Edmund Campion: A more than academic English martyr
Though I am intimately acquainted with an apparently inexhaustible capacity for missed opportunities, sometimes I amaze even myself. The other evening I was looking for new Lenten reading on our book shelves, and I stumbled across an inspiring cloth-bound copy of Evelyn Waugh’s biography of Edmund Campion, the great Jesuit martyr in England under Queen Elizabeth. First appearing in 1935, this was published anew by Ignatius Press in 2005. Very likely I have owned it for nearly that long. Yet I did not remember it was there, and I had never read it.
Campion’s intelligence, wit and scholarly attainments were well-known by the time the Queen visited Oxford and heard the 26-year-old’s masterful Latin speech in her honor: “I am speaking in the name of Philosophy, the princess of letters, before Elizabeth, the lettered princess.” This was in 1566, when Campion’s rather worldly star was rapidly ascending. By 1581, as a Jesuit priest, he had been hung and butchered as a traitor for the crime of nourishing the faith of Catholics in England. His heavenly star had reached its zenith. Though physically broken, he had remained calm, confident, truthful and eloquent to the end.
Were we not so familiar with the butchery of abortion and the horrors of both war and human trafficking even today, it would be almost impossible in our time to imagine the physical savagery with which even Christians dispatched their enemies a few hundred years ago. Oddly, this offers a sharp contrast to the refined brilliance of sixteenth-century English letters. Shakespeare was born when Campion was twenty-four. Campion himself was a remarkable prose stylist, in addition to being quite capable of speaking off-the-cuff as if he had already carefully drafted and even corrected his remarks—an achievement demonstrated in extracts from his trial.
It is fitting, then, that the magnificent prose stylist Evelyn Waugh should have been Campion’s biographer in the twentieth century. Waugh’s most famous work, Brideshead Revisited, is a joy as much for the brilliance of the writing as for the deftly personal treatment of its very serious characters. In much the same way, Edmund Campion: A Life engages the reader fully at every level of the storyteller’s craft. The book is divided into four powerful chapters: The Scholar, The Priest, The Hero, The Martyr. This is Waugh’s telling outline of Edmund Campion’s life.
It’s a remarkable story. Campion had to check his early tendency of going along to get along—the tendency toward a life of pure wit and exquisite manners, but without significant meaning. He had already secured considerable patronage for his brilliance before he realized how much he needed truth. It is the purpose of the first section of the book to mark this academic transition, just as it is the purpose of the second to describe Campion’s progress from when he began studying for the priesthood until he solidified his vocation within the Society of Jesus
The third part chronicles the excitement of his forbidden underground ministry to Catholics in England. And this, upon his exposure and capture, leads directly to the closing section of the book which covers his imprisonment, trial and execution. This prolonged agony included carefully arranged public disputations with his enemies along the way, for which he was denied both the health and the books necessary for preparation, in an effort to show him up as a venal, self-serving fraud.
But the disputations, at least, he had asked for. In the first of two brief appendices, we find “Campion’s Brag”, a short text in which, should he be captured, he had set forth his purposes and challenged his enemies to allow him to argue before them for the one true Faith. You can listen to James T. Majewski’s reading of this famous testament in Catholic Culture Audiobooks, and if you doubt Campion’s style, try this:
I would be loth to speak anything that might sound of any insolent brag or challenge, especially being now as a dead man to this world and willing to put my head under every man’s foot, and to kiss the ground they tread upon. Yet have I such a courage in avouching the Majesty of Jhesus my King, and such affiance in his gracious favour, and such assurance in my quarrel, and my evidence so impregnable, and because I know perfectly that no one Protestant, nor all the Protestants living, nor any sect of our adversaries (howsoever they face men down in pulpits, and overrule us in their kingdom of grammarians and unlearned ears) can maintain their doctrine in disputation. I am to sue most humbly and instantly for the combat with all and every of them, and the most principal that may be found: protesting that in this trial the better furnished they come, the better welcome they shall be.
Waugh’s is not a scholarly or academic biography. It is rather, as the novelist Graham Green remarked, “a model of what a short biography should be”. In the Preface to the first edition, the author explains that he has deliberately chosen to avoid excessive notes as well, offering references only where “the actual words of a document are quoted, or where the point is likely to be controversial.” The second appendix provides what was at that time a list of the most readily available sources on which Waugh relied for his research.
Waugh himself acknowledged that a true scholar’s study of Campion would be most welcome. In the Preface to the second edition in 1946, he explained: “This is not it. All I have done is select the incidents which struck a novelist as important, and relate them in a single narrative.” Waugh wanted his biography to be “read as a simple, perfectly true story of heroism and holiness.” It is just this that makes Edmund Campion: A Life such a compelling and important book.
Campion was beatified by Leo XIII in 1896, and canonized by St. Paul VI in 1970 as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales (celebrated on May 4th). Campion’s personal feast day is December 1st, the date of his martyrdom.
To purchase: Evelyn Waugh, Edmund Campion: A Life: Ignatius Press 2012, 220pp, paper, $15.26.
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