Scarier than fiction

The PBS hit series “Downton Abbey,” brought to America from Britain, is fiction, and its figures are fictitious. Even so, again and again critics have complimented the series for the very sound history that surrounds it.

For example, one of the three daughters of the Earl and Countess of Grantham, Sybil, develops a relationship with Tom, the Irish chauffeur. For her parents, it is a most unwelcomed turn of events. Sybil and Tom are at opposite ends of the social ladder. Tom is much into the movement, so strong around 1920, to secure Irish independence from London.

Nevertheless, Sybil and Tom are married. A baby daughter comes, and Sybil tragically dies in childbirth.

Another crisis occurs when Tom announces that the baby will be baptized a Roman Catholic, as he is Catholic. Sybil’s father is horrified. His mother, “Granny,” calmly notes that it is not all bad, as her “good friend, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk” is “more Catholic than the pope.” In other words, having a Catholic granddaughter will not be the end of the earl’s world.

Someone did some research. The dukes of Norfolk, in fact, throughout the centuries since King Henry VIII’s break with the Church, have never deserted the Catholic Faith. The family is Catholic to this day, one of England’s oldest noble families.

Recently, someone threw up to me the Spanish Inquisition in which Protestants were tortured and killed, preferably by being burned alive. I answered that those were grim times indeed. Every power played for keeps, and religion was the battle cry, but Catholics also have had their taste of persecution over the years.

I said that on my office wall are two framed pictures. One is of St. Edmund Campion and the other is of the church in Prague, now in the Czech Republic, where he celebrated his first Mass.

St. Edmund was born in London and became a recognized scholar at Oxford. He decided that he wished to be a Catholic priest, but the last English seminary long before had been shut down. So, he studied in France, Rome and in what today is the Czech Republic. Hence he celebrated his first Mass in Prague.

A Jesuit, he was sent by his superiors back to England. He went eagerly, hoping to help the Catholics who persevered in England to keep their faith. He had to travel under an assumed name and spend much time literally in hiding.

He was not active for long. “Priest-hunters,” as they were called, found him and arrested him.

Then began a very gruesome story, all the more appalling since so many others met the same fate as that which awaited St. Edmund. Held in the dark, dank dungeons of the Tower of London, he was repeatedly, and unmercifully, tortured. After one such session, he said that he thought that his tormentors intended to kill him, their torture was so savage.

At his trial, he was called to testify. Torture had so weakened his arms that he could not raise his hand to take the oath. An officer of the court had to lift his arm for him, and this officer later wrote that as he did so he noticed that all of Campion’s fingernails had been pulled out from their roots, another act of torture.

St. Edmund did not stand a chance. He admitted being a Catholic and a priest. Summarily, he was convicted of just that and sentenced to death.

Execution at the time meant being tied to a table, spread-eagle. There, executioners — butchers in reality — systematically sawed off limbs and disemboweled the prisoner, who would be alive until presumably blood loss and unbearable pain caused death.

We Catholics have our horror stories, too.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.