Robert Southwell was born near Norwich, England. His family was Catholic, for although his father, Sir Robert Southwell, conformed to the “new religion” under Elizabeth I, his mother (a Copley), remained staunch In the Catholic faith, as did her relatives the Shelleys of Sussex, ancestors of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Robert therefore had to seek education on the Continent, attendance at an English university being closed to him. He first studied at Douay, then at Paris. Having come into contact with the Jesuits, Southwell asked to join their Society. He was refused in Paris because he was only 17. Disappointed but not thwarted, he walked to Rome and in 1578 was admitted to the Jesuit novitiate. Having undertaken his theological studies, he was ordained a priest in 1584, and named prefect of studies at the Venerable English College in Rome.
Robert was a poet: one whose verse was hailed in his own time, and who is still represented in collections of Elizabethan poetry. At heart, however, he was a missionary; even his poetry (and excellent prose) he used with priestly purpose. Therefore, he was happy to be sent to the English mission in 1586.
To be sent on such a mission that year was to be slated for prosecution and quite likely martyrdom. Forced to live a fugitive life in order to minister to the scattered Catholic faithful, he described mere Catholic survival as “A wandering course to doubtful rest … a maze of countless straying ways.” As he wrote to Rome, “Nor do I so much dread the tortures but look forward to the crown.”
His missionary career lasted six years. In 1587 he was named chaplain in the London household of Anne, Countess of Arundel, and thus became acquainted with her husband, the heroic St. Philip Howard, Earl of Arundel, who was then imprisoned for his faith in the Tower of London. To the Earl, Southwell addressed several letters later published under the title An Epistle of Comfort. It has been judged one of the finest prose works of its day – a day in which everybody in England, it seems, wrote beautiful English.
Father Southwell carried out his duties in a winning manner and with quiet discretion, carefully avoiding anything political or controversial. But this caution did not save him from eventual arrest.
In 1592 a daughter of the Bellamy household of Uxenden Hall in Harrow betrayed him into the hands of the sadistic Richard Topcliffe. Although torture was generally forbidden in English Common Law, the efficient Topcliffe was permitted to have a torture chamber in his own house. Southwell was ten times subjected to cruel torments. Then he was imprisoned, first in the Gatehouse prison and then in the Tower of London. After three years of incarceration without trial, the missionary appealed to Lord Cecil, the Queen’s advisor, either to try him or free him.
The petition for trial was granted. Taken to court, Robert Southwell was condemned to death for his priesthood. At age 33 he was hanged on Tyburn Hill, London. On the insistence of bystanders, he was allowed to die before being cut down, drawn and quartered.
“What a famous man and how much beloved was Father Southwell!” So exclaims his superior, Father Henry Garnet, who had made the trip with him from Rome to England in 1584.
The Church agreed. Robert Southwell was declared blessed in 1929 by Pope Pius XI and canonized in 1970 by Pope Paul VI.
A priest-poet who was far more proud of his priesthood than of his poetry! He was, by the way, a distant relative of another English poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). But that is neither here nor there.
–Father Robert F. McNamara