Edmund Campion was a scholar at Oxford University under the patronage of Queen Elizabeth I's court favorite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Campion's studies of theology, church history, and the church fathers led him away from the positions taken by the Church of England, and eventually his position at Oxford became untenable since he could not make the appropriate gestures of adherence to the established church. Instead, Campion retreated from Oxford to Dublin in 1569, where he drew less attention and enjoyed the protection of Sir Henry Sidney, Lord Deputy for Ireland, and the patronage of Sir James Stanihurst, Speaker of the Irish House of Commons, who planned to have Campion participate in the founding of what was to become Trinity College in Dublin.
During this period a number of significant events took place. In 1568, the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, was driven from her realm into England, where she came under the protection and custody of the English Crown. Immediately after came the rebellion of the northern Earls in the winter of 1569, who sought to place Mary on the English throne. Then, in the spring of 1570, Pope Pius V issued a hull excommunicating Queen Elizabeth and releasing her subjects from their obligation of obedience to her. After the death of Pius V, an inquiry to Rome regarding this bull elicited the response that "as long as the Queen [Elizabeth] remained de facto ruler, it was lawful for Catholics to obey her in civil matters and cooperate in all just things... that it was unlawful for any private person, not wearing uniform and authorized to do so as an act of war, to slay any tyrant whatsoever, unless the tyrant, for example, had invaded his country in arms" (Waugh, p. 94-95).
In short, English Catholics were rejoined to follow the path of Sir Thomas More, being the Crown's loyal servant in all matters save religion. However, as Waugh concedes, "It was possible to deduce from this decision that the [English] Catholics were a body of potential rebels,who only waited for foreign invasion to declare themselves". This was the sense in which William Cecil, Lord Treasurer and the Queen's most trusted councillor, read it, for he was reluctant to admit the possibility of anyone being both a patriotic Englishman and an opponent of his regime (Waugh p. 95). The English government then enacted laws more restrictive to English Catholics. In 1570, the year of the Papal Bull, it was made an act of high treason, punishable by death, to bring into the country "any bull, writing, or instrument obtained from the Bishop of Rome" or "to absolve or reconcile" any of the Queen's subjects to the Bishop of Rome (Waugh p. 117).
In this atmosphere even Dublin became dangerous for Campion. He fled Ireland for Belgium in Jun of 1572, arriving at the English College founded by exiled English Catholics in Douai. The next year he went on to Rome to join the Society of Jesus. After training in Vienna, he became Professor of Rhetoric at the new Jesuit University in Prague, where he was ordained a priest in the Society of Jesus in 1578 (Waugh p. 81-84). It was in Prague in 1580 that he received the call to return to England to minister to English Catholics (More p.72-73). During his ministry, which lasted from the summer of 1580 to the summer of 1581, Campion traveled from town to town in disguise, passing via an underground network of English Catholics, offering the Mass and other Church sacraments to Catholics. He was arrested in the town of Lyford by English authorities, with the assistance of a paid informant, in Jul 1581, and conveyed to the Tower of London.
Since his ministry had attracted a great deal of public attention, the government initially made an effort to persuade Campion to abandon his faith. Failing that, it made a second effort to discredit him. Four times in Sep, Campion was brought from his dungeon in the Tower for public "conferences," at which scholars and clergymen representing the Crown and the Church of England disputed with him in an effort to best him intellectually. William Cecil, Lord Burghley and First Secretary Sir Francis Walsingham, Burghley's spymaster, also sought to taint Campion with the brush of treason by maintaining that the primary goal of his mission was to incite the English to rebel against Queen Elizabeth and replace her with Mary, Queen of Scots. While Campion's ministry was in itself, by English law, sufficient for the death penalty (in that he offered Mass and heard confessions), the government preferred to show that his ministry also involved stirring English Catholics to rebellion. Finally, on Nov 20th, a trial was held in which Campion and seven other Catholics taken with him were charged with treason. Suitable witnesses endeavored to make the label of traitor stick; the trial ended in a guilty verdict, and Campion was executed by hanging at Tyburn on Dec 1, 1581.
English government wanted to convict Campion not for his religion but for treason against the Crown; specifically, for plotting the assassination or overthrow of Queen Elizabeth I. Despite questioning scores of witnesses under duress, they were unable to show any treasonable aspect in Campion's speech, writing or activities during his English ministry. The first indictment drawn up against Campion stated that he "did traitorously pretend to have power to absolve the subjects of the said Queen from their natural obedience to her majesty", with a blank space left farther down the indictment for the name of a prosecution witness who had been absolved as stated (Waugh p. 206-207).
No suitable witness could be found to testify against Campion to this effect, however, and so this count of the indictment was dropped. Eventually, witnesses were obtained, the chief being Anthony Munday, a journeyman writer and traveler who had presented himself to exiled English Catholics as a co-religionist. He accused Campion of having formed a conspiracy in Rome and Rheims in 1580 to assassinate Queen Elizabeth, to encourage a foreign Catholic invasion and also foment a rebellion of English Catholics. The evidence brought forth to support these charges has been found wanting by the Dictionary of National Biography and The Encyclopedia Britannica. Campion's own writings deny such a charge. Simpson reports that Campion "determined, therefore, as far as he might, to confine himself to the merely religious aspects of the controversy... and to refuse to make himself an umpire between two high contending parties so far above him as Pope and Queen" (Simpson p. 274).
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