Surprisingly little is known about the early life and family of this great man - Cecil’s “diamond of England”. St. Edmund Campion, Jesuit martyr and scholar, was believed to have been born in London on 25 January 1540, son and namesake of a Catholic bookseller. His youth was distinguished by his achievements as a student, being regarded as an exemplary pupil of Christ’s Hospital. Most noteworthy, he was chosen as a 13-year- old boy in 1553 to give the welcoming address in Latin to Mary Tudor as she rode in state into London as queen.
Campion entered St. John’s College, Oxford University in 1557, perhaps with financial aid from the Worshipful Company of Grocers and Sir Thomas White, the founder of the college. He proceeded in good time to become a Fellow of the College, Public Orator and Junior Proctor and Deacon. His public orations on the reburial of Amy Robsart, the wife of the Earl of Leicester in1560, and on Elizabeth I ’s visit to the university in 1566 must have aided Campion’s case in securing the patronage of Leicester, and he was often called to Rycote and Woodstock to discourse and minister to the royal court.
While it appeared that Campion was well on the way to an eminent career as a scholar and man of letters, this course became closed to him when he could no longer reconcile his fervent Catholic beliefs with his position as an Anglican deacon. Guided by his troubled conscience, Campion withdrew from the University in 1569. He travelled to Ireland, spending time in Dublin with the Stanyhurst family in the hope that he might have a role to play in the proposed establishment of a University college. Campion spent some of this period writing a History of Ireland, later included in Holinshed’s Chronicles which he dedicated to his patron the Earl of Leicester . When Catholics became the objects of open persecution, Campion became a fugitive, fleeing to the English College at Douai, France, where he took a degree in Divinity and taught as Professor of Rhetoric.
After a couple of years at Douai, Campion decided to become a Catholic priest and travelled the thousand miles to Rome as a pilgrim to become a novitiate in the Society of Jesus. The remainder of his time in Europe was spent in the Jesuit order, primarily in Bohemia, attached to the universities in Prague and Brunn, and he was ordained in the Catholic Church by the Archbishop of Prague in 1578. During his time in Prague, Campion taught Rhetoric and is known to have written sacred poems and plays in Latin including Ambrosia and his Tragedy of Saul, which played for over six hours in the audience of Emperor Charles I of Bohemia. In 1580 Campion was informed by the church hierarchy that he had been chosen to accompany Friar Robert Persons on a religious mission to England.
He arrived in Dover disguised as a jewel merchant, and it can be imagined that Campion was overjoyed to be setting foot once more on the soil of his beloved England . In the months to come, he traversed the country ministering to the English Catholics and promoting the cause of the re-establishment of the Catholic Church. Although he maintained his mission was strictly religious, in the wake of continual Catholic insurgency, Campion’s arrival and existence in England was perceived as a dangerous threat to the crown.
The publication of his Decem Rationes, a pamphlet of justification that has come to be known as Campion’s Brag once again spread his name far and wide. He was eventually tracked down, imprisoned and repeatedly tortured, and was reported to have betrayed the names of the Catholics who had harboured him. During this time, he was reputedly taken by boat up the river Thames for an audience with the Queen, Cecil and Leicester, who may have hoped Campion would renounce Catholicism to take his rightful place as a leading light in the England of his time. Campion could not be swayed and was returned to the Tower where he asked to vindicate himself and his faith in public disputation. Deprived practical means to draw up a case , without chair, table or notes, and severely weakened from prolonged torture, Campion impressed many in the audience with his eloquence including Philip Howard, Earl of Arundel, who was inspired to return to the old faith. shortly thereafter.. He admonished those who would see him guilty with these words:
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
His fate, however, was already sealed and after facing trial in a kangaroo court in November, Campion was pronounced guilty of treason and sentenced to death. With two other Catholic dissidents, he was dragged through the filthy streets of London to the cross at Tyburn where he was hung, drawn and quartered on 1 December 1581. Asked on the scaffold to comment on the excommunication of Elizabeth I, he answered only with a prayer for “your queen and my queen”. Earlier Campion displayed his noble nature when he stated in his so called ‘brag’
I have no more to say but to recommend your case and mine to
Almighty God, the Searcher of Hearts, who send us his grace
and see us at accord before the day of payment, to the end we at
last may be friends in heaven, when all injuries will be forgotten.