In 1566, Queen Elizabeth I visited the University of Oxford. The visit lasted six days and, although she had to listen to innumerable speeches in Latin, Greek and English, they were somewhat lightened by a few plays and presentation of degrees.
Edmund Campion, Student
On the third day, Edmund Campion, then 26 years old, spoke on the relationship of the tides and the moon – an unusual subject for a divinity student. There were strict limits to the debate topics; they were not to touch on the subject of the Queen's religion. Oxford, particularly Campion's college of St. John, was known to be pro-Catholic. In any case, Campion had taken the Oath of Supremacy which meant he regarded the Queen, and not the Pope, as the head of the English Church. When the Queen left Oxford, Campion had earned the patronage of the Earl of Leicester and some even looked on him as a possible future Archbishop of Canterbury.
After receiving deacon's orders in the Anglican Church, Campion suffered a 'remorse of conscience' and returned to Catholic doctrine. He left England for Ireland in 1569 and was to be involved in the establishment of the University of Dublin. There he wrote his 'History of Ireland', now considered an English-slanted version.
Campion's Spiritual Search
His Catholic sympathies deepened and in 1571, Campion left Ireland secretly for Douai, then in the Spanish Netherlands, now in France, where he was re-admitted to the Catholic Church and received the Eucharist for the first time in twelve years. He was granted the Bachelor of Divinity by the University of Douai in 1573 and travelled to Rome where he entered the Jesuit novitiate. The course of his life had drastically changed.
Edmund Campion, Jesuit and Priest
The Jesuit Mission to England began in 1580 for the purpose of providing English Catholics with the sacraments and Mass. It was illegal to attend Mass and everyone who did not attend the Anglican service was fined a shilling. For those clerics and officials who refused to say an oath of submission to the Queen's spiritual supremacy, the first penalty was the loss of material goods but after the third refusal the penalty was death. It was also considered high treason to reconcile anyone to the Roman Church. The enforcement of these and other rules were inconsistent and depended on informers, but clearly England was not a safe place for a Jesuit priests!
The object of the mission was for the preservation of the Faith of the Catholics in England and the Jesuits were strictly warned not to proselytize among the heretic Protestants. They were also forbidden by their Superiors to become involved in politics or the state. English Catholics were encouraged to obey the Queen in civil matters but not spiritual.
The Jesuits entered England in disguise and stayed in the houses of prominent Catholic families. Most of the houses had secret cupboards where Mass vestments, missals and Communion vessels were kept but these 'priest holes' were often large enough to hide the priest himself if there was a raid by professional priest-hunters.
At Mass at the Yate's house in Lyford, one of the priest hunters, Mr. George Eliot, had been present. After Mass he left the home and went for the magistrate at which time the three priests , including Campion, were hidden in the secret chamber. When Eliot returned with the authorities there was a thorough search and the Jesuits were found and charged.
Edmund Campion, Martyr
Campion was put in the Tower and later tortured. In the presence of the Queen he was offered a bishopric if he renounced his Catholic faith but he adamantly refused. Edmund Campion was charged on October 31 of having conspired to raise sedition in England and dethrone the Queen. He was condemned to death as a traitor and hanged on December 1, 1581.
His last words were, "In condemning us, you condemn all your own ancestors, all our ancient bishops and kings, all that was once the glory of England – the island of saints, and the most devoted child of the See of Peter."