Mementoes of the English Martyrs and Confessors – Venerable Robert Southwell, S.J., 1595

illustration of Father Robert Southwell, SJ, artist unknown, published in the Illustrated Catholic Family Annual, 1873Article

Of an old Norfolk family, he was stolen by a gipsy as an infant, but the theft was speedily discovered, and Southwell proved his gratitude to his rescuer by seeking out and converting the woman who detected the theft when he returned to England as a Jesuit priest in 1584. He laboured on the Mission with great success, in which his mastery of the English tongue stood him in good service. His poems, in their directness and force, their antitheses, and terseness, in beauty of conception and fidelity of expression, rank with those of the finest Elizabethan sonneteers. His lyre, however, was tuned to no mere amorous strains, but to show how “virtue and verse suit together.” The divine beauty of Jesus and Mary, the operations of grace, the deformity of sin, the nature of contrition, contempt of the world, the brevity of life, all these are told with a charm and a grace in verses now little, alas! known, and are set forth with equal power in his letters. He was shamefully betrayed by a woman, once his penitent, was ten times tortured, and, after three years confinement in the Tower in a filthy hole, was brought out, covered with vermin, at the age of thirty-three to receive his martyr’s crown.


“We have written many letters, but it seems few have come to your hands. We sail in the midst of these stormy waves with no small danger; from which nevertheless it has pleased our Lord hitherto to deliver us. We have altogether with much comfort renewed the vows of the Society, according to our custom. I seem to see the beginnings of a religious life in England, of which we now sow the seeds with tears, that others hereafter may with joy carry in the sheaves to the heavenly granaries. We have sung the Canticles of the Lord in a strange land, and in this desert we have sucked honey from the rock and oil from the hard stone. But these joys ended in sorrow, and sudden fears dispersed us into different places; but in fine we were more afraid than hurt, for we all escaped. I, with another of ours seeking to avoid Scylla, had like to have fallen into Charybdis, but by the mercy of God we passed be twixt them both. In another of mine I gave an account of the martyrdoms of Mr. Bayles and Mr. Horner, and of the edification the people received from their holy ends. We also, if not unworthy, look for the time when our day may come.”


Venerable Southwell on His Fellow-Catholics – The labours to which they obliged them (the imprisoned priests) were continual and im moderate, and no less in sickness than in health; for with hard blows and stripes they forced them to accomplish their task how weak soever they were. Some are there hung up for whole days by the hands, in such manner that they can but just touch the ground with the tips of their toes. In fine, they that are kept in that prison truly live “in lacu miseriae et in luto fecis.” (“In the pit of filth.”) This Purgatory we are looking for every hour, in which Topliffe and Young, the two executioners of the Catholics, exercise all kinds of torment. But come what pleases God, we hope that we shall be able to bear all in Him that strengthens us. In the meantime we pray that they may be put to confusion who work iniquity, and that the Lord may speak peace to His people (Psalm 24 and 89) that, as the Royal Prophet says, His glory may dwell in our land. I most humbly recommend myself to the holy sacrifices of your Reverence and of all our friends.

MLA Citation

  • Father Henry Sebastian Bowden. “Venerable Robert Southwell, S.J., 1595”. Mementoes of the English Martyrs and Confessors, 1910. CatholicSaints.Info. 21 April 2019. Web. 4 August 2021. <>