St Robert Southwell heroically ministered to the faithful in Elizabethan England

Having written about the early Christian martyrs and some of their modern counterparts in my last blog, I have been reading about the Elizabethan Jesuit martyr, St Robert Southwell in Conscience is My Crown by Patricia W. Claus (Gracewing £12.99). Actually, the book is a study of four interrelated men of the period, the Rev Robert Lenthall, his cousin William Lenthall and John Hampden as well as Robert Southwell, but the saint’s life is naturally the most moving part.

Christian martyrs are made not born. Southwell, who secretly arrived back in England in 1587 after studying for the priesthood in Rome, was realistic about his chances of evading capture under the punitive anti-clerical laws of Elizabeth I, writing soberly, “I know very well that sea and land are gaping wide for me; and lions, as well as wolves, go prowling in search of whom they may devour.” Yet he still added bravely, “But I welcome, more than fear, their fangs.”

After almost six years secretly ministering to Catholics, writing devotional poetry as well as works defending the Faith for his co-religionists, Southwell was captured in 1592 and tortured to reveal the network of his friends and fellow priests. He gave nothing away. Even Sir Robert Cecil, son of Elizabeth’s chief minister, Lord Burghley, admitted that “There is at present confined one Southwell, a Jesuit who, thirteen [sic] times most cruelly tortured, cannot be induced to confess anything, not even the colour of the horse whereon a certain day he rode…”

On 19 February 1595 Southwell was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, proclaiming that he died “because I am a Catholic priest, elected into the Society of Jesus in my youth…” It is an inspiring life.

Southwell and Shakespeare both belonged to a “loosely-knit network of intermarried recusant families” which gives Claus the opportunity to raise the question of Shakespeare’s religion. It is known that Shakespeare’s father, as well as his older daughter, were fine-paying recusant Catholics. Claus quotes The Quest for Shakespeare by Joseph Pearce, which suggests that the poet “was not so much a “secret Catholic” whose faith was unknown to all but a chosen (Catholic) few, but that he was considered a “safe” or “tame” Catholic, whose faith was known but was not considered a threat to the Queen or the state.”

This seems a much more likely conclusion than that offered e.g. by biographer Peter Ackroyd, also quoted in the book, who concludes that because Shakespeare was able to imaginatively take on the many different attitudes of his characters it meant he himself had to be “a man without opinions…a man without beliefs.” Joseph Pearce ripostes, “No-one on earth who has attained the age of sentience can be without opinions or beliefs”, pointing out that that “Agnosticism is a belief, atheism is a belief, nihilism is a belief”; quite so.

The last word should go to Robert Southwell, from whose poem “Content and Rich”, Claus takes her title: “My conscience is my crown/Contented thoughts my rest/My heart is happy in itself/My bliss is in my breast.”