Saints of the Society of Jesus: Blessed Edmund Campion and Companions

1 December, Martyrs

Blessed Edmund Campion was born in London in 1540. At first he had the weakness to deny the faith, and received orders in the English Church. But his conscience smiting him, he fled to Dublin and openly professed the Catholic religion. He was then thirty years of age. He fled next to Douai, and then to Rome, where he was received into the Society in 1573. In 1578 he was ordained priest, and in 1580 was sent back to England. “Simple as a child,” writes his biographer, “he knew he was marching to his death; still he affected no more courage than he felt, but owned and made a joke of his fears. The flesh was weak, but the will was strong, and in the depths of his soul he loved the danger that he contemplated so clearly.” How Campion loved the peaceful religious life he was leaving, the following extracts from his letters will show: “O dear walls that once enclosed me! pleasant recreation-room where we conversed so holily! Glorious kitchen, where the best friends fight for the saucepans in holy humility and hearty charity! How often do I picture to myself one returning with his load from the farm; another from the market; one sweating stalworthly and merrily under a load of rubbish, another under some other load. Believe me, my dearest brethren, that your dust, your brooms, your chaff, your loads are beheld by the angels with joy, and that through them they obtain more for you from God than if they saw in your hands sceptres, jewels, and purses of gold….” I know what liberty there is in obedience, what pleasure in labor, what sweetness in prayer, what dignity in humility, what peace in conflicts, what nobility in patience, what perfection in infirmity. My dearest brother, life is not long enough to thank Our Lord for revealing to us those mysteries.”

But other things were before him. After illuminating England for the brief period of one year by his learning and marvellous eloquence, the former courtier of Elizabeth was arrested and thrown into the Tower of London. Protestant ministers disputed with him; the Queen herself endeavored to shake his constancy; he was racked so severely that, when told to plead in court, one of his companions had to lift up his arms; finally, on the 1st of December, he was dragged, with two companions, to his place of execution. The martyrs on their hurdle were seen not only to smile, but actually to laugh! Truly the martyrs teach us, “If God be with us, whom shall we fear?”

When the hangman, having cut down and quartered Campion’s body, turned to the first of his companions, Ralph Sherwin, a secular priest, the latter seized his blood-stained hands and reverently kissed the blood of his fellow martyr. The third and last to die was Father Alexander Briant. All his life he had been a man of wonderful physical beauty, and he was still young. How much beauty remained when he ascended the scaffold we may conjecture from the torments he had undergone. Savages never invented more cruel tortures than were practiced on this angelical young man. He was plunged into a black dungeon; starved almost to death; needles were thrust under his nails; after being stretched on the rack, he was crushed in the instrument called the “scavenger’s daughter” -a broad iron hoop, consisting of two parts fastened together by a hinge. The prisoner was made to kneel on the pavement, and to contract himself into as small a compass as possible. Then the executioner, forcing down his shoulders and introducing the hoop under his legs, compressed the victim close together until he was able to fasten the extremities of the hoop over the small of the back. The time allotted to this torture was one hour and a half, during which time it commonly happened that from excess of compression the blood started from the nostrils and sometimes from the extremities of the hands and feet. The martyr laughed while they tortured him, and refreshed himself by meditating on the Passion of Our Lord; he declared in writing that, while he was unconscious of his own actual sufferings, on the rack itself he experienced by sympathy in his very flesh the pains of his beloved Saviour.

The Reverend Thomas Woodhouse was ordained priest under Queen Mary. He was the first priest put to death by Elizabeth, June 19th, 1573, after untold torments. He is called “Sir” Thomas, an honorary title given to some priests at that time. The warden of the Fleet, in whose custody he was, having taken him, as an alleviation, to his country-house, when Sir Thomas, or Father Thomas, saw the man, though a Catholic at heart, eat meat on days of abstinence against his protest, he walked back in disgust to his prison.

Blessed John Nelson was not ordained till middle age. He was accustomed to say that the only way to restore the faith to England was the way in which it was first established there, namely, by the blood of the martyrs. He was therefore prepared when his own time came. While he was exorcising a possessed person, the devil told him he would ‘have him arrested in a week’; and so he did. This confessor declined reading the Lives of the Martyrs in jail, probably because, like Blessed Alexander Briant, he was absorbed meditating on the Passion of the King of martyrs. He suffered February 3d, 1578.

The Reverend Thomas Cottam had been obliged to leave the novitiate of the Society on account of ill-health. In prison he was received back into it. Fathers Woodhouse, Nelson, and Briant were also received into the Society while in jail; so that, according to Bartoli, the Jesuit Order in England was born in prison. Having been arrested on landing in England, Father Cottam was placed in charge of a fellow-traveller, himself a disguised priest. To save the latter from danger, he delivered himself to the officers again, and was executed in 1582.

The title of Blessed, given to these Fathers by pious custom, was confirmed to them, with forty-nine other English martyrs of the Refermation, by decree of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, on the feast of Saint Thomas of Canterbury, December 29th, 1886.