Steadfast to the end

1 December marks the Feast of St Edmund Campion, we remember his courage in standing up for Catholics in the Anglican era of Elizabethan England.


By Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ

Edmund Campion was the first of many Jesuits to be executed in Elizabethan England. The influence of the Renaissance had led to an extraordinary flourishing of culture, particularly reflected in the written word. People lived, wrote and often died with high style. Sir Walter Raleigh was a typical example – he was an adventurer, soldier, courtier and a fine poet.

Among the Jesuits who died as martyrs in England, Edmund Campion, Henry Walpole and Robert Southwell also wrote, lived and died with a distinctive style. Campion, born in 1540, had been a brilliant university student and teacher and had been destined for a high position in the Anglican Church. He then became a Catholic and joined the Jesuits in Europe. After being chosen for the English mission to English Catholics, he travelled secretly to England and would surreptitiously visit Catholics, hearing confession at night and celebrating Mass in the morning before moving on again. After his capture he was imprisoned, tortured so severely that he lost the use of an arm, and was then executed in 1581.

Henry Walpole, whose Jesuit calling was instilled in him when attending Campion’s execution, also studied abroad and was sent to England. He was captured on landing in Scotland, was tortured, spent a long time in solitary confinement and executed. Robert Southwell, who came from a well-connected family, worked secretly as a priest for some years, but suffered the same imprisonment, torture and death. Both died in their mid-thirties.

Campion was not a poet, but the peroration of his Letter to the Privy Council, caricatured by his critics as a “Brag”, comes close to it in the rhythm and power of the writing:

“And touching our Society, be it known to you that we have made a league—all the Jesuits in the world, whose succession and multitude must overreach all the practice of England—cheerfully to carry the cross you shall lay upon us, and never to despair 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.”

The writing has a distinctive style. It is proud, dauntless, celebratory, evangelical in its proclamation of the Gospel and realistic about the consequences of its publication. Its defiant and reckless content was matched by the daring of its surreptitious distribution that eluded the efficient Government spies. Though addressed to the Privy Council, its primary purpose was to encourage the persecuted and often disheartened Catholics in England. Writing, whether prose or poetry, was a central part of the Jesuits’ mission.

The contrast between the high-spirited Brag and the exigencies of a life with few resources while evading spies, and likely to end in imprisonment and execution which awaited Campion and the other Jesuits, could not have been higher. The dirt and darkness of gaols, the little and bad food, the routine of torture and time to dread it, the indignity of being dragged along the roads to the place of execution, being hanged and sliced up while still alive for the entertainment of a crowd, and knowing that your head and other bodily parts could be exhibited around the city – all these things were designed to annihilate a person’s humanity and to terrify and deter others.

Like Manus Island and Nauru in our day, they were part of the theatre of deterrence. But because they were theatre, Jesuits could handle them in style by imitating Jesus in defending their mission and forgiving their killers. Campion prayed and prepared to address the crowd before his execution but was cut short. Walpole asked the crowd to pray with him. Southwell prayed for the Queen and spoke to the crowd at some length.

Henry Walpole wrote and had printed his long poem about Edmund Campion before he became a Jesuit. Its publication immediately after Campion’s death had its publisher arrested. It was also written to persuade a public audience and to reassure Catholics. It drew a response from Anthony Munday, a supporter of the Government, also in verse. Both focused on Campion’s death. Walpole depicted it as a triumph after the example of Jesus, and Munday as a shameful and disgraceful end. Compared to Campion’s Brag Walpole’s poem is pedestrian, but it presents a similar sense of both poetry and life as performance of the Gospel.

The Tower says, the truth he did defend, 
The Bar bears witness of his guiltless mind, 
Tyburn doth tell, he made a patient end. 
In every gate his martyrdom we find. 
In vain you wrought, that would obscure his name, 
For heaven and earth will still record the same.

Robert Southwell has increasingly been recognised as a significant and influential Elizabethan poet, on whose work Shakespeare and other contemporaries drew. William Byrd also set some of his poems to music. During his time in London, he also wrote to strengthen the faith of Catholics through controversial and devotional writing and collections of his poems for Catholics. He is perhaps best known for his poem ‘The Burning Babe’. It is a Christmas poem, unsentimental and almost harsh in imagery that emphasises the cost of salvation coming from the infant Christ. For Christians, Christmas was not just about the celebration of the innocence of Jesus’ birth but about following him in the pattern of his life, death and rising again. Always central in it is the cost of discipleship.

This is also caught in Southwell’s ‘New Heaven, New War’

With tears he fights and wins the field, 
His naked breast stands for a shield; 
His battering shot are babish cries, 
His arrows made of weeping eyes, 
His martial ensigns cold and need, 
And feeble flesh his warrior’s steed.

This rhetoric of strength and weakness can also be seen in another of Southwell’s poems, ‘Christ’s Bloody Sweat’, which anticipates the style of the later Jesuit, Gerard Manley Hopkins, in its clipped rhythm, joy in the natural world, and focus on the humiliation accepted by Christ in his passion at its centre.

Fat soil, full spring, sweet olive, grape of bliss,
That yields, that streams, that pours, that dost distil,
Untilled, undrawn, unstamped, untouched of press,

Dear fruit, clear brooks, fair oil, sweet wine at will:
Thus Christ unforced prevents in shedding blood
The whips, the thorns, the nails, the spear, and rood.

Poetry and high rhetoric allowed the Elizabethan Jesuit martyrs to commend to other Catholics and to a wider audience a style that represented the joy and largeness of their mission. It was built around the following of Jesus in sharing humiliation and in the joy of his rising.

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ was recently made a life member of the Australasian Catholic Press Association.