January 1979 Print

Saint Robert Southwell

English Martyrs

Malcolm Brennan

STUDENTS OF ENGLISH literature know Robert Southwell, S. J., as a "sweet singer" of delicate and sensitive poetry. And while his life and writings show him to be a very gentle man and capable of exquisite and even dainty emotions, he is also to be seen as a man of tough determination and fearless constancy. Tender sentiments will not make an ordinary saint, much less a martyr.

Born into an ancient and illustrious family in about 1560, Robert was stolen from his cradle by a gypsy or vagabond. He later reflected on the family tale: "What if I had remained with the vagrant? How abject! How destitute of the knowledge or the reverence of God! In what debasement of vice, in what great peril of crimes, in what indubitable risk of a miserable death and eternal punishment!" While the language is a bit theatrical, it should not be construed as an aristocrat's revulsion toward the lower orders; rather, it is a generous compassion for the spiritual dangers that afflict the destitute.

For his education Robert was sent very early to the Continent and studied in Paris under Father Thomas Darbyshire, the former archdeacon of Essex who, for conscience' sake had relinquished his considerable ecclesiastical preferments at the accession of Queen Elizabeth. Robert's vocation to the priesthood came early, as did his attraction to the Jesuits. Always an excellent student, he attended the English college at Douai, then the Jesuit novitiate in Rome. He was ordained a priest in 1584.

AS CHRIST WEPT over Jerusalem before entering it for His Passion, Father Southwell grieved over conditions in England and longed to join the English mission, and he returned to his native land in 1586—at just about the time that Shakespeare was beginning his career in London. We know too little about the first six years of his mission, and not much more about the last three, which were spent in prison. We know that he had a kind of refuge in London at the home of Anne, Countess of Arundel; her husband the Earl, St. Philip Howard, was imprisoned in London Tower, where he eventually died. And we know of a few episodes, such as Fr. Gerard's account of his and Fr. Southwell's narrow escape from some pursuivants who had surrounded the house where they said Mass.

Although Robert had not seen many of his kin since early childhood and could not have known them as having a special claim on his ministry—both those who were faithful to the Church and threatened by the government, and especially those whose Faith was weak. But making contact with even his family was troublesome and dangerous because, he being a wanted man, the government kept watch on his kin as a likely way to capture him. Every overture, then, every contact endangered both himself and the person to whom his charity extended. And even when the danger was braved, the overture might require the utmost delicacy. A very long letter to his father states in very precise and very moving terms his filial love and obedience to his father in the flesh, but at the same time St. Robert severely rebukes his father as a wayward son in the spirit: for his father, while he had not abandoned the Faith, had dangerously compromised it for the sake of advancement at Court.

The physically dangerous and morally painful situations of his missionary life are apparent in the episode of his capture. Anne Bellamy, a kinswoman, had shown notable marks of piety in her youth. Arrested for her Faith, however, she succumbed to the baleful pressure of the notorious Topcliffe, and she later married one of his vicious crew. At Topcliffe 's instigation, she sent word to Fr. Southwell that she was troubled in conscience and would like to meet with him at Uxenden Hall, her family's estate. Having visited the family often, he knew the house well and he knew Anne's recent history. Suspicious or not, he kept the appointment. When Topcliffe arrived with his assistant, Thomas Fitzherbert, they were able to go immediately to the 'priest's hole' which Anne had revealed and drag the priest forth as a most important trophy.

RICHARD TOPCLIFFE was the vilest of men and enjoyed the special favor of 'Good Queen Bess.' He is the only man in the history of England who was authorized to maintain a torture chamber in his home. He suited the Queen's purposes because his fanatical hatred of Catholics, combined with an utter absence of scruples, made him an effective priest-hunter. His later fall from the Queen's favor reveals his sordid character. It seems that he had engaged with Thomas Fitzherbert, his assistant, to get rid of Fitzherbert's father and uncle, along with a Mr. Bassett, in return for a large share of the inheritance thus produced. When the older Fitzherberts died, young Thomas refused to share the inheritance, which he had heavily mortgaged anyway. He claimed that the old men, in their seventies and imprisoned, had died of natural causes. Topcliffe was indignant at this double dealing and had the confidence to address the petition to the Queen. He had carried out his part of the bargain in good faith, in fact he had spent seven years in hounding the old men to their deaths; could not the Queen do something about unworthy subjects like the faithless Fitzherbert? We do not know how far Topcliffe's petition might have gone, for in defending it before the Privy Council he made the mistake of accusing one of the members of having accepted a bribe to obstruct the course of justice. So, Topcliffe finally fell into disgrace—affluent disgrace.

St. Robert Southwell's three year prison career thus began in Topcliffe's home, where he was tortured ten (some say thirteen) times before being transferred to a regular prison. Before his capture he had often written letters to his superiors about the harsh treatment of Catholic prisoners, especially priests. His own treatment was among the worst. He was hung up by metal straps around his wrists and, because the ceiling was low, his legs were bent back and tied to his thighs so that nothing of him would touch the floor. On occasion he remained thus for seven hours together.

DURING HIS STAY in the Tower, St. Robert was kept in a dungeon called Limbo, a small cubicle infested with vermin, without light or ventilation, and with a nauseous stench. His father, finally worthy of his son, addressed a petition to the Queen, begging "that if his son had committed anything for which, by the laws, he had deserved death, he might suffer death; If not, as he was a gentleman, he hoped her Majesty would be pleased to order that he should be treated as a gentleman, and not be confined any longer to that stinking hole." Thereafter the harshness of his treatment was somewhat abated.

When Saint Robert was arrested Topcliffe had to be ecstatic at the capture of so 'weighty' a man. The purpose of the torture was, besides pure cruelty and meaness, to make the saint implicate other priests and Catholics or, best of all, abjure the Faith. Saint Robert was, however, a model of patient endurance, and he gave to his captors and tormentors nothing but charity and the confession, frequently repeated in the midst of his agonies, "My God and my all."

It was during his imprisonment that Father Southwell wrote many of the poems which have given him a modest fame. One will have to do as a sample of his work. [Please see insert.] It earned extremely high praise from Ben Johnson.

This unusual Christmas meditation rewards careful study. Few of his poems refer directly to his sufferings in prison, yet many like this one deal with the paradox of love and pain, which is bound to be much on the mind of a martyr.

After three years in prison, St. Robert Southwell was finally brought to trial on the capital crime of being a priest and Jesuit—not because of any new development in his case but because the government of Queen Elizabeth judged it expedient to execute a priest at that time. Sir Edward Coke, who has written with such eloquence about the law, conducted the prosecution of our saint with implacable viciousness. St. Robert's execution by hanging at Tyburn on February 21, 1595, attracted a large crowd which looked stupidly on at his departure from this world. Far otherwise were the heavenly hosts who beheld him that same day before the throne of God with his martyr's crown.

The Burning Babe

As I in hoary Winter's night stood shiveringe in the snowe,
Surprised I was with sodayne heat, which made my hart to glowe;
And liftinge up a fearefull eye to view what fire was nere,
A prety Babe all burninge bright, did in the ayre appeare,
Who scorched with excessive heate, such floodes of teares did shedd,
As though His floodes should quench His flames which with His teares were fedd;
Alas! quoth He, but newly borne, in fiery heates I frye,
Yet none approach to warme their hartes or feele my fyre but I!
My faultles brest the furnace is, the fuell woundinge thornes,
Love is the fire, and sighes the smoke, the ashes shame and scornes;
The fuell Justice layeth on, and Mercy blowes the coales,
The metall in this furnace wrought are men's defiled soules,
For which, as nowe on fire I am, to worke them to their good,
So will I melt into a bath to wash them in My bloode;
With this He vanisht out of sight, and swiftly shroncke awaye,
And straight I called unto mynde that it was Christmas-daye.

DR. MALCOLM BRENNAN is Professor of English at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina.