February 21st - St. Robert Southwell
Saint Robert Southwell (c. 1561 - 21 February 1595) was an English Jesuit priest
and poet. He was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, and became a Catholic
martyr. He was born at Horsham St. Faith in Norfolk, England.
Southwell, the youngest of eight children, was brought up in a family of
Catholic gentry and educated at Douai. Thence he moved to Paris, where he was
placed under a Jesuit priest, Thomas Darbyshire. In 1580 he joined the Society
of Jesus after a two-year novitiate passed mostly at Tournai. In spite of his
youth, he was made prefect of studies in the Venerable English College at Rome
and was ordained priest in 1584.
It was in that year that an act was passed forbidding any English-born subject
of Queen Elizabeth, who had entered into priests' orders in the Roman Catholic
Church since her accession, to remain in England longer than forty days on pain
of death. But Southwell, at his own request, was sent to England in 1586 as a
Jesuit missionary with Henry Garnett. He went from one Catholic family to
another, administering the rites of his Church, and in 1589 became domestic
chaplain to Ann Howard, whose husband, the first earl of Arundel, was in prison
convicted of treason. It was to him that Southwell addressed his Epistle of
Comfort. This and other of his religious tracts, A Short Rule of Good Life,
Triumphs over Death, Mary Magdalen's Tears and a Humble Supplication to Queen
Elizabeth, were widely circulated in manuscript. That they found favor outside
Catholic circles is proved by Thomas Nash's imitation of Mary Magdalen's Tears
in Christ's Tears over Jerusalem.
After six years of successful labor, Southwell was arrested. He was in the habit
of visiting the house of Richard Bellamy, who lived near Harrow and was under
suspicion on account of his connection with Jerome Bellamy, who had been
executed for sharing in Anthony Babington's plot. One of the daughters, Anne
Bellamy, was arrested and imprisoned in the gatehouse of Holborn. She revealed
Southwell's movements to Richard Topcliffe, who immediately arrested him.
He was imprisoned at first in Topcliffe's house, where he was repeatedly put to
the torture in the vain hope of extracting evidence about other priests. He was
transferred to the gatehouse at Westminster, and when he was brought up for
examination after a month his clothes were covered with vermin. So abominable
was his treatment that his father petitioned Elizabeth that he might either be
brought to trial and put to death, if found guilty, or removed in any case from
that filthy hole. Southwell was then lodged in the Tower of London, and allowed
clothes and a bible and the works of St Bernard. His imprisonment lasted for 3
years, during which period he was tortured on ten occasions.
In 1595 the privy council passed a resolution for Southwell's prosecution on
charges of treason, and he was removed from the Tower to Newgate prison, where
he was put into a hole called Limbo.
A few days later Southwell appeared before the Lord Chief Justice, John Popham,
at the bar of the King's Bench. Popham made a speech against Jesuits and
seminary priests, and Southwell was indicted before the jury as a traitor under
the statutes prohibiting the presence within the kingdom of priests ordained by
Rome. Southwell admitted the facts but denied he had, "entertained any designs
or plots against the queen or kingdom". His only purpose, he said, in returning
to England had been to administer the sacraments according to the rite of the
Catholic Church to such as desired them. When asked to enter a plea, he declared
himself, "not guilty of any treason whatsoever", and objected to a jury being
made responsible for his death, before allowing that he would be tried by God
As the evidence were pressed, Southwell stated that he was the same age as, "our
Saviour": he was immediately reproved by Topcliffe for insupportable pride in
making the comparison, but said in response that he considered himself, "a worm
of the earth". After a brief recess, the jury returned with the predictable
guilty verdict. The sentence of death was pronounced - to be hung, drawn and
quartered. He was returned through the city streets to Newgate.
On the next day, February 20, 1595, Southwell was sent to Tyburn. Execution of
sentence on a notorious highwayman had been appointed for the same time, but at
a different place - perhaps to draw the crowds away - but many people came to
witness the priest's death. Having been dragged through the streets on a sled,
he stood in the cart beneath the gibbet and made the sign of the cross with his
pinioned hands, before reciting a Bible passage from Romans xiv. The sheriff
made to interrupt him, but he was allowed to address the people at some length,
confessing that he was a Jesuit priest and praying for the salvation of the
Queen and his country. As the cart was drawn away he commended his soul to God
with the words of the psalm in manus tuas. He hung in the noose for a brief
time, making the sign of the cross as best he could. As the executioner made to
cut him down, in preparation for bowelling him while still alive, Lord Mountjoy
and some other onlookers hung on his legs to hasten his death. His lifeless body
was then bowelled and quartered. As his severed head was displayed to the crowd
no one shouted the traditional, "Traitor!"
There is little doubt that much of Southwell's poetry, none of which was
published during his lifetime, was written in prison. St Peter's Complaint with
other poems was published in April 1595, without the author's name, and was
reprinted thirteen times during the next forty years. A supplementary volume
entitled Maeoniae appeared later in 1595; and A Foure fould Meditation of the
foure last things in 1606.
This, which is not included in A. B. Grosart's reprint (1872) in the Fuller
Worthies Library, was published by Charles Edmonds in his Isham Reprints (1895).
A Hundred Meditations of the Love of God, in prose, was first printed from a
manuscript at Stonyhurst College in 1873. This last work was believed to be
written by Southwell, but in fact it is his translation from an Italian version
of a Spanish document, "Meditaciones devotissimas amor Dios", written by Fray
Diego de Estella and published in Salamanca in 1576.
Southwell's poetry is euphemistic in manner. His frequent use of antithesis and
paradox, the varied and fanciful imagery by which he realizes religious emotion,
though they are indeed in accordance with the poetical conventions of his time,
are also the unconstrained expression of an ardent and concentrated imagination.
Ben Jonson told Drummond of Hawthornden that he would willingly have destroyed
many of his own poems to be able to claim as his own Southwell's Burning Babe,
an extreme but beautiful example of his fantastic treatment of sacred subjects.
His poetry is not, however, all characterized by this elaboration. Immediately
preceding that piece in his collected works is a carol written in terms of the
Southwell's poems were also edited by William Barclay Turnbull (1811-1863) in
1856. A memoir of him was drawn up soon after his death.
Much of the material was incorporated by Bishop Challoner in his Memoir of
Missionary Priests (1741), and the manuscript is now in the Public Record Office
in Brussels. See also Alexis Possoz, Vie du Pre R. Southwell (1866); and a life
in Henry Foley's Records of the English Province of the Society of Jesus
historic facts illustrative of the labors and sufferings of its members in the
16th and 17th centuries, 1877 (i. 301387). Foley's narrative includes copies of
the most important documents connected with his trial, and gives full
information on the original sources.
Southwell was beatified in 1929 and canonized by Pope Paul VI as one of the
Forty Martyrs of England and Wales on 25 October 1970.
In the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, Southwell and his companion and associate
Henry Garnet were noted for their allegiance to the Doctrine of mental
reservation, a controversial ethical concept of the period.
* Bishop Challoner, Memoirs of Missionary Priests and other Catholics of
both sexes that have Suffered Death in England on Religious Accounts from the
year 1577 to 1684 (Manchester, 1803) vol. I, p. 175ff.
* This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh
Edition, a publication now in the public domain.