Prelude to a Martyrdom

In the Summer of 1586, three priests arrived for a secret meeting at Hurleyford, the “lonely but spacious mansion”1 belonging to one Mr. Richard Bold. The house was in England’s south, in Buckinghamshire, between the Thames and the Chiltern foothills, an area where one of the clerical number, Father William Weston, knew a number of recusant Catholics, like Bold, who hosted priests — but secretly, for all could have been killed for treason should their doings be discovered by the government.

Richard Bold was from a well-known Lancashire family that had owned the mansion for generations, and was a one-time favorite of the Earl of Leister. A military man and a man of culture, Bold now wanted only to retire to this solitary house and practice his newly embraced religion in peace, for he had recently been received into the Church of Rome by Father Weston. The other two clerics were Fathers Henry Garnet, and Robert Southwell. All three were Jesuits. Father Weston, a scholarly man known also as an exorcist, who would later be imprisoned for the Faith then exiled to Spain, was the superior of the Jesuit’s English mission. He would soon be succeeded in that role by Father Garnet, a Hebrew scholar, metaphysics lecturer, and mathematician. Father Garnet was later hung, drawn, and quartered for his alleged role in the Gunpowder Plot — which role was confined exclusively to knowing of the plot under the seal of the confessional. The third priest, Father Southwell, was a poet who had fairly recently begun to write verse in his native tongue, which was difficult for him at first due to his years on the Continent, where he functioned practically in Italian and especially Latin, whose classical poetry he studied and even, by way of imitation, wrote.

Among the lay recusant Catholics present in the house was the great English composer, William Byrd, appointed Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1572. Byrd would have felt most welcome at Hurleyford, for the gentleman of the house was himself, besides a fellow Catholic, also a musician, and had his house chapel furnished with a choir and a variety of musical instruments. Father Weston tells us what little we know about this meeting:

We were very happy and our friends made it apparent how pleased they were to have us. … During those days it was just as if we were celebrating an uninterrupted octave of some great feast. Mr. Byrd, the very famous English musician and organist was among the company. Earlier he has been attached to the Queen’s Chapel, where he had gained a great reputation. But he had sacrificed everything for the faith.2

The presence of three priests and William Byrd in a secluded mansion equipped with a house chapel, choir, and instruments naturally leads one to suspect that Byrd himself sat at the organ while Fathers Weston, Garnet, and Southwell celebrated a solemn Mass with the choir singing a mixture of Gregorian Chant and some of Byrd’s own compositions. (Byrd’s famous Masses for three, four, and five voices were not yet published — probably not yet composed — but perhaps his already extant Cantiones Sacrae contributed offertory and communion hymns to the ceremony.) That three Jesuits at this time would celebrate a High Mass with great pomp and liturgical solemnity would not be surprising, because the saying “as useless as a Jesuit in Holy Week” was not yet coined, and the Jesuits of this era were formed in, and devoted to, the solemn ceremonial of the Church. When we discover additionally that the beauty of Church music was one of the great consolations of England’s recusant Catholics, the speculation of one or more solemn Masses on these days spent together at Richard Bold’s house is all the more justified.

It is the junior-most of the three Jesuits who interests us here: Father Robert Southwell — Saint Robert Southwell, as he is known since his canonization in 1970 as one of the Forty English Martyrs.

This scene opened my talk on Saint Robert Southwell at our recent conference, “Lessons from Saint Robert Southwell.” It was intended to set the pace for the kind of lessons we might learn from the English Jesuit, for in it are combined at once the intense intellectual formation, the profound spirituality, the fortitude to risk career, fortune, and life, the high culture, and the ardent zeal that characterized these men of the English Mission.

  1.  The Life of Robert Southwell, Poet and Martyr, by Christopher Devlin, pg. 114.
  2. Devlin, pgs. 114-115