Mary Queen of Scots… Robert Southwell



Under threat of betrayal, the Southwell-Garnet mission took its Gospel message out to all corners of recusant London. Disguised as a “Mr Cotton”, gentleman, the black-doubleted Southwell was introduced to the Catholic composer William Byrd, a valued if potentially dissident member of Elizabeth I’s Chapel Royal. The beauty of Byrd’s liturgical music informs the mystic intensity of Southwell’s best-known poem, ‘The Burning Babe’, one of the most famous and powerful Christmas-tide celebrations in the English language. A winter traveller stands in the snow at dead of night when suddenly a comforting “heat” invades his body. Suspended in the air above him like a medieval emblem is the radiant Christ Child.


As I in hoary winter’s night stood shivering in the snow, 
Surpris’d 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.


Strikingly, Southwell had brought a flavour of baroque word-painting to the hacked root of English Catholicism. (His poem, incidentally, was translated into French by Antonin Artaud, godfather of the ‘theatre of cruelty’, in 1943, fifteen years after he appeared as the Dean of Rouen in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc.)



Southwell’s beautiful prose mediation Marie Magdalen’s Funeral Teares, printed in 1591, exalts Mary as a weeping penitent as well as a guilt-wracked sensualist. Magdalenic eroticism of this sort looked suspiciously “foreign” – unpatriotic – to Elizabeth’s cloak-and-dagger operatives, yet Southwell’s little book attained a near-reliquary status after his execution. To an extent, Southwell’s lyrical Catholicism anticipated the intellectual metaphysical vigour of Donne, Herbert, Vaughan and other English theologian-poets of the 17th century. Even a Romantic atheist such as Shelley (a collateral descendent of Southwell) shows a Southwellian tendency to rhetorical artistry in his early, Miltonic verse.


Overnight, Southwell’s literature infiltrated the Catholic country houses of England. Though he was a priest without a pulpit and an outlaw, Southwell hoped that word of a Catholic revival would disseminate through the secret printing presses to the peasantry, yeomanry, and lesser gentry. Whether or not England’s recusant community wished to remain part of the Catholic Continent, it drew comfort from Southwell’s presence. His great poem ‘A vale of teares’, issued in the year of his death, likens England’s perceived fallen state under Elizabeth I to a “dumpish” (melancholy) wasteland, “Where nothing seemed wronge yet nothing right”. In the absence of a settled spiritual solution to England’s break from Rome, the poem offered Catholics a negative solace.



As the 1580s gave way to the 1590s, real or imagined Spanish attempts to dethrone Elizabeth I redoubled the persecutions. Veneration of the Virgin Mary – “Mariolatry” – was made treasonable and seminary-priests were attacked as “dissolute young men”. Southwell’s allegiance clearly was to England’s Early Church, not to the Spanish courts of Philip II, yet he was caught up in the state politics of the time. An Humble Supplication to her Majestie, his celebrated pamphlet of 1591, courteously questions the Elizabethan regime’s insistent Protestant dogma.



The persecution of Catholics was dictated by fear, not malevolence, Southwell was sure of that. Still the “inhuman ferocity” with which Catholic suspects were treated by the Elizabethan regime had much in common with the anti-Protestant Inquisition in Spain, where confessions were extracted by means of the rack or burning tongs.



Father Southwell was, in all humility, proud of his silence under interrogation. Tortured ten times following his arrest in 1592 by Richard Topcliffe, Elizabeth’s obscene favourite, he remained obstinately “dumb as a tree-stump”. All three extant accounts of Southwell’s execution at Tyburn agree on the brave courtesy of his demeanour. With no hint of sectarian bitterness he addressed the crowds: “I am come hither to play out the last moment of this poor life”, before the hangman sped him onwards to sainthood.


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