Recently I came across a book in a Catholic book store that I had heard good things about previously. It was with pleasure that I picked up Edmund Campion – A Life by Evelyn Waugh printed by Ignatius Press. It is always good to read about the saints, but the writing of those who write on the saints is not always good. It is no surprise that one of the great writers of the last century such as Evelyn Waugh would turn out a great book.
Edmund Campion is a biography of the Jesuit Saint Edmund Campion who was martyred in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation and the increasingly severe penal laws in England. This book was written in 1935 only five years after Waugh’s conversion into the Catholic Church. It is a straightforward biography based on the best historical research available at the time. The author does not inject himself in the book in that he tries hard to stick to the historical narrative of what can actually be known and any dialogue in the book is straight from the historical record. This is in no way some syrupy hagiography that diverges from facts with flowery stories or that tries to inflate the actions of Edmund Campion. Though considering the subject this is not much needed when you look at his amazing life.
The book running at a little more than 200 pages is divided into four very appropriate chapters: The Scholar, The Priest, The Hero, The Martyr. I wonder if you have to give a spoiler alert when you are talking a martyr. Evelyn Waugh provides the necessary historical background of the state of the Church and of the politics involved and you fast become involved in the biography as if you were reading a novel. Every time you read about the recusants and those in Church history who were persecuted for the faith it always gives you a greater appreciation of what most Catholics in the modern world take for granted. When we go to Mass we aren’t worried that somebody is going to turn us in or that we don’t need guards to warn is people are coming so that the priest can hide in the priest-hole.
The first two chapters deal with his academic life and his early career as he initially leaves England because of the growing persecution of Catholics and his decision to become a priest and then a Jesuit. The biographic then moves to his returning to England. Like many saints he was not specifically making decisions that would lead him on the road to martyrdom. In fact circumstances could have left him teaching in Vienna and Prague since the Jesuits at the time had no chapters in England. But also like many saints when it became apparent that he would indeed be traveling down that road it was done with joy.
As Waugh chronicles Campion’s year of attending to the Catholics in England you again get caught up in the drama as he and other priests continue to minister to the flock for the good of souls. It is a measure of Campion’s genius that his "Brag" that he wrote in a half-hour’s time to defend himself from charges of treason was printed and reprinted across England. Or that his famous Ten Reasons would provide much annoyance to the authorities at the time. So annoying that once he was captured and tortured they brought him to a series of debates to try to counter it. Waugh does not dwell much into St. Campion’s grisly martyrdom that will be familiar to those that saw Braveheart, but it is quite interesting the stories he describes by those who were converted by Campion in his last days.
Highly recommended and one of those rare biographies that is indeed a page-turner.
Thanks Jeff. I’m hoping to build up our parish library and will put this book on the wish list.
I think you meant “It is a measure of Campion’s genius”, not Waugh’s. 🙂
Good review, btw.
>Campion’s grizzly martyrdom
He was martyred by a bear? 😉
Hey we’re reading this for our Catholic Women’s Book Club. We’re using Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Two lives’ Edmund Campion & Ronald Knox. i must say i’m finding it tough going & the print very small…but will peresevere!
Reading a musty-smelling Image paperback copy a half dozen years ago is one of the key events in my then-ongoing reversion. Ignatius Press did a fabulous job with this new edition. The cover design is well-done, the binding is tight, and the paper and typeset are excellent. It also features a brief introduction by Fr. Fessio. My salon/book club read this book a couple of years ago and loved it.
Interestingly, Campion was tried for treason according to a pre-Reformation statute. Elizabeth did not want to prosecute him under England’s anti-Catholic legislation as she feared it would upset her relations with the French. Campion reportedly provided such a masterful defense that many court observers thought he would not be covicted.
One correction: Waugh indicates that Queen Elizabeth visited Campion during his time in the Tower. Historians now believe the meeting never happened.
We have our English Martytrs Walk this Saturday through London….
I read Edmund Campion shortly afte reading Chesterton’s St. Francis of Assisi. While I do like Chesterton, the former really captures one’s imagination; the latter, not much so.
Thank you for reviewing this book – it is a favorite of mine. I think that Edmund Campion’s story has a great parallel to our modern world. Although we may not be called to martyrdom as he was, we do have to swim against the rising tide of our modern culture for the sake of truth. This can be difficult – especially for teens. My son recently picked him as his Confirmation saint and I was very proud of his choice (although it made finding just the right Confirmation gift a bit harder – I ended up typing up the “Brag” in an Olde English-style font and having it framed).
Hope you enjoy the feast day tomorrow of another great English martyr, St John Fisher.
I’ve always thought that Campion’s life could make a very inspiring movie, if done properly.
I also found Alice Hogge’s book “God’s Secret Agents”, very informative about many of the courageous men and women who were persecuted in England at the time.
In connection with the life of St. Edmund Campion, I would like to point out St. Nicholas Owen.
Although we don’t know much about the life of St. Nicholas Owen, what we do know of him points to some amazing gifts from God.
At a time when the Church is being mercilessly persecuted in some parts of the world, perhaps we could pray for the intervention of St. Nicholas Owen in helping them escape capture and tortue.
I also read Waugh’s biography of Campion recently. You’re right that it’s a very fine book. My review is posted here.
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