Wednesday, 30 April 2014

The fugitive priest 1581




I came across a reference in a history of Catholicism in Staffordshire to a clandestine visit made by St Edmund Campion to Throwley Hall near Ilam in January 1581.  The Old Hall is a picturesque ruin set in the beautiful Peak District, but once it was a home to the Meverall family who were keen to maintain their Catholicism. The terrible pressures that many believers especially priests like Campion faced in maintaining their faith is a cruelly overlooked aspect of history. Campion’s story is a vivid commentary on this persecution. He first came to prominence while a student at Oxford. He was considered one of the most brilliant scholars of his generation chosen to deliver a homily in Latin in praise of Elizabeth 1st to a delighted queen when she visited the University in 1570. In the decade that followed he converted to Catholicism, trained as a priest and undertook a dangerous mission to England to give support to the Catholic community.

It was a perilous time to be a priest. By the end of the 16th century in a time of Protestant Ascendancy life for Catholics was becoming increasingly difficult. The Elizabethan establishment feared them. England was threatened by a militant Catholic Spain, in France at the St Bartholomew Massacre of 1572 scores of Protestants were slaughtered in the streets of Paris, the Pope urged Catholics to kill Elizabeth and a number of attempts were made on her life. Under the circumstances repressive measures were passed making it an offence punishable by death to persuade people to join the Church. The State issued fines and seized the property of Catholics who did not attend Church of England services drawing up lists of believers on a county by county basis. In 1590 in Staffordshire listed Catholics included Richard Biddulph of Biddulph, Thomas Cotton of Grindon,William Whadyere and Margaret Grey of Cheddleton and Elizabeth Beardsley of Draycott who received  sanctions. Investigators appointed by the Government were sent in to root out priests and their supporters. Among them perhaps the most loathsome man in English history Richard Topcliffe  torturer, sadist, rapist and MP. He regarded Staffordshire as a “backwood” and he clashed with William Basset of Blore fellow MP and Sheriff of Staffordshire who was a secret Catholic. Bassett may have been aware of the visit of Campion in January 1581 who toured Derbyshire, Staffordshire and Lancashire preaching to the faithful. The priest was eventually caught, interrogated and led through the street of London wearing a sign “ Campion, seducer of the people” before being publicly eviscerated. He was canonised by Pope Paul in 1970 along with Ralph Sherwin of Derbyshire, who I might be distantly related to through my Mothers Sherwin family.


Commentators have cited the similarities between the treatment of Catholics in the 16th century and Muslims now. Both were regarded with suspicion, both beliefs have been regarded as “outlandish” and agents of foreign powers. A few Catholics during the 16th century carried out attacks against the State as have a few Muslims now. Some Catholics were seized and tortured and some Muslims have been the victim of “extraordinary rendition” removed and tortured with the knowledge of the British Government. But  most 16th century Catholics wanted to live their lives peaceably with their neighbours as do most Muslims today. It took Catholics 200 years to achieve full civil rights in Britain.