Robert Southwell was born in Norfolk, England in 1561. . He was the youngest of eight children. His family was sympathetic to the Catholics but made large profits from King Henry VIII’s Suppression of the Monasteries. Robert was the third son of Richard Southwell and his first wife, Bridget.
In 1576, he went to boarding school and then studying with at the Jesuit College of Anchin. His education was interrupted because of a dispute between France and Spain. So he could remain safe, he went to Paris to study with Jesuit Thomas Darbyshire. By June of 1578 he was going to travel to Rome, intending to become a Jesuit. A two-year novitiate was required before joining. At first, he was denied entry. He appealed by sending a heartfelt, emotional letter to the school. It worked he was admitted on October 17, 1578, He became a member of the Society of Jesus in 1580.
Southwell began studies in philosophy and theology at the Jesuit College in Rome. He also worked as secretary to the rector. He completed his studies and was ordained in 1584. In 1584, a law was passed that said any English-born subject of Queen Elizabeth, who had entered into priests’ orders in the Catholic Church since her accession, who stayed in England more than 40 days could be executed.
In 1586, Southwell requested to be sent to England as a Jesuit missionary with Henry Garnet. He went from one Catholic family to another.A spy reported to Sir Francis Walsingham Southwell was closely watched. He mixed into Protestant society under the assumed name of Cotton. For the most part, he lived in London, he made occasional trips to Sussex
In 1589, Southwell became a chaplain to Anne Howard, whose husband, was in prison convicted of treason. Arundel had been confined to the Tower of London since 1585, but his execution was postponed, and he remained in prison till his death in 1595. Southwell began living in his home with the countess at Arundel House in London. Southwell spent most of 1591 writing. In 1591 he spent most of his time in writing.
After six years of being a missionary, Southwell was arrested, for being in connection with Jerome Bellamy. Anne Bellamy, Jerome’s daughter, was arrested and imprisoned for being linked to the situation. She was interrogated and raped by Richard Topcliffe, the Queen’s chief priest-hunter, and torturer before revealing Southwell’s movements. Southwell was immediately arrested
He was first taken to Topcliffe’s own house, adjoining the Gatehouse Prison, where Topcliffe tortured him with the manacles. He remained silent in Topcliffe’s custody for forty hours. The queen ordered Southwell moved to the Gatehouse. A team of torturers repeatedly went to work on him. They were unsuccessful, in trying to learn the location of other priests. He was left hurt, starving, covered with maggots and lice, to lie in his own filth. After a month he was moved to solitary confinement in the Tower of London. Because he was treated so badly in prison, Southwell’s father petitioned the queen for a quick trial, knowing his certain death would be better than the prison conditions. His father asked to be allowed to provide him with the necessities of life. His friends were then able to give him food and clothing and to send him the works of St. Bernard and a Bible. Henry Garnet was able to smuggle a breviary to him. He remained in the Tower for three years In the next three years, while imprisoned in the Tower of London, he was tortured on the rack ten times. Between times of abuse, he studied the Bible and wrote poetry.
In 1595, Southwell was charged with treason. He was removed from the Tower to Newgate Prison, where he was put into a hole called Limbo. A few days later, Southwell appeared before the Chief Justice, John Popham, Popham made a speech against Jesuits and seminary priests. Southwell was indicted as a traitor under the statutes prohibiting the presence, within the kingdom, of priests ordained by Rome. Southwell admitted the facts but denied any plots against the queen or kingdom. His only purpose, he said, in returning to England had been to administer the sacraments to Catholics who desired them. He declared himself not guilty of any treason. The jury returned with the predictable guilty verdict. The sentence of death was pronounced – to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. He was returned to Newgate.
On February 21, 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, to keep crowds away, but many came to witness Southwell’s death. He was dragged through the streets on a sled. He stood in a cart under the gallows and made the sign of the cross with his pinioned hands before reciting a Bible passage from Romans 14. The sheriff tried to interrupt him, but he was allowed to address the people for a time. He confessed that he was a Jesuit priest and praying for the salvation of the Queen and country. As the cart was drawn away, he commended his soul to God with the words of the psalms. 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 disemboweling him while still alive, Lord Mountjoy and others tugged at his legs to hurry his death. His lifeless body was then disemboweled and quartered. As his severed head was displayed to the crowd, no one shouted the traditional “Traitor!”.
Southwell was beatified in 1929 and canonized by Pope Paul VI as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales on 25 October 1970.