St. Edmund Campion

I’ve mentioned good St. Edmund several times now in these pages. It was on this day in 1581 that he was martyred by Queen Elizabeth’s men.

Here is what I wrote some time ago after finishing the wonderful biography written by Evelyn Waugh:

“Reading the life of St. Edmund Campion, …, I have come to find many things about the man with which I relate. For one, we both very much love the passage in Scripture wherein Christ states that He has ‘come to set the world on fire. Oh how I wish it were already ablaze.’ This line has always meant a great deal to me if for no other reason than simply that it shows something of the vulnerability of Our Lord. There is regret in these words.

“Campion also had a penchant for arguing, which I must admit I have as well, to a fault at times. Campion had desired a quiet life of scholarly pursuit, something for which I can only dream.

“The similarities between Campion and I do end, though, and they end quickly when I begin to read the mission which he undertook and the brutality of the work of Queen Elizabeth and her men. He was a Jesuit priest determined to return to England and minister to the faithful Catholics who remained under the persecution of the crown. Would I have ever been able to do what he did? It is an impossible question to answer, but it is related to the question of what I am willing to do for Our Lord here and now. Reading Campion and the tortures, the killings, the hangings, the beheadings, etc. it all makes lack of sleep seem a rather puny sacrifice to make.”

One of many puny sacrifices I can assure you.

While on the radio this morning, speaking about St. Edmund, I mentioned some of the conditions of the English Catholic at the time of Queen Elizabeth and the purges of the 1580’s. Take note of the the following:

If you were caught hearing a Catholic Mass, i.e. caught attending the Sacred Liturgy, you would be fined £66 13s. and 4p and could go to jail for a year. That’s 1581 currency. With the help of this ingenious website, I’ve converted that sum to modern English coinage and then made the exchange into American dollars. The fine, then, for being caught going to Mass would be the equivalent of $21,000. That’s not all.

If you were caught hearing Mass you probably weren’t at the Anglican service that same Sunday morning. The penalty for NOT attending the Anglican service was £20. That’s roughly $6,400…for every person in your household sixteen years of age or older who didn’t show up to Anglican services. Evelyn Waugh estimates that if you were a household of at lest four persons at the age of sixteen or older, and you managed to stay out of jail, you could face a fine of up to £15,500 a year. That’s roughly $4.96 million in today’s money.

Being Catholic at the time of St. Edmund Campion was no small business. There were no cultural Catholics or cafeteria Catholics back then. Being Catholic meant death and persecution. It was a different time.

The puny sacrifices of our day, in the plush luxury of American modern life, are obscenely indicative of just how far we have gotten away from the visceral faith of our fathers. This time of Advent ought to have us quietly and organically realizing the growth of the Christ child in our lives, who is gently demanding that we meet his gaze and hear his call. Instead, we are deafened by the promise of cheaper knick-knacks for the ones we love. God help us, but the last thing we need is the distraction of a 30% off sale. What we need is Christ Jesus and a relationship with him that can draw us out of our stupor and embrace the excruciatingly brutal life of quiet, gentle, humble, open love. God help us indeed.

St. Edmund Campion, pray for us.

I’ll leave with a poem written by a Thomas Pounde, a Jesuit brother contemporary with St. Edmund, who wrote the following upon hearing of the death of his brother Jesuit, and with an image of St. Edmund’s martyrdom. The image is rather gruesome. So I caution the faint of heart. Thanks to Hieronymopolis for supplying the text of the poem.

What iron heart that would not melt in grief?
what steel or stone could keep him dry from tears?
to see a Campion hailed like a Thief,
to end his life, with both his glorious peers.
in whose three deaths unto the standers by :
even all the world almost might seem to die.

England must lose a sovereign salve for sin
a sweet receipt for subtle Heresy :
India a Saint her silly souls to win,
Turkey a bane for her idolatry.
the Church a soldier against Babylon :
to batter hell and her confusion.

The scowling skies did storm and puff apace,
they could not bear the wrong that malice wrought,
the sun drew in his shining purple face,
the moistened clouds shed brinish tears for thought,
the river Thames awhile astonished stood
to count the drops of Campion’s sacred blood.

Nature with tears bewailed her heavy loss,
honesty feared herself should shortly die,
religion saw her champion on the cross,
angels and saints desired leave to cry,
even heresy the eldest child of hell,
began to blush, and thought she did not well.

And yet behold when Campion made his end,
his Humble heart was so bedewed with grace,
that no reproach could once his mind offend,
mildness possessed his sweet and cheerful face,
a patient spectacle was presented then,
in sight of God, of angels, saints, and men.

The heavens did clear, the sun like gold did shine,
the clouds were dry, the fearful river ran,
nature and virtue wept their watered eyen,
religion joyed to see so mild a man,
men, angels, saints, and all that saw him die,
forgot their grief, his joys appeared so nigh.

They saw his patience did expect a crown,
his scornful cart a glorious heavenly place.
his lowly mind a happy high reknown,
his humble cheer a shining angel’s face,
his fear, his grief, his death & agony,
a joy, a peace, a life in majesty.

From thence he prays and sings in melody
for our recure, and calleth us to him,
he stands before the throne with harmony,
and is a glorious suture for our sin.
with wings of love he jumped up so high,
to help the cause for which he sought to die.

Rejoice, be glad, triumph, sing hymns of joy,
Campion, Sherwin, Brian, live in bliss,
they sue, they seek the ease of our annoy,
they pray, they speak, and all effectual is,
not like to men on earth as heretofore,
but like to saints in heaven, and that is more.


Transcribed by E.T.H. III from A true reporte on the death & martyrdome of M. Campion, iesuite and preiste, & M. Sherwin, and M. Bryan preistes, at Tiborne the first of December 1581, observid and written by a Catholique preist, wich was present thereat.