(Feast Day: Feb. 21)
Robert was born around 1561 in England. As a teenager, he asked to join the Jesuit religious order of priests, but was turned down at first because he was too young and the preparation process itself was closed due to fighting in nearby areas. With great determination, the young Englishman walked to Rome where he was accepted into the novitiate in 1578. He studied philosophy and theology at the Roman College and was ordained in 1584.
That year, an act was passed by the English Parliamentary government, forbidding any English-born subject of the Queen who had entered into priest’s orders in the Roman Catholic Church since her accession to leave England within 40 days or be put to death. But Fr. Southwell requested to be sent to England in 1586 as a Jesuit missionary with Henry Garnett. He went from one Catholic family to another, administering the sacraments. His ministry included visiting the dozen or so prisons in the city and helping priests who had just entered the country. When Fr. Garnet, his traveling companion, also came to London, Fr. Southwell started visiting Catholics in the outlying counties. He also helped direct the print of Catholic catechisms and devotional books published by a secret press that Fr. Garnet established; it was the sole source of religious literature for English Catholics. Fr. Southwell put together several letters he had written an imprisoned man; these letters were revised and published as An Epistle of Comfort. This and other of his religious tracts, “A Short Rule of Good Life,” “Triumphs over Death,” “Mary Magdalen’s Tears” and “a Humble Supplication to Queen Elizabeth,” were enjoyed even by those outside Catholic circles.
For six productive years Fr. Southwell exercised his ministry until he was betrayed by a Catholic woman who had been pressured into setting a trap for him. Anne Bellamy was imprisoned after she refused to attend Protestant services and was made pregnant by Richard Topcliffe, a priest-hunter noted for torturing his prisoners. Topcliffe promised to marry her and win pardon for her family if she would convince Fr. Southwell to go a designated spot where the trap would be set. When she was released from prison, she wrote the priest asking him to meet her at her parents’ home. Fr. Southwell went there thinking she wanted to receive the sacraments. Instead Topcliffe and his men were waiting. Fr. Southwell managed to slip into a concealed room before they could catch him, but he eventually gave himself up rather than betray the family.
Topcliffe was overjoyed to have captured Fr. Southwell, whom he regarded as the biggest catch of his career. Bound in chains, the Jesuit was led to Topcliffe’s residence next to Gatehouse Prison and put in the private torture chamber that Topcliffe had there. Several excruciating days of torture failed to force Fr. Southwell to reveal a single name of any Catholics or priests. He remained steadfast despite being tortured 13 different times; finally his captors threw him among the paupers to face cold, hunger and thirst. Fr. Southwell’s father managed to visit him in the paupers’ prison and was horrified at his son’s condition. He petitioned the queen to treat him like the gentleman he was, either releasing him or condemning him to death. The queen allowed him to be moved to the Tower where he was better cared for but still could not receive visitors. He did continue, however, to write the poems that expressed his deepest feelings and were later collected and published as St. Peter’s Complaint.
For two and a half years, Fr. Southwell endured the solitude of his imprisonment, and then finally petitioned Lord Burghley to be released, be allowed visitors, or be brought to trial. The latter was granted, and he was tried on Feb. 20, 1595 at Westminster Hall. Fr. Southwell readily admitted being a Catholic priest but denied any involvement in plots against the queen. He was found guilty of high treason and executed the very next day. For the three-hour journey to Tyburn, he was tied to a hurdle and dragged through the streets to the gallows. Because the noose was improperly placed on his neck, he did not immediately die when the cart moved away from him. The hangman took mercy and hung on his feet to end the agony. Then the 34-year-old Jesuit was beheaded and quartered.
St. Robert Southwell, pray for us – that we would have the courage to follow Christ, and to love Him enough to suffer for the sake of His name.