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St. Edmund Campion - © Nash Ford PublishingThe Arrest of St. Edmund Campion
at Lyford Grange

It was Easter 1581 and, at Stonor House in Oxfordshire, near Henley and Remenham, the famous Jesuit priest, Edmund Campion, had managed to print his book, 'The Ten Reasons' (for being a Catholic) which denounced the Protestant Faith. He had been travelling round Protestant England preaching to Catholic families in secret and now made his way to Oxford to distribute his work. However, the city soon became too dangerous for him to remain there safely and he was ordered by his superior, Robert Parsons, to ride straightaway into Lancashire to retrieve manuscripts and notes left there, before hiding out in Norfolk with a lay-brother named Ralph Emerson.

The two said goodbye, ex­changing hats as a parting gift, after the friendly fashion of their time. As it happened though, Campion soon spurred back after Parsons to tell him of a letter he had received at that very moment. It was from Mr. Francis Yate, a gentleman, at that time imprisoned in London for his Catholic beliefs. Hearing that Campion was in the neighbourhood of his country estate, he had written to him to beseech him to visit his family at their home, Moore Place (later known as Lyford Grange), at Lyford in West Hanney, Berkshire, about 13 miles south-west of Oxford. Campion had more than once refused such requests from him, but now, as he was so close by, he felt that he could give no excuse. Besides, the moated manor house at Lyford was an attractive place for a Catholic priest; for Francis and his wife, Jane, had, under their protection, a number of Brigittine nuns from Sion Abbey, who had migrated into Belgium at the beginning of Queen Elizabeth I's reign, but had been compelled, by the troubles in the Low Countries, to return to England. For several years, the Yates had given refuge to eight of them in their home and Francis' widowed mother had even joined their community before her death. Amongst the nuns were Catherine Kingsmill, Juliana Harman, Joan Lowe, Elizabeth Sanders (correspondent of Sir Francis Englefield) and Francis' half-cousin, Elizabeth Yate of Buckland. It was natural that these women should desire to see and hear Father Campion. However, knowing the house to be a notorious one, and already supplied with two chaplains, Father Parsons was unwilling to grant permission. But eventually he gave in, warning the two others not to tarry beyond one night (or one day) and, as a precaution, putting Campion under the lay-brother's care and obedience. Parsons parted from him not without a rueful and affectionate word, "You are too easy­going by far. I know you, Father Edmund. If they once get you there, you will never break away."

When Mrs. Yate and the nuns received Campion at Lyford, they were so enthusiastic that he had some difficulty getting them up off their knees. However, having told them how short a time he had to stay, they quickly ushered him and Emerson inside, where they spent the night in confessions and conferences. At dawn, Campion said Mass and preached and, after dinner, he complied with Parsons' orders and the two departed with one of the Lyford Chaplains, John Colleton, as escort. However, that same afternoon, a large party of local Catholics visited Lyford to see the nuns. Nothing could exceed their mortification when they found what a treasure they had so barely missed. It was useless to tell them that Campion had gone in obedience to the strict injunctions of his superior. They were insistent that he must be sent for again. So Chaplain Thomas Ford was given a horse and sent after them.

By the evening, Ford, at last, caught up with Campion and his companions at a tavern just outside Oxford. They had already been way­laid by many friendly tutors and undergraduates there who had, fruitlessly, begged their old champion to preach to them. However, he would not do so in such a public a place. When Ford arrived with the second invite to Lyford, the students added their entreaties to his, thinking they might have a chance to listen to him in private if they joined the party in Berkshire. Surely, if he had given a whole day to a few godly nuns, who little needed him, he could not refuse a weekend to so many poor sinners of every stripe and colour "thirsting for the waters of life"? The suit was insistent. Campion was inclined to give in, but referred his admirers to Brother Emerson, as his provisional superior. He, in turn, was overwhelmed. It seemed much safer, after all, for the precious father to be among friends, while he, Ralph, went on alone to fetch the books from Mr. Richard Houghton's in Lancashire. So back to Lyford Campion went, to the poor lay-brother's everlasting regret.

On the following Sunday morning, the ninth after Pentecost, Campion preached at the Grange on the gospel of the day, the peculiarly touching gospel of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem. No-one present ever forgot that heart-shaking sermon, laden as it was with pathos and a sense of premonition. There was an audience of sixty, including the Oxonians. Unfortunately, one amongst them was a certain George Elliott, a Protestant of the most wicked personal reputation - apparently a rapist as well as a con-artist. More worryingly, he was a Government spy, armed with a warrant for Campion’s arrest. Elliott had been recruited by the Earl of Leicester and, having a charge of murder hanging over him, he was therefore anxious to ingratiate himself with the Royal Council through some conspicuous public service. It is not clear if he heard of Campion's visit whilst in Oxford or if he was just lucky. Having already betrayed two priests at a Catholic house in Oxfordshire, he moved on to Lyford, the only other one he knew in the area. Elliott had once been a servant in the Canterbury home of Sir Thomas More’s grandson, Thomas Roper, and Mrs. Yate’s cook, who had known him there in his better Catholic days, trusted him without question. He arrived just as Campion was preparing to face his audience and spoke to the cook on the drawbridge, asking to be admitted to hear Mass which he knew would be taking place in this household. She obtained permission from Mrs. Yate and, as he entered, whispered that there was a treat in store for him, for he would hear none other than the famous Father Campion preach that day. He could hardly believe his luck. A Royal agent had accompanied Elliott to the gates of the place and he briefly went back to this man, supposedly to dismiss him, but really to send him with all speed to fetch a magistrate from Abingdon and a force of an hundred men to arrest Campion in the Queen's name. Then he went piously upstairs to take Mass from Edmund Campion. This, as well as the sermon, passed by peacefully. Elliott prudently kept his warrant hidden but, afterwards, pressed to remain in the house. Having been refused lodging, however, he departed rather abruptly. This made some of the servants a little nervous, so Mrs. Yate posted a watchman in one of the house's turrets to keep an eye out for impending danger.

During dinner, an alarm was given. The watchman had seen soldiers approaching from some distance. Campion sprang up and started to leave at once. He felt his chances of escape were reasonable, whereas, if he stayed, the household would only be put in disarray, if not danger. But his devotees all clung to him, assuring him that Lyford was full of cunning secret passages and hidey-holes. So into one of these, in the wall above the gateway, he was ushered, along with the chaplains, Ford and Colleton. The space was just big enough for the three of them to lay down side by side, with their hands crossed on their chests.

Back came Elliott with the magistrate, Mr. Bessels Fettiplace of Besselsleigh. A simple country squire, his father had been 3rd cousin to Francis Yate's first wife. They were accompanied by about a hundred local Berkshire yeomen who loathed invading their neighbours' privacy. Men-at-arms were sent to surrounded the house and guard every outlet. Then Elliott demanded admission. He led them into every chamber, sought with them in every corner, checked the sound of the walls for hollows, turned the whole house topsy-turvy, and continued searching till evening; but they could find no priest. So the searchers began to leave, with Justice Fettiplace apologising to Mrs. Yate for all the upset. However, on the drawbridge, Elliott produced his warrant and ordered them to break down the walls this time and search for priest holes hidden within. He even read out the relevant clause in the warrant insisting upon this, but one of the locals, looking over his shoulder, revealed that this was an invention. Elliott immediately ordered his arrest as a Jesuit sympathiser. He threatened Justice Fettiplace who quickly realised Elliott was a dangerous man who might ruin him with just a few words to the Earl of Leicester. Jubilant celebrations within the house soon ceased, as the soldiers turned once more and requested re-entry. Though not in the best of health, Mrs. Yate protested in the stongest terms before bursting into tears. Justice Fettiplace could only apologise again, not for the Queen's warrant, but for his associate – ‘the mad­man,’ as he called him – who was carrying it out. He did his best to sooth her fears and allowed her to sleep where she pleased, so that she might remain undisturbed by his men and their din. She, of course, chose to have a bed made up close to Campion's hiding place. She was conducted there as an honoured matron, but a sentinel was posted at her door. Meanwhile Elliott sent for the High Sheriff of Berkshire, Sir Humphrey Forster of Aldermaston House, and another justice, Mr. Edmund Wiseman of Steventon Priory. The tapping and smashing went merrily on throughout the rest of the house well into the night. Wiseman arrived around dusk with a dozen men to help, but Forster sent word that he could not be found. He was half-cousin of Justice Fettiplace's father and, like him, a 3rd cousin to Francis Yate's dead wife and had no interest in raiding his relative's home. Eventually, Mrs. Yate ordered a fine supper to be made for the magistrate's underlings, a guard of sixty, plus others. Being both baffled and worn out, they soon drank themselves to sleep where they sat, just as she had hoped.

Whether, these trying circumstances prevented Jane Yate from thinking straight or whether she was just a very foolish woman, we shall never know. But, most bizarrely, at the very time when the priests might have made their escape, she now sent both for Father Campion and all her guests who were in that part of the house. She then asked him, as he stood by her bedside, to preach to them just one more time! It was not in Campion’s nature to refuse a hostess, however unreasonable or risky the request, so, as quietly as possible, he did as he was asked. He got through the sermon but, as the little congregation broke up, someone stumbled in the dark and several of them fell over one another. The snoring sentinel awoke. Searchers, with lanterns and axes, swarmed up from below – but still there was nothing to be seen: Moore Place was not honeycombed with hidden passages for nothing. The men-at-arms had been fooled once too often and they turned their anger on Elliott. Yet he had seen Campion with his own eyes and knew that no-one had left the house, so the alarm was not a false one. On going down the stairs, he suddenly clapped his hand on the wall above and exclaimed, "We have not broken through here." A loyal servant of the Yates, who was at his side, knew that it was precisely there that the priests were hidden. He turned deadly pale and stammered out that he should have thought enough walls had been broken down already. Elliott noted the man's anxiety and immediately called, in triumph, for a smith's hammer. He smacked it into the thin timber partition and through to the narrow cell beyond. There, in the darkness, lay Father Edmund Campion and his two companions. Dawn was just breaking on Monday 17th July 1581.

Campion remained quite calm, even cheerful. He and the two priests were arrested, along with seven gentlemen and two yeomen farmers, including Francis Yate’s brother, Edward, (who was found hiding in the dovecot) and their neighbours, John Doe (probably from East Hendred) and William Ilsley (or Hildesley) from Beenham. Mrs. Yate and the nuns were apparently left at liberty however. When the news of the arrests reached Forster, the Sheriff, he immediately hurried from Aldermaston to Lyford to take charge of the house. However, he had no mind to be gaoler to a man whose eloquence he had admired as a young man at Oxford, and the fame of whose sanctity had given him a secret inclination towards his religion. When he arrived at Lyford he sent a messenger to London, to find out from the Royal Council how he should proceed. In the mean time, Campion was treated as an old friend rather than as a prisoner, except of course that he was confined to the house. He had the place of honour at Moore Place, especially at its dinner table. He was even joined by an additional prisoner when an unsuspecting Catholic priest, William Filby, came calling there, unaware that the authorities had taken over. On the fourth day, orders came to send the chief prisoners up to London, under a strong guard. Leaving the old moated house and its many occupants, and now distracted with grief, Campion took horse at the door and rode slowly off, Elliott prancing in triumph at the head of the company – though the common people saluted him as ‘Judas’ all along the way.

The first halt was at Abingdon. Sympathetic Oxford scholars came down to see the last great light of the University under such a dark eclipse. One of their number, a certain Mr. Lytcot (probably one of the Lytcot brothers from Ruscombe), is recorded to have been overjoyed at seeing Campion and hoped he would give them a sermon. His captivity, of course, prevented this. As they sat at dinner that night, Elliott was evidently in the mood for a fight. He challenged his victim – “Mr. Campion, I know well you are wrath with me for this work!” – but the priest would not rise to the bait. He drew out a beautiful answer: sincere, composed, half-playful, “Nay, I forgive thee, and in token thereof, I drink to thee. Yea, and if thou wilt repent, and come to Confession, I will absolve thee, but large penance thou must have!” The following day, they travelled on to Henley and through Maidenhead to Colnbrook where, unfortunately, Sheriff Forster’s honourable treatment of his prisoners came to an end. New orders arrived from the Royal Council. They were now to make a public show of things. The prisoners' elbows were tied from behind, their wrists roped together in front and their feet fastened under the horses. Their leader was decorated with a note pinned to his hat on which, in large lettering, was inscribed, “Campion, the Seditious Jesuit”; and so, humiliated in this way, they were taken to the City and paraded through the streets to the Tower of London.

Campion was kept imprisoned for some months, being questioned in front of the Queen and, later, tortured a number of times. He was eventually tried at Westminster and condemned to death for conspiring to incite sedition and dethrone the monarch. He was hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn on 1 December 1581. Edmund was beatified by the Roman Catholic Church in 1886 and canonised in 1970.

A Note on the Identity of 'Mrs. Yate'

The exact identity of the 'Mrs. Yate' who is recorded to have entertained Edmund Campion at Lyford Grange has caused much confusion over the years. In 1581, the Grange was certainly the residence of Mr. Francis Yate (NB. there is no 's' on the end). He is known to have been in prison for his Catholic beliefs during the famous visit. The most popular theory, apparently based on the work of John G Hunt (1976), identifies this man's famous relative as Frances Yate (formerly White), his mother.

In fact Hunt only states that this lady was married to Francis' father, not that she was his mother. She could have been a step-mother. It was Francis' mother or step-mother who had joined the Brigittine nuns living in the house, as one of their number. The assumption that she was the lady of the house is presumably due to the misconception that Francis and his wife were in prison together. Jane was certainly imprisoned in London at some point, but it is not known if this was before or after the events in question. There is no evidence to suggest that Francis died in prison as is sometimes stated.

The marriage of Frances White of South Warnborough (Hampshire) to Francis Yate of Lyford is recorded in the contemporary Heralds' Visitations of Hampshire. Hunt dismissed this as impossible and claimed that Francis must have been a mistake for his father Thomas. Whilst he was correct in noting that such mistakes in the visitations were quite common, he gives no reasoning behind this bizarre supposition. A wife of Thomas Yate, and presumably the Brigittine nun, is recorded in the local parish registers as Anne or Agnes. She died in the Summer of 1580. She and Thomas would have been married in the late 1550s or very early 1560s, as the records of the manor Hurstbourne Fauconer (Hampshire) show that Thomas' first wife (married about 1540) and Francis' mother was Elizabeth Fauconer who died in or before 1562. Frances White could not have been a later wife of Thomas than Anne/Agnes, as he had died in 1565. She could not have been an earlier wife than Elizabeth either, for she would have been too young. Frances and her eighteen siblings were mostly (if not totally) born between 1531 and 1566 (the birth dates of her eldest and youngest brothers, Henry and Richard). She could just about have been a middle wife, but she would still have been dead before Thomas died in 1565. In fact, there is no reason at all to suppose that the visitations were not correct. Frances White did indeed marry Francis Yate, not Thomas.

As we have already seen, Francis Yate's step-mother died in the year before Campion came calling. So, we are left with the more obvious assumption, that 'Mrs. Yate' was Francis Yate's wife: but which one? As well as Frances White, Francis Yate is recorded as having married Jane Tichborne of Tichborne (Hampshire). In fact, a brief look at the local parish register reveals that Frances was his first wife and died in the Summer of 1569. So Campion's hostess was clearly his second wife, Jane.

Lyford Grange still stands within the remains of its moat, though much reduced in size since Campion's day. Made of timber and stone, it is mostly 16th century in date, though the western range dates back to the 13th century. It is a private residence, but the Knights of St. Columba are allowed to hold Mass there every July.

 Many thanks to Barbara Hymas for her help in researching the above article.

    © Nash Ford Publishing 2011. All Rights Reserved. The location of these events is now administered by Oxfordshire County Council.