Thursday, December 01, 2005

Tom Ashcraft on Edmund Campion (1540-1581)

If you're a good Catholic and a stalwart Son of Torquemada, you can't help loving Tom Ashcraft, the Charlotte lawyer who writes as a columnist for the Charlotte Observer (which now unfortunately requires a subscription to read his articles online). Increasingly brassy about his Catholic faith, Ashcraft has been writing solid, no-nonsense columns setting forth what it means to be truly Catholic in a world increasingly ill-disposed to hear such uncommon sense.

In the Saturday (November 26, 2005) issue of the Observer, Ashcraft offers a tribute to the English Catholic Jesuit martyr, Edmund Campion, along with a reflection on the significance of his life, entitled "A Man for a Singular Season." A subtitle highlights the significance of Campion's life and death: "Campion tried to return Catholicism to Elizabethan England."

What makes Ashcraft's piece particularly interesting is that he takes as his point of departure Stephen Greenblatt's amusing and popular book, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (Norton, 2004). One of the surprising stories he relates from the background of Shakespeare's England -- and probably obscure to many Americans -- is that of Edmund Campion and the jesuit mission to bring England back to the Catholic Faith during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603). Among other threads he explores, according to Ashcraft,
Greenblatt bases his theory on a "Catholic spiritual testament," a document possibly smuggled into England by Campion in 1580, which was found embedded in the Stratford house of Shakespeare's parents centuries later during a renovation.
This turns out, apparently, to have been a copy of what came to be known to English history as "Campion's Brag." More on this in a moment.

Edmund Campion was born in London in 1540, five years after the beheading of Sir Thomas More, now a canonized saint of the Catholic Church. A brilliant student, he studied at Oxford and was made a fellow at St. John's College there at age 17. Late in the summer of 1566, Elizabeth and her court visited St. John's, where she was received with great fanfare and entertained by a number of speeches, one of which was by Campion, who so impressed the queen that two of her closest counselors offered their patronage. In 1568 Campion was ordained a deacon in the Anglican church, following Oxford custom at the time. But his study of the church fathers led him to doubt the authenticity of Elizabeth's religious reform in Britain, and he eventually fled England to continental Europe where he joined the Jesuit order in 1573 and linked up with fellow English expatriates interested in returning England to its traditional Catholic Faith.

In 1580 the mission was launched, and Campion, together with others, slipped into London disguised as merchants. Ashcraft writes:
He did, however, announce his goals in a letter addressed to the queen's privy council in what became known as "Campion's Brag." According to Greenblatt, Campion knew it was likely he'd be caught.

"Therefore, to save everyone time and trouble," Greenblatt writes, "he offered in advance a plain confession. He had not been sent to meddle in politics; his charge was 'to preach the Gospel, to minister the Sacraments, to instruct the simple, to reform sinners, to confute errors.'"

Of himself and his fellow Jesuits, Campion said: We have made a league "cheerfully to carry the cross you shall lay upon us, and never to despar your recovery, while we have a man left to enjoy your Tyburn, or to be racked with your torments, or consumed with your prisons. The expense is reckoned, the enterprise is begun; it is of God, it cannot be withstood. So the faith was planted: so it must be restored."
At the base of Campion's letter was a plea that he be allowed to give a defense of the Catholic Faith before the privy council, the university doctors and masters, and the lawyers "spiritual and temporal." In contrast to the bloodstained face of his age, his aim was intellectual persuasion.

In the summer of 1581, after saying Mass secretly near Oxford, Campion was arrested, imprisoned in the Tower of London, and held in "Little Ease," a cell, says Ashcraft, "too small for standing or lying flat." Four days later he was transported into the presence of Elizabeth and her ministers and asked to give an accounting of himself. When asked why he had returned to England, he said he had come for the salvation of souls. Elizabeth herself asked whether he acknowledged her as his queen. According to Greenblatt, he replied: "Not only as my queen, but also as my most lawful governess." When questioned about the pope's excommunication of Elizabeth, Campion replied that these were "bloody questions, and very pharisaical, undermining my life."

He was returned to the Tower, tortured, tried for treason, hanged, drawn and quartered along with others. December 1, 2005, as Ashcraft notes, will mark the 424th anniversary of the execution of Edmund Campion, a saint in the Catholic calendar.

For further reading: one of the best, most eloquently written and dramatic accounts of Campion's life and death is that of Evelyn Waugh, Edmund Campion, "a simple, perfectly true story of heroism and holiness."

[Observer columnist Tom Ashcraft is a Charlotte lawer and a Catholic. He can be contacted at]

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