Born: 1561, Horsham, Norfolk, England
Died: 22 Feb 1594/1595, Tyburn
Father: Richard SOUTHWELL (Sir Knight)
Mother: Bridget COPLEY
Poet, Jesuit, martyr; son of Sir Richard Southwell and his first wife, Bridget Copley, Queen Elizabeth's governess; born at the old Benedictine priory of Horsham St. Faith's, Norfolk, England, in 1561; hanged at Tyburn, 21 Feb, 1595. His grandfather, Sir Richard Southwell, had been a wealthy man and a prominent courtier in the reign of Henry VIII. It was Richard Southwell who in 1547 had brought the poet Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, to the block, and Surrey had vainly begged to be allowed to "fight him in his shirt". Curiously enough their respective grandsons, Father Southwell and Phillip, Earl of Arundel, were to be the most devoted of friends and fellow-prisoners for the Faith.
On his mother's side the Jesuit was descended from the Copley and Shelley families, whence a remote connexion may be established between him an the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Robert is the mystic among the English martyrs, though circumstances made him a man of action and bold adventure. Fire, sweetness, purity, and gentleness were features of Robert Southwell's nature. Once as a child, he was stolen by gypsies, who were numerous in the great woods surrounding Saint Faith's. His nurse found him again. Robert referred to this misadventure often. "What had I remained with the gipsy? How abject, how void of all knowledge and reverence of God! In what shameful vices, in how great danger of infamy, in how certain danger of an unhappy death and eternal punishment!" On his return to England as a missionary, the first person he visited was his old nurse, whom he tried to lead back to the Roman Catholic Church.
Robert Southwell was brought up a Catholic, and at a very early age was sent to be educated at Douai, where he was the pupil in philosophy of a Jesuit of extraordinary austerity of life, the famous Leonard Lessius. There Robert met John Cotton, who later operated a safehouse in London. After spending a short time in Paris Robert was inspired with intense enthusiasm for the Society of Jesus and begged entry at once, though he was too young. He was bitterly disappointed, but on the feast of Saint Faith (fortuitously on 17 Oct 1578) he was received into the order in Rome as a novice. He spent his novitiate in Tournai, but took his vows and, in 1584, was ordained to the priesthood in Rome, where for a time he was prefect of studies in the English College. At this time he began to attract a good deal of attention by his poems. He corresponded with Mr. Parsons, the leader of the Jesuit mission in England. He was worried that many who had been faithful Catholics were now sliding into the Church of England to avoid the fine for every service from which they absented themselves. Many families held out until they were financially ruined; then they would attempt to make their way to the continent and live on alms.
In 1586 he was sent on the English mission with Father Henry Garnet, found his first refuge with Lord Vaux of Harrowden, and was known under the name of Cotton.
Though Robert Southwell knew how his journey to England would end, he returned to serve among those Catholics who were still willing to venture life and welfare by hearing a Mass and receiving the Sacraments. BEF his departure he wrote to the general of hte Jesuits, Claudius Acquaviva, "I address you, my Father, from the threshold of death, imploring the aid of your prayers... that I may either escape the death of the body for further use, or endure it with courage". Most of the remaining Catholics were to be found in the countryside. Most were content to long for better days and hope that a priest could be smuggled into their sickroom before their deaths. On the other hand, among the actively militant there was a wonderful cohesion and a mutual helpfulness and affection that recalled the days of the primitive Church. But thes little congregations that assembled before dawn in a secret room of some remote manor house never knew if a traitor might be in their midst.
Southwell rode about the countryside in disguise, saying Mass, hearing confessions, celebrating marriages, baptizing, re-admitting apostates, giving the Sacraments to the dying. He even managed to visit Catholics in prison and say Mass there. Time after time he miraculously managed to elude his pursuers. Much of Southwell's correspondence during this period has been preserved and provides many insights into the events and attitudes of the period. These were hard times. In one letter he requests permission to consecrate chalices and altar slabs (usually reserved to the Bishop), so much had been taken away in the constant searching of the homes of Catholics that such things were becoming scarce.
His letters home also reveal Robert's anxiety about the salvation of his father, Sir Richard, and one of his brothers, Thomas. The soul of the poet is evident when he writes his brother: "Shrine not any longer a dead soul in a living body: bail reason out of senses' prison, that after so long a bondage in sin, you may enjoy your former liberty in God's Church, and free your thought from servile awe of uncertain perils... Weigh with yourself at how easy a price you rate God, Whom you are content to sell for hte use of your substance... Look if you can upon a crucifix without blushing; do not but count the five wounds of Christ once over without a bleeding conscience". Thomas was won back to the faith and died in exile in the Netherlands. His father died in prison after Robert's martyrdom, but it is unknown whether he, too, suffered for the faith.
As chronicled in Robert's letters, the persecution intensified after the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Captured Catholics used their trials in defense of the faith. Robert tried to remain at large for as long as possible by adopting disguises and using the alias of Mr. Cotton, a poor, unkempt, and socially awkward young man.
Robert was a priest in London from 1584 to 1592. About 1590, Robert Southwell became chaplain to Anne Dacre, Countess of Arundel, who was being told lies about her now-faithful husband, Phillip, Earl of Arundel.
To Southwell, Earl Phillip wrote from prison that his greatest sorrow was that he would never see his wife again. "I call Our Lord to witness that as no sin grieves me so much as my offenses to that party [Anne], so no worldly things makes me loather to depart hence than that I cannot live to make that party satisfaction, according to my most ardent and affectionate desire. Afflictio dat intellectum (affliction gives understanding)".
During the time that Fr. Southwell was concealed in Arundel House in London, he corresponded with Phillip Howard because of their mutual affection for Anne Dacre and because of their shared faith and shared interest in poetry. Southwell holds a place in English literature as a religious poet. Ben Jonson remarked to Drummond that "Southwell was hanged, yet so he [Jonson] had written that piece of his 'The Burning Babe' he would have been content to destroy many of his". Many of Southwell's poems, apologetic tracts, and devotional books were published on a private printing press installed at Arundel House. Father Southwell's prose elegy, "Triumphs over Death", was addressed to the Earl to console him for the premature death of Lady Margaret Sackville, the Earl's half-sister's, and his "Hundred Meditations on the love of God", originally written for her use, were ultimately transcribed by another hand, to present to her daughter Lady Beauchamp.
Robert Southwell was betrayed in 1592 by Anne Bellamy. After giving her absolution during her confinement with a family in Holborn, he told her that he would offer Mass in the secret room in her father Richard's home in Harrow on 20 Jun 1592. She reported this to Richard Topcliffe, one of the most notorious for hunting down priests. He was arrested at Uxendon Hall, Harrow, the house of Anne Bellamy's father. Topcliffe, who effected the capture, wrote exultingly to the Queen: "I never did take so weighty a man, if he be rightly used". Robert Southwell was arrested while still wearing his vestments. Southwell was immediately tortured upon arrival at Topcliffe's Westminster home, for two days he was hung up by the wrists against a wall, so that he could barely touch the floor with the tips of his toes.
When he was at the point of death, his tormentors revived him, hung him up again, and prodded him to reveal the names of other priests and for information to condemn Lady Arundel. All he would confess was that he was a Jesuit priest. He gave no information, not even the color of the horse on which he had riden, that would allow them to find other Catholics. Southwell's steadfastness led several of the witnesses, including the Treasurer Sir Robert Cecil, to whisper that he must indeed be a saint.
He was taken from Topcliffe's house to a filthy cell in the Gatehouse and left for a month. His father, seeing him covered with lice, begged the Queen to treat his son as the gentleman he was. She obliged by having Southwell moved to a cleaner cell and permitting his father to send him clean clothes and other necessities, including a Bible and the writings of Saint Bernard.
Robert Southwell was moved to the Tower of London, where he was imprisoned for three years and tortured 13 times, according to Cecil. Many of his poems on death, including "Saint Peter's Complaint," were written in the Tower. Not once was he given the opportunity to confess his sins or say Mass.
He was allowed only one visit, from his sister. Communication with Phillip Howard was limited to notes smuggled between their cells. Because Arundel's dog would sometimes follow the warder into Southwell's cell, the lieutenant of the Tower mocked that he supposed the dog had gone to get the priest's blessing. Howard replied, "Marry! it is no news for irrational creatures to seek blessings at the hands of holy men. Saint Jerome writes how those lions which had digged with their paws Saint Paul the Hermit's grave stood after waiting with their eyes upon Saint Antony expecting his blessing".
Finally, Southwell entreated Cecil to bring him to trial or permit him visitors. To which Cecil answered, "if he was in so much haste to be hanged, he should quickly have his desire". Shortly thereafter he was taken to Newgate Prison and placed in the underground dungeon called Limbo before being brought to trial at Westminster on 20 Feb 1595. He was condemned for being a priest. When the Lord Chief Justice Popham offered the services of an Anglican priest to prepare him for death, he declined saying that the grace of God would be more than sufficient for him.
Like many martyrs before him, Southwell drew the admiration of the crowds because he walked as though he whole being were filled with happiness at the prospect of being executed the next day. On the morrow, the tall, slight man of light brown hair and beard was taken to the Tyburn Tree, a gallows, where the custom was for the condemned to be drive underneath the gallows in a cart, a rope secured around his neck, and the cart driven from under him. According to the sentence, the culprit would hang until he was dead or cut down before reaching that point.
Standing in the cart, Father Southwell began preaching on Romans 14: "Whether we live, we live unto the Lord: or whether we die, we die unto the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's... I am brought hither to perform the last act of this miserable life, and... I do most humbly desire at the hands of Almighty God for our Savior Jesus' sake, that He would vouchsafe to pardon and forgive all my sins...". He acknowledged that he was a Catholic priest and declared that he never intended harm or evil against the Queen, but always prayed for her. He end with "In manus tuas, Domine (into Your hands, Lord), I commend my spirit". Contrary to the sentence, he was dead before he was cut down and quartered (Benedictines, Delaney, Undset).
Father Southwell's writings, both in prose and verse, were extremely popular with his contemporaries, and his religious pieces were sold openly by the booksellers though their authorship was known. Imitations abounded, and Ben Jonson declared of one of Southwell's pieces, "The Burning Babe", that to have written it he would readily forfeit many of his own poems. "Mary Magdalene's Tears", the Jesuit's earliest work, licensed in 1591, probably represents a deliberate attempt to employ in the cause of piety the euphuistic prose style, then so popular. "Triumphs over Death", also in prose, exhibits the same characteristics; but this artificiality of structure is not so marked in the "Short Rule of Good Life", the "Letter to His Father", the "Humble Supplication to Her Majesty", the "Epistle of Comfort" and the "Hundred Meditations". Southwell's longest poem, "St. Peter's Complaint" (132 six-line stanzas), is imitated, though not closely, from the Italian "Lagrime di S. Pietro" of Luigi Tansillo. This with some other smaller pieces was printed, with license, in 1595, the year of his death. Another volume of short poems appeared later in the same year under the title of "Maeoniae". The early editions of these are scarce, and some of them command high prices. A poem called "A Foure-fold Meditation", which was printed as Southwell's in 1606, is not his, but was written by his friend the Earl of Arundel.
He was canonised by Pope Paul VI in 1970.
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