St. John Southworth

(1592 – 1654)

Queen Elizabeth I of England was determined to replace the old (Catholic) religion with her state church. She tried at first to do this without bloodshed. But by 1585 a rising number of English Catholic priests trained and ordained on the European continent were crossing the Channel, and secretly ministering to English Catholics in disguise and at grave risk. In that year, therefore, Elizabeth signed a law branding as treasonable any priest who dared to come back to England. The law was later extended to all who assisted such priests.

It was this anti-priest legislation that created the largest number of English Catholic martyrs. The penalty for treason was hanging, but the hanged person was ordered cut down before death and disemboweled. His head was then cut off and his body quartered. Naturally, the British government saw to it that the remains were destroyed. It would not do to let Catholics have relics.

Father John Southworth was one of the later victims of this gruesome law.

John came from Lancashire, in northwest England. He belonged to a Catholic family that chose to pay heavy fines rather than give up its faith. When twenty-one, Southworth went to French Flanders to study for the priesthood at the English seminary at Douai. Ordained in 1618, Father Southworth spent the years 1619-1624 in England; passed 1624-1625 back at Douai; then re-crossed the Channel and spent five years in his native shire. In 1627 he was arrested and imprisoned in the castle at Lancaster.

Father Edmund Arrowsmith was arrested along with him. Arrowsmith was condemned to death. From his prison window Southworth absolved this fellow priest as he saw him being taken off to the scaffold. Edmund Arrowsmith and Father John were to be canonized together in 1970. However, the time for martyrdom had not yet come for Southworth. Though condemned to death, he was finally reprieved.

Since these missionaries had to live a shadowy existence, it is usually hard to keep track of their movements. The next time we hear about him he is again in jail, a prison called “The Clink,” across the river from London Then he was ordered out of the country. Whether he left or not at that time, he was to spend the rest of his life at priestly work in the London area.

The years 1636-1637 saw a great epidemic of the bubonic plague. Epidemics were very hard on Catholics. The law excluded them from medical aid. St. John and St. Henry Morse, another secular priest, now did heroic work aiding the plague-stricken. John was still officially in jail, but an exception was made. In June 1637 he was released from prison, but was jailed again the following November for three more years. Between 1640 and 1654 he was again working “underground.”

The Puritan Civil War of 1642-1646 resulted finally in the execution of King Charles I, but the Puritans did not change the law regarding Catholic priests. In 1654, Father Southworth, while in bed, was seized by a law officer. The point at issue was whether he had performed any priestly functions since his earlier reprieve.

By 1654, English officialdom was losing its interest in executing Catholics. When Southworth was tried for treason, not only the foreign ambassadors but the very judges urged him to plead “not guilty.”

No, he said, to plead “not guilty” would seem like disavowing his priesthood, which he would not do for the world. So he was condemned to hang at Tyburn gallows simply on the basis of his own admission that he had continued his priestly work. At his execution on June 28, 1654, he was “drawn and quartered.” The Spanish ambassador bought his corpse and took it back to Douai for burial.

The French Revolution reached Douai in 1793. To protect his relics, four Douai seminarians reburied him an unmarked grave. The grave was rediscovered in 1927, and the body returned to England – the only complete remains of any of the English martyrs. Upon Southworth’s beatification in 1929, his relics were enshrined in London’s Catholic cathedral in Westminster.

Their “priestly” secular priest is therefore entombed in the center of the city in which he had courageously administered the sacraments and nursed the plague-ridden.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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