Magazine article The Spectator

A Martyr's Memorial in Verse

Magazine article The Spectator

A Martyr's Memorial in Verse

Article excerpt

EDMUND CAMPION : MEMORY AND TRANSCRIPTION by Gerard Kilroy Ashgate, £45, pp. 261, ISBN 0754652556

On 1 December 1581 -- not a good day in English judicial history -- a Jesuit priest and poet of European renown was dragged on a hurdle through the London mud and savagely butchered at Tyburn.

Alongside him on the scaffold were two other priests who suffered the same death, but, now as then, their names and reputations are eclipsed by that of the man who for both persecuted Catholic England and its state oppressors most vividly embodied the religious struggles of the Elizabethan age. 'Yee thought perhaps, when learned Campion dyes, ' one eyewitness at Tyburn, the 'wit, minor poet, satirist and flaneur', Henry Walpole, taunted the authorities, His pen must cease, his sugred tounge be still.

But yow forget how lowd his death yt cryes, How farre beyond the sounde of tounge or quill.

Yow did not know how rare and great a good Yt was to write those precious guiftes in bloode.

No one could have borne more eloquent testimony to the truth of this than Walpole himself, who, spattered by Campion's blood and inspired by his example, also died a martyr, but it is a more oblique kind of witness that is the subject of Gerard Kilroy's Edmund Campion: Memory and Transcription. In the aftermath of Campion's death the government mobilised all its resources to blacken his reputation and block Walpole's poem, but, as Kilroy makes clear, they might hack off the ears of the man who printed it and even kill the author but what they could never completely erase were the memories of Campion that the written word preserved.

And the emphasis here is on written, because when the resources of printing were as ruthlessly controlled and manipulated as they were, it was largely in manuscript that the testimonies of Walpole or the prison letters of other priests were preserved among a beleaguered Catholic community. There is no attempt in Kilroy's book to underestimate the success of government censorship, but his argument is that these manuscripts took on themselves a kind of 'relic' status, hidden and often encrypted memorials that are today as much as then the only available witness to a 'truth' that a national, Protestant mythology has suppressed.

'How differently the period looks if one recovers the voices of these silent witnesses, ' he writes:

the Tresham Papers, [buried within a wall until 1828, still a year, as Kilroy points out, before Catholic Emancipation], the Brudenell manuscript, Harington's transcription of Campion's poem, Harington's transcription of Walpole's poem, and Harington's autograph epigrams. …

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