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Poet, Jesuit, martyr; born at Horsham St. Faith's, Norfolk, England, in 1561; hanged at Tyburn, 21 February, 1595. His grandfather, Sir Richard Southwell, had been a wealthy man and a prominent courtier in the reign of Henry VIII. It was Richard Southwell who in 1547 had brought the poet Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, to the block, and Surrey had vainly begged to be allowed to "fight him in his shirt". Curiously enough their respective grandsons, Father Southwell and Philip, Earl of Arundel, were to be the most devoted of friends and fellow-prisoners for the Faith. On his mother's side the Jesuit was descended from the Copley and Shelley families, whence a remote connexion may be established between him and the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Robert Southwell was brought up a Catholic, and at a very early age was sent to be educated at Douai, where he was the pupil in philosophy of a Jesuit of extraordinary austerity of life, the famous Leonard Lessius. After spending a short time in Paris he begged for admission into the Society of Jesus--a boon at first denied. This disappointment elicited from the boy of seventeen some passionate laments, the first of his verses of which we have record. On 17 Oct., 1578, however, he was admitted at Rome, and made his simple vows in 1580. Shortly after his noviceship, during which he was sent to Tournai, he returned to Rome to finish his studies, was ordained priest in 1584, and became prefect of studies in the English College. In 1586 he was sent on the English mission with Father Henry Garnett, found his first refuge with Lord Vaux of Harrowden, and was known under the name of Cotton.
Two years afterwards he became chaplain to the Countess of Arundel and thus established relations with her imprisoned husband, Philip, Earl of Arundel, the ancestor of the present ducal house of Norfolk, as well as with Lady Margaret Sackville, the earl's half-sister. Father Southwell's prose elegy, "Triumphs over Death", was addressed to the earl to console him for this sister's premature death, and his "Hundred Meditations on the love of God", originally written for her use, were ultimately transcribed by another hand, to present to her daughter Lady Beauchamp. Some six years were spent in zealous and successful missionary work, during which Father Southwell lay hidden in London, or passed under various disguises from one Catholic house to another. For his better protection he affected an interest in the pursuits of the country gentlemen of his day (metaphors taken from hawking are common in his writings), but his attire was always sober and his tastes simple. His character was singularly gentle, and he has never been accused of taking any part either in political intrigues or in religious disputes of a more domestic kind. In 1592 Father Southwell was arrested at Uxendon Hall, Harrow, through the treachery of an unfortunate Catholic girl, Anne Bellamy, the daughter of the owner of the house. The notorious Topcliffe, who effected the capture, wrote exultingly to the queen: "I never did take so weighty a man, if he be rightly used". But the atrocious cruelties to which Southwell was subjected did not shake his fortitude. He was examined thirteen times under torture by members of the Council, and was long confined in a dungeon swarming with vermin. After nearly three years in prison he was brought to trial and the usual punishment of hanging and quartering was inflicted.
Father Southwell's writings, both in prose and verse, were extremely popular with his contemporaries, and his religious pieces were sold openly by the booksellers though their authorship was known. Imitations abounded, and Ben Jonson declared of one of Southwell's pieces, "The Burning Babe", that to have written it he would readily forfeit many of his own poems. "Mary Magdalene's Tears", the Jesuit's earliest work, licensed in 1591, probably represents a deliberate attempt to employ in the cause of piety the euphuistic prose style, then so popular. "Triumphs over Death", also in prose, exhibits the same characteristics; but this artificiality of structure is not so marked in the "Short Rule of Good Life", the "Letter to His Father", the "Humble Supplication to Her Majesty", the "Epistle of Comfort" and the "Hundred Meditations". Southwell's longest poem, "St. Peter's Complaint" (132 six-line stanzas), is imitated, though not closely, from the Italian "Lagrime di S. Pietro" of Luigi Tansillo. This with some other smaller pieces was printed, with license, in 1595, the year of his death. Another volume of short poems appeared later in the same year under the title of "Maeoniae". The early editions of these are scarce, and some of them command high prices. A poem called "A Foure-fold Meditation", which was printed as Southwell's in 1606, is not his, but was written by his friend the Earl of Arundel. Perhaps no higher testimony can be found of the esteem in which Southwell's verse was held by his contemporaries than the fact that, while it is probable that Southwell had read Shakespeare, it is practically certain that Shakespeare had read Southwell and imitated him.
APA citation. (1912). Venerable Robert Southwell. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14164a.htm
MLA citation. "Venerable Robert Southwell." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 14. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14164a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Janet Grayson.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. July 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.