[ABOVE—Saint Robert Southwell, S.J. (1561-1595). Illustration from the frontispice of Saint Peter’s complaint. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons File:Robert Southwell.JPG]
Robert Southwell, a young Jesuit priest, asked to be sent to England, although, because of Catholic plots against Queen Elizabeth’s life, it was illegal for any Catholic priest to remain in the island more than forty days. He arrived in 1586. For the next three years he ministered to Catholics, moving from house to house to offer the sacraments. In 1589 he became chaplain to Ann Howard.
During those years he wrote many religious tracts, some poems (“Mary Magdalen’s Funeral Tears” was published in 1591) and an appeal to Queen Elizabeth.
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Ultimately a Catholic girl revealed Southwell’s movements when she was raped and interrogated by one of Elizabeth’s top torturers. Southwell was arrested and tortured for a month, and cast into such filth that he was covered with vermin when brought out for examination. Despite his torments, Southwell refused to betray fellow-priests.
His father petitioned Elizabeth for more humane treatment. Nonetheless, Southwell was tortured ten times over his three years. He was, however, placed in the tower, and allowed clean clothes. Finally he was condemned to die the death of treason by being hanged, drawn, and quartered. When he was hung, friends pulled on his legs to strangle him quickly so that he would be dead when disemboweled and pulled apart by the horses.
To the end of his life, Southwell insisted truthfully he was never guilty of any plot against Elizabeth, but only of performing the duties of a priest. His concern for souls was evident even in prison where his writings were religious in nature.
Southwell’s St. Peter’s Complaint was published with other poems in 1595, the year of his execution. Probably these poems were written in prison. “The Burning Babe” is one of his most famous pieces. It is an excerpt from St. Peter’s Complaint.
“The Burning Babe” from Robert Southwell’s St. Peter’s Complaint.
As I in hoary winter’s night
stood shivering in the snow,
Surprised I was with sudden heat
which made my heart to glow;
And lifting up a fearful eye
to view what fire was near,
A pretty babe all burning bright
did in the air appear;
Who, scorchëd with excessive heat,
such floods of tears did shed
As though his floods should quench his flames
which with his tears were fed.
Alas, quoth he, but newly born
in fiery heats I fry,
Yet none approach to warm their hearts
or feel my fire but I!
My faultless breast the furnace is,
the fuel wounding thorns,
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke,
the ashes shame and scorns;
The fuel justice layeth on,
and mercy blows the coals,
The metal in this furnace wrought
are men’s defilëd souls,
For which, as now on fire I am
to work them to their good,
So will I melt into a bath
to wash them in my blood.
With this he vanished out of sight
and swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I callèd unto mind
that it was Christmas day.