The modern history of English Catholics is above all a history of martyrs, which began in the sixteenth century, at the time of the Protestant revolution.
The destruction of the monasteries and the expulsion of the religious from England by order of Henry VIII, was followed, under the reign of the excommunicated Elizabeth, by a new wave of violence. Any public manifestation of worship was forbidden and Catholics were forced to gather at night to celebrate the sacraments. The few remaining priests traveled incognito, moving constantly to avoid the spies of Cecil and Walsingham, always on their trail. The most fortunate Catholics managed to attend Mass a handful of times a year, while the others, the inhabitants of rural provinces and remote villages, remained without Communion for even longer periods. Meanwhile, the wealthy landowners had to pay increased taxes and gradually were forced to sell their properties to meet the growing demands of the government.
For those guilty of treason – this is the slanderous accusation addressed to Catholics – the usual penalty was capital punishment. The condemned man was hanged, drawn and quartered. The severed head was then mounted on a spear and displayed on London Bridge as a warning.
Several dozen young priests, trained on the Continent, abandoned everything – ambitions and affections included – to reach the shores of England and try to bring comfort to the numerous souls in pain. They were aware that they were facing almost certain death, but the sanctity of the purpose was worth any sacrifice.
Among these the most famous is Edmund Campion, who died as a martyr in Tyburn on 1 December 1581. Distinguished for having challenged the Protestant ruling class to a public confrontation, the Jesuit united lightness of spirit with doctrinal orthodoxy, all tempered by deep devotion.
His story is told by Evelyn Waugh in Edmund Campion: Jesuit and Martyr, a small volume published in 1937.
Campion, certainly destined for a brilliant academic career, went abroad after England’s transition to Protestantism, moving first to Ireland and then to France. He resumed his studies at the seminary of Douai and was then ordained a priest. After spending a period in Prague as a teacher, in 1580 he was sent to London by his superiors in the company of his brother Robert Persons (later one of the main animators of the English Catholic minority in exile). Campion immediately became famous for his gifts as a preacher and was among other things the author of some brilliant writings in which Protestant theology was harshly criticized with wit and irony. When he was finally captured, Protestants across the kingdom breathed a sigh of relief, deceiving themselves that they had finally triumphed.
But whose victory was it? Campion defied the lords of this world with the glory of martyrdom. His gesture was not in vain; indeed, the blood shed by him and by the many who died for the Church was the seed for a new generation of Catholics. As Waugh writes at the end of the book, English Catholics are the heirs of their conquest.