Archive for February 21st, 2019

1595: Robert Southwell

Add comment February 21st, 2019 Headsman

February 2O, 1594-5, [Father Robert] Southwell, a Jesuit, that long time had lain prisoner in the Tower of London, was arraigned at the King’s-bench bar. He was condemned, and on the next morning drawn from Newgate to Tyburn, and there hanged, bowelled and quartered.

-Chronicle of John Stow

Youngest child in a gentry household of Catholic-leaning Norfolk, Robert Southwell was for holy orders and martyr’s laurels from the jump; in 1576 at the tender age of 15, he made for Douai and its English seminary, noted for training missionary priests who would return secretly to Elizabethan England to court torture and death for the Word. Within a decade he was a prefect at the English College in Rome and a fully armed and operational member of the Society of Jesus.

In 1586, Southwell sailed for his homeland with fellow Jesuit Henry Garnet, who would one day go to the gallows for Guy Fawkes’s Gunpowder Plot.

For Southwell, the pen was mightier than such detonations.

“St. Peter’s Complaint” (Excerpt)
by Robert Southwell

Ah! life, sweet drop, drown’d in a sea of sours,
A flying good, posting to doubtful end;
Still losing months and years to gain new hours,
Fain times to have and spare, yet forced to spend;
Thy growth, decrease; a moment all thou hast.
That gone ere known; the rest, to come, or past.

Ah! life, the maze of countless straying ways,
Open to erring steps and strew’d with baits.
To bind weak senses into endless strays,
Aloof from Virtue’s rough, unbeaten straits
A flower, a play, a blast, a shade, a dream,
A living death, a never-turning stream.

Quietly nestled in as the house confessor to Catholic noblewoman Anne Howard, Southwell scratched out page after page to fortify the hearts of the beleaguered Old Faith — standard stuff like martyrology testimony concerning his brother priests, overt manifestos like An humble supplication to Her Maiestie, and literary bestsellers admired by Protestant countrymen like Mary Magdalene’s Funeral Tears and his verse collection St. Peter’s Complaint, and Other Poems.*

This last appeared posthumously. After three years’ imprisonment — “I am decayed in memory with long and close imprisonment, and I have been tortured ten times,” the imminent martyr said of his handling by notorious Catholic-hunter Richard Topcliffe; “I had rather have endured ten executions” — Southwell was brought to the bar on February 20, 1595, to answer as a traitor and put to the traitor’s death the very next day.

Though less widely familiar now, his literary output was well-known and highly regarded long after he died, and perhaps influenced many other writers including Shakespeare. The Catholic Church elevated Southwell to sainthood in 1970.

* A couple of Southwell’s epistles are preserved in the 1741 volume Memoirs of Missionary Priests.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,God,Gruesome Methods,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Torture,Treason

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