Robert Southwell

Robert Southwell (1561-1595), from St. Peter's Complaint. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Saint Robert Southwell (?1561 - 21 February 1595) was an English poet and Jesuit priest who worked as a missionary in post-Reformation England. He was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, London, and became a Catholic martyr.


Southwell was born at Horsham St. Faith in Norfolk, the youngest of 8 children, and was brought up in a family of Catholic gentry. In 1576, he was sent to the English college at Douai, where he boarded at the English College, but studied at the Jesuit College of Anchin, a French college associated, like the English College, with the university of Douai. At the end of the summer, however, his education was interrupted by the movement of French and Spanish forces. Southwell was sent to Paris for greater safety as a student of the College de Clermont, under the tutelage of the Jesuit Thomas Darbyshire.[1] He returned to Douai on 15 June 1577.

A year later, he set off on foot to Rome with the intention of joining the Society of Jesus. A two-year novitiate at Tournai was required before joining the Society, however, and initially he was denied entry to the training. He appealed the decision by sending a heartfelt, emotional letter to the school.[2] He bemoans the situation, writing: How can I but wast in anguish and agony that find myself disjoined 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).[1]

His efforts succeeded as he was admitted to the probation house of Sant Andrea on 17 October 1578, and in 1580 he joined the Society of Jesus.[1] Immediately after the completion of his novitiate, Southwell began studies in philosophy and theology at the Jesuit College in Rome. During this time, he worked as a secretary to the rector and writings of his are to be found amongst the school's documents. Upon completion of his studies, Southwell was admitted BA in 1584.[1] In spite of his youth, he was made prefect of studies in the Venerable English College at Rome and was ordained priest in 1584. He was appointed repetitor (tutor) at the English College for two years before making prefect of studies.

It was in that year that an act was passed forbidding any English-born subject of Queen Elizabeth, who had entered into priests' orders in the Catholic Church since her accession, to remain in England longer than forty days on pain of death.[3] But Southwell, at his own request, was sent to England in 1586 as a Jesuit missionary with Henry Garnett.[3] He went from one Catholic family to another, administering the rites of his Church, and in 1589 became domestic chaplain to Ann Howard, whose husband, the first earl of Arundel, was in prison convicted of treason.[4] It was to him that Southwell addressed his Epistle of Comfort.[5] This and other of his religious tracts, A Short Rule of Good Life, Triumphs over Death, and a Humble Supplication to Queen Elizabeth, circulated in manuscript. Mary Magdalen's Funeral Tears was openly published in 1591. It proved to be very popular, going through ten editions by 1636. Thomas Nashe's imitation of Mary Magdalen's Funeral Tears in Christ's Tears over Jerusalem proves that the works received recognition outside of Catholic circles.[3]

Arrest and imprisonmentEdit

After 6 years of successful labor, Southwell was arrested. He was in the habit of visiting the house of Richard Bellamy, who lived near Harrow, London, and was under suspicion on account of his connection with Jerome Bellamy, who had been executed for sharing in Anthony Babington's plot. One of the daughters, Anne Bellamy, was arrested and imprisoned in the gatehouse of Holborn for being linked to the situation. Having been interrogated and raped by Richard Topcliffe, the Queen's chief priest-hunter and torturer, she revealed Southwell's movements and he was immediately arrested.[1]

He was first taken to Topcliffe's own house, adjoining the Gatehouse Prison, where Topcliffe subjected him to the torture of "the manacles." He remained silent in Topcliffe's custody for forty hours. The Queen then ordered Southwell moved to the Gatehouse, where a team of Privy Council torturers went to work on him. When they proved equally unsuccessful, he was left "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. According to the early narratives, his father had petitioned the queen that his son, if guilty under the law, should so suffer, but if not should be treated as a gentleman, and that as his father he should be allowed to provide him with the necessities of life. No documentary evidence of such a petition survives, but something of the kind must have happened, since 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 breviary to him. He remained in the Tower for three years, under Topcliffe's supervision.[6]

Trial and executionEdit

In 1595 the Privy Council passed a resolution for Southwell's prosecution on the charges of treason. He was removed from the Tower to Newgate prison, where he was put into a hole called Limbo.[4]

A few days later, Southwell appeared before the Lord Chief Justice, John Popham, at the bar of the King's Bench. Popham made a speech against Jesuits and seminary priests. Southwell was indicted before the jury as a traitor under the statutes prohibiting the presence within the kingdom of priests ordained by Rome. Southwell admitted the facts but denied that he had "entertained any designs or plots against the queen or kingdom." His only purpose, he said, in returning to England had been to administer the sacraments according to the rite of the Catholic Church to such as desired them. When asked to enter a plea, he declared himself "not guilty of any treason whatsoever," objecting to a jury being made responsible for his death but allowing that he would be tried by God and country.[1]

As the evidence was pressed, Southwell stated that he was the same age as "our Saviour." He was immediately reproved by Topcliffe for insupportable pride in making the comparison, but he said in response that he considered himself "a worm of the earth." After a brief recess, the jury returned with the predictable guilty verdict. The sentence of death was pronounced - to be hanged, drawn and quartered. He was returned through the city streets to Newgate.

On the next day, 20 February 1595, Southwell was sent to Tyburn. Execution of sentence on a notorious highwayman had been appointed for the same time, but at a different place - perhaps to draw the crowds away - and yet many came to witness Southwell's death. Having been dragged through the streets on a sled, he stood in the cart beneath the gibbet and made the sign of the cross with his pinioned hands before reciting a Bible passage from Romans xiv. The sheriff made to interrupt him; but he was allowed to address the people at some length, confessing that he was a Jesuit priest and praying for the salvation of Queen and country. As the cart was drawn away, he commended his soul to God with the words of the psalm in manus tuas. He hung in the noose for a brief time, making the sign of the cross as best he could. As the executioner made to cut him down, in preparation for bowelling him while still alive, Lord Mountjoy and some other onlookers tugged at his legs to hasten his death. His lifeless body was then bowelled and quartered. As his severed head was displayed to the crowd, no one shouted the traditional "Traitor!"


Soon after Southwell's death, St Peter's Complaint with other poems appeared, printed by John Windet for John Wolfe, but without the author's name. A second edition, including eight more poems, appeared almost immediately. Then on 5 April, Cawood, the publisher of Mary Magdalen's funeral tears, who probably owned the copyright all along, entered the book in the Stationers' Register, and brought out a third edition. Saint Peter's Complaint proved even more popular than Mary Magdalen's Funeral tears; it went into fourteen editions by 1636. Later that same year, another publisher, John Busby, having acquired a manuscript of Southwell's collection of lyric poems, brought out a little book containing a further twenty-two poems, under the title Maeoniae. When in 1602 Cawood added another eight poems to his book, the English publication of Southwell's works came to an end. Southwell's "Of the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar," unpublishable in England, appeared in a broadsheet published at Douai in 1606. A Foure fould Meditation of the foure last things, formerly attributed to Southwell, is by Philip Earl of Arundel. Similarly, the prose A Hundred Meditations of the Love of God, once thought to be Southwell's, is a translation of Fray Diego de Estella's Meditaciones devotisimas del amor de Dios.

Ben Jonson famously remarked to Drummond of Hawthornden that if "he had written that piece of [Southwell's], 'The Burning Babe,' he would have been content to destroy many of his." [7] In fact, there is a strong case to be made for Southwell's influence on his contemporaries and successors, among them Drayton, Lodge, Nashe, Herbert, Crashaw, and especially Shakespeare, who seems to have known his work, both poetry and prose, extremely well.[8]

As the prefatory letter to his poems, "The Author to his Loving Cousin," implies, Southwell seems to have composed with musical setting in mind. One such contemporary setting survives, Thomas Morley's provision of music for stanzas from "Mary Magdalen's Complaint at Christ's Death" in his First book of ayres (1600). An Elizabethan lady called Elizabeth Grymeston, in a book published for her son (1604), described how she sang stanzas from Saint Peter's Complaint as part of her daily prayer. Unfortunately, she does not tell us what music she used. The best known modern setting of Southwell's words is Benjamin Britten's use of stanzas from "New Heaven, New War," and "New Prince, New Pomp" two of the pieces in his Ceremony of Carols (1942).

Southwell's poetry is largely addressed to an English Catholic community under siege in post-Reformation Elizabethan England.[9] Southwell endeavored to convince remaining English Catholics that their terrible situation was not a reason for panic, but an opportunity for spiritual growth. In his view, martyrdom was one of the sincerest forms of religious devotion. Southwell's poem "Life is but Losse" is an example of this concern. Throughout the seven stanzas, Southwell describes the martyrdom of English Catholics at the time, employing biblical figures of both Testaments (i.e., Samson and the Apostles). The poem's title forewarns the reader of the pessimistic tone Southwell uses to describe life, whose importance is minimal compared to death, as indicated in the line "Life is but losse, where death is deemed gaine." His notion of death being more attractive than life emanates from his conviction that being next to God is the perfect way to achieve spiritual bliss. "To him I live, for him I hope to dye" is Southwell' s manner of informing the reader of the reason for his existence, which does not end with death, but is further intensified by it.[10]

The main thing that separates Southwell's writing from that of the Christian stoics of his time is his belief in the creative value of passion. Some of Southwell's contemporaries were also defenders of passion but he was very selective when it came to where passions were directed. He was once quoted as saying, "Passions I allow, and loves I approve, only I would wish that men would alter their object and better their intent." Southwell's intents for his passions were almost always religious. He felt that he could use his writing to naturally stir up religious feelings in man. It is this pattern in his writing that has caused scholars to declare him a leading Baroque writer. Pierre Janelle published a study on Southwell in 1935 in which he recognized him as a pioneer Baroque figure. He was one of the first Baroque writers of the late 16th century and his works influenced numerous Baroque writers in the 17th century.[11]

In the view of the critic Helen C. White, probably no work of Southwell's is more "representative of his Baroque genius than the prose Marie Magdalens Funeral Teares, published late in 1591, close to the end of his career. The very choice of this subject would seem the epitome of the Baroque; for it is a commonplace that the penitent Magdalen, with her combination of past sensuality and current remorsefulness, was a favorite object of contemplation to the Counter-Reformation."[12]

In the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, Southwell and his companion and associate Henry Garnet were noted for their allegiance to the doctrine of mental reservation, a controversial ethical concept of the period.[3]

Critical introductionEdit

by John W. Hales

Southwell's poems enjoyed a vast popularity in the last decade of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth century. St. Peter’s Complaint, first printed in 1595, was again and again re-issued in that and the immediately following years. Both Hall and Marston refer to it in their Satires. "Never," says Bolton in his Hypercritica, "must be forgotten St. Peter’s Complaint and those other serious poems said to be father Southwell’s; the English whereof, as it is most proper, so the sharpness and light of wit is very rare in them."

No doubt this popularity was greatly due to the deep interest and pity excited by his misfortunes, encountered and borne with so rare a constancy.... Nor would those who were drawn to his writings by sympathy with his martyrdom fail to see in them the reflection of his lofty and devoted nature. Nearly all his poetry must have been written in the valley of the shadow of death, some of it in death’s very presence. And throughout it we perceive the thoughts and beliefs that ever inspired and upheld him. Especially dear and welcome and present is the idea that "Life is but loss." Death is cruel, not for coming, but for delaying to come. This has often been said, but never with an intenser sincerity and conviction. "This death," he said just before ... he was hanged, "although it may now seem base and ignominious, can to no rightly-thinking person appear doubtful but that it is beyond measure an eternal weight of glory to be wrought in us, who look not to the things which are visible, but to those which are unseen." We may be sure these words were with him no vulgar commonplace.

And apart from their attraction as revealing the secret of his much-enduring spirit, his poems show a true poetic power. They show a rich and fertile fancy, with an abundant store of effective expression at its service. He inclines to sententiousness; but his sentences are no mere prose edicts, as is so often the case with writers of that sort; they are bright and coloured with the light and the hues of a vivid imagination. In imagery, indeed, he is singularly opulent. In this respect St. Peter’s Complaint reminds one curiously of the almost exactly contemporary poem, Shakespeare’s Lucrece. There is a like inexhaustibleness of illustrative resource. He delights to heap up metaphor on metaphor. Thus he describes Sleep as

  ‘Death’s ally, oblivion of tears,
  Silence of passions, blame of angry sore,
Suspense of loves, security of fears,
  Wrath’s lenity, heart’s ease, storm’s calmest shore;
Senses’ and souls’ reprieval from all cumbers,
Benumbing sense of ill with quiet slumbers.’

St. Peter’s Complaint reminds one of Lucrece also in the minuteness of its narration, and in the unfailing abundance of thought and fancy with which every detail is treated. It is undoubtedly the work of a mind of no ordinary copiousness and force, often embarrassed by its own riches, and so expending them with a prodigal carelessness. Thus Southwell’s defects spring not from poverty, but from imperfectly managed wealth; or, to use a different image, the flowers are overcrowded in his garden, and the blaze of colour is excessive. Still, flowers they are. Like many another Elizabethan, he was wanting in art; his genius ran riot.[13]


  • "The Chief Justice asked how old he was, seeming to scorn his youth. He answered that he was near about the age of our Saviour, Who lived upon the earth thirty-three years; and he himself was as he thought near about thirty-four years. Hereat Topcliffe seemed to make great acclamation, saying that he compared himself to Christ. Mr. Southwell answered, 'No he was a humble worm created by Christ.' 'Yes,' said Topcliffe, 'you are Christ's fellow.'" --Father Henry Garnet, "Account of the Trial of Robert Southwell." Quoted in Caraman's "The Other Face," page 230.
  • Southwell: I am decayed in memory with long and close imprisonment, and I have been tortured ten times. I had rather have endured ten executions. I speak not this for myself, but for others; that they may not be handled so inhumanely, to drive men to desperation, if it were possible.
    • Topcliffe: If he were racked, let me die for it.
    • Southwell: No; but it was as evil a torture, or late device.
    • Topcliffe: I did but set him against a wall.
    • Southwell: Thou art a bad man.
    • Topcliffe: I would blow you all to dust if I could.
    • Southwell: What, all?
    • Topcliffe: Ay, all.
    • Southwell: What, soul and body too? At his Trial
  • "Not where I breathe, but where I love, I live" on the outside of The DeNaples Center at the Jesuit University of Scranton. Longer version: "Not where I breathe, but where I love, I live; / Not where I love, but where I am, I die."
  • "Hoist up saile while gale doth last,Tide and wind stay no man's pleasure." --from "St. Peter's Complaint. 1595."[3]
  • "May never was the month of love, For May is full of flowers; But rather April, wet by kind, For love is full of showers." --from "Love's Servile Lot"[3]
  • "My mind to me an empire is, While grace affordeth health." --from "Look Home"[3]
  • "O dying souls, behold your living spring; O dazzled eyes, behold your sun of grace; Dull ears, attend what word this Word doth bring; Up, heavy hearts, with joy your joy embrace. From death, from dark, from deafness, from despair: This life, this light, this Word, this joy repairs." --from "The Nativity of Christ"[3]
  • "A poet, a lover and a liar are by many reckoned but three words with one signification." - from "The author to his loving cousin," published with "St. Peter's Complaint." 1595.


A memoir of Southwell was drawn up soon after his death. Much of the material was incorporated by Bishop Richard Challoner in his Memoirs of Missionary Priests (1741), and the manuscript is now in the Public Record Office in Brussels. See also Alexis Possoz, Vie du Pre R. Southwell (1866); and a life in Henry Foley's Records of the English Province of the Society of Jesus: historic facts illustrative of the labours and sufferings of its members in the 16th and 17th centuries, 1877 (i. 301387). Foley's narrative includes copies of the most important documents connected with his trial, and gives full information on the original sources.[3] The standard modern life, however, is Christopher Devlin's The Life of Robert Southwell, Poet and Martyr, London, 1956.

Under Southwell's Latinized name, Sotvellus, and in his memory, the English Jesuit, Nathaniel Bacon, Secretary of the Society of Jesus, published the updated 3rd edition of the Bibliotheca Scriptorum Societatis Iesu (Rome, 1676). It is the Baroque jewel of Jesuit bibliography containing more than 8000 authors that has made "Sotvel" a common reference.[14]

Southwell was beatified in 1929 and canonized by Pope Paul VI as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales on 25 October 1970.[3]

Southwell is also the patron saint of Southwell House, a house in the prestigious London Oratory School in Fulham, London.[3]

Two of his poems, "Times Go by Turns" and "The Burning Babe", were included in the Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900.[15] [16]



  • Saint Peters Complaynt, with other poems. London: Iames Roberts for Gabriel Cawood, 1595.[17]
  • Moeoniae. Or, Certaine Excellent Poems and Spirituall Hymnes: Omitted in the Last Impression of Peters Complaint. London: Printed by Valentine Sims for John Busbie, 1595.[17]
  • The Poetical Works (edited by William B. Turnbull). London: J.R. Smith, 1856.
  • The Complete Poems (edited by Alexander Balloch Grosart). London: privately published, printed by Robson, 1872; Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1970.
  • The Poems of Robert Southwell SJ (edited by James H McDonald; Nancy Pollard Brown). Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1967.
  • Collected Poems (edited by Peter Davidson & Anne Sweeney). Manchester, UK: Carcanet, 2007.


  • An Epistle of Comfort, to the Reuerend Priestes, & to the Laye Sort Restrayned in Durance. London: Secretly printed, 1587;[17]
  • Marie Magdalens Funeral Teares. London: Printed by John Wolfe for Gabriel Cawood, 1591.[17]
  • The Triumphs over Death: or, a Consolatorie epistle. London: Valentine Sims for John Busbie, 1595;
    • (edited by John William Trotman). London: Manresa, 1914; St. Louis, MO: Herder, 1914.
  • A Short Rule of Good Life: Newly set forth according to the authours direction before his death (includes "An Epistle of a Religious Priest Vnto His Father"). [London?]: Secretly printed, [1596-1597?][17]
  • An Humble Supplication to Her Maiestie. London: Secretly printed, 1595;[17]
    • (edited by R.C. Bald). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1953.
  • A Foure-fould Meditation: Of the foure last things. London: F. Burton, 1606; London: Elkin Mathews, 1895.[18]
  • Spiritual Exercises and Devotions (edited by J.-M. De Buck; translated by P.E. Hallett). London: Sheed & Ward, 1931.
  • Two Letters and Short Rules of a Good Life (edited by Nancy Pollard Brown). Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, for the Folger Shakespeare Library, 1973.

Collected editionsEdit


  • "The Letters of Father Robert Southwell," in Unpublished Documents Relating to the English Martyrs (edited by John Hungerford Pollen, S.J.) London: Catholic Record Society (Catholic Record Society Publications, volume 5), 1908, pp. 293-333.[17]

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy WorldCat.[19]

Poems by Robert SouthwellEdit

Robert Southwell - Times Go by Turns01:45

Robert Southwell - Times Go by Turns

  1. "The Burning Babe"

See alsoEdit


  • Archivum Romanum Societatis Iesu, Anglia 14, fol. 80, under date 1578
  • Bishop Challoner. Memoirs of Missionary Priests and other Catholics of both sexes that have Suffered Death in England on Religious Accounts from the year 1577 to 1684 (Manchester, 1803) vol. I, p. 175ff.
  • Brown, Nancy P. Southwell, Robert [St Robert Southwell] (1561-1595),writer, Jesuit, and martyr Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
  • Janelle, Pierre. Robert Southwell, The Writer: A Study in Religious Inspiration. Mamaroneck, NY: Paul P. Appel, 1971.
  • Jokinen, Anniina. The Works of Robert Southwell. 9 Oct. 1997. 26 Sept. 2008.
  • "Robert Southwell (c. 1561-1595)". 2003. MasterFILE Premier
  • F.W.Brownlow. Robert Southwell. Twayne Publishers, 1996.
  • John Klause. Shakespeare, the Earl, and the Jesuit. Madison & Teaneck, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2008.
  • Louis Martz. The Poetry of Meditation: A Study in English Religious Literature of the Seventeenth Century. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954. ISBN 0300001657
  • Scott R. Pilarz. Robert Southwell, and the Mission of Literature, 1561-1595: Writing Reconciliation. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004. ISBN 0754633802
  • St. Robert Southwell: Collected Poems. Ed. Peter Davidson and Anne Sweeney. Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2007. ISBN 1857548981
  • Ceri Sullivan, Dismembered Rhetoric. English Recusant Writing, 1580-1603. Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press, 1995. ISBN 0838635776
  • Anne Sweeney, Robert Southwell. Snow in Arcadia: Redrawing the English Lyric Landscape, 1586-95. Manchester University Press, 2006. ISBN 0719074185


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Brown, Nancy P. Southwell, Robert [St Robert Southwell] (1561-1595), writer, Jesuit, and martyr Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
  2. Encyclopedia Britannica. Southwell, Robert. 2008. Encyclopedia Britannica Online.
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 Jokinen, Anniina. The Works of Robert Southwell 9 Oct. 1997. 26 Sept. 2008.
  4. 4.0 4.1 "Robert Southwell (c. 1561-1595)". 2003. MasterFILE Premier
  5. Robert S. Miola (ed.). Early Modern Catholicism. An anthology of primary sources. Oxford: University Press, 2007, pp. 301 f.
  6. Brownlow, F.W. Robert Southwell. Twayne Publishers, 1996, p. 15.
  7. Ben Jonson. Works. Ed. C.H.Herford and Percy Simpson. 11 Vols. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1925-52, 1.137.
  8. Brownlow, pp.93-6, 125. Also John Klause. Shakespeare, the Earl and the Jesuit. Madison & Teaneck, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2008, passim.
  9. Robert S. Miola (ed.). Early Modern Catholicism. An anthology of primary sources. Oxford: University Press, 2007, with excerpts pp. 26, 32 -34, 192-204, 278-80, 301-2.
  10. Antonio S. Oliver. "Southwell and His Idea of Death as a Divine Honor." 9 Oct. 1997. 26 Sept. 2008 [1]
  11. Pierre, Janelle. Robert Southwell, The Writer: A Study in Religious Inspiration(Mamaroneck, NY: Paul P. Appel, 1971). Louis Martz also discusses Southwell's relation to later English devotional poetry in his influential study The Poetry of Meditation: A Study in English Religious Literature of the Seventeenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954).
  12. White, Helen C. "Southwell: Metaphysical and Baroque", Modern Philology, Vol. 61, No. 3 (February 1964): 159-168.
  13. from John W. Hales, "Critical Introduction: Robert Southwell (c.1561–1595)," The English Poets: Selections with critical introductions (edited by Thomas Humphry Ward). New York & London: Macmillan, 1880-1918. Web, Apr. 8, 2016.
  14. Google Book, listed under Nathaniel Southwell
  15. "Times Go by Turns". Arthur Quiller-Couch, editor, Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900 (Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919)., Web, May 12, 2012.
  16. "The Burning Babe". Arthur Quiller-Couch, editor, Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900 (Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919)., Web, May 12, 2012.
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 17.3 17.4 17.5 17.6 Robert Southwell, SJ 1561-1595, Poetry Foundation. Web, Dec. 6, 2012.
  18. A Foure-fould Meditation, of the Foure Last Things (1895), Internet Archive, Web, May 12, 2012.
  19. Search results = au:Robert Southwell, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Jan. 18, 2015.

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