Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
  playwright game the show for educators
dossier players locations evidence glossary works In Search of Shakespeare - Home
« back

Edmund Campion

cross and candle
Cross and candle
It's tempting to think of Edmund Campion as a kind of "suicide preacher," dispatched by Rome to detonate an explosive Jesuit message in the midst of Elizabeth's Protestant England. If not on a "martyr mission," he must at least have known the odds were stacked against him.

Campion was a Jesuit and a gifted scholar. During his exile in Rheims and Rome, Campion had already come to the attention of Francis Walsingham's undercover agents – people like Christopher Marlowe – posing as theological students. They had prepared an "artist's impression" of Campion, which was used to identify him upon his arrival back in England on June 12th 1580, to lead a Jesuit mission.

Detained for a short time, and doubtless warned about carrying out any seditious activity by the mayor of Dover, Campion was then set free. It must be testament to the strength of his faith that he didn't simply bolt back to the safety of Rheims, and instead continued on his mission of counterreformation, linking up with several other English Jesuits, many with close links to Warwickshire.

Catholic contract and testament
Copy of the Contract and Testament
of Faith distributed by Campion
The political importance of Campion's presence in London back then would be comparable to the discovery of an Al Qaeda cell in deepest Kensington today. Campion's message was inflammatory and dangerous – from now on, it was not acceptable for Catholics to attend Protestant church even in the name of self-preservation.

Campion and his followers spread across England for a whole year, hiding in Catholic safe houses across the land, preaching their counter-revolutionary message, and generally staying a footfall ahead of the government's massed network of informers and agents. The Jesuit mission spread pamphlets, declarations of faith, and the kind of testament later found in the home of John Shakespeare – a kind of oath of allegiance to Catholicism and Campion's mission.

Unable to get enough printed materials sent over from Rheims, Campion encouraged hand copied versions to be made and also set up a printing press in the Chilterns to publish copies of anti-government pamphlets – a similar act of intellectual rebellion to Samizdat, the underground printing of anti-Communist materials in Soviet-era Russia.

Not long after, in 1581, Campion and his fellow Jesuits were captured. Campion was comprehensively tortured and, despite mounting a defiant and intelligent defence, was hanged, drawn and quartered in December 1581. Repercussions swept across the land with known attendees of Campion's masses imprisoned, fined, bullied or seen to suddenly succumb to mysterious fatal illnesses.

Relics from Campion's death – a blood-stained cloth, a knife, and, erm... a finger – can still be seen in shrines in Lancashire.

Campion's last defiant speech, as he was sentenced to death, included these poignant lines:

"In condemning us, you condemn all your ancestors, all the ancient bishops and kings, all that was once the glory of England."

The Player

Edmund Campion portrait
In your state
« back  
©MayaVision International, 2003 (site credits) (site feedback)