St. Robert Southwell

Feast date: Feb 21

Saint Robert Southwell, SJ (c. 1561 – February 21 1595,) an English Roman Catholic Jesuit priest, is one of the 40 martyrs of England & Wales murdered during the English anti-Catholic Reformation.

Robert was born in Norfolk, the youngest of eight children in a well-to-do family with Catholic sympathies in the midts of the anti-Catholic sentiment started by the Anglican reformation.

In 1576, he was sent to France to study with the Jesuits at the English college at Douai. After completing his education, he requested to join the Society of Jesus, but was rejected because he was too young and the Jesuit seminary was temporarily closed because of the growing confrontations between French and Spanish forces.

But in a show of his conviction, in 1578, set off on foot to Rome to make his case for becoming a Jesuit.

After being admitted to the probation house of Sant’ Andrea on 17 October 1578, and after the completion of the novitiate, Southwell began studies in philosophy and theology at the Jesuit College in Rome, and was ordained in 1584.That same year, Queen Elizabeth had passed an edict establishing the death penalty for any British Catholic priest or religious who joined a religious order abroad to remain in England longer than forty days.

Two years later, Southwell requested to be sent back to England as a clandestine Jesuit missionary with Henry Garnet.

Southwell preached and ministered successfully for six years, publishing Catholic catechism and writing spiritual poetry that would make him one of the most important Barroque English poets.

But the Queen’s cheif priest-hunter, Richard Topcliffe, pressured a young Catholic woman he had raped to betray Southwell. Once captured, he was initially jailed in Topcliffe’s personal prison and tortured 13 different times, trying to get him to name Catholic families involved in the clandestine Catholic mission. Fr. Robert did not betray a single name.

Transferred to the infamous Tower of London, Southwell endured cold and solitude for two and a half years, reading the Bible, the works of St. Bernard and praying the Breviary. During that time he also wrote the most important portion of his poetry.

In 1595, Southwell was finally put on trial accused of treason. During the trial, he admitted being a Jesuit to minister to Catholics, but strongly denied ever being involved in “designs or plots against the queen or kingdom.”

After the predictable guilty verdict, he was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

On 21 February 1595, in Tyburn, the Jesuit was allowed to address the crowd about his mission as a Catholic priest, then pronounced the words of Psalm 30 prayed in Complines: in manus tuas commendabo spiritum meum (Into your hands i commend my spirit) and made the sign of the cross.

After he was hanged and his severed head presented to the crowd, the traditional shout of “traitor” was replaced by utter silence.

Soon after his martyrdom, his body of poetry started to circulate in manuscripts among Catholics, and later in 1595 his “St Peter’s Complaint” and other poems were printed. By 1636, 14 editions had been printed, and other collections of poems, including “Mary Magdalen’s Funeral Tears” and Maeoniae.

Southwell was canonized in 1970 as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.

Many critics believe that the poem that expresses the best of his dramatic message to his fellow persecuted Catholics in England is “Life is But Losse,” which he wrote in prison:

By force I live, in will I wish to dye;
In playnte I passe the length of lingring dayes;
Free would my soule from mortall body flye,
And tredd the track of death’s desyred waies:
Life is but losse where death is deemed gaine,
And loathed pleasures breed displeasinge payne.


Come, cruell death, why lingrest thou so longe?
What doth withould thy dynte from fatall stroke?
Nowe prest I am, alas! thou dost me wronge,
To lett me live, more anger to provoke:
Thy right is had when thou hast stopt my breathe,
Why shouldst thoue stay to worke my dooble deathe?


Avaunt, O viper! I thy spite defye:
There is a God that overrules thy force,
Who can thy weapons to His will applie,
And shorten or prolonge our brittle course.
I on His mercy, not thy might, relye;
To Him I live, for Him I hope to die.