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Edmund Campion: The English Saint and Martyr You’ve Never Heard Of

From a period of British history most have forgotten

Image Source: Daily Compass


When we think of the times in history when the Church was severely persecuted, we most often think of periods like the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian or the era of Soviet domination over Eastern Europe. What rarely, if ever, comes to mind is the Golden Age of Queen Elizabeth I of England or the time of King James I (who gave us the King James Bible). But the period from Henry VIII’s break with Rome to the end of the reign of Charles II (roughly from 1534 to 1680) saw the most intense persecution of Catholics in British history, a time known variously as the English Reformation or the Age of the English Martyrs. During this period, monasteries were looted and destroyed, Catholicism was banned, and any priest found in the country was executed.

It is estimated that at least 287 Catholics were executed during the English Reformation, 56 of them women; many others died in prison awaiting execution. And while many people know about St. Thomas More (especially from the classic 1966 film A Man for All Seasons) and Bishop St. John Fisher, few today know a Jesuit priest who was martyred for the Faith named Edmund Campion. That is a shame, because he was a man devoted to both God and his country who deserves to be remembered.

Edmund Campion was born in London on January 24, 1540, the son of a printer and bookseller; he was from an early age a brilliant writer and speaker, and at 17 years old he became an Oxford Fellow. In 1564 he was ordained a deacon in the Anglican Church, though he was already moving away from the Church of England and toward Catholicism. On February 25, 1570, Pope Pius V formally excommunicated Elizabeth I, after which she launched an intensified persecution of English Catholics. As a result, in 1571 Edmund fled to France and was received into the Catholic Church there.

In 1578, Edmund was ordained a Jesuit priest in Prague, where he had been teaching at a Jesuit school. Though he could have comfortably and safely lived out his life there, the following year he returned to England with fellow priest Robert Persons to begin a Jesuit mission in his homeland, entering the country disguised as a jewel merchant because of the ban on Catholic priests. The Anglican priest hunters soon learned of his presence, and he was the subject of a yearlong manhunt. During this time, he ministered to the underground Catholics in England and also published two major works, his autobiography and Ten Reasons, a defense of Catholicism and a challenge to Protestants to debate him.

He was betrayed and captured on July 15, 1581, and imprisoned in the Tower of London. No amount of torture, theological argument, or bribes (some even offered by the Queen herself, who grudgingly admired him) could convince him to recant his faith. He was tried on November 20, 1581 and found guilty of treason. His answer to the verdict was this:

“In condemning us, you condemn all your own ancestors, all our ancient 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.”

On December 1, 1581 he, along with priests Ralph Sherwin and Alexander Briant, was hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn. From the scaffold, Edmund Campion prayed for the Queen. He was beatified in 1588 and canonized in 1970 by Pope Paul VI as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.

The persecutions of the English Reformation are thankfully far in the past, but we should not forget them or people like St. Edmund Campion who suffered through them. Religious liberty for people of all faiths has always been a fragile thing and remains so to this day. By remembering the past, we can hopefully avoid repeating it.


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