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Edmund Campion (1540–81) and Elizabeth Anscombe (1919–2001) were among the most brilliant of their generations of Oxford students: he at St. John’s College, she at St. Hugh’s. Later, each held fellowships in the university and delivered sermons in the university church of St. Mary the Virgin. Both converted to Roman Catholicism at some personal cost and wrote powerfully in defense of its teachings. She, who even after her marriage to Peter Geach insisted on being addressed as “Miss Anscombe,” came to hold the Chair of Philosophy at Cambridge previously occupied by her teacher Wittgenstein. After a period of private tutoring and theological education in Douai and Rome, Campion was made Professor of Rhetoric and then of Philosophy at the Jesuit Novitiate in Prague.

Each was skilled in debate and resolute in the face of attack. Both died in the sure conviction of the life to come. Had they ever met, Campion and Miss Anscombe would have had much to discuss—though, living four centuries apart, they never could have done so. Yet, during her final undergraduate year at Oxford, there was indeed a brief meeting between a puzzled Campion and a purposeful Miss Anscombe. The story of that meeting begins in Tudor England.

Mary Tudor was the daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. On the death of Henry in 1547, Mary’s half-brother Edward (son of Henry and Jane Seymour) succeeded their father to the throne. Edward VI was nine years old at the time of his accession, and he died six years later. Anticipating his death and wishing to secure the Protestant ascendancy, he nominated his cousin Lady Jane Grey, only a year older than he, as his successor. This he had no legal power or privilege to do, but his will was briefly satisfied. Four days after Edward’s death on July 6, 1553, Jane Grey was proclaimed queen. On July 9, Mary wrote from her estates in Norfolk demanding that the Privy Council proclaim her queen. She had assembled an army of twenty thousand men, and the Council accordingly changed course. On July 19, Jane Grey was deposed, and the Catholic Mary proclaimed sovereign. Two weeks later, on August 3, the new queen rode into London.

Custom had it that when the sovereign entered a city, he or she would be greeted by dignitaries and addressed by orators. These might include a young scholar—on this occasion, a thirteen-year-old schoolboy named Edmund Campion. Son of a London bookseller, Campion attended the recently founded Christ’s Hospital School, which occupied buildings confiscated from the Franciscan “Greyfriars” during the Dissolution. King Edward had signed its royal charter less than two weeks before his death. It might have seemed more natural to choose an orator from the nearby St. Paul’s School—older, grander, and more Catholic—than from a year-old school established by Mary’s Protestant rival, but the choice indicates Campion’s early reputation for brilliance. Mary is said to have been pleased with the Latin address of the “bluecoat” boy—so called for the Christ’s Hospital uniform, which includes knee-length yellow leggings and white neck bands and to this day is given to every pupil free of charge.

Four years later, in 1557, ­Campion went up to St. John’s College, Oxford. Housed in buildings confiscated from Cistercian monks, St. John’s had been founded in 1555 by a former Lord Mayor of London whose aim was to supply clerics to Queen Mary’s efforts at Catholic restoration. That mission, however, was soon redirected. By 1558 Mary was ill, and in November she was persuaded to recognize her half-sister Elizabeth as her heir, knowing that Elizabeth’s accession would mean the end of her efforts to reestablish ­Catholicism.

In 1566, Queen Elizabeth visited Oxford for six days of festivities. On the third day, an academic disputation was held. Campion, by this time a tutor at St. John’s, was selected to debate against four opponents the propositions that “The tides are caused by the motion of the moon” and “The lower bodies of the universe are regulated by the higher ones.” (Religious topics were avoided as too inflammatory.) Campion began graciously: “I am reconciled to my unequal contest, which I must conduct single-handedly against four pugnacious youths, by the fact that I am speaking on behalf of the princess of letters, Philosophy, before the lettered princess, Queen Elizabeth.” His discourse was a success and the queen later called for another debate, this time impromptu, at which he again excelled.

Campion had recently been ordained, rather against his conscience, a deacon in the Church of England. In 1569, he left England to serve as tutor to the family of the speaker of the Irish House of Commons. Though still an Anglican, he was at risk of arrest and punishment from the fervent Irish Protestant party. In 1571, he escaped to Douai and was reconciled to the Catholic Church, into which he had been baptized as an infant. He studied theology in the English College and was ordained a subdeacon of the Church of Rome.

From Douai he walked almost a thousand miles to Rome to join the Society of Jesus. He was ordained a priest in 1578, twenty-one years after going up to Oxford. In 1580, he joined the Jesuit mission to England in the guise of a jewel merchant. It was akin to being a British agent in occupied territory during World War II—no one was expected to stay ­uncaptured, or alive, for long. ­Campion was caught in 1581 and imprisoned in the Tower of London. He was interrogated and tortured over many months, during which he also debated Anglican opponents publicly on four occasions.

With several other Catholics, Edmund Campion was tried for treason in November 1581. On their being found guilty, he spoke for all the condemned:

The only thing that we have now to say is, that if our religion do make us traitors, we are worthy to be condemned; but otherwise are, and have been, as good subjects as ever the Queen had. In condemning us, you condemn all your own ancestors—all the ancient priests, 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. For what have we taught, however you may qualify it with the odious name of treason, that they did not uniformly teach? To be condemned with these lights—not of England only, but of the world—by their degenerate descendants, is both gladness and glory to us.

Along with two other priests he was taken on December 1 to the triple gallows at Tyburn to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. Campion was beatified by Leo XIII in 1886 and canonized by Paul VI in 1970. December 1 is his feast day.

There is no exact parallel in ­Elizabeth Anscombe’s life to ­Campion’s trial and martyrdom, though for the sake of her Church she ran afoul of her university and the laws of England. A convert to ­Catholicism during her teenage years, Miss Anscombe became a fellow of Somerville College, Oxford, a great figure in philosophy, and a formidable controversialist. In 1956, she protested the awarding of an honorary degree to Harry ­Truman, whom she condemned as a mass murderer for the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 1957, she antagonized her colleagues with a BBC radio broadcast titled, “Does Oxford Moral Philosophy Corrupt the Youth?” She answered that it did not—only because, for corruption to occur, the philosophers’ teaching would need to be morally worse than the ­prevailing ­culture, whereas in fact it merely ­reflected the prevailing culture. The degenerate utilitarianism of Oxford philosophy would consider morally permissible the murder of civilian populations, or the knowing ­judicial punishment of the innocent, for the sake of some “greater good.” Miss Anscombe’s rage at the killing of the innocent and at those who condoned it continued throughout her life. In later years, she was arrested for ­protesting abortion.

In 1929, the English novelist ­Margery Allingham inaugurated a successful series of mystery books. Their protagonist is an aristocratic amateur detective going by the assumed name “Albert ­Campion.” According to one theory, Allingham chose the name Campion to evoke “Champion.” According to another, she named her detective after the red-pink wildflower seen in British hedgerows. Intriguingly, like Edmund Campion, Allingham’s husband, Philip Youngman Carter, had been schooled at Christ’s Hospital.

In the 1933 adventure Sweet Danger, we learn that after Rugby, Albert Campion attended St. Ignatius College, Cambridge. There is, of course, no Jesuit college at Cambridge, and had there been it is unlikely that “­Albert” (the whiffs of royalty and Victoriana are intentional) would have attended it. Rugby was ­associated with low-church “Muscular Christianity,” and a man with such a background would not have gone on to a Catholic college named for the founder of the Jesuits—­unless, like Edmund, he had “crossed the Tiber.” But neither Albert’s life nor his ­creator’s affords any reason to think he would. Allingham’s father was editor of the nondenominational weekly The Christian Globe, to which ­Margery contributed some articles, but she was not avowedly Christian. In her diary for 1941 she writes,

I’ve got caught by a lot of “Church” persons again. Anglo-Catholic monks this time. Someone wrote and invited me to write a religious book and, not wishing to be discourteous, I said “I wasn’t ready yet” and that I ought to be more educated in the subject.

Allingham wrote Traitor’s Purse, one of the best of the Campion novels, in 1940 when the fear of German espionage, sabotage, and invasion was widespread. Campion has been recruited for an important mission by the Ministry of War and Scotland Yard, but he awakes at the start of the novel in a hospital, having lost his memory. By stages, his identity and mission come back to him. At one point he receives a message from a woman who wishes to meet him. He goes to the White Hart Inn as directed and is shown to a private sitting room, where a woman rises to greet him: “I don’t think we’ve met.” ­Campion is mystified. Then his ­fiancée, Lady Amanda, enters and introduces them: “Have you and Miss Anscombe met?” Miss Anscombe explains: “Mr. Campion . . . all my life I’ve gone out of my way to do what I thought was right. . . . Well, that’s why I’ve come here. . . .” She is the sister of a murder victim who served as secretary to a town council instituted during the Tudor period. She gives Campion her brother’s diary, explaining that he was troubled by accepting bribes and she is helping him atone for it posthumously. Like the other Miss Anscombe, she is a female counterpart of Master Valiant-for-Truth in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.

When Allingham wrote this scene, she was living in D’Arcy House in the ancient village of Tolleshunt D’Arcy in Essex. Traitor’s Purse was ­published the following year, in 1941—the same year Elizabeth Anscombe graduated from Oxford, where there is a Jesuit college, which from 1918 has borne the name of Campion and whose master at the time was Martin D’Arcy. So far, so serendipitous.

Yet Allingham’s diaries and letters from the period contain no mention of “Anscombe,” nor any clue as to what compelled her, a novelist with no definite religious views, to arrange a meeting between her “Campion” and a “Miss Anscombe.” Perhaps she had simply heard the names and liked the sound of them. And with the names in hand, a scene was imagined where he and she met—not the brilliant Oxonian Catholic thinkers, but an aristocratic detective and a dutiful spinster, who, like their namesakes, were at odds with the corruption of their times. 

John Haldane is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Baylor University, emeritus professor of moral philosophy at St. Andrews University, professor of philosophy of education at Australian Catholic University, professor of virtue theory at the University of Birmingham, and chair of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, London.