The death and witness of a poet-priest


While in England this week, I was privileged to meet with a number of local experts curating some manuscripts and rare books of Robert Southwell, a Jesuit priest and poet martyred for his missionary work among the recusant English Catholic populations after that government’s definitive split with Rome in the 16th century.

Coincidentally, this week marked the 422nd anniversary of Southwell’s death, and so proved a powerful moment to remember this luminary figure and his contribution. His stirring words, likely inspired by the severed heads of his predecessors and fellow priests displayed on London Bridge, are now enshrined in a prominent location on the University of Scranton campus, etched on the walls of the student center of my undergraduate home: “Not where I breathe, but where I love, I live.”

Southwell readily accepted what was then a daunting mission: to leave the relative safety of continental Europe to infiltrate the raging religious wars of Britain in order to minister to the underground Catholic church there. He knew that in all likelihood it would cost him his life, which it eventually did.

After his betrayal by locals, he was tortured relentlessly by one of the most sinister characters of the period, Richard Topcliffe. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London and Newgate’s infamous “Limbo Dungeon,” before his condemnation in a sham of a trial and sentenced to undergo the horrific execution reserved for “traitors to the crown”: being hung until nearly dead, disemboweled while still conscious, and posthumously dismembered with body parts scattered for display around the country. All of this for saying private Masses in perseverant Catholics’ basements, barns and backyards.

The anti-Catholic persecutions had intensified and reached a fevered pitch in these years, especially due to the Babington Plot to dethrone the Protestant Elizabeth and replace her with Mary, Queen of Scots, a Catholic.

Scholars believe that Southwell’s writings were well-known to a contemporary author, William Shakespeare. The most widely publicized were a string of poems written between 1586 and 1592, many interestingly focused on the innocence of the Child in the crib: “New Prince, New Pomp,” “The Nativity of Christ,” “A Child My Choice.” His most famous poem, “The Burning Babe,” also deals with this theme. He wrote longer pieces of prose as well, including the well-circulated “Mary Magdalen’s Funeral Tears.”

When Southwell was dying, he publicly admitted his priestly ordination and thanked God for that call to service, but also prayed for the soul of the Queen and for all of England, explicitly including those who were accessories in his demise. His battered limbs and twisted hands could barely make the sign of the cross on the gallows after all of his physical tortures.

One of the greatest literary authors of his or any era had long since lost the ability to hold a pen because of Topcliffe’s inventive cruelties inflicted in the hopes of finding more priests. When Southwell’s head was head aloft by the executioner, legend indicates that no one in the crowd shouted “traitor!” as was traditional.

Though locally beloved during and immediately after his inspiring life and ignominious death, it took many centuries for Pope Paul VI to canonize Southwell. He did so among a cast of others, including the more well-known Edmund Campion. Today they are referred to as the 40 Martyrs of England and Wales.

We can be grateful that the currents of history have carried us to a purer time (on this front at least), when ecumenical fraternity recognizes that that which unites those who acknowledge Christ as Lord is much greater than that which divides us. However, being conscious of the brutalities inflicted on both sides of these bitter conflicts, we ought also to remember with reverence those who gave their lives in following their conscience as a response to Christ’s call heard in the depths of their soul, and the very marrow of their bones (cf. Jer 20:9). It is certain that Southwell aptly fits such a description.


Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., a former resident of Collingwood, teaches at Loyola University in Chicago.