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Robert Southwell

Born in 1561, poet and Jesuit priest Robert Southwell may have been one of the few men to have brought a tear to the eye of Elizabeth I in her adult life. In his death also is a lesson for any government that would choose to crush dissent with the blunt tool of state execution.

Robert Southwell's letter
Southwell's open letter to his
"Good Cousin, WS"
Robert Southwell had returned to England in 1586 as an ordained priest, and therefore effectively an enemy of the State. Southwell made an art of moving covertly around the country, pursued relentlessly by Topcliffe and his agents.

Southwell was different from many Catholic activists in that he saw no problem with being a Catholic and also being loyal to the Queen. Southwell was also a commentator on the poetry of the time, advocating a return to religious verse, and possibly criticizing racy, crowd-pleasing works like Shakespeare's "Venus and Adonis."

In a way he was advocating that poets start addressing issues rather than just being "pop," more Rage Against the Machine than Britney. A poet himself, the most famous of Southwell's works is "The Burning Babe." Printed posthumously, his poetry would become some of the most popular of the age.

Southwell's luck ran out in 1592 and he was captured, taken to the Tower and mercilessly tortured by Walsingham's pet psychopath, Topcliffe. Southwell maintained his loyalty to the Queen throughout.

Here is an accurate word for word account of one exchange between Southwell and Topcliffe. It's a scene of menace that could have leaped straight out of a Hannibal Lecter movie, and a moment of psychological barbarity that did certainly influence Shakespeare (Southwell was even a distant relative on his mother's side):


Southwell: I am decayed in memory with long and close imprisonment, and I have been tortured ten times. I had rather have endured ten executions. I speak not this for myself, but for others; that they may not be handled so inhumanely, to drive men to desperation, if it were possible.

Topcliffe: If he were racked, let me die for it.

Southwell: No; but it was as evil a torture, or late device.

Topcliffe: I did but set him against a wall.

Southwell: Thou art a bad man.

Topcliffe: I would blow you all to dust if I could.

Southwell: What, all?

Topcliffe: Ay, all.

Southwell: What, soul and body too?

Southwell was finally hanged, drawn and quartered in 1595 after two and a half years in prison and at the malevolent whim of Topcliffe.

The night before his execution Southwell's prominent Catholic friends had pressed his case with Elizabeth in a private audience. After his death they met her again to present her with Southwell's book on the duty of poets. What she read is said to have moved her to display "signs of grief." Her State's ferocity in crashing dissent may have just taken as a collateral casualty the one man who might have helped reach a blood-free compromise.

Shakespeare undoubtedly read Southwell's work, and even used the Burning Babe in "Macbeth." But clearly he now had his own ideas about where his work should head – a poet with a duty to his own imagination perhaps rather than just to the service of God?

The Player

Robert Southwell portrait
In your state
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