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Southworth, John [St John Southworth]locked

  • John Morrill

Southworth, John [St John Southworth] (1592–1654), Roman Catholic priest and martyr, was born into an unflinchingly recusant family at Samlesbury, Lancashire. A government spy reported about the time of his birth that there was a popish schoolmaster in Samlesbury, and it is quite possible that this man educated Southworth. He was the third member of the family in a generation to offer himself for the priesthood at Rheims or Douai. He entered the latter in 1613 and was ordained as a secular priest on Holy Saturday 1618, offering his first mass on Easter morning. He was sent to England in December 1619 and spent most of the next thirty-five years in London, except for a twelve-month recall in 1624–5, when he was asked to act as chaplain to the Benedictine nuns in Brussels, and for a brief period in 1627–8 in Lancashire. This culminated in his arrest, trial, and conviction under the Elizabethan statute making it treasonable to be a Catholic priest in England. His execution was stayed, however, and he was transferred to the Clink prison in London. In 1630 he was one of twelve priests who, at the behest of the queen and to mark the peace treaty between England and France, had their sentences commuted to perpetual banishment—with the king's 'express will and pleasure' that if they remained in or returned to England and Wales, then 'the Law should pass on every several person without further favour' (Reynolds, 38).

Southworth simply ignored this threat and remained in London, serving in some of the poorest areas of Clerkenwell and Westminster. He is lost to historical view for most of the next twenty-five years, but can be regularly glimpsed signing petitions for the return of Bishop Smith or the appointment of a coadjutor to bring discipline and to instil a common practice among the clergy. He was especially prominent during the plague years in the mid-1630s, when he raised money for the victims and their families, and complained that his co-worker, Henry Morse SJ, administered the sacraments of penance and holy communion but not of extreme unction (since touching the victims of plague would incur unnecessary personal risk). He was arrested four times on the sworn evidence of spies between his release from the Clink in 1630 and the outbreak of civil war, but he was three times released after intervention by secretary of state Windebank. On the fourth occasion, in 1640, he escaped. He is completely lost to view throughout the following decade, but can be traced again, operating from the house of the Spanish ambassador in the early 1650s. He was arrested at a private house on 19 June 1654, brought twice before the common serjeant of London on 24 and 26 June, and ordered to be hanged, drawn, and quartered, a sentence carried out at Tyburn on the 28th. In his final speech he begged that 'Catholics, being free-born subjects should enjoy that liberty [of conscience] as others do as long as they live obedient subjects to the Lord Protector and the laws of the nation' (Last Speech, 2).

Southworth was the only Catholic priest executed during the protectorate, and the last ever to be executed simply for being a priest in England. His arrest is probably connected with the discovery in the previous month of an assassination plot against the protector, and the establishment of links between the leading plotters and the French ambassador. This in turn provoked a spasm of heightened anti-popery. The speed of his arraignment and execution, the fact that he was brought before the common serjeant and not the high court of justice (which had been granted sole jurisdictions over treasons), and the fact that he was hanged, drawn, and quartered (a recent ordinance had restricted the manner of execution to hanging only, or to beheading) all point to the fact that he died under his 1627 conviction and under the terms of his 1630 commuted sentence. This bound the hands of the judge, who had only to establish that he was the John Southworth, priest, previously condemned. Certainly Serjeant Steele tried very hard to persuade Southworth to deny, or at least to equivocate over, his priesthood, 'assuring him that if he would so plead his life would be safe, as they had no evidence which could prove him to be a priest' (Challoner, 507). Instead, Southworth 'confessed himself a priest and a condemned man many years since' (Purdie, 116). Foreign ambassadors pleaded for his life, and Cromwell (who had no power of pardon under the 'Instrument of government') made it clear that he was unhappy about this execution. As a grim acknowledgement of this the protector ordered surgeons to be present so that once the law had taken its course, the eviscerated and quartered body could be sewn together and returned to Douai College for burial, on 14 July 1654—the only corpse of an English Catholic martyr to survive into modern times. He was beatified by the Vatican in 1929, and in 1970 he was proclaimed one of forty English martyr-saints of the Reformation era. When Douai College was pulled down in the 1920s John Southworth was exhumed and taken to a place of honour in Westminster Cathedral, close to the very spot where he had fearlessly anointed plague victims three hundred years before.


  • R. Challoner, Memoirs of missionary priests, ed. J. H. Pollen, rev. edn (1924), 505–10
  • A. B. Purdie, The life of Blessed John Southworth (1930)
  • E. E. Reynolds, John Southworth, priest and martyr (1962)
  • G. F. Nuttall, ‘The English martyrs, 1535–1680’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 22 (1971), 191–7
  • S. R. Gardiner, History of the Commonwealth and protectorate, 1649–1656, new edn, 4 vols. (1903), vol. 3, pp. 149–52
  • The writings and speeches of Oliver Cromwell, ed. W. C. Abbott and C. D. Crane, 3 (1945), 320–21
  • CSP Venice, 1653–4, 233–4
  • W. Prynne, The popish royal favourite (1643)
  • The last speech and confession of John Southworth a popish priest at his execution at Tyburn … printed from a true copy found among other papers at the search of a papist's house (1679)
J. Thurloe, ed. T. Birch, 7 vols. (1742)
R. Brown, H. F. Brown, & A. B. Hinds, eds., (1864–1947)