there, he was sent to Bohemia and stayed in Prague for seven years (ordained in 1578) and continuously taught, preached, wrote and laboured for the Church. Edmund received a vision of his martyrdom from Our Lady whilst sitting in a garden in Brunn.
Edmund knew that he was destined for the English mission. Upon being sent, he stopped in Geneva on his way and challenged Dr Beza, successor to John Calvin - the French Protestant theologian – to a debate.
Edmund landed in Dover in the summer of 1580 in the guise of a jewel merchant. He was captured by coastguards but managed to escape their detention whilst they were busy trying to decide whether to send him to the Privy Council.
Back in his home city, Edmund began to eloquently preach as frequently as three times a day. He drew huge crowds of both Catholics and Protestants (of whom many converted). The priest also sent writings to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, a deed which infuriated the institutions’ staff who began to publish pamphlets against his teachings.
When the authorities sought to silence Fr Campion by force, Edmund took refuge at a place called Stonor Park. There he wrote the famous "Brag", a letter to the Privy Council thought to be one of the earliest defences of Catholicism in the Reformation era. Written to present his case if he was captured, the premature publication of the Brag was the last straw for the authorities. Campion was now the subject of one of the most intensive manhunts in English history.
The priest’s capture is probably one of the most dramatic of the penal times. He stopped at Lyford Grange on the way up north. But intelligence led 100 men to the house. They ransacked it in an attempt to find the priest. Remarkably, before making his escape, he delivered his last sermon at the request of the house’s residents. Preaching upstairs in a secret hideout, his hunters slept downstairs. Here, it appears that Fr Campion felt that preaching to the faithful was more important than his freedom. The congregation were, as usual, dazzled by his zeal and all went quietly to bed. But one of them agonisingly tripped up, causing a crash, bang, wallop. The guards were awoken and captured the Fr Campion and two other priests, who were all praying together when they were apprehended. Campion was never a free again until his entry into the Kingdom of Heaven.
Saint Edmund Campion is one of the most well know of the English and Welsh martyrs. He is possibly one of the most intelligent, intellectual English Catholics in history. For those struggling to grasp their faith, this saint is an ideal one to pray to for strength to understand and embrace Catholic teaching. His constant studying of the Church fathers and the teachings of the faith, as well as his skill at defending the faith in debates is an inspiration to those, particularly in UK universities, who stand up publicly for the orthodox teaching of the Church, often in a confrontational and secular environment. Whether Catholic students are invited to take part in a union debate on abortion or the existence of God, St Edmund can help greatly with finding the right words and responding swiftly but compassionately to the counter arguments. As a martyr who was mercilessly tortured, we should pray to him for those who are still persecuted, in China for instance, for simply being a Catholic.
Saint Edmund Campion, Pray For Us.