Suffering under persecution – the example of Robert Southwell, priest and martyr

One of the great delusions of the modern age is the presumption that human beings today are in some way “better”, more “enlightened”, more “moral” than people in the past, who were were cruel, or ignorant, or incapable of seeing things which are obvious to “modern man”.

This attitude reveals itself in the frequent use of phrases like “in this day and age” or “in the 21st century”, which carry with them the implication that we are living at the peak of human achievement and that, simply by virtue of the calendar date, things must be better now than in the past.

This article was first published in February 2020 in the magazine Calx Mariae and is republished here with permission. The author did not know at that time that within weeks the power of the state would be turned again to the suppression of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and that we would need once more to draw on the example of the English martyrs and their immense love for the Church and for the true good of the English nation, the precious Dowry of Our Lady.

Please consider joining us in a 54-day 15-decade rosary novena for an immediate end to tyranny and for the triumph of the Church.

(Caption: The Martyrs’ Painting at the Venerable English College, Rome)

Another way in which this attitude may be revealed is in the misuse of terms such as “medieval” to imply cruelty or brutality. This is truly absurd given that the modern age is by far the most brutal and bloodthirsty period in human history. Neither the almost unimaginable death tolls – military and civilian – of modern warfare, nor the millions of innocent victims of ideologies such as Nazism and Communism, nor repeated genocides across the globe, seem have the power to shake “modern man” out of his delusional complacency. This is seen most clearly in the case of abortion. Abortion is the world’s leading cause of death. In 2019 there were an estimated 42.4 million abortions worldwide. More than one billion unborn children have been killed by abortion since the the early twentieth century. Yet “modern man” persists in believing he is uniquely enlightened and uniquely moral.

Part of the remedy for this delusion is reading and learning about the past, because as soon as anybody begins to truly study the past, with openness to whatever one may find, the unchanging nature of human beings becomes clear.

Human nature is exactly the same now as it has ever been. Reading the works that previous generations have left us, listening to the music they have composed, engaging with the art they have created, should make us aware of this, but all too often the same prejudices remain.

For us Catholics too it can sometimes be hard to grasp the full humanity of the saints and martyrs of the past and the way in which they fully shared the same human nature as us. We have very little biographical information about many saints, and this can make it hard us to see the real man or woman behind the saintly image.

John Henry Newman wrote of the way in which the lives of the saints can be often more treatises on certain virtues, than biographies which give us a sense of a real person, and how the action of grace transformed and sanctified them:

“An almsgiving here, an instance of meekness there, a severity of penance, a round of religious duties,—all these things humble me, instruct me, improve me; I cannot desire anything better of their kind; but they do not necessarily coalesce into the image of a person. From such works I do but learn to pay devotion to an abstract and typical perfection under a certain particular name; I do not know more of the real Saint who bore it than before… This seems to me, to tell the truth, a sort of pantheistic treatment of the Saints. I ask something more than to stumble upon the disjecta membra of what ought to be a living whole. I take but a secondary interest in books which chop up a Saint into chapters of faith, hope, charity, and the cardinal virtues. They are too scientific to be devotional. They have their great utility, but it is not the utility which they profess. They do not manifest a Saint, they mince him into spiritual lessons.” [Newman, Historical Sketches]

Newman commented that this can be avoided when we have surviving writings – particularly personal writings – of a saint. 

This is the case with some of the English martyrs whose writings can give us real insights into the operations of grace working to sanctify real men.

There is always a danger that when we think of the martyrs we may have a romanticised idea of what life must have been like as missionary priest and of martyrdom itself. 

It is easy to think of the missions as exciting and heroic, but easy to forget how terrible a burden working on the English mission field must have been – the fear, anxiety, stress, strain, sorrow etc of men who spent years working in the knowledge that they could be betrayed and arrested at any moment and handed over to torture and execution. What can seem to us as glorious martyrdom, and entry into eternal bliss – as indeed it was – would not of course have always been seen in that light by the men facing it, men who would not have thought of themselves as saints, but as sinners, weak and humble servants of God, who were liable at any moment to fall into sin, or to fail in their mission as a result of their human weakness. These men lived with the possibility of an excruciating and degrading end to life hanging over them – an end which presented a temptation for them to fall from grace.

Some of the surviving writings of our martyrs give us an insight into the nature of this ordeal.

Edmund Campion expressed the sense of perpetual danger:

“I cannot long escape the hands of heretics, the enemy have so many eyes, so many tongues, so many scouts and crafts”.

He wrote:

“I read letters sometimes myself that in the first front tell news that Campion is taken, which, noised in every place where I come, so filleth my ears with the sound thereof, that fear itself hath taken away all fear.”

On another occasion Campion wrote to the Jesuit’s Superior General, Everard Mercurian, that:

“at the writing hereof, the persecution rage most cruelly. The house where I am is sad; no other talk but of death, flight, prison, or spoil of their friends.”

Another Jesuit missionary, Robert Persons, wrote that:

“the violence… is most intense and it is of a kind that has not been heard of since the conversion of England. Everywhere there are being dragged to prison, noblemen and those of humble birth, men, women and even children.”

He gives a vivid description of the tension under which Catholics lived:

“there comes a hurried knock at the door, like that of a pursuivant; all start up and listen, like deer when they hear the huntsman; we leave our food and commend ourselves to God… If it is nothing, we laugh at our fright.” 

And simply that “we never have a single day free from danger.”[1]

Some of the greatest insights into the interior struggle of English Catholics come from the poetry of Robert Southwell, whose verses, circulating in manuscript form, brought courage and consolation to many.

Robert Southwell was born Norfolk in 1561. His grandfather, Sir Richard Southwell, had been one of Henry VIII’s commissioners for the dissolution of the monasteries and the family had greatly profited from the destruction of England’s religious houses. The family home at Horsham St Faith was built amidst the ruins of a Benedictine priory. St Robert’s father, also called Sir Richard Southwell, was a prominent courtier and his mother Bridget Southwell née Copley, had been a childhood companion of Elizabeth I.

However, Bridget had remained loyal to the true religion, as had other members of the Copley family, and it was to relatives in the west country that she sent her son Robert to be educated.

In the summer of 1576, aged 14, Robert crossed the English Channel to Flanders and became a student at the English College at Douai. This had been established in 1568 by William Allen, and other English exiles, as a centre for educating a new generation of English Catholic priests. The majority of priests who returned to England were formed at Douai, or its sister seminary, the English College founded at Rome in 1579. (Later college were established at Valladolid in 1589, Seville in 1592 and Lisbon in 1628.) However, Robert Southwell had a different path, in November of 1576 he went to the Jesuit College of Claremont and there, in 1578, asked to be admitted to the Society of Jesus. After being turned down, probably on account of his youth, he went to Rome and there, in 1579, became at Jesuit at the age of 17. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1584.

In July 1586 he arrived in England in the company of Henry Garnet (1553-1606), who was soon to become superior of the English Jesuits, and was to be martyred in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot. 

Robert, like his fellow missionaries, before and after him travelled throughout England in secret. Saying Mass, celebrating the sacraments, teaching the faith and reconciling men and women to the Church.

The period in which he worked in England was one of the most intense periods of persecution, especially in the years following the failure of the Spanish Armada in 1588, when the Catholic faith became closely associated with treason in government propaganda, and in the minds of many.

The human realities of being a missionary priest at a time of severe persecution comes across strongly in Southwell’s poems – as well as the natural and supernatural virtue that conducted him towards martyrdom. I would like to share a selection of these poems, which I think can help us to have some insight into the sufferings endured by our ancestors, and into the reality of martyrdom –  glorious but terrible.

I have taken the text of the poems from Collected Poems, ed. Peter Davidson and Anne Sweeney, but I have modernised the spelling and added modern punctuation to make them more accessible. They are all from the “Waldegrave” manuscript, now kept at Stonyhurst College, of which Davidson and Sweeney write:

“Southwell was a priest denied a pulpit; and those under his ministry were a congregation denied a church… The poetry collected in the ‘Waldegrave’ manuscript was written to redress that loss, under the guise of (and harnessing the attractive boost of) literary effort. Southwell, knowing that his words would be copied and shared, was fully alert to the possibilities of manuscript circulation between communities in transmitting ‘moral truths, and that covertly uttered to a common good which without mask would not find so free a passage.’”[2]

If we, mindful of our shared human nature and our fundamental similarity to one another, can try to place ourselves in the position of a young man, living year after year in secret, in disguise, under aliases, and always in imminent danger of capture, torture and death, then these poems will not need further commentary and will enlighten us about the true nature of the heroism and sacrifice of our English martyrs.

Robert Southwell (1561-1595)

Life is but loss

By force I live, in will I wish to die
In plaint I pass the length of lingering days
Free would my soul from mortal body fly
And tread the tracks of death’s desired ways
Life is but loss where death is deemed gain
And loathed pleasures breed displeasing pain.

Who would not die, to kill all murdering griefs
Or who would live in never dying fears
Who would not wish his treasure safe from thieves
And quiet his heart from pangs, his eyes from tears
Death parteth but two ever fighting foes
Whose civil strife doth work our endless woes.

Life is a wandering course to doubtful rest
As oft a cursed rise to damning leap
As happy race to win a heavenly crest
None being sure what final fruits to reap
And who can like in such a life to dwell
Whose ways are strait to heaven, but wide to hell.

Come cruel death, why lingerest thou so long
What doth withhold thy dint from fatal stroke
Now pressed I am, alas thou dost me wrong
To let me live, more anger to provoke
Thy right is had when thou has stopped my breath
Why shouldst thou stay to work my double death.

If Saul’s attempt in falling on his blade 
As lawful were as eth to putt in ure [“As easy to carry out”]
If Sampson’s leave a common law were made
Of Abel’s lot if all that would were sure
Then cruel death thou shouldst the tyrant play
With none but such as wished for delay

Where life is loved thou ready art to kill
And to abridge with sudden pangs their joy
Where life is loathed thou wilt not work their will
But dost adjourn their death to their annoy
To some thou art a fierce unbidden guest
But those that crave thy help thou helpest lest

Avaunt O viper, I thy spite defy
There is a God that over-rules thy force
Who can thy weapons to his will apply
And shorten or prolong our brittle course
I on His mercy not thy might rely
To Him I live, for Him I hope to die.

I die alive

O life, what lets thee from a quick decease
O death, what draws thee from a present prayer
My feast is done, my soul would be at ease
My grace is said, O death come take away

I live but such a life as ever dies
I die but such a death as never ends
My death to end my dying life denies
And life my living death no whit amends

Thus still I die yet still I do revive
My living death by dying life is fed
Grace more than nature keeps my heart alive
Whose idle hopes and vain desires are dead

Not where I breath but where I love I live
Not where I love but where I am I die
The life I wish must future glory give
The deaths I feel in present dangers lie.

From Fortunes Reach

Let fickle fortune run her blindest race
I settled have an unremoved mind
I scorn to be the game of fancies chase
Or fain to show the change of every wind.
Light giddy humours stinted to no rest
Still change their choice yet never choose the best.

My choice was guided by foresightful heed
It was averred with approving will
It shall be followed with performing deed
And sealed with vow, till death the chooser kill
Yea death though final date of vain desires
Ends not my choice which with no time expires

To beauty's fading bliss I am no thrall
I bury not my thoughts in metal mines
I aim not at such fame as feareth fall
I seek and find a light that ever shines
Whose glorious beams display such heavenly sights
As yield my soul the sum of all delights

My light to love, my love to life doth guide
To life that lives by love and loveth light
By love of one to whom all loves are tied
By duest debt, and never equalled right.
Eyes light, hearts love, souls truest life He is
Consorting in three joys, one perfect bliss.

Scorn not the least

Where wards are weak and foes encountering strong
Where mightier do assault than do defend
The feebler part puts up enforced wrong
And silent sees that speech could not amend
Yet higher powers must think, though they repine
When sun is set, the little stars will shine.

While pike doth range, the seely tench doth fly
And crouch in privy creeks with smaller fish
Yet pikes are caught when little fish go by
These fleet afloat, while those do fill the dish
There is a time even for the worm to creep
And suck the dew while all her foes do sleep.

The merlen cannot ever sore on high
Nor greedy greyhound still pursue the chase
The tender lark will find a time to fly
And fearful hare to run a quiet race.
He that high growth on cedars did bestow
Gave also lowly mushrooms leave to grow.

In Aman’s pomp poor Mardocheus wept
Yet God did turn his fate upon his foe
The lazar pined while Dives feast was kept
Yet he heaven, to hell did Dives go.
We trample grass and prize the flowers of May
Yet grass is green when flowers do fade away. 

St Robert Southwell was captured in 1591. He was first imprisoned at the home of the torturer Richard Topcliffe, and then for a month at the Gatehouse prison where he was repeatedly tortured in an unsuccessful attempt to extract information about his fellow priests. He was then incarcerated for three years in the Tower of London. He suffered martyrdom on 21 February 1595, when he was hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn. His last words were “in manus tuas Domine”. He hung in the noose for a short time, trying as best he could to make the sign of the cross. He was 33 years old.

The bud was opened to let out the rose
The chains unloosed, to let the captive go.

Robert Southwell, priest and martyr, pray for us!

Don’t forget!

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[1] Quotes from Edmund Campion and Robert Persons taken from Alice Hogge, God’s Secret Agents, p85-86. 

[2] Robert Southwell, Collected Poems, ed. Peter Davidson & Anne Sweeney, (Manchester, 2007)

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