Daring to defy the crown and give faith to the poor

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St. Edmund Campion
National Portrait Gallery, London, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The following essay was selected as the winner of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ religious liberty essay contest on the theme “Witnesses to Freedom.”

He was serving and feeding the poor. He was on the run from the rich and powerful. His escapades and clever tricks forged for himself a reputation as an outlaw. Yet his story is not one of worldly triumph through kingly victory but of Christian triumph through priestly defeat. Few people know the story of St. Edmund Campion in detail, though his example of standing up amid persecution ought to enshrine him as one of the most renowned martyred heroes for religious liberty in the English-speaking world.

Born in 1540, Campion was brilliant and gifted with many talents, even from a young age. His studies at Oxford once afforded him the opportunity to debate in the Queen’s own presence. After some time, he converted to Catholicism and studied to be a Catholic priest abroad, for all seminaries in England had been shuttered by the strict laws imposed to support the official state-run church. In 1580, he was admitted into the Jesuit order.

In order to cross into an England rife with anti-Catholicism, Edmund had to make a daring sea voyage across the English channel. Once on shore, he donned the first of his many disguises, and began his “treasonous” work: providing the lifesaving sacraments to the undernourished populace. He couldn’t afford to be out in the open: He operated as a fugitive would, secretly sneaking about and staying in the woods at night, for it was illegal to practice his faith. The saint moved from one safe spot to another, never tarrying at a single location longer than necessary for the spiritual well-being of England’s persecuted Catholics.

A duty to souls

Campion penned a famous response to the government’s suspicion of all the “intruding” Catholic missionaries and priests. In it, he defended his faith, and using his free conscience, spoke on how his work was that of saving souls, not politically motivated in the slightest. Another work, Decem Rationes, had to be printed secretly due to the fierceness of the persecution in England in 1581. By this point, despite only having been a priest on English soil for a couple of months, Campion the Catholic champion was already being hunted by royal spies. Yet he was “always staying one step ahead of his pursuivants … .” Being a Catholic priest was illegal at this time in this kingdom, but Campion was more than willing to run the risk of temporal punishment, rather than face a stronger, eternal spiritual punishment should he not save the souls God permitted him to minister to.

This Robin Hood sought to set things right and aid the oppressed despite the unjust laws of the English government. By summer of 1581, as Campion had yet to mark a full year back in England, his pursuers were closing in on him. Jesuits were a prime target for Queen Elizabeth’s spy network, as not only did they provide the sacraments for native Catholics, but they were also fabulously successful in spreading the Faith to those deceived by the royal religion. July would be the fateful month when Elizabeth I’s spies would finally catch their first “Seditious Jesuit.”

A criminal’s death

For months, this hero endured cruel torture, being stretched on the rack, suffering a lonely imprisonment in the “Little Ease” — a tiny cell so small he could neither stand up nor lie down — and more; yet still he refused to deny his faith or turn in any fellow “lawbreakers.” The queen herself visited the captive, valiant missionary, but promises of worldly health and wealth would not sway him either.

Finally, he was charged with treason, and another false crime: attempted regicide. The Anglican jury had to be bribed to convict the prisoner who, after various forms of torture, was “neither able to pluck off his own mitten of frieze [coarse gloves] nor lift a cup of drink to his mouth without help …” Yet despite all, he clung to the true Faith, a resolute example to any standing against a worldly power prohibiting the practice of the true Faith.

The outlaw cleric would die as the criminalized Savior whom he professed faith in: a violent, torturous execution reserved for the worst of criminals. Among Campion’s final words can be found the following: “The only thing that we have now to say is, that if our religion do make us traitors, we are worthy of being condemned; but otherwise are, and have been, as good subjects as ever the Queen had.”

So perished the first English Jesuit martyr, whose famous deeds, ordered towards the restoration of justice, are still remarkable today. Religious liberty, nonexistent in late 16th-century England, must be prized where it still exists so that the faithful today are not dependent on another Robin Hood to save the day and their souls. 

Alan Michels

Alan Michels is the winner of the 2024 U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ religious liberty essay contest.