Robert Southwell

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Saint Robert Southwell (c. 1561 – 21 February 1595) was an English Jesuit priest and poet. He was hanged at Tyburn, and became a Catholic martyr. He was born at Horsham St. Faith in Norfolk, England.


  • 1 Early life in England
  • 2 Arrest and imprisonment
  • 3 Trial and execution
  • 4 Legacy
  • 5 References
  • 6 External links

Early life in England

Southwell, the youngest of eight children, was brought up in a family of Catholic aristocrats 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.

Arrest and imprisonment

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.

Trial and execution

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 in to 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 and country.

As the proofs were presented, 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 short deliberation the jury returned a guilty verdict. The sentence of death was pronounced - to be hung, drawn and quartered - and the prisoner returned through the city streets to Limbo.

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, 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 some time, making the sign of the cross as best he could. Some of the onlookers tugged at his legs to hasten his death, and his body was then bowelled and quartered.


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 euphuistic 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 utmost simplicity.

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 JesusH 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.
  • The Burning Babe
  • A Vale of Tears
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