St. Robert Southwell

ST. ROBERT SOUTHWELL, S.J. (1561-1595)

Robert Southwell was born into a distinguished English family in 1561 at Norfolk. Like many English Catholics, he was sent abroad to study in France, first at Douay, later in Paris. Eventually, this "prudent, pious, meek, and exceedingly winning" young man answered his vocation and was ordained in the summer of 1584. Determined to bring the sacraments back to England, he soon returned to his native country, where he was relentlessly pursued by the notorious pursuivant (priest-hunter) Richard Topcliffe. Fr. Southwell was eventually captured on the night of June 25th, 1592. He was tortured mercilessly, but he refused to give information about his fellow priests, and he was finally placed in solitary confinement in the Tower of London. During this period, he wrote his most famous poem, "The Burning Babe" (see full text) about a lost soul's Christmas Day encounter with a stunning apparition of the Christ Child. On February 19, 1595, the thirty-three-year-old priest was taken to Tyburn, where he was hung, disemboweled, decapitated, and quartered "at Her Majesty's pleasure." Recognized as a saint both in life and death, Robert Southwell was canonized on October 25, 1970, by Pope Paul VI.

St. Robert, who some contemporary scholars believe was a distant cousin of his younger contemporary Shakespeare, believed in the moral and spiritual efficacy of poetry. He believed that the arts could serve a "higher" purpose, and he strove, in his own work, to show "how well verse and virtue suit together."