One of the diamonds of England and of the Church
It was, perhaps, the most intensive manhunt in English history. At the end, in July, 1581, the brilliant English Jesuit scholar, Edmund Campion, was betrayed at Lyford, near Oxford, and imprisoned in the Tower of London.
Edmund Campion was then 41 years old. Since 1573, he had been a member of the Jesuit Order, founded in 1534 by St. Ignatius Loyola, and he had been a priest since 1578. But the significance of his arrest and of his later execution lies not so much in these facts as in his character and in the upheaval and turmoil caused by the Reformation.
Campion was a brilliant scholar and author. An Oxford don, and a deacon in the Church of England before becoming a Jesuit, he wrote an important History of Ireland as well as dozens of brochures, articles, and plays. The precision of his research, the clarity of his thoughts the elegance of his manner and the fine brilliance of his critical mind had won for him rave reviews and reports from every quarter. According to Queen Elizabeth I's chief minister, William Cecil, he was "one of the diamonds of England."
In 1570 he had been received into the Roman Catholic Church and had gone to the English College in Douai, France. There he became the friend, assistant, and encouraging colleague of the two scholars who prepared the Douai Bible, the most accurate English translation of the Scriptures that had then appeared. In 1580, because of what Cardinal Allen, the leader of the English Catholic Church, called "his extraordinary gifts of wisdom and grace,'' he had been chosen to return to his native land to strengthen and settle the Church's ministry there.
Some 35 years after King Henry VIII's break with the papacy, England was still deeply divided. The atmosphere was one of civil and religious upheaval, of fear, of bitterness, of treachery and intolerance. It was an age of martyrs on both sides - since Henry's day, and the deaths of Saints Thomas More and John Fisher; since the days of his daughter Queen Mary I, and the deaths of the Anglican Bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley.
In 1580 Queen Elizabeth I, as ''Supreme Governor'' of the Church of England, was still pursuing a policy of including within her church as broad as possible a spectrum of opinion, from that of the Puritans, the strongest partisans of Protestant reform, to that of the Roman Catholics, who were still the predominant force. However, since 1570 when St. Pius V's excommunication of her had released her Catholic subjects from their allegiance, the Queen had had to rely more and more for support on the Protestant party, and eventually to take retaliatory steps against the Catholics. By the time of Campion's return, the atmosphere far Catholics had, in his own words, become one in which there was "no other talk but of death, flight, prison, or spoil of friends."
St. Edmund preached extensively in London and in Lancashire, and as a hunted priest he composed his last and most famous work, a little, 20,000 word polemical volume of Catholic doctrine. He wrote it in elegant Livian style and copiously annotated it with scriptural references and footnotes. And although he had to write without his sources at hand and to quote from memory, he made sure, in days and weeks of rewriting and proofreading, that there was not in the whole opus the vestige of a single misstatement. When the work hit the admiring halls of Oxford, officials of the Establishment Church had little choice but to decide irrevocably that he must be made to recant, or be got.
He did not, and so he was.
The XVIth century held all the excitement, style, scholarship and humanism of the high Renaissance. It has all the ordeals, uncertainties, sufferings and hardships of the Reformation. By his execution and death, St. Edmund Campion, like all the persecuted victims of his age, showed that in different times, ways and places, Christians still answered as generously as in the first three centuries to the greatest call of love: to give one's life for one's friends.