Four hundred and thirty-five years ago, on December 1, 1581, an infamous priest was executed at Tyburn. Edmund Campion, SJ was a traitor in nearly all Englishmen’s eyes (except for the Catholics whom he served). He had once been chosen by Elizabeth and her favorites to be a leader in the Church of England because of his academic brilliance. Even after Campion had been captured, imprisoned, and tortured because he was a Catholic priest, Elizabethan authorities had offered him great offices if he would deny his faith and return to the Church of England. He refused.

Father Campion may not have known it, but he had already affected one person on his way to the scaffold. As I described in an earlier post, Sir Philip Howard, the Earl of Arundel, had heard Campion debate the Anglican divines in the Tower of London and had returned to his ancestors’ Church.

On the day of his death, Campion would inspire another martyr, would who in turn inspire a great Catholic composer to lament Campion’s death.

An Example Not to Follow

Henry Walpole was 23 years old when he stood near Tyburn Tree. He was a well-educated Englishman and was a loyal member of Her Majesty’s Church of England. After attending Cambridge University (Peterhouse College) he was preparing for a legal career, studying at Grey’s Inn in London. What he witnessed that December day was the excruciating death of a traitor: Campion and the other priests with him (Father Ralph Sherwin and Father Alexander Briant) were first hanged until barely conscious, then eviscerated while still alive, beheaded, and quartered (their bodies divided into four parts). Their heads and quarters would be displayed as warnings to others not to follow their example.

In Walpole’s case, this brutal execution had the opposite effect: some of Campion’s blood splashed on him. Perhaps Campion’s last words also inspired him: “I am a Catholic man and a priest. In that faith have I lived and in that faith do I intend to die, and if you esteem my religion treason, then I am guilty. As for any other treason, I never committed. I stand condemned for nothing but the saying of Mass, hearing confessions, preaching and such like duties and functions of priesthood.”

Preparation on the Continent

Walpole soon abandoned his studies and by June of 1582 was studying for the priesthood in Reims, France. Then he joined the Jesuit novitiate at the English College in Rome on February 4, 1584 and was ordained in Paris on December 17, 1588. Father Henry Walpole, SJ was first assigned to serve English exiles fighting in the Spanish army in the Netherlands.

After being captured by the enemy, he was imprisoned in 1589. Upon his release, Walpole traveled to Valladolid, Spain and taught in the Jesuit seminary there until he was finally allowed to return to England in the footsteps of his model Campion. He landed in Yorkshire on December 4, 1593 and was almost immediately betrayed and arrested.

He continued to follow Campion’s path: He was allowed to debate Catholic doctrine with Protestants in York. Then he was taken to London to be tortured by Richard Topcliffe in the Tower of London, racked and hanged by his wrists. He endured sessions of torture 14 times over the course of a year. Topcliffe was a master at meting out torture so that no marks were left and the victim would not die of the injuries caused. Walpole would have had some information about whom he was to meet or seek out for protection, but he revealed nothing.

Perhaps he was disappointed that after all those years of preparation and delay he was never able to serve the Catholics in England: to offer them the Sacraments, teach them how to complete the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, strengthen their resolve to remain true, and continue the work of Father Campion and the other Jesuit missionary priests. He was tried and found guilty of merely being a Catholic priest in England, an act of treason.

His previous training as a lawyer shone through when he protested that he could not be found guilty according to the Court’s own standard. He pointed out that the law only applied to priests who had not given themselves up to officials within three days of arrival. He had been arrested less than a day after landing in England, so he had not violated that law. The judges responded by demanding that he take the Oath of Supremacy, acknowledging the queen's complete authority in religion. He refused and was convicted of high treason. 

Henry Walpole was hanged, drawn, and quartered in York on April 7, 1595, almost 14 years after his exemplar’s death.

“Why Do I Use My Paper, Ink, and Pen?”

            Campion’s death in 1581 had also inspired Walpole to write a poem, lamenting his loss but proclaiming his victory:

Why do I use my paper, ink and pen, 
And call my wits to counsel what to say? 
Such memories were made for mortal men; 
I speak of Saints whose names cannot decay. 
An Angel’s trump were fitter for to sound. 
Their glorious death if such on earth were found. 
That store of such were once on earth pursued, 
The histories of ancient times record, 
Whose constancy great tyrants’ rage subdued. 
Through patient death, professing Christ the Lord: 
As his Apostles perfect witness bare, 
With many more that blessed Martyrs were. 
Whose patience rare and most courageous mind, 
With fame renowned perpetual shall endure, 
By whose examples we may rightly find, 
Of holy life and death a pattern pure. 
That we therefore their virtues may embrace 
Pray we to Christ to guide us with his grace. 

He wrote more dangerous verses, attacking the Elizabethan regime for its injustice, telling the queen that she was misinformed that the Jesuit and seminary missionary priests wanted to do her harm, and praising Campion’s gifts and holiness. The printer Richard Vallenger had his ears cut off when he published this poem in 1582, while Walpole was on the Continent.

William Byrd used the less dangerous verses (as above) in a dirge-like setting published in his 1588 collection of “Psalmes, sonets, and songs”. Although Byrd had an extraordinary patent granted by Elizabeth to print and profit by the music he composed, he was a Recusant Catholic. He did not attend Church of England services on Sunday and certainly knew many of the Jesuit priests and the houses where they hid. Byrd paid the fines levied by his monarch’s authorities and still took such chances to honor the martyrs and sing their praises. William Byrd prayed in his Last Will and Testament “that he may live and die a true and perfect member of the Holy Catholic Church without which I believe there is no salvation for me”.

As always, the martyrs inspire devotion and imitation, even among those who do not die as witnesses to Jesus, but try to live as faithful disciples.