Saint Robert Southwell, Priest SJ and Martyr

Robert Southwell was born at Horsham St Faith in Norfolk, England in 1561, the son of Sir Robert Southwell. Robert at first resisted the pressures to join the Church of England but later conformed. In May 1576, he enrolled in the English College at Douai, Flanders and later studied in Paris where he met the Jesuit Thomas Darbyshire. He expressed a desire to join the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) at the age of 17, but was considered too young. Then, not unlike Stanislaus Kostka, he walked all the way to Rome and was accepted in 1578. He was made Prefect of Studies at the English College in Rome and ordained priest in 1584.

He was then assigned to the mission in England and left Rome on 8 May, 1586, with Fr Henry Garnet. To avoid capture, they landed on a secluded stretch of the English coast. Southwell was assigned to work in and about London. He spent his seven years there first with the Vaux family, and then with Anne Dacres, Countess of Arundel, whose husband Sir Philip Howard was imprisoned in the Tower for his fidelity to the Catholic faith. Southwell’s ministry involved visiting prison and helping priests who had recently arrived in England. When Henry Garnet came to London, Southwell was able to visit places outside London. He worked with Garnet on a secret press that issued catechisms and religious books.

After six fruitful years, Southwell was finally betrayed. Anne Bellamy, a Catholic, had been put in prison for refusing to attend a Protestant service. There she was made pregnant by the notorious priest-hunter, Richard Topcliffe. He promised to marry her if she would cooperate in setting a trap for Southwell. Southwell was caught and arrested at Uxenden in Middlesex. Topcliffe regarded Southwell as his greatest catch. In Topcliffe’s house next to the Gatehouse Prison, Southwell was subjected to several days of extreme torture but refused to reveal the names of Catholics or priests after 13 periods of torture. Finally, he was thrown among poor prisoners in Newgate Prison. His father was allowed to visit him and was horrified at the sight of his son. He asked Queen Elizabeth to treat him as a gentleman – release him or execute him. Southwell was moved to better conditions in the Tower, but denied visitors. Here he spent two and half years, and expressed his deepest feelings in writings that were later published as St Peter’s Complaint.

He was finally brought to trial on 20 February, 1595 at Westminster Hall. He admitted being a Catholic priest, but denied the charges of plots against the queen. Found guilty of high treason by a packed jury, he was executed the very next day.

On the three-hour journey to Tyburn he was dragged through the streets. And, because the hanging noose was not properly tied, he did not die when the cart was pulled away from under him. The hangman mercifully hung on to his feet to end the agony. The he was beheaded and quartered. He died on 21 February, 1595, at 34 years of age.

The event shocked both the royal court and the country. Like his fellow-Jesuit Edmund Campion (whose feast is celebrated on 1 Dec), he had a particularly keen intelligence and sensitive personality. He was a distinguished writer both of prose and lyric poetry. His most famous works include: An Epistle of Comfort (letters addressed to Philip Howard), An Humble Supplication to Her Majestie (an exposure of the Babington Plot), Mary Magdalen’s Funeral Tears (1594), A short Rule of Good Life (published posthumously in 1598) and A Fourfold Meditation (1606). His best known poems are The Burning Babe and St. Peter’s Complaint (a long narrative of the Life of Christ). Works which feature in any serious anthology of English literature.

A portrait in crayon, based on a lost oil painting, survives at the Jesuit Stonyhurst College in Lancashire. He was canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1970 as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.

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