Edmund Campion was born in London c 1540. As a young man he faced a seemingly brilliant future as a scholar at Oxford University, and had come to the attention of Queen Elizabeth I, who predicted great things of him. However he took the decision to convert to Catholicism. As a result he was forced to leave England, and travelled to Rome, then Prague, to join the Jesuit order. In 1580 he was chosen to undertake the dangerous task of working as an underground missionary priest in England.
Draft of Edmund Campion’s ‘Anima’ in his own handwriting
Campion was a talented poet and playwright and a small number of fragments of poetry and dramatic pieces written by him survive. This is a draft of a poem named Anima, or Soul, composed by Campion in his last few months in Prague before being sent to England. It appears to be a soliloquy written for public performance, spoken by a soul who has been released briefly from Purgatory to warn the living of the perils of mortal sin. But there are overtones of prophecy in the verses, as Campion reflects on the dangers which face him on the English mission.
‘Hope, greatest and ever-present to the Dead, Hope is the Host which I behold; here, be assembled here, I pray; here celebrate God, and for the afflicted seek peace.
Now I have spoken: I am going back. For, though I undergo bitter tortures, I have no desire to climb, blessed, to that High Seat, before I am purified: but this is not the place for such sordid matters. Only this I ask: have pity, Sweet Jesus.’
Edmund Campion SJ
While in England, Campion, and his Jesuit colleague, Robert Persons, had to change names and identities, and travel in disguise so as to be able to minister to persecuted Catholics. Campion and Persons risked their lives to carry out this work. They were also aware that the families who sheltered them risked prison, severe financial penalties, or worse, if they were caught.
Campion was a powerfully charismatic preacher, a gentle and witty conversationalist, a brilliant theologian, and a brave man. The Elizabethan government respected and feared him; Elizabethan Catholics adored him, and many risked their lives and their fortunes to help him.
From the summer of 1580 to the summer of 1581, Campion travelled widely, preaching the gospel, writing books and administering the sacraments to numerous Catholic families. He worried that his mission would be misinterpreted by his opponents as a political act against the government, and so he set out his aims in a powerful letter in which he stressed the purely spiritual nature of his work. This was to be published if he was imprisoned, but it was leaked widely beforehand by Catholics who found his words to be deeply moving.
‘My charge is of free cost to preach the gospel, to minister the sacraments, to instruct the simple, to reforme sinners, to confute errors, and in brief to crye alarme spiritual against foule vice and proude ignorance wherewith many of my deare countrymen are abused.
And touching our Society, be it known to you that we have made a league — all the Jesuits in the world— cheerfully to carry the cross you shall lay upon us, and never to despair your recovery, while we have a man left to enjoy your Tyburn, or to be racked with your torments, or consumed with your prisons. The expense is reckoned, the enterprise is begun; it is of God; it cannot be withstood. So the faith was planted: So it must be restored.
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 may at last be friends in heaven, when all injuries shall be forgotten.’
Fabric pieces from Francis Borgia's biretta and Edmund Campion's cloak
The small square of black felt you see here, was cut from a biretta, or clerical hat, originally belonging to the Jesuit General in Rome, Francis Borgia. How it passed from Borgia to Campion is a mystery, as the Jesuit General died before Campion arrived in Rome. But in the 16th century hats were regarded as special gifts to be exchanged between close friends, as we shall see later with Thomas More. The biretta seems to have made its way to Prague, where Campion spent much of his time as a teacher, priest and writer before being sent to England. It may well be that his Jesuit superior in Prague thought it appropriate to give Campion a piece of the hat which had belonged to the saintly Jesuit Francis Borgia as a support and encouragement during the dangerous mission he was about to undertake.
Once in England, Campion had to travel frequently under cover of darkness in all weathers, from safe house to safe house, rarely staying more than twenty four hours in one place, to avoid detection and arrest. Out in all weathers, he would have needed a stout cloak to shield him from the rain and the cold. Between November 1580 and May 1581 Campion travelled hundreds of miles on horseback from Uxbridge in Middlesex through Oxfordshire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Northamptonshire, Nottingham, Derbyshire, Yorkshire and on to Lancashire. He was supported by a network of young men, led by George Gilbert, who undertook the dangerous work of conducting the priest across the country, providing him with horses, clothing and his necessary expenses. This piece of thick green wool was originally part of a cloak believed to have been used by Campion as part of his disguise as an underground missionary, and which may well have been purchased by George Gilbert for Campion’s use on his long journeys through the wind, rain and snow of an English winter.
Robert Persons SJ
Campion’s last act as a free man was to print a book on a secret press, outlining ten reasons on which he based his faith. The audacious distribution of this book in the university chapel at Oxford roused the Elizabethan authorities to greater efforts to track him down. Campion himself was aware of the pursuit, as he described in this letter
‘We cannot long escape the hands of the heretics; the enemies have so many eyes, so many tongues, so many traps. I read letters myself that in the first page tell the news that ‘Campion is captured’. This so re-echoes in my ears repeatedly now, wherever I go, that fear itself has driven out all my fear. ‘My life is ever in my own hands’… Truly the consolations intermingled with these affairs are so great, that they not only countervail the dread of punishment, but by infinite sweetness compensate for any sort of pain.’
In July 1581 he was betrayed, captured and imprisoned in the Tower.
Edmund Campion tortured on the rack in the Tower of London
He was racked several times to force out of him the names of Catholics with whom he had stayed, but he revealed nothing the government did not already know. His trial, with Fr Ralph Sherwin and Fr Alexander Briant, was a sham, and his conviction for treason a foregone conclusion.
Edmund Campion dragged to execution at Tyburn
On December 1st 1581 he was tied to a hurdle and dragged along Fleet Street to Tyburn, where he was hanged, drawn and quartered.
The executions of Campion, Briant and Sherwin
His last public words were a prayer
‘for Elizabeth your queene and my queene, unto whom I wish a long quiet raigne, with all prosperity.’
Rope relic of Edmund Campion
Perhaps the most powerful and poignant relic of Edmund Campion in this exhibition is the rope that tied him to the hurdle, on which he was dragged from the Tower to Tyburn. It seems most likely that a Catholic who attended the execution managed to smuggle away this 4-yard length of rope - or bribed the executioner to look the other way. It was presented to the Jesuit Robert Persons, who had accompanied Campion in England in 1580, but who had escaped when Campion was captured.
Robert Persons SJ
Persons wore it wrapped around his waist for the rest of his life. After his death in 1610 the rope somehow made its way to St Omers College, which had been founded by Persons in 1593, and is the direct ancestor of Stonyhurst College. This rope, with another important relic - a corporal used in the Tower by five martyred priests - is still placed on the high altar at Stonyhurst on December 1st, Campion’s feast day, every year.