Feast of Saint Robert Southwell, English Martyr

Feast of Saint Robert Southwell, English Martyr

From the Catholic Education Resource Center

… I don’t think there’s a single saint who fits nicely in any box the world would like to fashion.  But St. Robert Southwell, a poet, a priest, and a martyr, defies expectations on every front.

Robert Southwell was born in 1561 in Protestant England.  Though his family was Catholic, their fortune came from a monastery seized by Henry VIII, and Robert’s father and grandfather both wavered between Catholicism and Protestantism.  Still, Robert was sent to Europe for a Catholic education when he was 15 and not long after petitioned the Jesuits to accept him.  When he was denied, the gentle and artistic Southwell walked to Rome to ask more forcefully.  His determination paid off and his request was approved.

Ordained at 23, Southwell asked his superiors to send him to England, a country already running red with the blood of priests.  In the footsteps of St. Edmund Campion, he set off for England as his superior shook his head, murmuring, “Lambs sent to the slaughter.”

For the next three years, Southwell moved from house to house reconciling sinners and celebrating Mass.  He was then installed at the home of St. Philip Howard, in prison for his faith and later to be martyred.  Fr. Southwell became the chaplain to Howard’s wife, the countess of Arundel, while frequently leaving the relative safety of her house to bring Christ all over England.

Like every hidden priest in England, Southwell knew that his primary duty was to offer the Sacraments to the faithful.  But he had a particular gift that the Church needed desperately.  The purpose of the priests in England wasn’t just to minister to the souls who were still there but to maintain a Catholic Church in England.  The hope was that one day the persecutions would subside and the Catholic Church could emerge as something authentically English, not something foreign introduced from without.  In order for the Church to survive, she needed not only Sacraments but an intellectual life and a culture.  These Southwell could give.  Set up with a printing press, the man some believe was a cousin of William Shakespeare began to write and to publish both poetry and prose.  His work flew to the farthest reaches of the kingdom, giving hope and joy to recusant Catholics (those who had refused to abandon their faith) who’d been approaching despair.

Faced with a delicately beautiful poet, his captors were not expecting to find steel beneath his soft exterior.

We moderns have forgotten the power of art, the power of literature.  We settle for trite films and banal novels, not realizing that a people starved for beauty will truly starve.  Southwell understood this, and in his poetic genius (a genius still recognized by secular scholars today) he sustained his people.

But he was a priest before he was a poet and Southwell spent the six years of his ministry in England celebrating Sacraments, traveling under cover of darkness, and hiding beneath floorboards as did the others.  Finally he was betrayed and brought before the sadistic Richard Topcliffe to be broken.

His whole life, Southwell had been a remarkably handsome man, described as almost feminine in his beauty.  Faced with a delicately beautiful poet, his captors were not expecting to find steel beneath his soft exterior.  But Topcliffe, Elizabeth’s expert torturer, tormented him at least 13 times and each time was met only with the information that he was a Jesuit priest who had come to England to preach the Catholic faith and was willing to die for it.  Southwell then spent two and a half years in solitary confinement in the Tower of London, after which he was finally given a trial of sorts and sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered.

St. Robert Southwell was a sensitive man of strength, a Christian genius, a poet whose art strengthened the failing.  But with all the gifts nature could offer, he longed for only one thing: Christ and him crucified.  He yearned to be martyred, to pour out his blood for the glory of God, and his request was granted.  In death he gained not only the crown of martyrdom but also an enduring legacy as the poet who reminded English Catholics of their heritage and strengthened them to endure.  On his feast day, February 21, let’s ask his intercession for an authentic masculinity among Christians, one that values beauty, wisdom, and sensitivity as well as courage and strength.  St. Robert Southwell, pray for us. Source

Editor writes…

As the priesthood is under severe diabolical attack at this time, we might pray to this great English saint and martyr, seeking his intercession for all the graces necessary for priests and bishops today to example the kind of faithful Catholic and priestly lives so desperately needed in our unbelieving world.  There is a great deal to learn from the life of St Robert Southwell, so share anything which you found to be of particular interest or benefit.

On a personal note, today is also the 7th anniversary of my beloved mother’s death, so I would be grateful for your prayers for the repose of her soul on this great Feast.  May she rest in peace… 

Comments (15)

  • editor

    This short sermon is delivered by Father Andrew Southwell, a Scots priest who is related to the saint of the day.

    Happy Feast!

    February 21, 2022 at 9:01 am
    • Faith of Our Fathers

      What a Great and Courageous Saint.
      Like many I never really knew the Terrible Persecutions these Brave Men and Women went through in those times until I read a Book about Guy Fawkes .
      I do not remember the name of the Book but it went into to the Horrendous Living conditions these Brave Priests went through.

      They literally had to live in spaces as you know ED but I didn’t, not much larger than a Coffin. The Book actually told of a Man a Carpenter who went around England building these Hovals for Priests to hide from the Soldiers.
      The Man building these spaces also had to hide and ended up severely Hunchbacked because of Toiling day and night in such small spaces.
      This Brave Saint also like all Catholics at that time knew the terrible Execution that would befall them when they were caught. Probably the most courageous thing about them was that they knew that they would be caught.
      Happy Feast Day. And thanks to Saints such as this we still have Our Catholic Faith.

      February 21, 2022 at 1:51 pm
      • Catherine

        I was reading your post as I didn’t get a chance below. I then searched on the internet about the story you tell. I wonder if the carpenter you refer to is Nicolas Owen who was later killed. Here is a link about him. The book you read sounds good; is a pity you can’t remember the name of it.


        February 28, 2022 at 9:58 am
    • LittleCharie


      Fr Andrew Southwell is actually Scots. The following is from the website of st Bede’s church in South London.

      “Fr Andrew Southwell, born in Edinburgh Scotland in 1962 and was educated at Downside Abbey, Louvain, in Belgium, and the Angelicum in Rome. He was professed a Benedictine monk at Farnborough Abbey and was ordained a priest there in 1990. He was one of the founders of the traditional priory at Alton and came to St Bede’s in March 1997. Succeeding Fr Hugh Simon-Thwaites, S.J, he largely responsible for successful building up of the Latin Mass Community here and was the national Chaplain to the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales. He is also the chaplain to the Saint Catherine’s Trust, which runs monthly family days at St Edmund’s Ware, a family retreat every Passion Week, and an annual Summer School.”

      His family still live in Edinburgh.

      Editor: Yes, I see that you have posted this several times – I don’t know why your comment(s) on this didn’t go straight onto the blog. The Wonders of WordPress, for which my sincere apologies.

      I do actually know that Fr Andrew Southwell is Scots and family still live in Edinburgh. I would have been thinking of the fact that my Great Nephews met him when they attended the LMS Summer School in England a couple of years or so in succession. They loved him to bits, and he has visited them at their home in Glasgow when home visiting his own family in Edinburgh. So forgive my carelessness – I’ve now corrected my mistake in the comments and I am happy to publish your correction, for which, thank you.

      February 23, 2022 at 1:59 pm
  • Josephine

    I didn’t know anything, really, about St Robert Southwell, but his life story is impressive. The most surprising thing for me was that he was a poet. I wasn’t expecting that!

    It’s also amazing to think that he has a priest relative alive today. How lucky is he to have a saint in his family!

    Happy Feast Day to everyone!

    February 21, 2022 at 9:49 am
  • Margaret Mary

    A beautiful life story – I didn’t know anything about St Robert except that he was a martyr during the Reformation. What an inspiring man. I will pray to him for priests, today.

    Happy Feast to all CT bloggers!

    February 21, 2022 at 10:26 am
    • Theresa Rose

      Margaret Mary,

      I agree with praying to Saint Robert Southwell for priests today. A beautiful life story indeed. Curious about this Saint writing poetry I thought to dredge the internet to see if I could find any.

      This is one that I found and is titled The Burning Babe.


      February 21, 2022 at 2:33 pm
  • Andrew Q

    I recently visited the Church of St Mary & St Andrew where St Robert Southwell was baptised. It’s in the village of Horsham St Faith just outside Norwich. There’s, sadly, no memorial to him there but the (now Anglican) 13th century church still has the medieval rood screen with its paintings of St Catherine of Sienna and other distinctly Catholic saints that St Robert would have seen. Some of the panels have been reused to decorate the later pulpit but the front of the screen is very beautiful as is the font. Well worth visiting if you’re en route to Walsingham as we were.

    A prayer on one of the church’s paintings reads

    Mercyful lady qwene of hevyn keep me from dedly synnys seven


    February 21, 2022 at 11:13 am
  • patlangan51

    What a perfect example for Catholics in the time of secular domination and weak priests

    February 21, 2022 at 2:12 pm
  • Catherine

    Happy Feast Day everyone.

    February 21, 2022 at 2:44 pm
  • Fidelis

    Happy Feast everyone at CTS – a marvellous saint. I found his life story very edifying.

    February 21, 2022 at 3:10 pm
  • Margaret Mary

    I was just thinking that, yes of course we ought to pray for priests on this Feast Day but really, thank God, there seems to be a lot less scandals hitting the news these days, involving priests leaving to marry etc.

    I’m not ducking out of the prayer, LOL! Just think it’s good to notice the good news, as well.

    February 21, 2022 at 7:18 pm
    • editor


      Unfortunately, the absence of tabloid reports doesn’t mean an absence of scandals of the kind you suggest…

      On the contrary, in the archdiocese in which I grew up (Glasgow) – I’m informed by more than one source – there are a number of priests who are currently living with their “housekeeper” as man and wife. Indeed, if YOUR priest has had the same housekeeper for a number of years, a housekeeper who has moved from parish to parish with him, check it out. The chances are, you’re helping to put their (and I do mean “their”) food on the table. Remember, this was precisely the situation with the PP of Sacred Heart Bridgeton, the Vicar General of unhappy memory, who took his housekeeper from here to there to yonder with him until he decided to make an honest woman of her.

      As for the neighbouring diocese of Motherwell – there are more homosexual priests therein, than on the subscription list for the Pink News.

      Just as the only crimes we hear about are those where the perpetrator gets caught, don’t assume that there are no more scandals, just because (so far, to date) the culprits have not been caught.

      February 21, 2022 at 8:16 pm
  • Lily

    Happy Feast everyone! A marvellous saint!

    February 21, 2022 at 10:46 pm
  • editor

    One of our American friends emailed this morning to let me know that this thread has been linked on Canon 212 https://canon212.com/

    Also, yesterday brought me the sad news of the death of a very dear friend, husband of a friend of mine since my youth, so I would ask for your prayers for the repose of his soul – he became a Catholic as a result of reading about Fatima. May he rest in peace…

    February 22, 2022 at 9:18 am

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