Robert Southwell was born in 1561, the third son of Richard Southwell, a gentlemen and courtier of Horsham St. Faith in Norfolk. His mother was Bridget Southwell, a Copley of Sussex. His paternal grandfather was Sir Richard Southwell of Wodrising Norfolk, a man who personally benefitted from the suppression of the monasteries under Henry VIII. Horsham Saint Faith, where Robert grew up, was once a Benedictine Monastery whose last monks Sir Richard himself sent away as an agent of the King.
Robert’s father was a Catholic who wavered between recusancy and apostasy, preferring the latter for a time under Elizabeth, but eventually dying a Catholic. Robert’s mother was a pious Catholic, and the influence of some of her relatives helped to impress a more ardent kind of Catholicism on the young man.
In 1576, at the age of fifteen, Robert went to the English Collage at Douai, a French city that was then politically part of Spanish Flanders. His companion in this trip was a cousin on his mother’s side, John Cotton. Though he lived at the English College, young Mister Southwell attended the new, Jesuit-run Anchin College, which was part of the larger University of Douai, and was under the patronage of the five-century-old Abbey of Anchin. There, he came under the influence of the Jesuit theologian Leonard Lessius. Due to difficulties of the college — owing to political instability between the French and Spanish — Robert was sent with other students for a time to Paris, where he studied (it is thought) at the Jesuit-run Collège de Clermont, but returned to Douai again in 1577. During his time at Douai, he contracted a deep spiritual friendship with a young Flemish student named John Deckers. The two were on such intimate terms that some of Saint Robert’s internal vocational struggles and other trials are best known through the letters they exchanged. Theirs was the intense kind of masculine friendship that goes largely misunderstood in our age, where a perverse sort of revisionism would mistake it for something unnatural. The two influenced each other in their respective decisions to enter the Society of Jesus, but young Robert was devastated when he was rejected by the Society when his friend Deckers was accepted.
Robert then made the decision to walk to Rome and apply directly to the Jesuit novitiate at Sant’Andrea, where, amazingly, he was accepted at the age of not-quite seventeen. Becoming a Jesuit novice on October 17 of 1578, he professed vows two years later. From his profession till 1584, he studied philosophy and theology at the Roman College (known today as the Gregorian University, or “the Greg”), which was then as now a Jesuit institution. The Rector was an Italian Jesuit named Alphonsus Agazzari, and among the professors was Saint Robert Bellarmine. During that time, he was also made a tutor at the English College at Rome for two years. When he graduated with a BA in philosophy in 1584, he was promoted to Prefect of Studies at that same college. He was ordained priest in the Spring on 1584, and continued his academic work, performing other duties as well, such as overseeing the Marian Sodality at the college, and publishing a newsletter of sorts based on stories from the English mission he had collected from correspondents in his homeland.
His time in Rome involved not only the study of philosophy and theology along with the rigorous spiritual formation of the Society of Jesus, but also an application to the arts, including to Latin letters and even dramatic plays in Latin that the Jesuit Scholastics performed in. He wrote numerous Latin poems of a religious nature in imitation of the classical style of pagan Roman poets. He was also introduced to the art and culture of sunny Southern Europe, and the grandeur and triumphalism of Counter-Reformation at its very center in the Eternal City.
Under the influence of Father Robert Persons, who was involved in the English Mission and was a one-time companion of Saint Edmund Campion, the young priest wrote the Jesuit Father General, Claudio Aquaviva, requesting to be sent to the English Mission. Campion’s martyrdom in December of 1581 had helped to fire his zeal, as it had inspired others. When Father Aquaviva grudgingly approved young Fathers Garnet and Southwell for the mission, he is said to have murmured, “lambs sent to the slaughter.” On May 8 of 1586, Father Southwell rode out of Rome with Father Garnet to begin the trip that would end in a secret landing on the Kentish coast of Southeast England, between Dover and Folkestone.
Most of Father Southwell’s time was spent ministering in London, but he made occasional trips to Sussex and the north of England. In 1589, he took up residence in the house of Anne Dacre Howard, the Countess of Arundel, whose husband, Phillip Howard, the twentieth Earl of Arundel, was a convert (or a revert) and a confessor of the Faith, who had been imprisoned in London Tower since 1585. Philip Howard was later the recipient of Father Southwell’s greatest prose work, The Epistle of Comfort. Saint Phillip Howard was martyred about eight months after Saint Robert and was canonized at the same time. His wife, the Countess, lived in Arundel House in the Strand in London, which provided Father Southwell with a base of operations for the three years that remained before the priest’s arrest in 1592. His mission was one of secretly offering Mass and administering the sacraments to beset English Catholics, and spending the rest of his waking hours not dedicated to prayer in writing poetry and prose works. This writing was no mere diversion, but was part of his missionary apostolate, and a very effective part.
Because of various Catholic “plots” against Queen Elizabeth — some real, some staged by the government — and because of the failed 1588 invasion by the Spanish Armada, the atmosphere against priests and especially against Jesuits (who were, after all, not only “foreign” in origin, but specifically Spanish), Saint Robert was a marked man. There were spies everywhere, and it was known even before he left the continent that he and Father Garnet were on their way. Their landing was not entirely unknown by government spies, either. He and his companions had had some near misses, and one very daring narrow escape through a sewer system. But all this “cassock and dagger” would come to an end when Richard Topcliffe, the notorious “pursuivant” (meaning in this context priest-hunter and torturer), laid a very effective snare. Father Southwell was in the habit of visiting the home of Mr. Richard Bellamy in the Harrow, a borough in the northwest of London. Richard Bellamy was a recusant Catholic living under suspicion because of his relation to one of the figures in the failed “Babbington Plot,” Jerome Bellamy. To show what a nice fellow this pursuivant, Richard Topcliffe was, he tortured and raped Richard Bellamy’s daughter, Miss Anne Bellamy, in order to extract from her information about Father Southwell’s comings and goings. This same disgraced Anne Bellamy would later apostatize and be handed over to Topcliffe’s right-hand man to wife, the poor fellow quite possibly having to raise Topcliffe’s bastard child as his own.
Having been captured by Topcliffe and his thugs, Father Southwell was first taken to be tortured at Topcliffe’s own home. He was later moved to the Gatehouse prison, where Topcliffe and his team of torturers went to work on him with the torture known as “the manacles,” which were gauntlets or hand-cuff-like metal sleeves attached by chains from which the victim was suspended with his feet barely touching the floor. The Jesuit, Father John Gerard, who actually escaped from the Tower of London owing to the daring and ingenuity of Saint Nicholas Owen, later wrote about his experience of this torture in his autobiography: “…such a gripping pain came over me. It was worst in my chest and belly, my hands and arms. All the blood in my body seemed to rush up into my arms and hands and I thought that blood was oozing out from the ends of my fingers and the pores of my skin. But it was only a sensation caused by my flesh swelling above the irons holding them. The pain was so intense that I thought I could not possibly endure it.” Over the period of about a month, Saint Robert Southwell was tortured in this fashion at least nine times, and in addition, he was starved, left covered in maggots and lice, and made to lie in his own filth. All of these attempts failed utterly in extracting from him any information about other priests or recusant Catholics.
After this horrible month in the Gatehouse, Southwell was moved to the Tower of London, where he languished for three years. Saint Phillip Howard — the Earl of Arundel earlier mentioned as the husband of Southwell’s hostess, and recipient of The Epistle of Comfort — was in the Tower at the same time. Though the two never set eyes on each other, they managed to send messages back-and-forth through Saint Philip’s beloved dog, who was, oddly enough, allowed access to the Tower. Eventually, Saint Robert was allowed to have his breviary and a book of Saint Bernard’s writings, which were a great consolation to him. When he requested to be either tried or set free, the government granted him trial by a kangaroo court, during which proceedings he showed that he had kept his wits, so much so that Richard Topcliffe, who was present, had to be restrained from striking his victim.
Father Southwell was sentenced to be hung, drawn, and quartered, the date of his execution being set for February 21 of 1595 at Tyburn hill. Before his death, he prayed publicly for the Queen, and made a very edifying speech to the assembled crowd. He struggled to make the sign of the Cross while he was hanging, and before he was cut down, Lord Mountjoy and some other onlookers tugged at his legs so that he would die before the rest of the brutality could happen. It was, therefore, his lifeless body that was disemboweled and quartered. When his severed head was held up to the crowd, nobody dared shout the customary epithet, “Traitor!”