Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1282
First published: 1935
Type of work: Novelized biography
Type of plot: Historical chronicle
Time of work: Sixteenth century
Locale: Oxford, London, Douai, Rome, Prague
Edmund Campion, an English martyr
Dr. William Allen, head of the English College at Douai
Robert Persons, Campion's classmate at Oxford
George Eliot, a priest-hunter
This book is an intelligent, sober, and admirably written biography of a man dear to the hearts of Anglo-Saxon Catholics. Evelyn Waugh has written a fine impressionistic portrait of the English martyr after whom Campion Hall at Oxford was named. Waugh warns that intolerance is a growing evil in our modern world, and martyrs may again be forced to die for their faith.
Edmund Campion, born in 1540, was one of the most promising young men at Oxford. When Elizabeth visited the university in 1566, she was so impressed by him that she assured him of her patronage. Although there was a strong Protestant group in the university, Oxford then had a population of students who were mostly Catholic in religion, for laws against Catholics were not rigidly enforced. Campion, who as proctor held a responsible position, was suspected of Catholicism, however, and was asked to make a public declaration of his principles by delivering a sermon in a suitable church. He refused, and when his term was over he left for Dublin, where he was warmly received by the Stanihurst family. A university was to be built in Dublin, and he was waiting to accept a post on its faculty. Then rebellion threatened, and all Catholics were ordered arrested. Campion managed to escape and make his way to Dousai and the English College there.
The mild restrictions against Catholics turned into persecution when the Pope issued a Bull of Excommunication against Queen Elizabeth. Because of the fear of a French-Spanish alliance against England, the Bull caused grave anxiety in England and led to reprisals against Catholics. It became illegal to hear mass, to harbor a priest, or openly to profess Catholicism.
With the Catholic bishops imprisoned, thereby preventing the ordination of priests, and with all Catholic schools closed, the faith began to die out in England. The college at Dousai sent young English priests into England to preserve the faith of the English Catholics.
Campion went to Douai and became a priest. Then he announced his intention of going to Rome entering the Society of Jesus. Although Dr. Allen, the venerable head of the college, did not like to lose him to the Jesuits, he made no objection to Campion's plans. Admitted into the Society, Campion was sent to Bohemia, where he held important posts at the University of Prague.
Dr. Allen wrote Campion a letter informing him that he was to go to England. He and a few others, including Robert Persons, who had been an undergraduate at Oxford during the time of Campion's proctorship, were to be smuggled into England, there to carry on the work of the Church. They all realized that capture meant certain death. Campion demanded that Persons be made his superior before the group departed. Though the English government had learned of the group's intentions and had all the ports guarded, the priests succeeded in getting into England.
In disguise, Campion visited the homes of various Catholics, where he said mass and brought the sacraments to the faithful who had been long without them. He wrote his famous CAMPION'S BRAG, a defense of himself and his Church, which the best minds of the Anglican Church were called upon to answer. Persons wrote his own
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, a defense of himself and his Church, which the best minds of the Anglican Church were called upon to answer. Persons wrote his ownCENSURE of the Anglican reply. Later Campion wrote his equally famous TEN REASONS.
Persecution grew more intense, with Campion the prize the government most hoped to capture. During one of his tours Campion was persuaded to stop at Lyford Grange, the home of Mr. Yate, a well-known Catholic. He stayed there briefly, warning everyone not to tell the neighbors of his presence. After his departure some neighbors heard of his visit and were distressed that they had missed the visit of Father Campion. Father Ford was sent after him and reluctantly Campion returned.
A certain George Eliot, a professional priest-hunter, stopped at Lyford Grange. He was informed by a servant, who presumed Eliot to be Catholic, that Father Campion was there. He was shown into the room where Campion was saying mass. After receiving communion from Campion, Eliot went to notify the authorities. They came at once, but all evidence of the mass had been destroyed and the priests had been hidden behind a secret panel. The guards found nothing and were preparing to go when one of the searchers happened to tap a hollow-sounding portion of the wall. The priests were discovered in a secret room.
Months of imprisonment followed. Four conferences were held at which Campion and the Anglican clergy disputed points of doctrine. Campion was tortured and finally brought to trial with some other prisoners who were charged with having plotted to murder Queen Elizabeth and with conspiring with foreign powers. But Campion insisted that their only crime was their faith. They were tried by a court that was absolutely biased. Found guilty, they were sentenced to die by hanging, and their bodies to be drawn and quartered. Father Campion and the others went to the scaffold and died the death of martyrs on December first, 1581.
Further Critical Evaluation of the Work:
Evelyn Waugh was awarded the Hawthornden Prize for EDMUND CAMPION as a work of marked distinction by an author under forty. Some critics have found Waugh's descriptions of Campion's last Mass and sermon at Lyford, his subsequent hiding with two other priests, and their final discovery and arrest among the most descriptive and dramatic passages in all his writings. Others have pointed out that the story is related with bias, and without any attempt to create a true historical atmosphere. In any case, the short novel is told simply and does relate the tragedy of a martyr in the service of Catholicism.
It is interesting to note that the novel was written shortly after Waugh's own conversion to Catholicism and reflects his search for inner peace and joy which he ultimately found in the martyred Englishman. Waugh reveals in Campion's life what the Catholic faith meant to him personally, and his book is full of reverence and complete affirmation of the Church. He held a nostalgia for the past and his romantic sense of history comes out in this novel. At the time Waugh undertook to write the novel, the Jesuits were rebuilding Campion Hall on a new site at Oxford. Waugh pledged all the royalties he received from the book to the building fund for Campion Hall.
Reviewers of the book, including most of those who were unsympathetic to the general thesis it contained, praised its style and overlooked some of the inaccurate historical details. Throughout EDMUND CAMPION there is a sense of historical continuity. The opening pages picture Elizabeth on her deathbed and reflect upon the profits and losses of her reign. Waugh glances forward many years beyond Elizabeth and then returns to the queen's encounter with the scholar, hero, and martyr, Campion. Everything is seen in the light of the "Catholic" perspective. In the last pages, the author looks historically beyond Campion, thirteen years later, and describes another martyr for the Catholic minority in England, Henry Walpole. At times, EDMUND CAMPION seems to reach beyond the boundaries of a short novelized biography, and attempt to make a larger statement about Catholicism and its struggle for survival during different periods in various places. Such a task is a large one and Waugh's efforts seem rewarded by a generally well-accepted and respected religious biography.