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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXIII, No. 2
Pentecost 2008

"A Giant Among the Papists"
The extraordinary life of Saint Robert Southwell, poet, priest and martyr

by Fiorella Nash

Saint Robert Southwell is a much-neglected English martyr, but he was one of the most attractive and talented members of his generation. As a poet, Southwell was admired by Catholic and Protestant alike and his poetry went through more editions than the foremost poets of the day. As a priest he was both loved and despised as “a giant among the Papists”. His writing was heavily influenced by his life in continental Europe but he remains the most English of saints.

Southwell was born in 1561 in a house built on the ruins of a priory. His nominally Catholic family had been made wealthy by the dissolution of the monasteries, meaning that Southwell spent his childhood surrounded by the relics of England’s Catholic heritage. It is a pity that more is not known about his childhood, as it was the only period of security that he was ever to experience and even then it was not without its adventures. While still an infant, he was stolen from his cradle by a gypsy woman who was said to be overwhelmed by his beauty, and later found again by his nurse. The story sounds like something out of a fairy tale but it made a profound impression on Southwell’s life and he never forgot the debt he owed his nurse.

If Southwell had chosen to conform to the established Church he could have enjoyed the quiet, comfortable life of a wealthy landowner. If he had been more ambitious, he could have had a career at Elizabeth’s court. Instead, at the age of fourteen, he made the illegal journey to the Continent to begin his studies at Douai, France, where there was an English Catholic mission, knowing that he might never see England or his family again. Tragically, by the time he returned to England his mother had died.

In his open letter to the queen, “An Humble Supplication Unto Her Maiestie”, Southwell described seminary life in the following terms:

The place is in exile, the Rules strict, the government austere, our wills broken, the least faults chastised, and a most absolute virtue exacted.

The English mission was not for faint-hearted priests. They were being trained to face torture and possible execution, but also the everyday trials of an unsettled existence. Unfor-tunately for Southwell, he encountered political turbulence when he was still a student and he was forced to move between Douai, where the college-in-exile had been established for Catholic priests during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (the town also gave its name to the Douay-Rheims translation of the Bible), and Paris and eventually the English College in Rome.

It was during this time, however, that young Southwell was encouraged to begin writing plays, poems and his spiritual diaries. His spiritual diaries, only discovered and published in translation in the twentieth century, provide a fascinating insight into the spiritual journey of an extraordinary young man called not just to the priesthood but to sainthood and martyrdom.

Southwell’s bid to enter the Society of Jesus, made at the age of seventeen, was initially refused and caused the young man the greatest spiritual crisis of his life. He was accepted the next year, however, and became so respected that he was later made prefect of studies at the English College, a daunting task at a time when feuds within the College were known to result in drawn swords and English spies were attempting to infiltrate. It is difficult not to shudder at the descriptions of quarreling factions within a Catholic community in such danger or to help feeling a certain empathy with Southwell’s impassioned diatribe against scandal in the Church:

Frequently consider what great harm has come to the Christian Commonwealth through the unworthiness, the quarrelsomeness and the obstinacy of religious ... so that at the present time nearly everywhere the name of religious is a synonym for rogue.… We therefore, who last of all have enrolled ourselves as religious under the most holy name of Jesus are under an obligation to be the light of the world by the modesty of our behavior, the fervor of our charity, the innocence of our lives and the examples of our virtues.

Southwell was no brainwashed fanatic. He was painfully aware of the human failings of the Church, but rather than becoming bitter and cynical, he embraced the challenge that his generation were being given.

In early May 1586, Southwell and his fellow-priest Henry Garnet were called to England. Henry Garnet became the English provincial of the Jesuits and was executed a decade after Southwell in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot — the failed attempt on November 5, 1605, of a group of provincial Catholics to assassinate King James I and blow up the Houses of Parliament.

He was cheerful about their mission, describing them as “two arrows shot at the same mark”, but Southwell was clearly frightened when it came to it, writing an anguished letter to the Father General whilst they waited for a boat to take them across the Channel. He had reason to feel daunted. The life expectancy of a priest on the English mission was not considerable and the English spy network was on the trail of the two priests from the moment they left Italy.

Once in England, the priests took on false identities and disguises when they traveled between “safe houses”, Catholic homes where a priest could find protection from authorities. Ironically for a man known best for the violent death he suffered, Southwell was a natural survivor and worked for six years under the noses of the authorities. On one occasion the priest-hunters came to the house where he was hiding and refused to leave, convinced that he was somewhere in the building. By the time they had been persuaded to leave the house where the priest was hidden, he was barely conscious, exhausted and faint with hunger. One wonders, reading his poem meditating on the Agony in the Garden, whether he is recalling the lonely, frightening hours he spent hiding in the darkness whilst his enemies ripped oak paneling from the walls and threatened members of the household.

When Christ with care and pangs of death oppressed
From frighted flesh a bloody sweat did rain,
And full of fear without repose or rest
In agony did pray and watch in pain
Three sundry times He His Disciples finds
With heavy eyes but far more heavy minds.

Through the patronage of Lady Anne Dacre, whose husband, Philip Howard, was in the Tower under sentence of death, Southwell was able to concentrate more on writing. Southwell’s poetry remained popular until the time of the Civil War, influencing better-known writers such as Donne, Herbert and Shakespeare. It is difficult to use the word “ecumenical” in the context of Elizabethan Christianity, but he can be said to form a model of true ecumenism. He was not prepared to compromise on his beliefs and went to his death proclaiming the truth of the Catholic faith, but his spiritual vision was accessible to all. One of his most beautiful poems, a powerful reflection on the Nativity, reveals the poet’s sense of awe at the presence of God in the person of a helpless baby:

This little babe so few days old,
Is come to rifle Satan’s fold.
All hell doth at His presence quake,
Though He Himself for cold do shake;
For in this weak unarmed wise
The gates of hell He will surprise.

When Southwell was finally betrayed, he was taken to the house of Richard Topcliffe, a man known for his sadistic hatred of priests, who was described by a twentieth-century commentator as “an atrocious psychopath”. Topcliffe claimed in a letter to the queen that Southwell was “a most lewd and dangerous man” and that he “never did take so weighty a person”.

Torture was widely used, but even by the standards of the time, Topcliffe’s torture of Southwell was considered brutal in the extreme. On ten separate occasions, he was hung up against a wall by the wrists so that he could only just touch the ground, a procedure that caused excruciating pain, massive internal injury and eventual suffocation. Conveniently, it left no marks. On one occasion, William Cecil watched the proceedings and commented: “They boast about the heroes of antiquity … but we have a new torture which it is not possible for a man to bear. And yet I have seen Robert Southwell hanging by it, still as a tree-trunk, and no one able to drag one word from his mouth.” Topcliffe finally gave up and Southwell spent the next three years in the Tower before being put on trial.

Southwell knew the moment he was led into the courtroom that he would be convicted — the fact of being a priest alone carried the death sentence. Nevertheless, the trial must have been almost as agonizing as the torture chamber, as he was too physically weak to speak above a whisper and was repeatedly shouted down. The jury took less than fifteen minutes to pronounce him guilty.

Public hangings were intended to draw crowds and offer powerful incentives against dissent, but in Southwell’s case, the authorities were keen to draw attention away from him. The execution of a famous highwayman was scheduled for the same day but the crowds turned up anyway. Among them was a relative of Southwell’s who walked beside him as he was dragged through the streets on a hurdle. Once at the scaffold, he addressed the crowd and prayed for the queen. The usual procedure was for the condemned man to hang alive for several minutes, then to be cut down and disemboweled whilst still conscious, but when the sheriff gave the signal to cut him down, members of the crowd shouted for him to be left alone. Others mounted the scaffold and pulled on his body to end his suffering.

Southwell’s life was cut short at just thirty-three years of age, and it is difficult when reading his poetry not to wonder what literary masterpieces he might have penned if he had lived long enough to reach maturity. However, in his reflections on the violent death he knew he was likely to suffer, Southwell never saw the sacrifice of his young life as a tragedy. In his poem dedicated to Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, he wrote:

Rue not my death, rejoice at my repose
It was no death to me but to my woe
The bud was opened to let out the Rose
The chains unloos’d to let the captive go.

Quite often it is the death rather than the life of the martyr that is most remembered, but Southwell’s death, violent and moving as it was, was the culmination of a life of service to God, in which his childhood, student days, priesthood, literary career and imprisonment all played their parts. The overarching theme of Southwell’s life and death can be found in one of his early poems:

God is my gift, Himself He freely gave me;
God’s gift am I, and none but God shall have me.

It is the motto of a sixteenth-century priest and martyr, but is also perhaps the simplest and most profound description of the Christian life today.

Fiorella Nash is a pro-life campaigner and writer based in the UK. You can visit her website at Her Catholic Truth Society booklet on the life of Saint Robert Southwell can be ordered at or CTS, 40-46 Harleyford Road, Vauxhall, London SE11 5AY.

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