Early life in England
Southwell, the youngest of eight children, was brought up in a family of Catholic gentry. In 1576, he was sent to the Catholic college at Douai, to become affiliated with the Jesuit Missionaries. Upon arrival in Douai, he was admitted to Anchin College, the Jesuit school in town. At the end of the summer, however, his education was interrupted by the movement of French and Spanish forces. Southwell was sent to Paris for greater safety as a student of the College de Clermont, under the tutelage of the Jesuit Thomas Darbyshire. He returned to Douai on 15 June 1577. A year later, he set off to Rome with the intention of joining the society of Jesus. A two-year novitiate at Tournai was required before joining the society, however, and initially he was denied entry to the training. He appealed the decision by sending a heartfelt, emotional letter to the school.
He bemoans the situation, writing: How can I but wast in anguish and agony that find myself disjoined from that company severed from that Society, disunited from that body wherein lyeth all my life my love my whole hart and affection (Archivum Romanum Societatis Iesu, Anglia 14, fol. 80, under date 1578).
His efforts succeeded as he was admitted to the probation house of Sant’ Andrea on 17 October 1578 and in 1580 he joined the Society of Jesus. Immediately after the completion of the novitiate, Southwell began studies in philosophy and theology at the Jesuit College in Rome. During this time, he worked as a secretary to the rector and writings of his are to be found amongst the school’s documents. Upon completion of his studies, Southwell was admitted BA in 1584.
In spite of his youth, he was made prefect of studies in the Venerable English College at Rome and was ordained priest in 1584. He was appointed “repetitor” (tutor) at the English College for two years before making prefect of studies.
It was in that year that an act was passed forbidding any English-born subject of Queen Elizabeth, who had entered into priests’ orders in the Catholic Church since her accession, to remain in England longer than forty days on pain of death. But Southwell, at his own request, was sent to England in 1586 as a Jesuit missionary with Henry Garnett.
He went from one Catholic family to another, administering the rites of his Church, and in 1589 became domestic chaplain to Ann Howard, whose husband, the first earl of Arundel, was in prison convicted of treason. It was to him that Southwell addressed his Epistle of Comfort. This and other of his religious tracts, A Short Rule of Good Life, Triumphs over Death, Mary Magdalen’s Funeral Tears and a Humble Supplication to Queen Elizabeth, were widely circulated in manuscript. Mary Magdalen’s Funeral Tears was published in 1591. Thomas Nashe‘s imitation of Mary Magdalen’s Funeral Tears in Christ’s Tears over Jerusalem proves that the works received recognition outside of Catholic circles.
Arrest and imprisonment
After six years of successful labor, Southwell was arrested. He was in the habit of visiting the house of Richard Bellamy, who lived near Harrow and was under suspicion on account of his connection with Jerome Bellamy, who had been executed for sharing in Anthony Babington’s plot. One of the daughters, Anne Bellamy, was arrested and imprisoned in the gatehouse of Holborn for being linked to the situation. Having been interrogated and raped by Richard Topcliffe, the Queen’s chief priest-hunter and torturer, she revealed Southwell’s movements and he was immediately arrested.
He was imprisoned at first in Topcliffe’s house, where he was repeatedly put to the torture in the vain hope of extracting evidence about other priests. He was transferred to the gatehouse at Westminster, and when he was brought up for examination after a month his clothes were covered with vermin. So abominable was his treatment that his father petitioned Elizabeth that he might either be brought to trial and put to death, if found guilty, or removed in any case from that filthy hole.
Southwell was then lodged in the Tower of London, and allowed clothes and a bible and the works of St Bernard. His imprisonment lasted for 3 years, during which period he was tortured on ten occasions.
Trial and execution
A few days later, Southwell appeared before the Lord Chief Justice, John Popham, at the bar of the King’s Bench. Popham made a speech against Jesuits and seminary priests. Southwell was indicted before the jury as a traitor under the statutes prohibiting the presence within the kingdom of priests ordained by Rome. Southwell admitted the facts but denied that he had “entertained any designs or plots against the queen or kingdom.” His only purpose, he said, in returning to England had been to administer the sacraments according to the rite of the Catholic Church to such as desired them. When asked to enter a plea, he declared himself “not guilty of any treason whatsoever,” objecting to a jury being made responsible for his death but allowing that he would be tried by God and country.
As the evidence was pressed, Southwell stated that he was the same age as “our Saviour.” He was immediately reproved by Topcliffe for insupportable pride in making the comparison, but he said in response that he considered himself “a worm of the earth.” After a brief recess, the jury returned with the predictable guilty verdict. The sentence of death was pronounced — to be hanged, drawn and quartered. He was returned through the city streets to Newgate.
On the next day, 20 February 1595, Southwell was sent to Tyburn. Execution of sentence on a notorious highwayman had been appointed for the same time, but at a different place — perhaps to draw the crowds away — and yet many came to witness Southwell’s death. Having been dragged through the streets on a sled, he stood in the cart beneath the gibbet and made the sign of the cross with his pinioned hands before reciting a Bible passage from Romans xiv.
The sheriff made to interrupt him; but he was allowed to address the people at some length, confessing that he was a Jesuit priest and praying for the salvation of Queen and country. As the cart was drawn away, he commended his soul to God with the words of the psalm in manus tuas. He hung in the noose for a brief time, making the sign of the cross as best he could. As the executioner made to cut him down, in preparation for bowelling him while still alive, Lord Mountjoy and some other onlookers tugged at his legs to hasten his death. His lifeless body was then bowelled and quartered. As his severed head was displayed to the crowd, no one shouted the traditional “Traitor!”