Extract from Robert Southwell's poem 'Christ’s bloody sweate’
Robert Southwell who was born 1561, at Horsham St Faith, in Norfolk, and executed at the age of 34 on March 4, 1595 in London was an English poet and Jesuit martyr.
Portrait of Robert Southwell, left, with other 1595 martyrs
He left England in his early teens seeking a stable Catholic education in France and Rome that was impossible in Elizabethan England. In time he made the decision to join the Jesuit order and become a priest. For a while he was Prefect of Studies at the English College in Rome and may have been responsible for authorising the embroidery on the Martyrs Corporal we saw earlier in the exhibition. He returned to England as a missionary in 1586, and he became chaplain to Anne Howard and spiritual adviser to her husband, the 1st Earl of Arundel, a recusant imprisoned in the Tower of London. Southwell lived in concealment at Arundel House, writing letters of consolation to persecuted Roman Catholics and making pastoral journeys. He wrote extensively, both poetry and devotional texts such as his Short Rule of Good Life, which were hugely influential in helping Catholics maintain an interior mental, spiritual life at a time when it was illegal to practice their religion openly.
Southwell was arrested in 1592 while celebrating mass. His consequent treatment at the hands of the notorious Elizabethan torturer, Richard Topcliffe was brutal.
‘He was delivered over by God’s ordinance to encounter hand to hand the cruellest tyrant of all England. Topcliffe. A man most infamous and hateful to all the realm for his bloody and butcherly mind. Though he readily answered the questions of others, yet if Topcliffe interposed he never gave him a reply, and when asked the cause of this, he answered: ‘Because I have found by experience that the man is not open to reason.’
Southwell was first taken to Topcliffe's own house, adjoining the Gatehouse Prison, where he was subjected to the torture of "the manacles" hanging from his wrists off the floor for hours on end in an attempt to make him reveal the whereabouts of his fellow priests. He remained silent in Topcliffe's custody for forty hours. The queen then ordered Southwell to be moved to the Gatehouse, where a team of Privy Council torturers took over. When they proved equally unsuccessful, Southwell was left, in John Gerard's words "hurt, starving, covered with maggots and lice, to lie in his own filth."
After about a month he was moved by order of the council to solitary confinement in the Tower of London. It is believed that his father petitioned the queen to allow his son to be treated more leniently, and his friends were able to provide him with food and clothing, and to send him the works of St. Bernard and a Bible. His superior Henry Garnet later smuggled a prayer book to him. Southwell remained in the Tower for three years, under Topcliffe's supervision.
In 1595 he was brought to trial for treason under the anti-Catholic penal laws of 1585. His status as a priest was enough to condemn him and he was executed on March 4th 1595.
Bone relic of Robert Southwell
This small bone relic of Robert Southwell’s was smuggled away after his execution by unknown Catholics. It was uncovered in 1802 by the Jesuit John Reeve, who described its discovery in a box along with an Agnus Dei (a wax disk blessed by the Pope). The box had been hidden in the Jesuit house in Holywell, North Wales. The Jesuit house had been operating in Holywell since 1640.
We don’t know how or when the Southwell bone relic reached Holywell, but it seems likely that it had been hidden there since the mid 17th century. After its discovery it was then sent to other priests in Staffordshire and Norfolk between 1837 and 1850. On March 18th 1850 it was donated to the Jesuit Province.
Robert Southwell’s devotional lyrics and writings reflect the ardent love of his life - his Saviour Jesus Christ. Southwell’s best works contrast directness and complexity, and his use of paradox and striking imagery was a profound influence on the later Metaphysical poets.
Draft of Southwell's 'St Peter's Complaint' in his own handwriting
Soon after Southwell's death, his long poem St Peter's Complaint was published in England anonymously. The poem deals with issues of penitence and salvation, examined through the thoughts of St Peter, who had denied that he knew Christ after his arrest, and was subsequently stricken with remorse. The poem had deep resonance with many Catholics who had been faced with similar challenges- whether to acknowledge their religion and face penalties which could end in death, or deny it, and live with the consequences for their conscience. It was hugely popular, and not just with Catholics. A second edition, including eight more poems, appeared almost immediately. It went into fourteen editions by 1636 and was set to music.
Title page of William Shakespeare's First Folio
Much of Southwell's literary legacy rests on his considerable influence on other writers. There is evidence of Shakespeare's knowledge of and reference to Southwell's work, particularly in The Merchant of Venice, Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, and King Lear. Southwell's influence can be seen in the work of Donne, Herbert, and Hopkins. The best known modern setting of Southwell's words is Benjamin Britten's use of lines from "New Heaven, New War" and "New Prince, New Pomp", two of the pieces in his Ceremony of Carols from 1942.