St. Robert Southwell SJ (1561-1595)

The Holy Martyrs of England and Wales are a great part of our Catholic heritage. It is perhaps a little sad that in this 21st century our children are rarely taught about the great debt we owe these recusant families who kept the faith alive during a period of great turmoil in our countries history.

St. Robert Southwell was one such man, and having already looked at St. John Houghton and the Carthusian Martyrs in an earlier post, perhaps we will look at others in the future.

St. Peter’s Complaint

A small portion of the poem by St. Robert Southwell, S.J.

O pools of Hesebon ; the baths of grace,

Where happy spirits dine in sweet desires,

Where saints rejoice to glaze their glorious face.

Whose banks make echo to the angel's quires ;

An echo sweeter in the soul rebound,

Then angel's music in the fullest sound !
St. Robert  Southwell SJ  (1561-1595)
St. Robert Southwell SJ (1561-1595)

Robert Southwell was born into a recusant family in Norfolk. Like so many of his generation, he had to go abroad for a Catholic education; he studied first at Douai and then in Paris. While he was still only 16, he decided he wanted to join the Jesuits, but was turned down as being too young. So he walked from Paris to Rome, and entered the Society in 1578. After his two years’ novitiate, and a fairly rapid course in philosophy and theology, he was ordained in 1584, and sent to be prefect of studies at the English College in Rome, where diocesan priests were being trained for the English mission.

After two years there, he was himself sent to England, where he worked in and around London. He lived with various Catholic families, especially the Countess of Arundel, whose husband, Philip Howard, was in the Tower of London for being a Catholic. One of the greatest pieces of writing in English of that age was the collection of letters that Southwell wrote to Howard, published as An Epistle of Comfort for all those imprisoned for their faith.

Sadly, he was in the end betrayed by a Catholic girl, whose spirit had been broken, while she was in prison for not going to Protestant services. She arranged a rendezvous with Southwell, and there to meet him instead was Richard Topcliffe, one of the most unpleasant and sadistic torturers of Elizabeth’s  reign. Southwell had an almost feminine beauty about him, and Topcliffe ma have thought that he would be easily broken. But there was steel in Robert Southwell. Though Topcliffe tortured him no less than 13 times, the only piece of information he elicited was that he was a Jesuit priest who had come to England to preach Catholicism, and that he was ready to die for the cause.

In despair, the authorities left him to rot in the paupers’ prison. His father visited him there, and was so horrified at his son’s condition that he petitioned the Queen that Robert should either be executed or at least properly housed. So he was moved to the Tower, where he remained for over two years. His father was allowed to send things to him, and Robert wrote a good many of his best poems during this time; but he was permitted no visitors. Finally he wrote to Lord Burghley asking to be tried, or released, or allowed visitors. So he was given a show-trial, found guilty of high treason, and hanged the next day. When he was told that morning by his gaoler that he was to be hanged, he replied that he could not have had more joyful news. So he was dragged on the hurdle to Tyburn and painfully executed.


  • “The Chief Justice asked how old he was, seeming to scorn his youth. He answered that he was near about the age of our Saviour, Who lived upon the earth thirty-three years; and he himself was as he thought near about thirty-four years. Hereat Topcliffe seemed to make great acclamation, saying that he compared himself to Christ. Mr. Southwell answered, ‘No he was a humble worm created by Christ.’ ‘Yes,’ said Topcliffe, ‘you are Christ’s fellow.'” –Father Henry Garnet, “Account of the Trial of Robert Southwell.” Quoted in Caraman’s “The Other Face,” page 230.
  • Southwell: I am decayed in memory with long and close imprisonment, and I have been tortured ten times. I had rather have endured ten executions. I speak not this for myself, but for others; that they may not be handled so inhumanely, to drive men to desperation, if it were possible.
  • Topcliffe: If he were racked, let me die for it.
  • Southwell: No; but it was as evil a torture, or late device.
  • Topcliffe: I did but set him against a wall.
  • Southwell: Thou art a bad man.
  • Topcliffe: I would blow you all to dust if I could.
  • Southwell: What, all?
  • Topcliffe: Ay, all.
  • “Not where I breathe, but where I love, I live” on the outside of The DeNaples Center at the Jesuit University of Scranton. Longer version: “Not where I breathe, but where I love, I live; / Not where I love, but where I am, I die.”
  • “Hoist up saile while gale doth last,Tide and wind stay no man’s pleasure.” –from “St. Peter’s Complaint. 1595.”[3]
  • “May never was the month of love, For May is full of flowers; But rather April, wet by kind, For love is full of showers.” –from “Love’s Servile Lot”[3]
  • “My mind to me an empire is, While grace affordeth health.” –from “Look Home”[3]
  • “O dying souls, behold your living spring; O dazzled eyes, behold your sun of grace; Dull ears, attend what word this Word doth bring; Up, heavy hearts, with joy your joy embrace. From death, from dark, from deafness, from despair: This life, this light, this Word, this joy repairs.” –from “The Nativity of Christ”[3]
  • “A poet, a lover and a liar are by many reckoned but three words with one signification.” – from “The author to his loving cousin,” published with “St. Peter’s Complaint.” 1595.

St. Robert Southwell:  Pray for us.

About Gertrude

Sáncte Míchael Archángele, defénde nos in proélio, cóntra nequítiam et insídias diáboli ésto præsídium.
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1 Response to St. Robert Southwell SJ (1561-1595)

  1. toadspittle says:

    “A poet, a lover and a liar are by many reckoned but three words with one signification.”

    Toad, to some small measure, having been all and none of them – often at the same time, can only agree. Refreshing candour.


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