Mary Queen of Scots… Robert Southwell



Tudor England in the late 1580s was jittery with fears of a Catholic revival. Sir Francis Walsingham, the spymaster extraordinaire at the court of Queen Elizabeth I, presided over a  le Carré-like world of political double-dealing and “spiery” (as the Elizabethans called it). Moles were planted in Catholic seminaries abroad while England’s island diplomacy created a looking-glass war where priest was turned against priest, informant against informant. Jesuits in particular were regarded as a sinister order bent on destabilizing the monarch and her Tudor realm. While it is doubtful how anti-Catholic Elizabeth I herself really was (she was thought to keep a crucifix, candles and other crypto-Catholic ornaments by her bedside), Catholic Spain’s ill-fated attack on England in 1588 served to intensify her clampdown on suspect traitors.



In the paranoid post-Armada years, pro-Spanish “mass-mongers” and “Romish” subversives were smoked out of hiding and on occasion publicly disemboweled. Amid the hangman’s shambles, of course, the relics stained in blood were prized by those thousands who cleaved to the Old Religion.

The Jesuit poet and martyr Robert Southwell, butchered at Tyburn on 21 February 1595, evaded Walsingham’s dragnets for five years while he ministered to Catholics in secret Mass-centres across London and further afield in Sussex. His recusancy – refusal to attend Protestant services – made him a dangerous emissary of papal Europe and another “traitorous heart” to be burned from the English body politic. It mattered little to the “pursuivants” (priest-hunters) under Walsingham that Southwell expressed no wish to undermine the Elizabethan government.



It was enough that Walsingham had witnessed the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre of Protestants in Paris in 1572: his detestation of “popery” was lifelong and genuine. With Machiavellian adroitness he spread fear (the most important weapon in his Tudor armoury) through England’s ancient faith community. Pamphlets, sermons, Marian lyrics and Eucharistic odes by Southwell suggest the possibility of his martyrdom; they are brocaded with allusions to “sacred Fire”, “ashes” and “bloody sweate”. In 1970 Pope Paul VI canonized Southwell as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.


Southwell was born in in 1561 or 1562 (the records are uncertain) to Norfolk gentry. The family home at Horsham St Faith, a day’s ride from the stripped East Anglian shrine of Our Lady in Walsingham, stood on the remains of a medieval Benedictine monastery which the poet’s grandfather had helped to dissolve following Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon in 1533. (All that remains of the monastery today is the refectory, which has become part of a private residence.)



The Henrician Reformation in which Sir Richard Southwell had served was driven by more than a King’s determination to have a new wife a male heir; it reflected Henry VIII’s objection to control by a European power and his insistence on sovereignty. (Only once Anglo Catholicism had replaced Roman Catholicism could England save herself and go it alone.) It may be that Southwell’s dedication to the cause of a re-Catholicised England was intended to atone for his family’s pillage of Church properties. We cannot know.



In 1576, Southwell was enrolled at the French Jesuit College within the university of Douai. As a 14-year-old Jesuit trainee or “Scholastic” he was expected to comply with the ascetic Spiritual Exercises devised by the Jesuit founder Loyola in the early 1500s. Ignatian spirituality, with its emphasis on self-examination and meditation, illuminates Southwell’s mature poetic vision. In 1577 the young Norfolk man set out from Douai on foot for Rome, where after two years he entered the Jesuit Novitiate and prepared for missionary work in England. He had been encouraged to use “persuasion” (sophistical reasoning) in his efforts to evangelise. Small wonder the Continental seminary Jesuits were feared; they were clever and exceptionally cultivated foot-soldiers for the Pope.



After eight years in Rome, in 1586 Southwell set sail for England. With him was Henry Garnet, later the English Jesuit Superior who would be hanged, drawn and quartered in 1606 for his part in the Gunpowder Plot. For the moment, Walsingham had more urgent matters to attend than Southwell. He was about to expose a conspiracy to put Mary, Queen of Scots, on the throne and depose her cousin Elizabeth I. Having “established” Mary’s involvement in the Catholic plot, he authorized her beheading without his patron-monarch Elizabeth’s knowledge. Dressed in red, England’s only hope of a Rome-anointed monarch died on 8 February 1587. Southwell commemorated Mary’s execution in his ballad-like ‘Decease release’, where the Scottish Queen is seen to earn a martyr’s garland in her determination to die a good Catholic. “Alive a Queene now dead I am a Sainte”, Southwell intones.

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