Born in London on 24 January 1540, Campion was the son of a bookseller in Paternoster Row, near St Paul's Cathedral. He received his early education at Christ's Hospital school and, at the age of 13, was chosen to make the complimentary speech when Queen Mary visited the city in August 1553. He then attended St John's College, Oxford, becoming junior fellow in 1557 and taking the required Oath of Supremacy, probably on the occasion of his B.A. degree in 1560. He took a master's degree at Oxford in 1564.
Two years later, Campion welcomed Queen Elizabeth to the university, and won her lasting regard. He was selected to lead a public debate in front of the Queen. By the time the Queen had left Oxford, Campion had earned the patronage of the powerful William Cecil and also the Earl of Leicester, tipped by some to be future husband of the young Queen.
When Sir Thomas White, the founder of the college, was buried in 1567, it fell to Campion to give the Latin oration.
Religious difficulties then arose; but at the persuasion of Richard Cheyney, Bishop of Gloucester, although holding Catholic doctrines, he received Holy Orders in 1564 as a deacon in the Anglican Church. Inwardly "he took a remorse of conscience and detestation of mind." Rumours of his opinions began to spread and he left Oxford in 1569 and went to Ireland for private study and research, but not, as Simpson said (now corrected by Fr. P. Joseph's revision of Simpson, 2010) to take part in a proposed establishment of the University of Dublin.
Campion was appointed tutor to Richard Stanihurst, son of James Stanyhurst, the Speaker of the Irish House of Commons, and attended the first session of the House of Commons, which included the prorogation. He was transferred through Stanihurst's arrangement to the house of Christopher Barnewall at Turvey in the Pale, which he acknowledged saved him from arrest and torture by the Protestant party in Dublin. For some three months he eluded his pursuers, going by the name "Mr Patrick" and occupying himself by writing A Historie of Ireland.
In the year of 1571, Campion left Ireland in secret and escaped to Douai in the Low Countries (now France) where he was reconciled to the Catholic Church and received the Eucharist that he had denied himself for the past twelve years. He entered the English College founded by William Allen. The enrollment of the college grew, and a papal subsidy was granted a little time after Campion's arrival. Campion found himself reunited with Oxford friends. He was to teach rhetoric while there and finish studying for the degree of Bachelor of Divinity, which was granted him by the University of Douai on 21 January 1573. He received minor orders after this and was ordained sub-deacon.
Campion then travelled to Rome on foot, alone and in the guise of a pilgrim, to join the Jesuits. In April 1573, in Rome, he became the first novice accepted into the Society of Jesus by Mercurianus, the order's fourth Superior General. He was assigned to the Austrian Province as there was not yet an English province of the Jesuits and began his two-year novitiate at Brunn in Moravia. He was ordained deacon and priest by Anthony Brus, O.M.C.R.S., Archbishop of Prague and said his first Mass on 8 September 1578. For six years, Campion taught at the Jesuit college in Prague as professor of both rhetoric and philosophy.
In 1580, the Jesuit mission to England began. The mission was strictly forbidden, according to Campion's Brag, "to deal in any respects with matters of state or policy of this [English] realm..." Campion accompanied Fr. Robert Persons who, as superior, was intended to counterbalance his own fervour and impetuousness. He had been surprised to learn that he was chosen to take part in the mission, and expressed the fear that he lacked constitutional courage. The members of the mission were instructed to avoid the company of boys and women and to avoid giving the impression of being legacy hunters. Before embarking, the members of the mission were embarrassed to receive news of a landing by papal-sponsored forces in the Irish province of Munster in support of the Irish rebel James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald. They also learned that a letter detailing their party and mission had been intercepted and that they were expected in England.
Campion finally entered England in the guise of a jewel merchant, arriving in London on 24 June 1580, and at once began to preach. His presence soon became known to the authorities and to his fellow Roman Catholics lying in London's prisons. Among the latter was Thomas Pounde in the Marshalsea, where a meeting was held to discuss means of counteracting rumours circulated by the Privy Council to the effect that Campion's mission was political and treasonous. Pounde rode in haste after Campion and explained the need for Campion to write a brief declaration of the true causes of his coming. The diffusion of this declaration, known as the Challenge to the Privy Council, or, Campion's Brag, made his position more difficult. He led a hunted life, administering the sacraments and preaching to Catholics in Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire, and Lancashire.
During this time he wrote his Decem Rationes ("Ten Reasons"), arguments against the validity of the Anglican Church. This pamphlet, in Latin, was printed in a clandestine press at Stonor Park, Henley, and 400 copies were found on the benches of St Mary's, Oxford, at the Commencement, on 27 June 1581. It caused great sensation, and the hunt for Campion was stepped up. On his way to Norfolk, he stopped at Lyford Grange, the house of a certain Francis Yate, then in Berkshire, where he preached on 14 July and the following day, by popular request. Here, he was captured by a spy named George Eliot and taken to London with his arms pinioned and bearing on his hat a paper with the inscription "Campion, the Seditious Jesuit".
Imprisoned for four days in the Tower of London in a tiny cell called "Little-ease", Campion was then taken out and questioned by three Privy Councillors—Lord Chancellor Sir Thomas Bromley, Vice-Chamberlain of the Royal Household Sir Christopher Hatton and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester—on matters including whether he acknowledged Queen Elizabeth to be the true Queen of England. He replied that he did, and was offered his freedom, wealth and honours, including a possibility of the Archbishopric of Canterbury, which he could not accept in good conscience.
Campion was imprisoned in the Tower more than four months and tortured on the rack two or three times. False reports of a retraction and of a confession by Campion were circulated. He had four public disputations with his Anglican adversaries, on 1, 18, 23 and 27 September 1581, at which they attempted to address the challenges of Campion's Brag and Decem Rationes. Although still suffering from the effects of his torture, and allowed neither time nor books for preparation, he reportedly conducted himself so easily and readily that "even the spectators in the court looked for an acquittal".
He was arraigned and indicted on 14 November 1581 with several others at Westminster on a charge of having conspired, in Rome and Reims, to raise a sedition in the realm and dethrone the Queen.
The trial was held on 20 November 1581. After hearing the pleadings for three hours, the jury deliberated an hour before delivering its verdict: Campion and his fellow defendants were found guilty of treason. He answered the verdict:
In condemning us, you condemn all your own ancestors, all our ancient bishops and kings, all that was once the glory of England — the island of saints, and the most devoted child of the See of Peter.
Lord Chief Justice Wray read the sentence: "You must go to the place from whence you came, there to remain until ye shall be drawn through the open city of London upon hurdles to the place of execution, and there be hanged and let down alive, and your privy parts cut off, and your entrails taken out and burnt in your sight; then your heads to be cut off and your bodies divided into four parts, to be disposed of at Her Majesty’s pleasure. And God have mercy on your souls."
On hearing the death sentence, Campion and the other condemned men broke into the words of the Te Deum. After spending his last days in prayer he was dragged with two fellow priests, Fathers Ralph Sherwin and Alexander Briant, to Tyburn where the three were hanged, drawn and quartered on 1 December 1581. Campion was 41 years of age.
Edmund Campion was beatified by Pope Leo XIII on 9 December 1886. Blessed Edmund Campion was canonised nearly eighty-four years later in 1970 by Pope Paul VI as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales with a common feast day of 4 May. His feast day is celebrated on 1 December, the day of his martyrdom.
The actual ropes used in his execution are now kept in glass display tubes at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire; each year they are placed on the altar of St Peter's Church for Mass to celebrate Campion's feast day—which is always a holiday for the school.Campion Jesuit High School, Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, United States
St. Edmund Campion Academy, Cincinnati, Ohio, United States
St Edmund's Catholic Academy, Wolverhampton, England
St Edmund Campion Catholic School, Erdington, Birmingham, England
St Edmund Campion Catholic Primary School, Maidenhead, Berkshire, England
St Edmund Campion RC Primary School, West Bridgford, Nottingham, England
St. Edmund Campion Secondary School, Brampton, Ontario, Canada
Campion Anglo-Indian Higher Secondary School, Tiruchirappalli, Tamil Nadu, India
Campion College, Sydney, Australia
Campion College, Gisborne, New Zealand
Campion College, Jamaica
Campion College, Regina, Canada
Campion School, Hornchurch, England
Campion School, Mumbai, India
Campion School, Bhopal, India
Campion School, Kochi, India
Campion School (Athens), Greece
Campion Hall, Oxford
Ocer Campion Jesuit College, Gulu, Uganda