St Edmund Campion
Of all those martyred during England’s Elizabethan era, none was more gifted in mind and word than Edmund Campion. And no one exemplified the crisis of conscience between God and country better than he did.
The country’s politics at that time were in tension between the ‘old religion’, Catholicism, and the new allegiance to the ruler of the realm, Anglicanism. As a young scholar from Oxford, Edmund had every worldly success. He had accepted the Anglican faith and been made deacon. This required his taking the Oath of Supremacy to the queen, in civil as well as religious matters. He endeared himself to Queen Elizabeth I by his erudition and his eloquence and there were whispers that he would be made archbishop of Canterbury.
But Campion’s conscience was in turmoil. While pledging his political loyalty to the Queen, he knew that his faith demanded obedience to Christ alone and to his vicar on earth, the Pope. Unfortunately, the Pope considered Queen Elizabeth an ‘illegitimate heretic’, and supported an expedition to dethrone her – which meant that every Catholic in the country was seen as a potential traitor.
Campion fled the land, first to Ireland, and then to Douai in France, where he rejected his Anglican faith and promised to live as a Catholic. He entered the Society of Jesus in Rome, and was ordained a priest in Bohemia. Sent back to England to minister to the persecuted Catholics, he preached to Protestants as well and published his “Ten Reasons”, a polemic essay proving that the Catholic faith alone was the one true religion.
Betrayed by a former Catholic, he was imprisoned in the Tower of London and tortured. Friends from earlier times and even the Queen herself implored him to recant, with promises of honours and a new life. But Edmund remain steadfast. He was finally condemned to death on false charges and executed in 1581.
Every record we have of Edmund Campion, every remnant of his written words, not least his personal letters, show us he was nothing less than a man of genius, truly one of the great Elizabethans. In one way alone he was different – he was saintly and steadfast to the truth, as no other of them was.
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