Evelyn Waugh, author of Brideshead Revisited, aimed to “put into a single, readable narrative the most significant of the facts about the life of Edmund Campion.” We first meet the Catholic martyr and saint as a young but already famous Oxford scholar, age 26, speaking before Queen Elizabeth I in 1566, the eighth year of her long reign.
Elizabeth’s first official act in 1558 had been to make the Catholic Mass illegal. She and her fellow Anglican leaders “struck hard at all the ancient habits of spiritual life—the rosary, devotion to Our Lady and the Saints, pilgrimages, religious art, fasting, confession, penance and the great succession of traditional holidays.” By the time she heard Campion speak, the Protestant Reformation launched by her father, Henry VIII, had destroyed not only Catholic churches and monasteries but also the academic and fiscal integrity of the English university.
Campion’s commitment to the priesthood was not always a sure thing, but according to Waugh, Campion could not buy the Anglican case. He did not “find it probable that the truth, hidden from the world for fifteen centuries, had suddenly been revealed in the last few years to a group of important Englishmen.”
In 1570, Pope Pius V excommunicated Elizabeth, an act that “completely recast the Catholic cause.” The man who nailed the order of excommunication to the Bishop’s door in London was captured, tortured, and executed, starting a parade of Catholic martyrs that did not end until Elizabeth’s reign did in 1603.
Campion fled to Dublin for two years, but by 1572 even that was not safe enough distance from London, and he made his way to the Continent and the college for English priests at Douai in northern France. Here men were “being trained not as scholars and gentlemen, but as missionaries and martyrs.” By the time Elizabeth died, 160 priestly graduates of Douai would die on the scaffold. In 1573, Campion took his degree and walked to Rome to enter the Society of Jesus, the order founded 33 years before by Ignatius de Loyola with the backing of Pope Paul III. A Jesuit now, Campion moved to Prague for six years before returning home to heroism and martyrdom. The second half of the short book follows Campion and his fellow Jesuit Robert Persons on their courageous odyssey through England, bringing the sacraments to the Catholic faithful, knowing that their trajectory almost certainly will end horribly.
Since Oxford days, Campion was known as one of the most eloquent men of his generation, and as a priest he was famous for his homilies. But it was two short pieces of pro-Catholic writing that both immortalized and convicted him. A statement of his reasons for coming to England to minister to abandoned Catholics bore the sweet title “Campion’s Brag.” Waugh calls it “the manifesto of his mission.” The other piece, “Ten Reasons,” is explained by its subtitle: “Ten Reasons, for the confidence with which Edmund Campion offered his adversaries to dispute on behalf of the Faith, set before the famous men of our Universities.” He knew that, given a fair chance, he could win any debate with Anglican divines. But once he was captured and put on trial with a group of fellow priests, fairness was by the board. Campion was hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn on December 1, 1581.
Waugh converted to Catholicism in 1930 at the age of 27, and he wrote Edmund Campion five years later. So his perspective is strongly Catholic perspective, and he paints Elizabeth and close advisors like William Cecil in the harshest hues. As a former Anglican myself and now a convert to the Catholic Church, I found Waugh’s narrative extraordinarily compelling. I would be interested to read an Anglican-slanted account of the same events. Is there a case that can be made for hanging, drawing, and quartering Catholic priests? I think that’s a rhetorical question.