Transcription © Copyright E.C. ("Paddy") Apling July 2011 (from digital copy provided by the authors).
© T. E. & M. Miller 2011
At an early age Robert was sent to be educated at Douai in France, where he became a pupil of the philosophy of the famous austere Jesuit Leonard Lessius. This suggests that his family still had a preference for Catholicism. He subsequently spent a short time in Paris under the guidance of Thomas Darbyshire, who had on the accession of Queen Elizabeth resigned the Archdeaconry of Essex that he had held under Queen Mary; after which Robert begged to be admitted to the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) but was refused. His disappointment led to him writing a number of passionate laments. His talent for writing poetry was something that continued throughout his short life. During this probationary period, which he found almost intolerably long, he made his way to Rome where he was eventually admitted to the Jesuits on 17thOctober, 1578, age 17; and took his vows in 1580. During his noviciate he was sent to Toumai but returned to Rome to complete his studies. During the two years of his noviciate he wrote a series of personal meditations, "Exercita et devotiones," which has survived in three early manuscripts. They relate to his training, to times of sickness, to self accusation and self doubt and to the reaffIrmation of the Jesuit teaching of obedience. He was ordained priest in Rome in the spring of 1584. He then joined and lived at the English college in Rome, where he took courses in philosophy and theology, and where he acted as secretary to the rector, Alphonsus Agazzari. He probably wrote, on behalf of Agazzari, the life of Edward Throckmorton, a childhood friend in England, who died at the college on 18th November, 1582, and was received into the Society of Jesus on his deathbed. Robert gained his BA in 1584 and was appointed as a tutor at the college for two years and eventually made Prefect, a position he held until 1586. Throughout his years in Rome he was in the habit of keeping small notebooks in which he wrote student notes and drafts of poems and translations. Some of these have survived to the present day and include part of a translation into English of Luigi Tansillo's "Le lagrime di San Petro" entitled "Peeter Playnt." This was a subject he would return to later and would develop into his longest poem "Saint Peter's Complaint." In 1586, at his own request he was sent to England as a Jesuit missionary.
Although, on her accession to the throne Queen Elizabeth I returned England to the Protestant faith of her father, King Henry VID, she was not initially unduly harsh on Catholics compared to Queen Mary's treatment of religious dissidents. Consequently, by 1581 the Jesuit English mission was well organized and had established a network of safe houses in which priests could find refuge. However, the government was becoming increasingly concerned; for example in September of that year Sir Francis Knollys warned, "Those Jesuits, in going from house to house to withdraw men from the obedience of her Majesty unto the obedience of the false Catholic Church of Rome, hath and will endanger her Majesty's person and state more than all the sects of the world, if no execution shall follow upon the traitorous practiser that are for the same apprehended." The influx of Jesuits and seminary priests at the same time as the increasing threat from Catholic Spain coupled with the Jesuit Society's wish to see England forcibly reconverted to Catholicism by a Spanish invasion raised alarm in the government. In the Parliament of 1581, stern new measures were introduced to try to curtail the Catholic threat. The result was the "Act to retain the Queen's Majesty's subjects in their due obedience." This notorious act subjected the Catholics to a rigorous penal code. Anyone who induced a person to withdraw allegiance from Elizabeth by converting to Catholicism was guilty of treason, as were those who allowed themselves to be converted. Anyone convicted of saying mass received the heavy fine of two hundred marks (approximately £133) and those caught hearing mass could be fined half that amount. For refusing to attend Anglican church services the fine was raised to £20 a month, which for even the wealthiest Catholic would be hard to find. Initially the law had been even more severe, with the saying of mass being a capital offence and the fines for not attending church being accumulative. It has been suggested that both the Queen and the House of Commons thought the original bill was too severe. On 8th May, 1586, Robert left Rome with Henry Garnet to return to England. Possibly travelling via Switzerland, they eventually reached Douai and then St. Omer. Robert's last correspondence/from the continent, in which he expressed some apprehension, was from the port, probably Calais or Boulogne, on the 15th, July. After landing on the south coast near Folkestone they made their separate ways to London. At that time it was a crime for any Englishman ordained as a priest in the Catholic faith to remain in England for more than forty days. Sir Francis Walsingham, chief of the secret service, was well aware of their arrival and Robert was closely watched. On arrival in London they linked up with William Weston the only active Jesuit priest in England at that time, and spent three weeks with him at a country house in Buckinghamshire. William Weston was arrested a few weeks later and Henry Garnet took over as Robert's superior and senior Jesuit priest in the country.
Robert lived mostly in hiding in London under the assumed name of Cotton, but made secret journeys into Sussex and to the north of England. During these trips he comforted the persecuted, celebrated mass and made new converts to the Catholic faith. He soon acquired the reputation of being the chief dealer of the papists's affairs in England. He and Henry Garnet were largely responsible for supervising the distribution of Catholic priests throughout the country. When in London, Robert looked after the new arrivals, probably operating from Lord Vaux's house in Hackney, which seems to have been a reception centre and clearing house for newly arriving Jesuits. Meanwhile, Henry travelled around the country finding houses where they would be welcome. John Gerard, who on arrival in London stayed with Robert and Henry, records in his diary that Robert excelled in discussions and advice on the methods they should use in their work and ways of helping and saving souls. He describes Father Robert as so wise and good, gentle and loveable. The system had its limitations as it was inevitably largely the gentry who gave the priests shelter and were able to gain religious benefit. Although Catholic gentry had to have Catholic servants, the needs of the lower members of society were virtually uncatered for, and therefore Catholicism did not have a widespread popular base. In 1588 when Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester died, Robert Southwell wrote "I think now the Queen is freed from her slavery to this man she will adopt a milder policy towards us." Had Elizabeth been left to herself this may have happened but it was not to be. Nevertheless, the Jesuit's campaign was reasonably successful and in 1596 Henry Garnet noted with pride, "Many persons who saw a seminary priest hardly once a year now have one all the time."
In 1589, Robert became chaplain and confessor to Anne Howard, Countess of Arundel, with whom he had rooms in her house in the Strand. At this time he managed a regular correspondence with Anne Howard's husband Philip Howard, Earl of Arundel, who was imprisoned in the Tower of London. He may also have had the use of one of her houses in the enclave of Spitalfields. He spent much of his time writing protests against the government and treatises to encourage fellow Catholics, which were printed, possibly at the house in Spitalfields, and distributed secretly. Although he did not put his name to any of the publications Walsingham was highly suspicious of their authorship.
For six years Father Robert operated as an undercover priest, hidden in London or travelling the country in various disguises, despite his short stature, grey eyes and distinctive auburn hair, from one Catholic house to another. For his own protection he took an interest in the pursuits of the country gentlemen of the period, such as falconry, but he always dressed soberly and had simple tastes. He had a singularly gentle nature and was never involved in political intrigue or religious disputes. At one time, on 5th November, 1586, he hid behind panelling for four hours during a raid on a house, possibly that of Lord Vaux in Hackney. John Gerard describes another occasion when he had a close encounter with the priest hunters. In October 1591, five Jesuits, Father Garnett, Father Southwell, Father Oldcorne, Father Stanney and Father Gerard, and two secular priests had remained overnight in a house after a meeting. At about five o'clock in the morning when they were at prayer and Father Robert was beginning Mass there was an uproar outside the main door. A voice was heard shouting and swearing at a servant who was refusing entry to four priest hunters with drawn swords. If the faithful servant had not held them back they would have been caught. Father Robert hearing the din and guessing what it was about, slipped off his vestments and stripped the altar bare. The others hid any possessions that might betray the presence of a priest including their boots and swords, which might have aroused suspicion. They turned the mattresses of the beds over so that they were cold side up should anyone put a hand on them. They then hid in a cleverly built cave. The priest hunters searched the house for four hours but found nothing.
On 25th June, 1592, Father Robert set out from London with Thomas Bellamy to join Henry Garnet in Warwickshire. He planned to say mass and spend the first night at Uxendon Hall, the home of his friend Richard Bellamy, near Harrow-on-the-Hill. The Bellamy family were staunch Catholics and had been arrested as recusants. During their arrest, the eldest daughter Anne, Thomas's sister, who had been the first to be arrested, gave away the means by which the Catholic priests were hidden in the house. Richard Topcliffe, the most vicious of the priest-hunters, made arrangements to catch the next priest to arrive. Unfortunately, this was Father Robert Southwell and he was arrested by Topcliffe. He refused to give his name or admit to being a priest, hoping to give the Bellamys time to escape.
Father Robert was fIrst taken to Topcliffe's house where he was tortured, and then on 28th June to the nearby Gatehouse at Westminster. Here he lived in such fIlth and misery that his father begged the Queen to either release him or imprison him in better quarters. A month later on 28thJuly, on the Queen's order, he was committed to the Tower of London where he was allowed clothes and books and some friends were able to visit him.
Richard Topcliffe, an unspeakable sadist, was driven by a fanatical hatred of Catholics. He enjoyed attending priests executions, and often ordered that they be cut down prematurely so they were conscious while being mutilated. He is said to have indulged in sexual fantasies while torturing his victims. The Queen knew that torture was used on the priests and must have accepted it as a necessity. She was after all well acquainted with the priest hunters Thomas Norton, Richard Young and Richard Topcliffe. However, she may have had some reservations about the use of torture. Soon after the capture of Robert Southwell, Topcliffe wrote to the Queen, in a rather pleading manner, for permission to apply torture, having already unsuccessfully interrogated him once without using violence. "May it please your Majesty to see my simple opinion, constrained in duty to utter it, ...It is good forthwith to enforce him to answer truly and directly, and so to prove his answers true in haste, to end that such as be deeply concerned in his treachery may not have time to start ....If your Highness's pleasure be to know any thing in his heart ..." He goes on to suggest that the best way would be to have him "stand against the wall, and his hands but as high as he can reach against the wall." This he claimed would "enforce him to tell, and all the truth proved by the sequel." Thus, Topcliffe made the process of being strung up in manacles, which he claimed "hurteth not," sound somewhat innocuous.
Southwell was held in solitary confInement for two and a half years. During this time he was interrogated thirteen times and tortured ten times, of which at his trial he said he would have rather endured ten executions. After eight months in the Tower, on 6th April, 1593, when he reckoned that the Bellamys had had time to make their escape, he wrote to Sir Robert Cecil providing suffIcient information to bring him to trial, but no action was taken by Cecil. He was fInally brought to trial for treason on 20th February, 1595. The prosecution was conducted by Sir Edward Coke the Attorney-General. At the trial Southwell was very weak, and excused his memory lapses as the result of his torture. His answers were scorned by Topcliffe, who at times had to be restrained. Only Anne Bellamy, who had become Topcliffe's mistress, gave evidence. He was found guilty and returned to Newgate prison. The next day, 21st February, 1595, he was taken to Tyburn to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Care was taken to keep the day of his execution secret, and the execution of a famous highwayman was purposely arranged elsewhere at the same time. Despite these precautions an immense crowd gathered at Tybum. All his adult life he had prepared himself for death in this manner, and he is said to have been resigned to it at the end. He acknowledged that he was a priest of the Society of Jesus, made the sign ofthe cross as best he could with his manacled hands and prayed for the Queen, for the country and for his soul. He was saved from the final agonies of quartering by Lord Mountjoy, who refused to allow the hangman to cut the rope until he was dead.
From his death, Robert Southwell was considered a martyr of the Catholic Church and was greatly missed by his fellow Jesuit missionaries such as John Gerard and Henry Garnet. He is still remembered for his martyrdom by the catholic Church and was canonized as one of the forty English martyrs in 1970. As already mentioned he had a flair for writing and it is, however, as a writer and poet of considerable powers that he is remembered by the world in general. Prior to his arrest, during his undercover missionary work, he wrote a number of prose articles that were published anonymously and disseminated to members of the Catholic faith. The first to be printed commercially was "Mary Magdalen's Funeral Tears." In this he translates the medieval homily and greatly expands the parts from St. John's gospel, leading the reader through the agony endured by Mary Magdalene in the hours following the crucifixion of Christ. The work was printed by John Wolfe for Gabriel Cawood in 1591. It became popular not only with Catholics but also with members of the established church and was reprinted six times before 1609.
Robert's only foray into the political field followed Burghley's proclamation of 1591, "A declaration of great troubles pretended against the realme by a number of seminarie priests and Jesuits." In the proclamation Burghley attacked the personal qualities of young men who went overseas to be trained for the priesthood. The Jesuits had been expressly instructed to avoid political activity, but the abusive diatribe of the proclamation stung Southwell into a response with, "An Humble Supplication to her Majesty." In this appeal he addresses the Queen with formal respect and acknowledges her as the anointed sovereign, and presents his arguments as if she was unaware of the dreadful treatment ordered by her ministers. The appeal was almost certainly in vain as it is highly unlikely that Elizabeth would have read it. The work was too dangerous to publish but copies of the manuscript were circulated.
After Southwell's arrest his papers were gathered together, probably by Garnet. These included his poetry, much of which had been written in prison, such as the following stanzas from "Upon the Picture of Death."
Before my face the picture hangs,
That daily should put me in mind
Of those cold names and bitter pangs
That shortly I like to find;
But yet, alas! full little I
Do think thereon, that I must die.
If none can 'scape Death's dreadful dart,
If rich and poor his beck obey,
If strong, if wise, if all do smart,
Then I to 'scape shall have no way.
Oh! grant me grace, 0 God, that I
My life may mend sith I must die.
The first selection of poems was published by John Wolfe in 1595, and was headed by the long poem "Saint Peter's Complaint." Further editions were published with additions over the next two decades, along with editions by other publishers. All of the publishers avoided poems that appeared to have Catholic origins. His poems like his prose were all an extension of his ministry, frequently based on the natural world and the bible. His five lyrics on the nativity are those that are most frequently found in anthologies, and of the these "The Burning Babe" is most well known. Ben Johnson is claimed to have said that to have written "The Burning Babe" he would have readily forfeit many of his own poems. It is also thought that Shakespeare had read Southwell and imitated him.
THE BURNING BABE
As I in hoary Winter's night stood shivering in the snow,
Supris'd Iwas with sodayne heat, which made my hart to glowe;
And lifting upp a fearfull eye to vewe what fire was nere,
A pretty Babe all buminge bright, did in the aye appeare,
Who scorched with excessive heate, such floodes of tears did shedd,
As though His floodes should quench His flames which with His tears were fedd;
Alas! quoth He, but newly borne, in fiery heates Ifrye,
Yet none approach to warme their hartes or feele my fire but I!
My faultles brest the fomace is, the fuell woundinge thomes,
Love is the fire, and sighes the smoke, the ashes shame and scomes;
The fuell Justice layeth on, and Mercy blowes the coales,
The mettal in this fomace wrought are men's defiled soules,
For which, as nowe on fire Iam, 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 Icalled unto mynde that it was Christmas-daye.
© Transcription Copyright E.C. ("Paddy") Apling, July 2011.