Jesuit priest and martyr. Campion was the son of a London bookseller, was educated at Christ's Hospital, and won a scholarship to St John's College, Oxford, where he became Junior Fellow in 1557. His exceptional brilliance and popularity made him one of the most notable figures of his time in Oxford and won him the patronage of the Earl of Leicester. When Queen Elizabeth visited Oxford in 1566, Campion was chosen by the University as orator to welcome her. He was ordained deacon of the Church of England in 1569, but was openly uncertain of his religious future. To try and solve this difficulty he went to Ireland to help found a University at Dublin (later Trinity College) and wrote a stimulating History of Ireland, later incorporated, much altered, in Holinshed's Chronicle (1587). He returned to England in 1571, but soon crossed the Channel for the English College, Douai, where he formally rejoined the R.C. Church and was ordained subdeacon in 1573. He left for Rome the same year to join the Society of Jesus. After his novitiate at Brünn (Moravia) he taught rhetoric and other subjects in the Jesuit school at Prague, where also he was ordained priest in 1578. The following year, at the suggestion of Dr. (later Cardinal) Allen, Edmund Campion and Robert Persons were chosen to start a Jesuit mission in England. Campion set out from Rome in 1580, visited Charles Borromeo at Milan, and landed at Dover disguised as a jewel merchant. He ministered to Catholic prisoners in London and wrote a challenge to the Privy Council (called Campion's Brag), which 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’.
His eloquence, learning, attractive personality, courage, and daring gave new heart to the dispirited English Catholics; his printing-press and his preaching together disseminated an up-to-date, vigorous catholicism, which the Government could not ignore. Campion was elusively mobile: he worked in Lancashire, Yorkshire, and the Midlands, often in disguise; at Stonor (Oxon.) he wrote and printed his most famous work, the Decem Rationes, an open and reasoned challenge to Protestants to debate with him the foundations of catholicism. Four hundred copies of this booklet were secretly distributed before Commemoration service at St Mary's University Church, Oxford. A few weeks later he was arrested at Lyford Grange (Berks.) and imprisoned in the Tower. Bribes, torture, and theological debate all failed to induce him to conform.
On 14 November he was indicted with others in Westminster Hall on the fabricated charge of having plotted rebellion abroad and come to England to implement it. In spite of his able defence which demolished the evidence and discredited the witnesses, the packed jury found him guilty and he was condemned to death. On this occasion he 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.’ His loyalty to the Queen was clear; his only offence his religion. With Alexander Briant and Ralph Sherwin he was hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn on 1 December. By his death was lost a brilliant thinker and literary stylist comparable to any in the Elizabethan age, one who might have contributed no less effectively to his cause by the spoken and written word than by heroic suffering. He was canonized by Paul VI in 1970 as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. Feast: 25 October.