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 priest who worked as a missionary in post-Reformation England. He was hanged, drawn and quartered, and became a Catholic martyr.

St Robert Southwell, English Martyr, (full film), biography, Catholic priest and poet

St Robert Southwell, English Martyr, (full film), biography, Catholic priest and poet



Southwell, born at Horsham St. Faith's, Norfolk, of good Roman Catholic family, was educated at Douay, Paris, and Rome, became a Jesuit, and showed such learning and ability as to be appointed Prefect of the English College. In 1586 he came to England with Garnett, the superior of the English province, and became chaplain to the Countess of Arundel. His being in England for more than 40 days then rendered him liable to the punishment of death and disembowelment, and in 1592 he was apprehended and imprisoned in the Tower for 3 years, during which he was tortured 13 times. He was then put on trial and executed, February 22, 1595. He was the author of St. Peter's Complaint and "The Burning Babe", a short poem of great imaginative power, and of several prose religious works, including St. Mary Magdalene's Teares, A Short Rule of Good Life, The Triumphs over Death, etc.[1]

Youth and educationEdit

Southwell, son of Richard Southwell of Horsham St Faith's, Norfolk, was born in 1560/61. The Southwells were affiliated with many noble English families, and Robert's grandmother, Elizabeth Shelley, was an ancestor of Shelley the poet.[2]

He was sent very young to the Roman Catholic college at Douai, and from there to Paris, where he was placed under a Jesuit father, Thomas Darbyshire. In 1580 he joined the Society of Jesus, after a 2 years' novitiate, passed mostly at Tournay.[2]

Missionary and fugitiveEdit

In spite of his youth he was made prefect of studies in the English college of the Jesuits at Rome, and was ordained priest in 1584. It was in that year that an act was passed, forbidding any English-born subject of the Queen who had entered into priest's orders in the Roman Catholic Church since her accession to remain in England longer than 4 days on pain of death. But Southwell at his own request was sent to England in 1586 as a Jesuit missionary with Henry Garnett.[2]

He went from 1 Catholic family to another, administering the rites of his Church, and in 1589 became domestic chaplain to Ann Howard, whose husband, the 1st earl of Arundel, was in prison convicted of treason. It was to him that Southwell addressed his Epistle of Comfort. This and other of his religious tracts, A Short Rule of Good Life, Triumphs over Death, Mary Magdalen's Tears, and A Humble Supplication to Queen Elizabeth, were widely circulated in manuscript. That they found favor outside Catholic circles is proved by Thomas Nashe's imitation of Mary Magdalen's Tears in Christ's Tears over Jerusalem.[2]

Arrest amd 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 and was under suspicion on account of his connection with Jerome Bellamy, who had been executed for sharing in Anthony Babington's plot. 1 of the daughters, Anne Bellamy, was arrested and imprisoned in the gatehouse of Holborn. She revealed Southwell's movements to Richard Topcliffe, who immediately arrested him.[2]

He was 1st imprisoned in Topcliffe's house, where he was repeatedly put to the torture in the vain hope of extracting evidence about other priests. Transferred to the gatehouse at Westminster, he was so abominably treated that his father petitioned Elizabeth that he might either be brought to trial and put to death, if found guilty, or removed in any case from "that filthy hole."[2]

Southwell was then lodged in the Tower, but he was not brought to trial until February 1595. There is little doubt that much of his poetry, none of which was published during his lifetime, was written in prison.[2]

Trial and executionEdit

On the 20 of February 1595 he was tried before the court of King's Bench on the charge of treason, and was hanged at Tyburn on the following day. On the scaffold he denied any evil intentions towards the Queen or her government.[2]



St. Peter's Complaint, with other poems was published in April 1595 without the author's name, and was reprinted 13 times during the next 40 years. A supplementary volume entitled Maeoniae appeared later in 1595.[3]

Southwell's poetry is euphuistic in manner. But his frequent use of antithesis and paradox, the varied and fanciful imagery by which he realizes religious emotion, though they are indeed in accordance with the poetical conventions of his time, are also the unconstrained expression of an ardent and concentrated imagination.[3]

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.

Ben Jonson told Drummond of Hawthornden that he would willingly have destroyed many of his own poems to be able to claim as his own Southwell's "Burning Babe," an extreme but beautiful example of his fantastic treatment of sacred subjects. His poetry is not, however, all characterized by this elaboration. Immediately preceding this very piece in his collected works is a carol written in terms of the utmost simplicity.[3]

See Grosart's edition already mentioned. Southwell's poems were also edited by W.B. Turnbull in 1856.[3]


A Foure fould Meditation of the foure last things was published in in 1606. This, which is not included in [[Alexander Balloch Grosart]|A.B. Grosart's]] reprint (1872) in the Fuller Worthies Library, was published by Mr Charles Edmonds in his Isham Reprints (1805). A Hundred Meditations of the Love of God, in prose, was first printed from a MS. at Stonyhurst College in 1873.[3]

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.[4]

In the view of 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."[5]

Critical introductionEdit

by John W. Hales

Southwell's poems enjoyed a vast popularity in the last decade of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th century. St. Peter’s Complaint, 1st 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.[6]


  • "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."[7]
  • "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"[7]
  • "My mind to me an empire is, While grace affordeth health." --from "Look Home"[7]
  • "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"[7]
  • "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.[7] 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.[8]

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.[7]

Southwell is also the patron saint of Southwell House, a house in the prestigious London Oratory School in Fulham, London.[7]

2 of his poems, "Times Go by Turns" and "The Burning Babe", were included in the Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900.[9] [10]

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," 2 of the pieces in his Ceremony of Carols (1942).



  • Saint Peters Complaynt, with other poems. London: Iames Roberts for Gabriel Cawood, 1595.[11]
  • 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.[11]
  • 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;[11]
  • Marie Magdalens Funeral Teares. London: Printed by John Wolfe for Gabriel Cawood, 1591.[11]
  • 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?][11]
  • An Humble Supplication to Her Maiestie. London: Secretly printed, 1595;[11]
    • (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.[12]
  • 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.[11]

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy WorldCat.[13]

Poems by Robert SouthwellEdit

Robert Southwell - Times Go by Turns

Robert Southwell - Times Go by Turns

The Burning Babe a Christmas poem written by Robert Southwell

The Burning Babe a Christmas poem written by Robert Southwell

Upon the Image of Death By Robert Southwell

Upon the Image of Death By Robert Southwell

  1. The Burning Babe

See alsoEdit


  • PD-icon.svg Lee, Sidney (1911). "Southwell, Robert". In Chisholm, Hugh. Encyclopædia Britannica. 53 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 294-299. . Wikisource, Web, Mar. 3, 2018.
  • 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. John William Cousin, "Southwell, Robert," A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London: Dent / New York: Dutton, 1910, 351. Wikisource, Web, Mar. 3, 2018.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 Britannica 1911, 25, 517.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Britannica 1911, 25, 518.
  4. 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).
  5. White, Helen C. "Southwell: Metaphysical and Baroque", Modern Philology, Vol. 61, No. 3 (February 1964): 159-168.
  6. 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.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 7.6 Jokinen, Anniina. The Works of Robert Southwell October 9, 1997. 26 Web, Sept. 26, 2008.
  8. Google Book, listed under Nathaniel Southwell
  9. "Times Go by Turns," Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900 (edited by Arthur Quiller-Couch). Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919., Web, May 12, 2012.
  10. "The Burning Babe," Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900 (edited by Arthur Quiller-Couch). Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919., Web, May 12, 2012.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 11.4 11.5 11.6 Robert Southwell, SJ 1561-1595, Poetry Foundation. Web, Dec. 6, 2012.
  12. A Foure-fould Meditation, of the Foure Last Things (1895), Internet Archive, Web, May 12, 2012.
  13. Search results = au:Robert Southwell, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Jan. 18, 2015.

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