St Edmund Campion's "Bill of Rights"

On Tuesday the annual Tyburn lecture was given by Sir Michael Tugendhat, who until June 2014, served as the most senior “media judge” in England and Wales, trying many high profile cases. He was appointed to the High Court in 2003 and in 2010 he dismissed a  claim for a super-injunction brought by England and Chelsea footballer John Terry.  As a barrister he represented the actor Michael Douglas in his 2002 claim against Hello! magazine.

The lecture series was inaugurated fourteen years ago by the Tyburn nuns to aid informed debate across a wide range of topics in the national interest.

To the packed audience at Tyburn Convent Mother General Gregory Grace said:

"The 2015 speaker is breaking new ground by combining both freedom of speech and the cause of human rights in a context of religious persecution, legal tradition and martyrdom."

The lecture gave a legal analysis of the case against the Jesuit martyr St Edmund Campion to comment on state oppression and religious freedom in England in the late sixteenth century, and how this resonated down the centuries.

The British values and identity narrative we hear so strongly today is one of a tradition of tolerance.  So it was most interesting to learn that Elizabethan/Jacobean England was the most intolerant state in Europe: more Catholics were judicially murdered here than anywhere else.  Catholics in the Protestant states of Germany and the Dutch Republic had freedom of conscience and worship.  Protestants in Catholic France, Poland and even in Spain ran fewer risks than did Catholics in England.  This was much commented on in Europe at the time of Campion’s trial.

Campion was accused under the Treason Act of 1350.  Elizabeth wanted to be seen as a tolerant monarch who could encourage freedom of expression.  England was at that time sending military support to the Dutch Protestants in their struggle against their Spanish overlords, in order to uphold their rights to freedom from oppression.

Sir Michael explained that there was no evidence presented at the trial to demonstrate Campion’s guilt under the Treason Act.  He admitted breaking the law by saying Mass but this was not a crime under the Treason Act.  On his return to England in 1580 as an ordained Catholic priest Campion had issued a public statement (known as the Bragge)  addressed to the Queen’s Council declaring his loyalty to the Queen alongside an appeal for the right to debate the merits of the true faith. 

In his presentations to the court Campion claimed four specific natural rights which go back to Magna Carta:

·         The right to a fair trial (Campion was tried by a jury but it was biased against him)

·         The right not to be tortured (Campion was illegally tortured for three days)

·         The right not to incriminate himself (i.e. to remain silent)

·         The right to freedom of expression.

These rights are all rolled up into the right to resist oppression and their strong echoes can be heard in Bills of Rights proclaimed by revolutionaries down the centuries, for example in Britain in 1688, in America in 1776 and France in 1789, and as far as the 1998 Human Rights Act.

Bishop Sherrington thanked Sir Michael for helping us to understand the context in which St Edmund Campion and his seven co-accused spoke, lived and died, and to remember the debt we all owe to Campion and other Jesuits who risked everything to come to England in the penal years to uphold these rights.