Saint Robert Southwell (Illustration from the frontispiece of ‘Saint Peter's complaint.’)
St. Robert Southwell: Poet, Priest, Martyr
On this day in 1595, St. Robert Southwell was executed. The following is a tribute to one of the greatest of the English Martyrs.
Modern England is so secular in her orientation and so narcissistic in her hedonism that she treats her own heritage with scornful and supercilious neglect. This was made painfully clear to me this January when I returned to my native land to film a documentary on the great Catholic poet, Francis Thompson. Described by Chesterton as “a major poet” and “a major prophet,” Thompson is indubitably one of the finest poets that England has ever produced. His most famous poem, "The Hound of heaven," lauded by Chesterton as “the greatest religious poem of modern times and one of the greatest of all times,” should be taught to all Englishmen as an invaluable part of their heritage in which priceless pearls of wisdom can be found. Instead the poet and the poem are unread, untaught and unknown.
The neglect of Thompson’s legacy was incarnated in the weathered plaque outside the house in Preston in which he was born and in the unkept and unkempt grave in London’s Kensal Green Cemetery in which he is buried. The former, unheeded and unseen by the hundreds of people who walk past it every day, and the latter, unvisited, smothered with ivy, and sinking into the unfeeling earth, serve as a fading memorial of England’s majestic past and as a withering metaphor of her meretriciously myopic present. It is indeed ironic that the decaying memorials serve as a living metaphor of England’s decay. Like the picture of Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde’s novel, the ugliness of the neglect reflects the ugliness of England’s neglectfulness, a mirror of her own decadence, decay and impending death.
For those with eyes that see and hearts that know, the ivy-covered grave is a memento mori, reminding us of death and the eternal judgment that follows. What we are witnessing in the neglect of the poet’s grave, and the neglect of the poet that it represents, is the reflection of modernity’s nihilistic suicide, its deterioration into the nothing that it idolizes.
So be it. Indeed, Deo gratias!
This long perambulatory preamble serves to illustrate the position of another English poet, unjustly neglected by his native land. The martyred Jesuit, St. Robert Southwell, is one of the greatest Englishmen in the whole of England’s long and checkered history. A convert to the Faith who was forced into exile in order to study for the priesthood, Southwell returned to the shores of his homeland to minister in secret to England’s outlawed Catholics. As with the other English Jesuit missionaries to England, Southwell knew that, if caught, he faced imprisonment, torture and an excruciatingly slow death through being hanged, drawn and quartered. He knew also that Queen Elizabeth’s extensive spy network amongst the Catholic community made it very likely that he would be caught sooner or later. In the event, he eluded arrest for several years, even though he was based in London, in the very heart of the beast and under the very noses of Bloody Bess and her blood-stained ministers. During this time, he befriended Shakespeare’s patron, the Earl of Southampton, becoming his confessor, and in all probability became a confidant of Shakespeare himself.
Whereas England’s anti-Catholic propagandists condemned Southwell as a “traitor” and a “spy” in the service of the Scarlet Woman of Rome, he was to England’s beleaguered Catholics a dashing and daring hero more akin to the Scarlet Pimpernel of later legend. The difference was that the Scarlet Pimpernel was a fictional hero during the Great Terror in France; Robert Southwell was a real-life hero, one of “God’s spies” during the earlier Terror in England.
Following his arrest in 1592, Southwell was tortured repeatedly and imprisoned for three years before facing gruesome execution. At the time of his death, his poetry was widely known and widely read, even by his enemies. He would influence many of the greatest poets in the English language, including Michael Drayton, Edmund Spenser, John Donne, George Herbert, Richard Crashaw, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. More importantly, he was canonized in 1970 by Pope Paul VI as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.
As with Francis Thompson, this great saint, poet and martyr is unknown and unappreciated in his native land. In a BBC poll of the hundred greatest Britons, conducted in 2002, he is conspicuous by his absence. Those on the list included John Lennon, David Beckham, David Bowie, Princess Diana, Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, and Freddy Mercury. The only saint to make the list of greatest Britons was Thomas More, who was forced to sit uncomfortably beside both Henry VIII, who had ordered his execution, and Elizabeth I (Bloody Bess herself), who had ordered Southwell’s torture and death.
None of this matters. Robert Southwell no longer belongs in such company. He is in the company of the saints.
St. Robert Southwell, priest, poet and martyr, pray for England and pray for us.
This article first appeared in the St. Austin Review (www.staustinreview.org).