An Account of His Life in Riddle and Rhyme, By Thomas Pounde of Belmont

By Alison Habens

Part II

(Part I can be found here)

This is a story of four thousand words. When Tripp and Crowley had moved on to torment another soul, I was able to read and write in peace again. My chains tied me to the Marshalsea bedrock but, mercifully, I could sit comfortably as a monk to meditate and pen my philosophy all day and most of the night. I’d written and received many illuminating letters from supporters and friends; and wrote much to my foes, too.

A guard took the parchment scrolls to send along the lines of the golden vine. Some posted messages for money; but many were family, now; I’d given them Holy Communion. From my underground cavern, I kept in touch with the whole catholic world. Each glowing strand that left the gaol was soon woven into the glorious vineyard. News came back frequently: which priests had been caught, which citizens fined, which prisoners hung. Through snaking threads of information, I first learnt the name Edmond Campion; whispered by a lay brother, written in a seditious letter.

My age, local; Campion was also a soldier of Jesus, preaching in Ireland, studying at Douai, teaching in Prague. Now he’d come to London again, disguised as a jewel seller, to shine the souls of those who lived under an illegitimate queen. Now he’d come to stir the hearts of her protestant people. This was the word on the street, in the court, in the church: but in the prison cell I heard the truth. Edmund Campion was no politician but a priest, forbidden to deal with matters of state or policies of the realm, even if he wished to.

He broke Roman bread, baptised and bead-blessed and bowed to the statue of a virgin crowned with flowers. He cared neither for king nor queen on earth, as he served in the kingdom of heaven. The news-vine was groaning with doom; somebody should warn this innocent confessor that England would misread him.

There was another way out of the damp, debtors’ prison than paying. The door had slowly opened to me as I converted this place into my next church from the inside. Key clergy were lurking in its dank aisles; letting out chinks of light. I was able to pass through locked and bolted gates that night and, on borrowed horseback, gallop to the house of a certain Catholic nobleman where Campion was staying.

They burned beeswax and drank Canary wine in this company. Learned brethren, sitting in earnest conference round a polished walnut table. They had all heard of me. Even those scholars I’d never met before; they’d all heard of Thomas Pondus S.J.

I quickly explained why I’d come: Father Campion was in danger. If caught and charged, the word would be death to him and damage to the church. To stop his work being misconstrued, I suggested he should write a statement of facts. Better to address the Privy Council now; than stretched upon the rack.

Seeing the wisdom of this, he picked up his pen and for some half hour wrote without stopping, save to dip his swan-feather in ink. Though the other men were talking to me, I watched my brother Edmund writing. For some half hour without stopping I sat on a velvet cushion and ate purple grapes from a dish, watching a sermon unscroll on his face.

Making a second copy took more precious minutes while I waited anxiously to make my return journey to Marshalsea. That house call, to the smell of lavender and the touch of silver and the glimpse of lemon-skinned women; it confirmed, for me, that my calling was the monk’s cell, and my level of sensory deprivation the very highest; ‘prepared as I hope for weale and woe.’ **

I was permitted to take the copy of Father’s essay into my safekeeping. Already accused of Papistry, I might not be searched again for new sin. The original version was sealed and handed to another priest who was present that night. By God’s grace, I can reveal the following conclusion to its saga; a nun of Hampshire came to be concealing this antique document. She was caught, charged and incarcerated in the dungeon of Winchester Castle, last heard of in utter silence, giving her modest life for ‘Campion’s Brag’.

I galloped back to my captivity as quick as I could with bones rack-cracked and muscles wasted. At the prison’s back gate, down a dire alleyway, I handed the horse to its owner. Criminals both, traitor and jailer, we said three Hail Marys together before he locked me up again.

The copy wasn’t sealed. I read what Father Edmund had written in golden candlelight on a cushioned chair; I read it by a dismal flame as I lay on damp bedrock. His words stirred me to the biggest battle yet. I’d taken Newgate and Marshalsea prisons from the inside, as a soldier of Christ, building strongholds on my bleeding flesh. But Campion had taken on England at large: her defeat or his death. I realised I hadn’t been fighting hard enough as I read his words to her people:

‘We are determined never to give you over but either win you for heaven or die upon your pikes.

‘And touching our societie, be it known unto you, that we have made a league of Jesuits; cheerfully to carry the cross that god shall lay upon us, and never to despair your recoverie, till we have a man left to enjoy your Tiborne, or to be racked with your torments, or to be consumed by your prisons.

‘The expense is reckoned, the enterprise is begun; it is of God, and cannot be withstood.’ **

This is a story of two words. What they called me at Campion’s trial: os impudens. My constant interruptions might have been out of order. They had brought me from the Tower to be tried alongside him, locked in the stocks. It was hard to consult legal notes in that position, so my defence may have been shaky.

But their judgement was wrong. God could not concur with it. Edmund Campion was the best soul alive; in every way he was better than me. He gave the Latin oration aged thirteen; when Queen Mary visited his school, Christ’s Hospital. But he went on to Oxford, taking a BA and an MA and, when the Catholics had to flee that university, he helped found another in Rome.

I had none of his academic qualifications or teaching experience; better looks, perhaps, and friends in higher places, ie. Southampton. Of we Christian soldiers the highest rank had the hardest challenge. That perfect man was hanged, drawn and quartered at the behest of a poxy queen. And I was made to watch, as a punishment, the martyring of Father Campion, on 1st December 1581.

He was the winner, singing the Te Deum as if this was what God hoped would happen, how He wanted the end to be. When I first met him, Edmond told how he’d dreaded this commission; how he’d feared, as England chalked her cliffs on the horizon, he would die upon these shores. Then, it was his faith kept him headed on course; now his faith, increased measure for measure by his suffering, made him sing.

We could not be beaten. We fought nobody but ourselves. ‘For we have vowed to win this realm again to the Catholicke faith, and that without anie bloodshed, except our own, at God’s permission.’ ** This was a holy war: no bodies broken but Christ’s, no hostages taken but us.

As he had foreseen, Father Campion was able to enjoy their Tyburn. He had the pleasure of being dragged there by horses. He had the thrill of being hung until nearly dead.  But alive enough to know when his privy parts were cut off, and his innards split and spilt onto the sizzling fire. He had the joy of being disembowelled in public; but surely his fun ended there. He would not have felt it when his head was cut off; the pain was watching his fellow priests Sherwin and young Briant meet their same fates, moments before him.

And he didn’t know it when his proud form was hacked into quarters and trundled naked to be displayed in every corner of the country. The pile of white limbs waved a sundry warning as the cart rolled past their own heads, nailed up in a row on the railings by Tower hill.

That day the river, blood flow to the city’s heart, behaved as none had ever seen. At first the tide drained very low, so there was the merest stream under London Bridge and many suspicious things were revealed in lumpy sacks and rust-locked chests. But then the tide flowed in again so fast and high that people in Thames Street got their feet wet. Lamphrey men lost their nets and eel men their pots to the fisher folk of Richmond, as it seemed:

‘The scowling skies did storm and puff apace,
they could not bear the wrong that malice wrought,
the sun drew in his shining purple face,
the moistened clouds shed brinish tears for thought,
the river Thames awhile astonished stood
to count the drops of Campion’s sacred blood.’ ***

This is a story of nine verses. When they threw me in the Tower, night of Campion’s death, my grief was great as any before had found relief in the pouring of oak-gall on prison pages. That time, there was no light; I lay in inky gloom, yet to shine upon some open-hearted warder at the cell door who might bring me a piece of paper.

Because I could not write them down, my feelings fell as poetry, then; with rhythm to help me recall what I’d witnessed. There were nine stanzas of six lines each, with an ABABCC rhyme scheme. Slick; but any public school boy could do it. As an ode, it didn’t deal with the devastating personal and political issues arising from my brother’s execution.

I may have played a part in St. Edmund Campion’s capture and killing. My Six Reasons drew attention to his Decem Rationes. I leaked the original document he wrote, that inspired half-hour in the Strand, and gave away the copy to a cellmate.

I caused spiritual crisis, Mercury as Jesus, in every prison they put me. Except for six months in solitary confinement at the Bishop’s Stortford castle. Buried underground, ice cold and iron chained, with one slice of bread and one cup of water a day. Many days I didn’t take it. Every day I wished I’d been taken with Campion; and my parboiled members were giving the eternal peace salute in all four quarters of the kingdom.

But then, they let me out of there. Good Queen Bess was not allowed to forget her Sir Ox. My cousin, third Earl of Southampton, glittered on the court scene, pretty and a witty lip close to the ears of privy councillors and famous playwrights. And though his words could not save me, only mine would do that, his whisper was a salve.

So I was sent to Wisbech, to continue my sentence for another twenty years in this crumbling castle on the Fens. We could have built Jerusalem in flat, wet Cambridgeshire for thirty three of England’s Catholic priests were held there. But each was trying to turn the prison into his own church from within, and the old clergy did clash with our new Christian army.

I wrote my long poem in that stone edifice and polished its couplets smoother than anything else around there but some of the padres’ shiny pates. The horror was shifted; from my heart to my hand, from holding to held. So much for the Rhyme.

And the Riddle is this. I spent my life writing and fighting; and most of it as a prisoner of that war. I had talent and passion and a cause to fight for. I could shout through brick walls. From inside a prison, I could publish my opinion. From the dungeon, my word could be heard; though crudely cut and misquoted by those whoresons, Tripp and Crowley.

It is no matter, not being sainted, or having a feast day, or a school named for me. Dying peacefully at Belle Monde, in the seventy fifth year of my age, does not compare with the sacrifice made by my brother Edmund Campion. But I spilled my blood on precious paper, and wouldn’t want that page wasted.

My tale has the following end: we fought something rotten at Wisbech so the whole monastery was removed to a further castle, at Framlington, till the old queen deceased and King James told us all to go home.

That was four hundred years ago. I died in 1614. And by God’s grace, it was like shouting through brick walls; by the power of the Holy Spirit, it was like crying from a stone cell, to have my thoughts heard again from heaven and my words remembered on earth. Though it transpires there is no difference, hereafter, between the Protestants and the Puritans and me. Ad maiorem Dei glorium, 2014.

This is the story of a word. Or a story of the word: an account of his life by Thomas Pondus S.J. I have called upon a servant of the Lord, living in the view of Belmont, though its present face is changed, to publish my own testament, for which she will be well paid.

NB. All historical facts and figures are found in the glowing threads of the glorious World Wide Web:

** – Jesuits in conflict, Thomas Pounde of Belmont

*** Hieronymopolis – Thomas Pounde’s poem from prison upon the occasion of Edmund Campion’s martyrdom