Martyrdom, these days, does not get a good press. Fifty years ago English Catholics could take a ghoulish pride in the suffering of their 16th-century Tyburn heroes, but in a western world that has learned to be wary of extremist talk of ‘holy war’ or the intoxicating visions of the martyr’s crown that fuelled the prayers of England’s young exile priests — ‘the supreme privilege, of which only divine grace could make them worthy’, as Evelyn Waugh put it — somehow makes for less comfortable reading.
It is hard to know whether the modern jihadist has given us an unwelcome insight into the past or disabled us from understanding it, and yet what is certainly true is that Queen Elizabeth I’s government saw these priests pretty much as governments now see terrorists. In 1570, that bleakest of saintly popes Pius V excommunicated Elizabeth, and from the moment that his papal bull released English Catholics from their duty of loyalty, every returning priest — blameless or guilty — was viewed as a political traitor and treated with a savagery that remains a permanent stain on English history.
If there was a strong streak of paranoia running through all this, England’s Golden Age did not feel very golden at the time, and men like Burghley and Walsingham were not paranoid for nothing. Catholic historians have always been keen to trash the testimony of government spies as worthless lies, and yet if you ignore the statements of creatures like Munday, Sledd, Parry or the reptilian George ‘Iscariot’ Elyot, the unarguable fact remains that for 30 turbulent years every threat, rebellion, invasion scare and assassination plot against the Queen was the work of English Catholics at home and the English Catholic church in exile.
Whichever it was that came first, persecution or treason — each fed off the other in a spiralling pattern of violence — it was a Catholic rebellion in Ireland that in 1581 doomed by association the most brilliantly gifted, charismatic and least wilful of English martyrs. In many ways Edmund Campion might seem no different from his fellow priests who suffered with him, but if ever a man was born for life and not the butcher’s block — born to preach in the open and not in secret, to grace colleges and courts and not the Tower, to be one of the adornments of his age and not a bloody show for a Tyburn mob — it was Edmundus Campianus Anglus Londinensis, as he loyally and proudly styled himself.
While the broad outlines of Campion’s life — the ‘Godly’ Protestant childhood, the glittering Oxford career, conversion, exile, and his return to torture, trial and death —are familiar enough, they have never been traced in such detail as here. There must always be a temptation for a biographer to shape the life of any martyr with its end firmly in sight, but in showing just how little Campion sought that fate, or even how little of his life as a scholar and priest of European renown can have seemed a preparation for it, Gerard Kilroy has freed his subject from hagiography to produce the most historically convincing, powerful and humanly engaging portrait we have.
Eighty years ago Evelyn Waugh called for a scholarly biography of Campion,
and this is it. Kilroy is not the author to mollycoddle his readers, and if you
have momentarily forgotten what the 16th-century Bohemian Utraquists believed in you’ll have to rummage in the index for a clue. He can, too, swamp his narrative in detail and just sometimes — understandably enough, given his subject — sacrifice balance to partisan indignation. For a more neutral account of the ugly war between Elizabeth’s government spies and the network of Catholic gentry and priests who plotted against the state, Stephen Alford’s The Watchers is possibly a better bet. For a general study of the Catholic martyrs of Elizabeth’s reign, Alice Hogge’s God’s Secret Agents is the more obviously accessible.Yet for anyone who is interested in understanding the religious and political context that framed Campion’s life or what it was that made him such a crucial figure to both sides in the propaganda war between Catholics and Protestants, Kilroy is the answer.