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Southwell, Robert [St Robert Southwell]free


Southwell, Robert [St Robert Southwell]free

  • Nancy Pollard Brown

Southwell, Robert [St Robert Southwell] (1561–1595), writer, Jesuit, and martyr, was born towards the end of 1561, the third son of Richard Southwell (d. 1600), gentleman and courtier, of Horsham St Faith, Norfolk, and Bridget (d. 1583×7), daughter of Sir Roger Copley of Roughway, Sussex, and his second wife, Elizabeth, daughter of Sir William Shelley, judge of the common pleas. Richard Southwell was the illegitimate elder son of Sir Richard Southwell (1502/3–1564) of Woodrising, Norfolk. Sir Richard was married to Thomasine, daughter of Sir Robert Darcy of Danbury, Essex, but his two sons and three of his daughters were born as a result of his liaison with Mary Darcy, Thomasine's cousin, daughter of Thomas Darcy of Danbury.

As one of the visitors for the suppression of the monasteries in Norfolk, Sir Richard obtained some monastic properties for himself, among them the priory of St Faith, with its surrounding farms, assigned to him outright in 1545. The conveyance bears the note 'To remayne with mistres Leche', a gift to Mary Darcy, who had been married off to a man called Leech from Norwich. From his immense wealth Sir Richard provided for all his children, his one legitimate daughter, Elizabeth, married to Sir George Heneage, and his children with Mary Darcy, whom he may have married before the birth of her third daughter, Katherine. In his will, dated 24 July 1561, she is described as 'Dame Marye Southwell my late wief', and his sons Richard—'late of Lincolnes Inne'—and Thomas are identified as 'Darcy alias Southwell'.

Childhood and education

Richard Southwell inherited the property at Horsham and for the rest of his life was identified with it. Robert probably spent his childhood mainly in the house created from the refectory of the priory. When he returned to England as a mission priest, he spoke of his regret at being unable to visit his father, so that 'banishing myself from the sent of my cradle, in myne owne country, I have lived like a foreyner, findinge emong straungers that which in my neerest bloude I presumed not to seeke' (Stonyhurst College, MS A. v. 27, fol. 4). He also reminded his father that 'even from my infancy yowe were wonte in merimente to call me father R. which is the customary stile nowe allotted to my present estate' (ibid., fol. 7). Robert may also have stayed with his parents at the Copley house at Gatton, Surrey, while Sir Thomas Copley, Bridget's eldest brother, was in exile. In a letter to Burghley in 1583 begging that Bridget Southwell might be allowed to return to the house, Sir Thomas described her as 'her Majestie's ould servant of neer fortie yeeres continuance'.

In 1576 Robert Southwell set out on the long journey that was to fulfil his father's teasing title for him. On 10 June he arrived at the English College, Douai, accompanied by John Cotton, one of his mother's Catholic cousins. He was admitted to Anchin College, the Jesuit school in the town, while continuing to board at the English College. In a later letter Southwell gives an account of the beginning of his friendship with John Deckers, a Flemish student at the school, whom he saw walking with Leonard Lessius, then on the staff, and later a theologian at the Jesuit college in Rome. The boys' education was interrupted after the summer months by the movement of French and Spanish forces, and Southwell was sent to Paris for greater safety, probably as a student at the Collège de Clermont under the tutelage of the Jesuit Thomas Darbyshire. He returned to Douai on 15 June 1577, but left again with Deckers early in 1578, travelling to Rome with the intention of joining the Society of Jesus.

Deckers was sent on to Naples for training in the noviciate, but to Southwell's bitter disappointment he was at first refused entry. His reaction was to write an emotional appeal that his case might be heard again. He wrote in English, but the text survived only in a Latin redaction by Henry More, entitled 'Querimonia', until a section of the original was discovered in a catalogue of the early Jesuits compiled in 1640. In his hurt Southwell pours out his distress: 'How can I but wast in anguish and agony that find myself disjoyned from that company severed from that Society, disunited from that body wherein lyeth all my life my love my whole hart and affection' (Archivum Romanum Societatis Iesu, Anglia 14, fol. 80, under date 1578). His plea was heard, and he was admitted to the probation house of Sant' Andrea on 17 October 1578, when he was almost seventeen.

Rome, 1578–1586

During the two years of his noviciate Southwell wrote a series of personal meditations, 'Exercitia et devotiones', which has survived in three early manuscript copies. The brief passages are not collected in their original order. The only dated section, written after he had taken his vows on 18 October 1580, is numbered 21, out of more than 70 passages relating to the course of training: to times of sickness, to self-accusation and doubt, to the reaffirmation of Jesuit teaching regarding obedience, to resolutions taken in the last week of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises.

On the completion of the noviciate Southwell started courses in philosophy and theology at the Jesuit college in Rome. He lived at the English College, where he appears to have acted as secretary to the rector, Alphonsus Agazzari. His handwriting is to be found from 1580 in both parts of the Liber ruber, the college history. In the first part, he copied the entries of the arrival of students. In the second part, the annual letters are mainly in his hand and perhaps compiled by him until 1585. It is likely also that on behalf of Agazzari he wrote the life of Edward Throckmorton, a childhood friend in England who died at the college on 18 November 1582 and who was received into the society on his deathbed. The account contains details unlikely to have been known to the rector, to whom the work is sometimes ascribed, particularly details concerned with boyhood incidents and later events as a member of the sodality of the Blessed Virgin of which Southwell was prefect. Other letters from this period include a draft of a long narrative written to Deckers in 1580, and a letter to Robert Persons, written in Italian as if to a merchant. A newsletter in Italian dated 3 February 1584, recounting sufferings of priests and lay Catholics in England, addressed to the provincial of Naples, also survives, an early example of the regular reports Southwell later sent from England.

Southwell completed his course in philosophy, was admitted BA in 1584, appointed 'repetitor' or tutor at the English College for two years, and finally made prefect of studies. His ordination took place in spring 1584, when his title changed from Frater to Pater. Throughout these years in Rome he maintained his habit of keeping small notebooks, some containing student notes, others used for drafts of poems and translations. Some of these are now preserved, bound in a single volume, at Stonyhurst College (MS A. v. 4). The collection, comprising 64 leaves, is all that has survived from a longer sequence, indicated by Southwell's numbering of pages to 256. Included in the group of theological notes and Latin poems and prayers is the beginning of a translation into English of Luigi Tansillo's Le lagrime di San Pietro, entitled 'Peeter Playnt'. It is the earliest version of a subject to which he would return at least twice during his work in England, and which would be developed as his longest poem, 'Saint Peters Complaint'.

The last section of the compilation consists of two attempts to translate into English the medieval homily, then attributed to Origen, known as 'Audivimus Mariam' from its first words. Southwell translated about two-thirds of the sermon, using it as an exercise to regain fluency in English. After this effort he abandoned the translation and started again, this time completing only a few lines. When he was in England he secured another copy of the sermon and incorporated the whole of it into his prose study Marie Magdalens Funeral Teares.

The holograph manuscript also contains a single page of English prose, beginning 'Alas, why doe I lament his losse that must needes be lost?' Like the 'Querimonia' it is an extremely personal outpouring of emotion. It records the sense of failure that overwhelmed him after a young man rejected his attempts to lead him into greater spiritual awareness, and at the same time Southwell asked himself whether his disappointment was based on the loss of a soul or a 'sensuall lykynge'. The young man who so disturbed him may have been William Cecil, son of Sir Thomas Cecil and grandson of Lord Burghley, who visited Rome without family permission in 1585. Inevitably rumour circulated that he had become a Catholic, but there is no evidence that he had, and Southwell felt it helpful to draw upon their friendly relationship and their shared adventure with a runaway carriage when he wrote to Sir Robert Cecil from the Tower in 1593. It would certainly not have been tactful to have reminded Cecil of this occasion if William Cecil had indeed embraced Catholicism while he was in Rome.

Another group of small notebooks kept by Southwell during his studies as a scholastic has recently come to light (Bodl. Oxf., MS Arch. F. g. 4). Three are bound together, and one remains unbound, with two leaves uncut. The three bound notebooks are all concerned with his theological training; the unbound notebook, of sixteen leaves, outlines the daily life of a scholastic in Rome. A note, written upside down, is particularly revealing for the way it suggests the strain of the regime. Under the title 'Assequi' he wrote: 'hoc assequi posse diffido  hoc efficere non possum  eo progredi nequeo' ('here I find it difficult to make progress; I am not able to carry this out; in that I do not know how to go on'). But Southwell, though greatly tested, did not break.

Southwell's last year in Rome was accompanied by difficulties at the English College. As prefect of studies he wrote to Claudio Acquaviva, general of the society, about the situation, ending the letter with a request that he should be allowed to serve on the English mission: 'in the same way as Your Paternity approves of my present work among the English, so by the inspiration of God may you also approve of my service in England itself, with the highest hope of martyrdom' (Archivum Romanum Societatis Iesu, Fondo Gesuitico 651/648).

Return to England, 1586

On 8 May 1586 the two Jesuit priests Henry Garnet and Robert Southwell rode out of Rome. Their journey was not without travellers' difficulties, as Southwell recorded in letters to Agazzari and to Acquaviva, but they reached Douai safely and passed on to St Omer. Their route may have taken them through Switzerland, the way Edmund Campion and Persons had travelled, and the way John Gerard and Edmund Oldcorne followed in 1588. One of Southwell's most poignant poems, 'A Vale of Teares', may recall its wild and forbidding landscape, suitable for the torments of a soul conscious of sin and longing for the way of penitence:

A vale there is enwrapt with dreadfull shades,Which thicke of mourning pines shrouds from the sunne,Where hanging clifts yeld short and dumpish glades,And snowie floud with broken streams doth runne.

Poems, 41One of Southwell's last letters from the continent was to Deckers. He wrote 'e portu', from Calais or Boulogne, on 15 July, just before the crossing to England. It is a letter full of apprehension, ending once more with the hope of martyrdom.

The two priests landed on the south coast near Folkestone, and made their way separately to London. Both wrote accounts of their first adventures. Southwell's letters of 25 July to Acquaviva and to Agazzari were intercepted. The letter to Acquaviva gives news of his arrival in London, where he met his first Catholics 'inter gladios'—under armed guard—and in prison. He reports their meeting with William Weston, the only Jesuit priest active in England, and their journey with him into the country. The letter is the first of Southwell's reports, written out in his neat Italian hand. Of those that reached Rome four were sent in 1587, seven in 1588, and one in January 1590. A few other letters are preserved in transcripts. Henry More, gathering materials for his Historia provinciae Anglicanae Societatis Jesu (1660), spoke of a collection of 150 letters, but no similar treasure remains. No letters survive after 1590.

In the aftermath of the Babington plot that burst upon the government a few weeks after Southwell's arrival, Weston was arrested, and Garnet succeeded him as superior. In his organization of the mission Southwell was assigned to the London area, and as he became established there priests arriving from the continent came to him before departing to their posts in various parts of England. In December 1586 he reported that he had made some journeys into the country, and spoke of being in grave danger twice. On one occasion he escaped a search while he was behind panelling for four hours, possibly in the town house of Lord Vaux in Hackney. The house was raided on 5 November 1586, on information given by the spy Anthony Tyrrell, who reported to Justice Young, the Middlesex priest-hunter, that a priest called Sale (possibly a mishearing of the elided form of Southwell) was sheltered there. Two letters signed 'Robertus' were found in the possession of Henry Vaux, starting a rumour that Persons had returned to England, but Tyrrell identified them as Southwell's. A connection with the Vaux family may account for the coincidence that poems of Henry Vaux are bound in with a volume of the first edition of Southwell's poems (Washington, DC, Folger Shakespeare Library, Harmsworth MS).

The prose works

During these first months in England it is likely that Southwell wrote the Epistle to his Father, pleading with him to return to the Catholic faith. The forceful arguments expressed in the letter made it a most suitable tool to supplement the work of the priests, and it became one of the most widely disseminated of Southwell's writings. It has survived in eight manuscripts and in several others in part; other early copies were made from the printed edition, issued from Garnet's second press. Some copies are dated 22 October 1589, almost certainly an early scribal error for 1586. The central section was printed by Benjamin Fisher as The Dutiful Advice of a Loving Sonne to his Aged Father, the second part of Sir Walter Raleighs Instructions to his Sonne (1632). It later appeared in Raleigh's Remains (1657).

When Robert Southwell approached his father, this man of property had made his peace with the Church of England. The letter has a formality indicating the distance now dividing father and son, separated for ten years, and cut off still further by the danger to which Robert would be exposed if he visited Horsham. His language is more Latinate than in any other prose writing, the phrases more classically turned. Southwell mentions the support he has from his brothers, but there is no mention of his mother, and her death at some time after 1583 is confirmed by the second marriage of his father in 1587, to Margaret, the young daughter of John Style, a well-to-do farmer from Ellingham, Norfolk. If Richard Southwell was moved by his son's persuasiveness he apparently delayed committing himself. Two manuscripts of the Epistle include a short letter making the same passionate plea. In March 1588, however, Richard Southwell, with his son Richard, is listed among recusants in Norfolk. In 1600 Garnet reported to Acquaviva that Richard Southwell had died a Catholic.

After his narrow escapes Southwell's position in London stabilized. He had been fortunate in obtaining the protection of Anne Howard, countess of Arundel and Surrey. She permitted him the use of a house, probably the house she owned in the enclave of Spitalfields, and there he set up a printing press. He was able to keep up a correspondence with her husband, Philip Howard, who was imprisoned in the Tower, and according to the preface these letters formed the basis of his longest prose work, An epistle of comfort, to the reverend priestes, and to the honorable, worshipful, and other of the laye sort, restrayned in durance for the Catholicke fayth. Although the first edition (1587–8) announces that it was 'Imprinted at Paris', it was printed from the secret press. Its structure of letters is obscured in the final text, which comprises a series of nine 'Comfortes in tribulation', followed by chapters which attempt to strengthen the courage of prisoners facing martyrdom. It is lengthily illustrated with excerpts from the Bible and from the fathers of the church, and enlivened with images from the natural world, sometimes in its most extraordinary manifestations. In the last pages Southwell turns again to the glories obtained through martyrdom:

And we have God be thanked such martyrquellers now in authoritye, as meane if they may have theyre will, to make Saynctes enough to furnishe all our Churches with treasure when it shall please God to restore them to theyre true honoures.

Southwell, Epistle of Comfort, sig. Cc5v

It was to the earl of Arundel also that Southwell addressed his letter of consolation on the death of the earl's half-sister, Lady Margaret Sackville, in August 1591. He advises against unrestrained grieving, seeing it as the indulgence of 'the seliest women … who make it their happiness to seeme most unhappie, as though they had onely bene left alive, to be perpetuall mapps of dead folkes misfortunes' (Stonyhurst College, MS A. v. 27, fol. 21v). He soon turns, however, to a consideration of the fine traits that he acknowledges in the Lady Margaret: 'She was by birth second to none, but to the first in the realme, yet she measured onely greatnes by goodnes, making nobilitye but the mirrhour of vertue' (ibid., fol. 22). It is difficult to determine whether Southwell had known her personally. The splendid qualities he praises are those of which he may have heard from her friends and from those who cared for her. With regard to her husband, Robert Sackville, later Lord Buckhurst and earl of Dorset, he says only 'how dutifully she discharged all the behoofes of a most loving wife' (ibid., fol. 23v). Nothing is said of her as a mother except that she would have wished her children to live after her, although her eldest children had already died 'as pledges of her owne comming' (ibid., fol. 28v). Four survived her, and in the first printed edition in 1595, when it was given the title The Triumphs over Death, the editor, John Trussell, dedicated the work to them.

In persuading the earl to be reconciled to his sister's death, Southwell was also preparing him for his own death, for Arundel had been impeached in 1589, condemned to death, and his goods confiscated. Southwell believed that the earl was better able to bear his sister's death than she would have been able to bear his. With a delicate play upon her name he reaches his conclusion:

The base shell of a mortall body, was an unfit roome for so pretious a margarite. And the Jeweller that came into this world to seeke good perles, and gave not onely all he had, but himself also to buy them, thought it nowe tyme to take her into his bargaine, finding her growen to a Margarites full perfection.

Stonyhurst College, MS A. v. 27, fol. 35

Sheltered in the household of the countess of Arundel as chaplain and confessor, Southwell prepared for her A Shorte Rule of Good Life, an outline of conduct suitable for a pious lay woman under continual threat of persecution at the queen's whim. The countess used the work as a spiritual guide for the rest of her life, and copies were made for other aristocratic Catholic families. Of the seven manuscripts now known, some have been revised, some casually copied, and only one contains all the items in the original text. A printed version was issued by Garnet's second press about 1596–7. In the 'Preface to the reader' Garnet speaks of it as 'even amongst the last of his fruitefull labours', referring not to the original text but to a revision that Southwell was working on before his arrest. The changes in the printed version, however, are unlikely to be authoritative.

In providing the Shorte Rule Southwell acknowledged that the return of Catholicism to England was now a distant hope. It was a faith to be followed in secret, without the support of the traditional structure of the church. In Marie Magdalens Funeral Teares he led the Catholic who felt abandoned and desolate through the agony endured by Mary Magdalen in the hours following the crucifixion. Once more Southwell translated the medieval homily, and greatly expanded the incidents of St John's gospel into a meditation of penetrating exegesis. It becomes a dialogue in which Mary's grief takes her to the very edge of hysteria, and the steady voice of the observer questions and comforts her in an exposition of Christian hope.

The Funeral Teares was the first of Southwell's writings to be printed commercially. The work was carried out by John Wolfe for Gabriel Cawood in 1591. It is well printed, and Southwell may have read proof on it. The dedication, signed 'S. W.', was addressed to 'Mistres D. A.', who may possibly be identified with Dorothy Arundell, daughter of Sir John Arundell of Lanherne, Cornwall. She was a young woman then living in London, later becoming one of the founding members of the English Benedictine community in Brussels in 1599. The popularity of the Funeral Teares among both Catholics and members of the established church is shown by its reprinting six times before 1609, and by its inclusion in the 'collected' editions of Southwell's work, both Catholic (1616 and 1620) and protestant (1620, 1630, and 1636). It is the culmination of his imaginative writing, and together with 'Saint Peters Complaint' and some of the lyrics it introduced the phenomenon of the ‘literature of tears’ to England.

The last complete work that Southwell undertook in the course of his ministry was his only political statement. An Humble Supplication to her Majestie was written in response to the proclamation 'A declaration of great troubles pretended against the realme by a number of seminarie priests and Jesuists', dated 18 October 1591 and published in November. The proclamation was Burghley's work, and he prefaced the penal orders with an attack on the personal qualities of the young men who went overseas to submit themselves to training for the priesthood. The Jesuits had been expressly instructed to avoid all political action, but the abusive diatribe from 'this heavy adversary of our good names' (Inner Temple Library, Petyt MS 538.36, fol. 60) fired Southwell to make a rebuttal. Point by point he responds to the charges. He reiterates the religious nature of their purpose: 'The whole and only intent of our comming into this Realme, is noe other, but to labour for the salvation of soules, and in peaceable and quiet sort to confirme them in the auntient Catholique Faith' (ibid., fol. 61). He answers the specific issue of the Babington plot that may be brought against them, and in a long central section he sets out the details of the way in which the government manipulated the players and destroyed Mary, queen of Scots, claiming that it was 'both plotted, furthered and finished by Sir Francis Walsingham and his other Complices' (ibid., fol. 64).

Throughout his appeal Southwell addresses the queen with the most formal respect, acknowledging her as an anointed sovereign, and presenting his arguments as if she knew nothing of the barbarous treatment ordered by her ministers. But the plea was in vain, and there is no evidence that the queen ever read the Supplication. Many of the points made in the work are to be found in a report originating with Southwell and sent on by Richard Verstegan in Antwerp (Stonyhurst College, MS Anglia I, 70). 'Caput 2' is made up largely of material that was used in the Supplication, including a brief history of the Babington plot.

The Supplication was a work that was too dangerous to publish. Burghley's fury was to be expected; a year later, on 20 September 1592, he wrote to Archbishop Whitgift of the 'multitude of sclaunders dispersed in Bookes against the State and government' (LPL, Fairhurst MS 2004, fol. 45). Garnet was aware of the danger, and acknowledged in a letter to Persons on 5 May 1602, 'Fa. S. wrote a very good answer to the Proclamation but it could never be set forth' (Stonyhurst College, MS A. iv. 2). Nevertheless it circulated in manuscript, of which four substantive copies remain. Its later history is one of political exploitation. A printed edition, falsely dated 1595, was produced in 1600 by the Appellants, a group of secular priests opposed to the appointment of George Blackwell as arch-priest. Short extracts were translated into Latin and presented to Pope Clement VIII to demonstrate that the over-zealous expressions of loyalty to the queen indicated a willingness on the part of the Jesuits to collude with the government. The passages quoted, however, were ineffective in securing for the complainants the ruling they hoped for. The edition was fiercely suppressed in England, and the three distributors in London were seized and hanged.

Arrest, 1592

The publication of the proclamation increased the severity of the persecution that had been most rigorous throughout 1591. Garnet and Southwell barely escaped capture at a house in Warwickshire where the Jesuits had met to renew their vows in October. Southwell's physical appearance, with his distinctive auburn hair, was made known to the authorities through the depositions of John Cecil, alias Snowden, a priest from the seminary at Valladolid, captured shortly after his arrival. In a letter of 11 February 1592 Garnet reported that he had taken Southwell's place in London and that Southwell had been sent into the country. By the summer Garnet had returned to Warwickshire, and sent for Southwell to join him. Accompanied by Thomas Bellamy, he set out from London on 25 June 1592 to say mass and to spend the first night of the journey at the Bellamy house at Uxenden, near Harrow. That night, on information given by Anne Bellamy, Thomas's eldest sister, who had become the tool of Richard Topcliffe, the most vicious of priest-hunters, the house was raided and Southwell captured. Topcliffe used Southwell's alias, Cotton, but he knew whom he had found.

Southwell refused to give his name or to acknowledge that he was a priest, hoping to give the Bellamys time to escape. He was taken first to Topcliffe's house, where he was tortured, and on 28 June he was sent to the Gatehouse nearby. On 28 July he was committed to the Tower.

The poems

After his arrest Southwell's papers were gathered together, probably by Garnet. Fifty-two lyrics were put into order, enclosing groups linked by subject or moral purpose, and prefaced by a prose dedication 'to his loving Cosen' and a verse address 'To the Reader' that had been written for a smaller collection. The same order is followed in the five manuscripts that have survived, and it underlies the printed editions. The long poem, 'Saint Peters Complaint', although still needing revision, was set at the head of the selection of poems made by the first publisher, John Wolfe, in 1595. More poems were added in his second edition, and the same group was included with others in the third edition printed by John Roberts for Gabriel Cawood. Seven further printings appeared before 1615. A second collection, entitled Mœoniæ, was printed by Valentine Simmes for John Busby in 1595, and twice more (all dated 1595) within five years. Busby chose to head his volume with the sequence on the Virgin and Christ that stood first in the manuscripts. All publishers avoided poems that revealed their Catholic origins.

As in his prose work, Southwell's poems are an extension of his ministry. He has an unerring sense of word-music and rhythm, and an apparent simplicity that belies the subtlety of meaning. A great deal of his imagery is based on the natural world, frequently with reference to the iconography of the Bible. This polished work is a remarkable development from the stumbling translation of the years in Rome. The versatility with which he uses a commonplace stanza form may be demonstrated in the recounting of Peter's despair after his denial of Christ:

At sorrowes door I knockt, they crav'de my name;I aunswered one, unworthy to be knowne:What one? say they, one worthiest of blame.But who? a wretch, not Gods, nor yet his owne.A man? O no, a beast? much worse, what creature?A rocke: how cald? the rocke of scandale, Peter.

Poems, 97

The five lyrics on the nativity are those which are found most frequently in anthologies, and of these 'The Burning Babe' is by far the best known. Its succinct lines present a glowing vision of the suffering Christchild on Christmas morning when, in a series of paradoxes and allegorical figures recalling the play of Petrarchan conceits, the direct speech of the Child creates a luminescence in which the reader sees 'mens defiled soules' within a purifying furnace, looking to the salvation to be achieved at the crucifixion:

For which, as now on fire I amTo worke them to their good,So will I melt into a bathTo wash them in my blood.

Poems, 16Ben Jonson is said to have commented: 'That Southwell was hanged yett so he had written that piece of his the burning babe he would have been content to destroy many of his' (McDonald, 134). The setting of two of the poems in Benjamin Britten's Ceremony of Carols is most sensitive to the imagery of the verse, as in the marching rhythms of 'This little Babe so few dayes olde', whom Southwell represents as a military leader, the final lines echoing Jesuit spirituality, 'My soule with Christ joyne thou in fight' (Poems, 15).

Trial and execution

Southwell's solitary confinement lasted two and a half years. After eight months in the Tower, when he reckoned that the Bellamys had had time to disappear, he asked for pen and paper to write to Sir Robert Cecil. The letter, dated 6 April 1593, provided Cecil with the necessary information to bring him to trial. He presents his case, arguing that he had returned to England in order to minister to his family:

I was the childe of a Christian woman, and not the whelpe of a tygar; I could not feare, and foresee, and not forewarne; I had not a crueller harte then a damned caytiffe, to despise their bodies and soules, by whome I received myne. But this was an inveigled zeale, a blinde, and a now abolished faithe; A zeale notwithstanding, and a faithe yt was; and god almightie is my wittnes I came with no other intention into the realme.

Washington, DC, Folger Shakespeare Library, MS V. a. 421, fol. 57v

He asks not for condemnation but for leniency: 'I have heere sent you a sharpe sworde, yet, as I suppose, well sheathed' (ibid., fol. 60). The existence of the letter was known to Garnet; he sent an inaccurate report of its contents to Acquaviva in the letter of 7 March 1595. No action was taken by Cecil.

The long months of imprisonment, called by Garnet 'this blessed solitude', stretched out. In February 1595 Southwell was taken to Newgate, and on the 20th he was brought before the queen's bench for trial for treason under the act of 1585. Details of his last days are contained in the four letters sent by Garnet to Rome, and two eyewitness reports, one by Thomas Leake, a seminary priest (Stonyhurst College, MS Anglia VI, 125–8), and one entitled A Brefe Discourse of the Condemnation and Execution of Mr. Robert Southwell (Stonyhurst College, MS Anglia A. III, 1–11). Sir Edward Coke, attorney-general, conducted the prosecution, and much was made of the Jesuits' advocacy of equivocation. Southwell had written an explanation of this way of avoiding incrimination. It was never published and apparently never widely distributed. Garnet was unable to find a copy when he was asked to give an account of equivocation for the instruction of Catholics in 1598, and he was forced to write his own treatise.

Southwell was very weak, and he excused any memory lapses as caused by the torture he had had to endure on ten occasions. All his answers were scorned by Topcliffe, who had to be restrained several times. Anne Bellamy alone gave evidence, saying that she had been instructed not to reveal the presence of a priest in the house, an example of equivocation he roundly defended. He was found guilty, and returned to Newgate. The next day, 21 February 1595, he was taken to Tyburn to face the horror of being hanged, drawn, and quartered. All his adult life he had prepared himself for such a death, and those who wrote of his last sufferings spoke of the resignation he showed. For the last time he acknowledged that he was a priest of the Society of Jesus. He prayed for the queen, for the country, and for his soul, asking that he might find perseverance 'unto the end of this my laste conflicte' (Janelle, 89).

From the moment of his death, Robert Southwell was regarded as a martyr of the Roman Catholic church. He was remembered by his Jesuit fellow-priests with the greatest affection. John Gerard, who occasionally travelled with him, spoke of his success in saving souls: 'He was so wise and good, gentle and loveable' (Gerard, 17). Garnet's letters reveal the distress he felt at the suffering of his friend. In a letter to Rome of 16 July 1592 he spoke of his sense of being bound with him in a mystical union in which all tortures might be endured. Before Garnet's letter arrived Acquaviva wrote to express understanding of his particular sorrow, his 'loneliness and grief of mind and heart' (Caraman, 158). The loneliness never left him.

What Janelle called 'The Apostolate of Letters' continued, and its influence permeated the religious writing of the last years of the sixteenth century and the work of the metaphysical poets in the first part of the seventeenth. After 1636, however, all publication ceased with the growth of puritan distrust of Catholic and Laudian attitudes. Southwell's reputation was stifled, and with the changing fashion he became no more than a distant outrider in the procession of literary figures. In more recent years a powerfully original body of work has been reassessed with the recovery of texts, the publication of volumes of his work, and perceptive critical comment.

Robert Southwell was canonized as one of the forty English martyrs in 1970.

Although it is unlikely that a likeness was made during Southwell's lifetime a portrait painted soon after his death was preserved at the Jesuit house in Fribourg, Switzerland. It survives in a copy, a crayon drawing by Charles Weld, now at Stonyhurst College. It was reproduced in The Triumphs over Death, edited by J. W. Trotman (1914), and since that time it has been generally assumed to be an authentic likeness.


  • Stonyhurst College, MS A. v. 4
  • letters of Robert Southwell, Archivum Romanum Societatis Iesu, Fondo Gesuitico 651/648
  • Liber ruber, English College, Rome
  • Bodl. Oxf., MS Arch. F. g. 4
  • letters of Henry Garnet, Archivum Romanum Societatis Iesu, Fondo Gesuitico 651
  • J. H. McDonald, The poems and prose writings of Robert Southwell, S. J.: a bibliographical study (1937)
  • P. Beal, Index of English literary manuscripts, ed. P. J. Croft and others, 1/2 (1980), 498–522
  • A. F. Allison and D. M. Rogers, eds., The contemporary printed literature of the English Counter-Reformation between 1558 and 1640, 2 vols. (1989–94)
  • The poems of Robert Southwell, S. J., ed. J. H. McDonald and N. P. Brown (1967)
  • Two letters and ‘Short rules of a good life’, ed. N. P. Brown (1973)
  • R. Southwell, An humble supplication to her majestie, ed. R. C. Bald (1953)
  • R. Southwell, Spiritual exercises and devotions, ed. J.-M. de Buck, trans. P. E. Hallett (1931)
  • H. More, Historia missionis Anglicanae Societatis Iesu (St Omer, 1660), 172–201
  • P. Janelle, Robert Southwell the writer (1935)
  • J. Gerard, The autobiography of an Elizabethan, trans. P. Caraman (1951)
  • P. Caraman, Henry Garnet, 1555–1606, and the Gunpowder Plot (1964)
  • C. Devlin, The life of Robert Southwell, poet and martyr (1956)
  • 28 April 1545, Norfolk RO, MS 16385 32c3 h8
  • will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/47, sig. 19
  • H. Spelman, The history and fate of sacrilege (1698)
  • Letters of Sir Thomas Copley … to Queen Elizabeth and her ministers, ed. R. C. Christie, Roxburghe Club, [130] (1897)
  • J. Morris, ed., The troubles of our Catholic forefathers related by themselves, 2 (1875)
  • The letters and despatches of Richard Verstegan, c. 1550–1640, ed. A. G. Petti, Catholic RS, 52 (1959)
  • T. G. Law, ed., The archpriest controversy: documents relating to the dissensions of the Roman Catholic clergy, 1597–1602, 2 vols., CS, new ser., 56, 58 (1896–8)
  • ‘The letters of Robert Southwell, S.J.’, Archivum Historicum Societatis Iesu, 63 (1994), 101–24


  • Archivum Romanum Societatis Iesu, Fondo Gesuitico 651/648
  • Bodl. Oxf., MS Arch. F. g. 4
  • English College, Rome, Liber ruber
  • NRA, letters and literary MSS
  • Stonyhurst College, Lancashire, MS A. v. 4, Anglia I, Anglia VI, Anglia A. III
  • Archivum Romanum Societatis Iesu, Rome, Fondo Gesuitico 651, Anglia 14, Fland. Belg. i, Anglia 8, Anglia Necrol. II 1573–1651
  • Bodl. Oxf., MS Laud misc. 655
  • English College, Rome, Christopher Grene, Collectanea F, Liber 1422
  • Folger, MS V. a. 421, Harmsworth MS


  • W. J. Alais, stipple and line engraving, BM; repro. in R. Southwell, The complete poems of Robert Southwell, ed. A. B. Grossart (privately printed, London, 1872)
  • C. Weld, crayon drawing (after portrait), Stonyhurst College, Lancashire; repro. in R. Southwell, The triumphs over death, ed. J. W. Trotman (1914)
  • line engraving, BM, NPG
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Camden Society
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British Museum, London
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Norfolk Record Office, Norwich
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Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC
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Bodleian Library, Oxford
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National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London
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A. W. Pollard, G. R. Redgrave, & others, eds., (1926); 2nd edn, ed. W. A. Jackson, F. S. Ferguson, & K. F. Pantzer, 3 vols. (1976–91) [see also Wing, STC]
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Historical Manuscripts Commission, National Register of Archives