Salvete, Flores Martyrum!
In the morning of that day, St Edmund Campion was taken from his cell in the Tower of London to the Coldharbour Prison, where he was joined by Ss Ralph Sherwin and Alexander Briant. According to an eye-witness, the day was rainy and cold and the streets were muddy from days of typical English rain. Two horses were standing ready, each harnassed to a hurdle, the rectangular wooden frame on which 'traitors', bound head downwards, were dragged to the gallows. Campion was tied to one, his companion martyrs to the other. Then they were pulled slowly through the damp and dirt of Cheapside, past Newgate, and finally along Holborn to Tyburn. An Anglican minister followed along, still trying to persuade then to renounce the Holy Catholic Faith and embrace the new religion. At Newgate Arch was a statue of Our Lady, overlooked by the Anglican iconoclasts and St Edmund bent his head upwards in salute.
As he proceeded on this via dolorosa, Catholics jostled through the crowd to ask his blessing and even his advice "in cases of conscience and religion"! Some wiped the mud from his face, even as Veronica ministered to the Lord. At last, they arrived in Tyburn where "an infinite multitude of people" and the Lords of the Privy Council had gathered to watch the execution of the man who was England's 'Public Enemy No.1'.
The mud-spattered Campion was first to mount the cart beneath the gibbet. His neck was placed in the noose. The crowd roared, so that only the first rows heard him speak: "I am a Catholic man and a priest: in that faith have I lived and in that faith do I intend to die. And if you esteem my religion treason, then I am guilty. As for any other treason, I never commited, God is my judge..." The executioners replied: "In your 'Catholicism' all treasons are contained!" A proclamation was then read that Campion was to be executed for treason.
An Anglican minister came forward and asked St Edmund to pray with him, but he said: "You and I are not one in religion, wherefore I pray you, content yourself. I bar none of prayer, only I desire them that are of the household of the Faith to pray with me, and in my agony to say one Creed." He then proceeded to pray the Nicene Creed in Latin, echoing the Dominican saint Peter Martyr's last act.
As the cart was drawn away, Campion uttered his last words: "I die a perfect Catholic."
He was left dangling for a while. As he began to choke, while still alive, he was cut down for the next degrading stage of his sentence: his "privy parts cut off". Next, his bowels were hooked out "and burnt in [his] sight". Finally his head was cut off and his body "divided in four parts, to be disposed of at her Majesty's pleasure." This infamous penalty of being 'hung, drawn and quartered' was meted out to most of the hundreds of English Catholic martyrs who met their end at Tyburn and other sites.
He was canonized along with forty others in 1970 by Pope Paul VI and a convent now stands near the site of his execution, a fitting place of prayer and Catholic worship at the gallows where so many received the crown of martyrdom for the One True Faith.
St Edmund was born on 25 January 1540 in London, in Paternoster Row, the road near St Paul's Cathedral and so called because rosaries were made here. His father was a bookseller and interestingly, devotional books were also sold on this street. He grew up in the shadow of the old St Paul's and would most likely have attended Mass there with his two brothers and sister. He was educated first at a London grammar school and then at Christ's Hospital. Here he flourished, winning every academic debate in which he took part. Such a fine speaker was he that at the age of 13, he was chosen to make the scholar's address to Queen Mary when she rode through the City to the Tower.
Although at this time, Edmund learnt to go to confession and attend Mass, Mary's reign was short-lived and when Elizabeth came to the throne, he had to start re-learning Protestantism again as he had under the reign of Edward VI. At the age of 15, he won a place at the newly-founded St John's College in Oxford and at 17 he became a Junior Fellow. At the age of 24 in 1564, he took his degree and became a Fellow of St John's. In 1566, the Queen came to visit and Campion impressed the Queen immensely in a series of set debates in Latin and Greek as well as an impromptu debate which he won.
Edmund's good looks, charm and brilliance made him popular and admired and his students copied his dress and mannerisms. Now that the Queen had noticed him, he was summoned to her Court where he again dazzled her with his eloquence. He was called "one of the diamonds of England." However, he continued his studies in Oxford and read the Fathers in particular. Although it was said that he was being groomed to become Archbishop of Canterbury, he was inevitably drawn to the Truth of the works he was studying and he began to have doubts about the reformed Church of England. In 1568 he was a Procter at Oxford University and when he was asked to make a public profession of Anglican faith, he was unable to do so, and resigned his studentship at Oxford. For some reason though, in 1570, Campion was ordained a deacon in the Church of England, making his financially secure but this was to be his greatest regret. In the same year, he went to Dublin and then was persuaded by his Oxford contemporary and friend, Gregory Martin (a translator of the famed Douai-Rheims Bible) to join him in Douai, in the Spanish Netherlands.
So, around this time, he left for Douai and joined the English College there, a seminary for the education of exiled English Catholic youth and the traning of priests for the 'mission' in England. It was founded in 1568 by Cardinal Allen with help from the Cardinal of Milan, St Charles Borromeo. Incidentally, that was the first seminary to be founded after the Council of Trent and its successors survive on English soil.
In 1573, Campion was ordained a subdeacon in the Catholic Church at Douai. In Spring, he walked barefoot and alone to Rome and there in April, he joined the Society of Jesus (which was founded in 1534) as a postulant. In 1578, St Edmund Campion was ordained priest and said his First Mass on 8 September, Our Lady's birthday. He began lecturing in Prague but in 1579 Campion and a fellow Jesuit called Robert Parsons were chosen to lead a nine-man mission to England. The focus of the mission was "to advance in the Faith all who are found to be Catholics and to bring back to it whoever may have strayed from it." This was a pastoral mission of ultimate importance; for the salvation of souls. As Campion said in an oration in Douai: "Numberless souls are being deceived, are being shaken, are being lost..."
On 25 March 1580, Campion left Prague for England, resigned that if he were caught he would be hanged as a traitor in his own country. Indeed, the eve of his departure from the Continent, a fellow priest had inscribed above the door of his cell: P. Edmundus Campianus Martyr. A few days before, another priest had painted a garland of roses and lilies, emblem of martyrdom, on the wall above his bed! Similarly, St Philip Neri would hail the students of the English College in Rome with the words: "Hail, flowers of Martyrs!"
On 24 June 1580, Campion and Ralph Emerson landed at Dover and were able to make for London. St Edmund Campion ministered to Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire. It was estimated that by this time, there were at least 150 Douai priests on the mission in England! Parsons writes that the English Catholics assisted at the Holy Mass with sighs and tears of joy, that they showed "devotion and reverence" for the Pope and "wonderful fortitude of soul that makes them ready to undergo any labour for the cause of religion." Clearly there was a large Catholic populace to be served. Writing back to the Rector of the English College, Parsons and Campion were of the opinion (based on their work in the field) that seminarians should be trained to preach well. This was because Campion believed that the Anglicans used violence for fear they would be beaten in debate!
In December 1580, the torture of priests was allowed by law and on a trip from Lancashire to London, Campion wrote his 'Ten Reasons' which aimed to highlight Protestant heresies. It was secretly printed and covertly distributed in Oxford in June 1581. Three weeks later, on Monday 17 July 1581, St Edmund Campion was arrested in Lyford Grange, a farmhouse in Berkshire. He was called there to say a Mass - his last, as it turned out - where he preached on the text: 'O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets.' The farmhouse was searched by an officer of the Crown and Edmund was found, bound and taken to the Tower of London and imprisoned.
St Edmund requested and (surprisingly) was granted a chance to defend his 'Ten Reasons' during a series of conferences in the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower. Under the watchful eye of the Bishop of London, he engaged Anglicans and Protestants in debate. Clearly he won the argument but all who said so in public were imprisoned and reports of the conferences were censored. A Stephen Vallenger, who published an uncensored version was pilloried twice, deprived of his ears and imprisoned for life! In the course of these debates, Edmund had actually won over St Philip Howard, Earl of Arundel who later renounced his Anglican faith and was martyred in 1595.
Throughout all this, St Edmund was periodically racked and finally on 31 October 1581, he was so harshly tortured that it became clear that they meant to kill him. On 14 November, Campion and others were indicted before a Grand Jury; St Edmund had been so severely racked that someone had to hold his hand up for him when he pleaded not guilty to the charge of conspiring to "subvert and destroy the state of the whole commonwealth of the realm".
Of course he was found guilty and so, his fate was sealed and his execution date was set. One of those who observed St Edmund's death was Henry Walpole, a lawyer who had been present at the debates in the Tower. He was so close to St Edmund at the execution that as the saint was being quartered, a spot of blood splashed onto Henry's coat. Inspired to write a poem about Campion, he entered the seminary at Rheims in July 1582 and then the Society of Jesus in 1583. Twelve years later, he too was martyred for the faith in York and was executed in the same way as St Edmund Campion and raised with him to the altars of the Church in 1970.
Today, the anniversary of his martyrdom, we remember St Edmund Campion and his companion martyrs. We do so, not in a polemical way, but in order to honour the integrity of their lives and their witness to the Truth. It is vital that we continue to remember the sacrifices made by St Edmund and the English martyrs so that the Church in England is watered by their blood and bears fruit. To forget, or relativize or ignore their witness would be akin to a condemnation of what they stood for and be gross ingratitude... And as St Edmund Campion himself explains:
"It was not our deaths that ever we feared... The only thing we have now to say is, that if our religion do make us traitors, we are worthy to be condemned; but otherwise are and have been as true subjects as ever the Queen had. 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."
I am indebted to the CTS booklet 'Edmund Campion' by Alexander Haydon for much of the above.
The stained glass images above, from the Church of Our Lady and English Martyrs, Cambridge, are of St Edmund Campion, St Ralph Sherwin (with two companion martyrs) and St Alexander Briant, in that order.