Saints of the Day – Edmund Campion, Alexander Briant, and Ralph Sherwin

Saint Edmund CampionArticle

All three were martyred at Tyburn, December 1, 1581; Campion beatified in 1886; canonized among the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales by Pope Paul VI in 1970. This group of three provides an interesting range of experience: one Protestant convert to Catholicism and two Catholics who apostatized and then returned to the Church.

Saint Edmund Campion, known as the “Pope’s Champion,” was born in London c.1540, son of a bookseller. He was raised a Catholic and was educated at Christ’s Hospital at the expense of the Grocers’ Guild. At 15, he received a scholarship to Saint John’s College (Oxford), newly founded by Sir Thomas White. He was appointed a junior fellow when only 17, and gained the reputation of a great orator.

Saint Edmund Campion

He was chosen to speak at the reburial of Lady Amy Dudley (Robsart), at the funeral of Sir Thomas White, and he was chosen by the university to give the welcoming speech to Queen Elizabeth I when she visited Oxford in 1566.

His brilliance attracted the attention of such leading personages as the Earl of Leicester, Robert Cecil, and even Queen Elizabeth. He took the Oath of Supremacy acknowledging Elizabeth head of the Church in England and became an Anglican deacon in 1564.

Doubts about Protestantism increasingly beset him, and at the end of his term as junior proctor of the university in 1569, he went to Dublin, Ireland, where he helped to found a university (later Trinity College). While there, he wrote a short history of Ireland and dedicated it to Leicester. Further study during his time in Ireland convinced him he had been in error, and he returned to Catholicism.

Forced to flee the persecution unleashed on Catholics by the excommunication of Elizabeth by Pope Pius V, he returned to England in disguise in 1571 and was present at the trial of Blessed John Storey in Westminster Hall. He quickly departed for Douai, the English college in France, but was stopped because he had no passport. He bribed the officials with his luggage and some money.

At Douai Saint Edmund studied theology and was ordained a subdeacon before he went to Rome in 1573 to join the Jesuits. As there was no English province at the time, he was sent to Brno, Bohemia, the following year for his novitiate. He taught at the college in Prague and in 1578 was ordained there.

Dr. Allen (later cardinal) convinced Pope Gregory XIII to send Jesuits to England, and in 1579, Campion and Father Robert Persons were the first Jesuits chosen for the English mission. Campion set out for Rome in 1580, visited Saint Charles Borromeo in Milan, and landed at Dover disguised as a jewel merchant.

The Jesuits were not well received by English Catholics who feared they would cause trouble. In London Edmund ministered to Catholic prisoners and wrote a challenge to the Privy Council, which was prematurely published – his famous Brag (which he had written to present his case if he was captured).

The Brag described his mission as one “of free cost to preach the Gospel, to minister the Sacraments, to instruct the simple, to reform sinners, to confute errors; in brief, to cry alarm spiritual against foul vice and proud ignorance, wherewith many of my dear countrymen are abused.” The publication also made him the infamous object of one of the most intensive manhunts in English history.

As soon as their arrival was uncovered, Campion left London for Berkshire, then Oxfordshire, and Northhamptonshire, where he made converts. After meeting Persons in London, where persecutions had heightened, he went to Lancashire, where he preached almost daily and very successfully. Always one step ahead of spies, but barely escaping capture on several occasions.

It seems to have given Edmund Campion some amusement when, disguised as Mr. Edmundes, he tumbled into a Shakespearean tavern scene: with a tankard on the table before him and his rapier across his knees he sat bewitching the whole company with his sparkling humor and his charm – which his fellow Catholics never tired of praising and his enemies could never curse sufficiently. The “seditious Jesuit” charmed all with whom he came into contact. More often than not these casual encounters in roadside inns ended in one or another of his hearers resolving at all costs to continue his acquaintance with Mr. Edmundes – and then Mr. Edmundes led the conversation round to religious questions and finally spoke of ‘the King,’ Christ. Campion’s words, when he speaks of Christ, ring with a note of chivalry; he is like a knight praising his heroic King.

During this time he wrote a Latin treatise, Decem rationes, which listed ten reasons why he had challenged the most learned Protestants to discuss theology with him. The treatise was secretly printed on a press at the house of Dame Cecilia Stonor in Berkshire. On June 27, 1581, 400 copies of the publication were found distributed on the benches at Saint Mary’s University Church at Oxford. It raised a great sensation and attempts to capture him intensified.

He decided to retire to Norfolk. On the way he stayed at the house of Mrs. Yate at Lyford, and people gathered there to hear him preach. A traitor was among them. Campion was betrayed by a man named Eliot, who had just received communion from Campion’s hands, all the while appearing pious and devout, and within 12 hours the house was searched three times – Campion and two other priests were found hiding above a gateway.

He was taken to the Tower of London, bound, and labeled “Campion, the seditious Jesuit.” After he spent three days in the “little ease,” the earls of Bedford and Leiscester tried to bribe him into recanting, without success. Other attempts failed as well, and he was racked.

While still weak from torture, he was confronted by Protestant dignitaries four times. He answered them eloquently. He was racked again, this time so painfully that when he was asked the following day how he felt, he responded, “Not ill, because not at all.”

On November 14, he was indicted in Westminster Hall with Ralph Sherwin, Thomas Cottam, Luke Kirby, and others (including Fathers Hanse, Lacy, Kirkman), on the trumped up charge of having plotted to raise a rebellion in England and formed a conspiracy against the life of Queen Elizabeth I. Most of these priests have never seen one another until they met in court. But false witnesses, who were a special feature of the time, came forward as usual. When asked to plead the charge, Campion was too weak to move his arms; one of his companions kissed his hand and held it up for him.

Edmund defended himself and the others brilliantly, protesting their loyalty to the queen, blasting the evidence, raising doubts about the witnesses, and establishing clearly that their only crime was their faith. Although the packed jury found them guilty, it took them an hour to come to that decision. The priests and others were condemned to death for having “seduced the Queen’s subjects to disobedience.” The Act of 1585 made it high treason to have been ordained priest by a Catholic bishop, and simple treason to have housed or abetted a priest.

When he was condemned, Edmund said, “In condemning us you condemn all your own ancestors, all the ancient bishops and kings, all that was once the glory of England. . . . Posterity’s judgment is not liable to corruption as that of those who are now going to sentence us to death.”

On December 1, Campion was taken to Tyburn to undergo the penalty for high treason in England: hanging – but with the added torture that the victim was cut down while still alive, castrated, disembowelled, his heart torn out and burnt together with his entrails. The body was quartered and the pieces were dipped in boiling pitch to preserve them; after that the head and quarters were set up on poles in suitable positions near the place of execution, as a warning to sympathizers. Some of Edmund’s blood splashed on the young Henry Walpole who would also become a Jesuit and be canonized with Edmund as one of the Forty Martyrs.

Saint Alexander Briant born in Somerset, England, he studied at Oxford, where he returned to the Church, and then went to France to study at Douai. He was ordained in 1578 (the Benedictines say that he was a secular priest who was later admitted to the Jesuits). In 1579 Father Briant returned to England. He was active in Somerset but came to London in 1581, where he was arrested at the home of Father Robert Persons. He was mercilessly tortured for a month in a futile effort to get him to reveal the whereabouts of Persons, and then was tried with other Catholics on the trumped up charge of plotting in Rome a rebellion in England. He was found guilty and, at age 25, executed at Tyburn.

Saint Ralph Sherwin was born at Rodsley, Derbyshire, England. Born at Rodsley in Derbyshire, Saint Ralph was granted a fellowship to Exeter College at Oxford, where he became a classical scholar of distinction and received his MA in 1574. He became a Catholic in 1575, went first to Douai and then to the English College in Rome (1577) to study for the priesthood. In 1580 he was ordained in Rome and a few months later was sent on the English mission. He arrived in England on August 1 and in November was arrested in London, imprisoned in the Tower, and tortured. Queen Elizabeth offered him the bribe of a bishopric if he would apostatize, which he indignantly refused. Brought to trial the next year with Edmund Campion and others, he was convicted of attempting to foment a rebellion and condemned to death. He was hanged drawn and quartered at Tyburn. He is the protomartyr of the venerable English College in Rome (Benedictines, Delaney, Undset, White).

MLA Citation

  • Katherine I Rabenstein. Saints of the Day, 1998. CatholicSaints.Info. 20 August 2020. Web. 23 November 2020. <>