“As I am not sure whether you will ever see me again, I am writing a will: I leave to you and to all the kiss of charity and the bond of peace. Farewell.”
So wrote Edmund Campion, Englishman, Londoner and priest of the Society of Jesus, to his rector in Prague where he had until just weeks before been leading a demanding but intensely happy existence. Once the brilliant Oxford scholar and ‘diamond of England’ who had captivated the Queen and his many patrons with his astounding oratory, he had fled to the continent to avoid ordination in the established religion, before joining the Jesuits. Away from the strain of religious tensions at home, his every priestly and scholarly instinct had been fulfilled as he taught, wrote plays and preached weekly in Latin. This until one morning in February 1580, after a morning lecture on Aristotle’s De Coelo, he announced to his students of the last six years: ‘I am summoned’. Campion had been plucked from his Arcadia, to be launched back into the murderous political whirlpool of his native land. It is said that before his departure, one of his students inscribed above the door of his room: P. Edmundus Campianus Martyr.
Seven years prior to this, in 1573, Campion had embarked on a solitary spiritual pilgrimage to Rome, dressed as a beggar and in imitation of Christ. It was the pivotal moment of his life, culminating in his momentous decision to embrace missionary life as a Jesuit. This choice reflected something deeper still; a vision of the Church centred on spiritual salvation rather than temporal power. For in setting out for Rome, he had walked away from the political plotting and scheming which shadowed the English Catholic mission abroad. Now, in obedience to his superiors, Campion retraced his earlier steps from Rome to Rheims, praying for the strength to embrace their command. This time he wore a rough coat for the journey, explaining that any clothes were good enough for a man on his way to be hanged.
The mission unfolded in the short space of one astonishing and unrelenting year of activity which ended in betrayal. As a disguised Campion and Robert Persons, his younger superior, arrived in London, the Elizabethan state was in turmoil facing Catholic rebellion and papal-supported invasion by Ireland. This climate ensured that, as Campion had feared, his presence in England was construed as further Catholic political meddling. Aware of this, both men set down in writing a testament, although Campion left his text unsealed. Soon his eloquent defence of their mission, known today as Campion’s ‘Brag’, had been passed all over London, and had made him England’s most wanted.
Campion’s focus however was firmly on the spiritual, and in particular ministering the sacraments and preaching to the many beleaguered Catholics he encountered as he moved from house to house. Life on the run came with constant danger; government spies were everywhere. Persons favoured a shift of emphasis to writing, and succeeded in setting up a secret printing press. A moment of triumph came in the targeted distribution of Campion’s ‘Ten Reasons’ to the leading scholars of Oxford, Campion’s old associates. Copies of the Latin text were left on every pew of the University Church of St Mary’s, creating uproar.
The moment of betrayal came when Campion was persuaded to return to Lyford Grange, where many from Oxford and the surrounding area had gathered eager for the chance to hear him preach. Among them was George Elyot, who disclosed his position to the authorities in exchange for £100. The torture on the rack that followed, the four disputations he faced and the trial which ultimately condemned him to death reflect a government terrified both of invasion and rebellion by its Catholic nobility, and the effort to make an example out of Campion.
He was hanged on 1 December 1581, and on the scaffold he quoted ‘We have been made a spectacle to God, angels and men’. Events had thrust him onto a stage that was both public and political; in obedience he had submitted. Within months numerous accounts, in both prose and verse, of his trial and martyrdom were being distributed across London and Europe. Yet had he had his own way Campion, always more at home debating amongst friends, would surely still have been happily teaching rhetoric to his beloved students in Prague.