Diane Purkiss

Diane Purkiss’s book The English Civil War: A People’s History was published by HarperCollins. She is a professor at Oxford University.


In the late 16th century, the government of England devoted enormous resources to capturing, interrogating, outwitting and defeating an Oxford don and Catholic priest. The hunt for Edmund Campion led to the exponential growth of an anti-Catholic spy network that characterised life in England for the next five decades.

Indeed, Campion was considered so dangerous that Elizabeth I’s government was willing to rip a hole through the law to ensure his defeat, a tear that was never fully mended. He so terrified the authorities that the divisions he caused can be felt still; nor is it an exaggeration to say that the hunt for Campion and the profound paranoia it provoked is one of the reasons Ireland is still divided.

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The fugitive was a staggeringly successful man whose achievements were built entirely on education. The son of a printer, he came from the artisan middle class, the same class that produced the great writers of the Elizabethan Renaissance, including, of course, William Shakespeare. Like them, Campion lived by his wits. He won scholarships to attend Oxford University, and there he was offered a fellowship at the newly built St John’s College.

During the 1566 Oxford state visit, before royal dignitaries and university academics, Campion impressed the young Queen Elizabeth with his debating skills, and the Earl of Leicester told the ambitious young man: “the Queen and I will provide for the future”.

Yet, like John Henry Newman centuries later, he threw away his academic career because he could no longer accept the authority of the Church of England; he left, first for Ireland, then for reconciliation with the Catholic Church in France, and training for the priesthood with the jesuits in Rome.

We find it hard to understand religion as a motive in 2019, even though we know intellectually that it is still vital to many. One way of parsing Campion’s momentous decision is to see it as a matter of personal integrity; it is very hard to consent to something that you believe is being foisted on you by authority, when your consent is motivated by nothing except fear of that authority.

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Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy conflated the monarchic with religious authority, and was to cause trouble for the next 200 years. By the time of Campion’s conversion, Catholics in England faced intense pressure, and most historians would now argue that the Elizabethan regime was only slightly less inclined to persecution than that of Mary Tudor.

The 1559 Act of Uniformity had abolished Mass and restored the 1549 second Protestant prayerbook as the only permissible form of worship. Accurately described as “the religion of nobody imposed upon everybody”, it made no pretence of religious pluralism. There was one religion. One.

To Catholics, the Protestant prayer book was almost blasphemous; to Protestants, the Catholic Mass was fake. There was no middle ground. Parishes were required to destroy all remnants of Catholic piety: stained glass, statues, paintings, illustrated prayer books and Bibles, crucifixes. The now-bare parish churches might also be surrounded by the ruins of what had once been the monasteries.

When Campion first arrived in Oxford, the city was damaged by the depredation of abbeys which had been central to the provision of learning, including the once-vast Osney Abbey. Duke Humfrey’s library, built by Henry V’s cultured younger brother over a century earlier and by far Oxford’s greatest collection of literature, had been despoiled by Edward VI’s commissioners who had destroyed every book bar two. The carnage here, and across the country, was vast, and nobody knows or will ever know what was lost.

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The gentry who supplied members of Parliament had every incentive to support the Protestant regime. After all, most had been enriched by monastic lands. Under the new queen, this class – represented in government by the Cecil family – sought to tighten its grip on any remaining Catholics. In 1563, Parliament further extended the Oath of Supremacy to everyone in holy orders, lawyers, MPs, schoolmasters, and all university graduates.

Refusal to take the oath a second time was punishable by death. Catholic books printed in Europe cited numerous petty examples of penalties imposed on the faithful: death for bringing in a crucifix to church; death for bringing in “a silly pair of beads” or a medal, or a devotional Agnus Dei. This was conscious government policy; Machiavellian, if you like.

Another young man from the same class as Campion became his shadow, literally and figuratively. This was Anthony Munday, dramatist and spy. Also the son of a bookseller, Munday made his way to Rome, from where he reported in a series of pamphlets on the secrets of the English College, intended to horrify readers back home. “We might judge Rome to be hell itself”, he claimed in one such booklet.

The elect Protestant nation was massively expanding its spy network, and the English College at Rome, like other continental seminaries, was awash with agents pretending to be Catholic sympathisers. Many came from grammar schools, from the same rising class as Campion, and had been intended for the Elizabethan church.

Over the course of the 1580s Munday doubled down, going from betraying those who saw him as a friend to working as an intelligencer for Richard Topcliffe. Topcliffe, a well-to-do gentleman best known for keeping a private rack in his front room for use on any Catholics who fell into his hands without a warrant, exemplified the abeyance of any normality in the last decades of Elizabeth’s reign.

But it was the perceived threat of Edmund Campion that led to the creation of the spy network.

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The Privy Council letter of 1 December 1580 stating that the queen intended to “make some example of [Jesuits] by punishment, to the terror of others”, the Proclamation of 10 January 1581, ordering the arrest of Jesuits, and the statute which made it treason to convert the queen’s subjects to “the Romish religion”: together these amounted to a declaration of war on the Jesuit mission.

Campion returned to England knowing that he was probably going to his death, in May 1580. He was there primarily to administer the sacraments to the Catholic faithful, and an underlying agenda was the reconversion of other laypeople to Catholicism. There was no indication that he had any intention of rebelling or of carrying out any violence against the Queen.

Campion could be a formidable enemy. On 27 June 1581 printed copies of his Rationes Decem – arguments against the validity of the Anglican Church – were secretly spread over the benches of the Oxford University church of St Mary, before the convocation at which student supplicants for degrees were required to defend their theses.

However, the Elizabethan security state caught up with him eventually, aided by one of their many pseudo-Catholic spies. The informant, a man called George Eliot, had served in a number of Catholic households by befriending the female servants, and was said to be a convicted rapist and murderer who had bargained his way out of jail by promising to inform on his former Catholic acquaintances.

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Once Campion was seized his case became more than just an ordinary trial but about government display of power. Forced to ride through London, his hands were tied and his feet bound under his horse’s belly, while on his hat was the inscription “THE SEDITIOUS JESUIT”. When he arrived at the Tower he was at first placed in the “Little Ease”, where a prisoner could neither stand nor lie stretched out. The Privy Council ordered that if he refused to answer he should be racked.

Sir Edward Coke, solicitor general, declared torture “directly against the common laws of England”, but it was officially used from 1540 to 1640, and 81 warrants for torture were issued by the Privy Council, 53 during the reign of Elizabeth. Torture was not practised as systematically as it was on the continent – witches, for example, were not in general subjected to torture in England – but the very fact that it was sanctioned by the Privy Council was bound to have an effect, and it is usual for the use of torture to spread once it has been legitimised.

In Campion’s case, four torture warrants were issued, and he was treated with particular violence, so that “he did hang by his arms and feet only” on the rack. When required to raise his hand at his arraignment to take the oath, he was unable to lift his arm, and those present noted his bandaged hands, concluding that nails had been thrust between his fingernails and the flesh. Topcliffe had not yet created his favourite method of torture, which was hanging a prisoner by the hands in gauntlets or manacles, an agonisingly painful procedure and one that left no marks. It may be, however, that he was inspired to do so by the obvious visibility of Campion’s torture on his body.

Not only was the law on torture reformulated, but the interrogation and questions to which Campion was subjected were too, and here the key point was the one termed the “bloody question”, devised by Burghley: which side would the defendant support if Catholic armies landed in England? The question was not intended to elicit useful information, but to be unanswerable. It was designed to trap Catholics, to prove that they were not persecuted solely for religious matters. Campion was duly convicted.

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It was cold and rainy on 1 December 1582, but there were people lining the streets all the way from the Tower, and at Tyburn a crowd that stretched further than the eye could see as Edmund Campion and two other priests were drawn on hurdles to die. The state’s effort to control the situation began to go wrong when Campion mounted the scaffold, and the hangman placed the noose around his neck.

The condemned turned to the immense crowd and began to preach, reminding everybody involved that they stood within the sight of God; God’s eye trumped the eye of the state. Campion kept on praying, for “Elizabeth your Queen and my Queen, unto whom I wish a long quiet reign, with all prosperity”. The crowd wailed and groaned as Campion’s body dropped into the empty air. The executioner tried to cut the rope so that he could butcher Campion while he was still alive, but Lord Charles Howard, with drawn sword, drove him back. Campion was hanged till he was dead, and only then disembowelled and quartered.

Elizabeth’s claim that she had no wish to open windows into men’s souls was disingenuous. It is a peculiarity of Catholicism that it requires public rites of worship, and cannot be practised alone and in secret. As the remaining Catholics’ ability to practise their religion at all was increasingly a hanging matter both for them and for the priests who administered the sacraments, it became more or less inevitable for their opinions to harden against the regime that sought to entrap and beleaguer them.

At the same time, the regime’s increasing intolerance motivated Catholic powers to intervene on behalf of English Catholics, entrenching the positions of both sides. Eventually something in the region of 350 individuals were executed, and a mindset created that led to the deaths of many more, including those who perished in prison, the many accused under the witchcraft statutes and those who died fighting for the Catholic Stuart kings.

If the Jesuit mission had lacked Campion’s celebrity leadership, it might be that the Elizabethan government might not have panicked. They were, after all, frighteningly certain that they held the moral high ground, and also very sure of themselves intellectually. But the fact that a man they themselves believed to be brilliant had converted to Catholicism and was willing to defend it against any Protestant called that certainty into question.

It followed that in order to prove themselves the elect nation, they had to weaponise their own Protestantism, succeed against the Irish and against residual Catholics in England, wipe out all traces of this stubbornly defiant national past. It’s possible that without Campion, Elizabeth’s relative leniency might have continued for longer, and therefore there might have been no rebellion in Ireland, no Elizabethan Secret Service, and perhaps no gunpowder plot.

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It’s arguable that even the Civil War might have been delayed. But as it was, Campion terrified the government, and that terror led to long-term consequences for all the British kingdoms. This weaponised split in the body politic led to the English Civil War, with its six-figure death toll, and to Cromwell’s campaign in Ireland, and then to the Exclusion Crisis, the Battle of the Boyne, the Jacobite uprisings and the Gordon riots.

Nor is this history irrelevant to the current divisions in the United Kingdom.

The two ideas of nationhood espoused by Brexiteers and Remainers also continue a tradition, with Brexiteers reflecting the beliefs of the Elizabethan state in their insistence that patriotism involves separation from other powers and authorities. Their idea that England is an elect nation with a special destiny is also the direct outcome of the propaganda and legislation created by their Elizabethan forebears.

Remainers, on the other hand, have a more porous and an arguably humbler vision for the nation state as one among many such entities. That division arising from the first Elizabethan age has in many ways come to mark the divisions in English society still present more than four centuries later.