Saint of the week

St Robert Southwell, 21st February

A Jesuit missionary and a poet, St Robert Southwell was one of the 40 martyrs of England and Wales canonised by Pope Paul VI in 1970.

He set out on the English Mission in 1584 and spent six years ministering to Catholics in London before he was captured by Queen Elizabeth I’s chief pursuivant, the psychopathic Robert Topcliffe, who tortured him in a specially-constructed chamber in his own house at Westminster. The saint was finally executed at Tyburn in 1595 after spending a further three years in the Tower of London.

St Robert was born in 1561 in Horsham Saint Faith, Norfolk, and was educated in Douay, a pupil of Leonard Lessius, and it was there that he made his first contact with the Society of Jesus.

Even though he was aware of the grave dangers English Jesuits faced, he put himself forward as a candidate for the Society at the age of 17 years but was declined because of his youth. He was eventually ordained a Jesuit priest at the English College.

By 1587 he was the secret chaplain at the house on The Strand, London, of Anne, Countess of Arundel, whose husband St Philip Howard was in the Tower because of his conversion to Catholicism.

St Robert’s whereabouts were known to just a trusted few. He would write poetry by day and would minister to Catholics by night. Yet in spite of being in hiding his poetry was making him a respected figure in English literary circles. He also wrote prose, with his Epistle of Comfort and Mary Magdalene’s Funeral Tears considered the most important of his works.

He was caught after Topcliffe imprisoned (and raped) a Catholic girl, Anne Bellamy, until she agreed to write a letter to St Robert inviting to her home at Uxenden Hall, near Harrow-on-the-Hill, where he was captured.

Topcliffe then tortured him repeatedly, once even in the company of Sir Robert Cecil, the Queen’s Chief Minister, but the saint refused to give Topcliffe the information he was seeking about the underground Catholic network.

His body never recovered from its ordeal and St Robert was later heard to say at his trial that he had been tortured 10 times “each one worse than death”.

Topcliffe eventually gave up and St Robert was thrown to rot in the Westminster Gatehouse before he was transferred to the Tower of London. During his incarceration there he wrote some of his finest poetry, which was understood to have influenced the work of William Shakespeare.

Held without charge

After St Robert had been held without charge for nearly three years he appealed to Robert Cecil to be either tried or released. Inevitably, on 20 February 1595, he was tried and sentenced to death for treason although he protested that his intentions were only “to administer the Sacraments to those that seemed willing to receive them”. During the trial Topcliffe was criticised by the judge for his sadism but he complained that he was acting only under orders.

At Tyburn the following day the crowd was visibly sympathetic toward St Robert and Lord Mountjoy, the attending Sheriff, stopped the executioner from cutting him down for disembowelling and quartering until he was dead. When eventually St Robert’s head was cut off and held up to the crowd with the declaration: “Here is the head of a traitor!” no customary cry of “Traitor!” was returned, only silence.

Mountjoy was known to have said: “I cannot answer for his religion but I pray God that my soul may be with his.”

(Photo: St Gabriel News and Media)