Arts & Books Comment

The martyr who haunted Elizabeth I

The author believes that the Queen had a covert meeting with Edmund Campion (Photo: PA)

Of all the Elizabethan martyrs undoubtedly the most illustrious is St Edmund Campion. A deeply holy and internationally respected academic, he might have in another age achieved sainthood through the scholarly contribution he would have made to the life of the Church and to wider society. But in the bloody turbulence of the Protestant Reformation, “the greater glory of God” would for him be found in a via crucis involving the torture chamber of the Tower of London and the scaffold of Tyburn.

It is odd that a man of such exemplary virtue and learning became the subject of more torture warrants than any other person in English history. His torture, along with his public execution in December 1581, scandalised Europe and was the subject of controversy for decades, haunting Elizabeth until her death in 1603.

There have been several great biographies about “England’s Diamond”, most notably those by Evelyn Waugh and Richard Simpson. This new biography is a worthy addition to the canon. Kilroy gives us a superbly detailed portrait of the character and qualities that made Campion so highly respected and offers a vivid insight into his spiritual life.

Throughout Kilroy is at pains to emphasise the saint’s distaste for meddling in the politics and power struggles of his age. This appears to include some papal interventions, given that Campion disagreed with Regnans in excelsis, the over-reaching Bull of Pope St Pius V which excommunicated Elizabeth and made her regime so murderously paranoid about Catholic agitation for what we today call “regime change”. It is here that Kilroy moves beyond hagiography and guides us through the motivations of both the English Catholics who were taking huge risks to cling to their faith and the authorities desperate to expunge it.

Perhaps more than in any previous biography, Kilroy connects Campion’s fate to Dr Nicholas Sander’s Catholic rebellion in Ireland and the fear of it spreading to other parts of the realm, and also to the domestic Protestant hostile reaction to the courtship of Elizabeth by the Duke of Anjou, a French Catholic.

He dismisses some tired historic prejudices, such as those expressed most recently in God’s Traitors by Jesse Childs, that Campion was something of a headcase who wreaked havoc in the lives of ordinary Catholics by insisting on total recusancy.

Certainly, Campion upheld the policy, but it was neither his nor the Jesuits’, having been already agreed by a convocation of leading secular priests and lay people. Rather, Campion came out of religious obedience to minister the sacraments and preach the Gospel to the Catholics of England but was ensnared by events often beyond his knowledge, let alone his control.

For Kilroy, Campion was never a traitor, a point emphasised by his conclusion that Campion met Elizabeth in secret and acknowledged her to be his true sovereign. Kilroy believes she offered him an archbishopric if he would serve in her established Church. Days afterwards, he was condemned as a traitor by a regime which had no way of answering his arguments. Elizabeth, for her part, disowned his trial and execution, blaming it on her Privy Council.

She also said that she did not believe the priests coming into England were traitors, but nevertheless saw them as servants of her enemies; the state would make no distinction therefore between their pastoral ministry and rebellion. Campion’s martyrdom, meanwhile, invigorated the Catholic cause, and the fear this instilled in the regime led to the reign of terror that lasted decades.

This article first appeared in the March 4 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To download the entire issue for free with our new app, go here