On the morning of Friday, 22 February 1595 by Julian reckoning, Robert Southwell was drawn by a cart from Newgate to be hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn as a traitor to the English crown in much the manner that his fellow Jesuit Edmund Campion had been a little more than thirteen years earlier.
Despite the government’s clumsy ruse of hanging a famous criminal at the same time at a place remote from Tyburn in order to divert the attention of the populace, a great throng had gathered to watch the priest meet his end. Eyewitness accounts, both Catholic and Protestant, are unanimous in describing Southwell as both gracious and prayerful in his final moments.
When cut loose from the halter that tied him to the cart, he wiped his brow with a handkerchief and tossed the “sudarium” into the crowd, the first of what would become his relics. When asked if he would like to speak, Southwell crossed himself and first spoke in Latin, quoting Romans 14:8:“Sive uiuimus, Domino uiuimus, sive morimur, Domino morimur, ergo uiuimus, sive morimur, Domini sumus.” (If we live, we live in the Lord. If we die, we die in the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or we die, we are in the Lord.)
He then addressed himself to the crowd, saying he died a Catholic and a Jesuit, offences for which he was not sorry to die. He spoke respectfully of the Queen, and asked her forgiveness if she had found any offence in him. Then, after the hangman stripped him down to his shirt and tightened the noose around his neck, Robert Southwell spoke his last words (found in both Psalm 30 and the Gospel of Luke),“In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum. Redemisti me, Domine Deus veritatis,” while repeatedly making the sign of the cross. “Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit. You have redeemed me, Lord God of truth.”
At the third utterance of these words, the cart rolled away and Southwell hung from his neck. Those present forbade the hangman cutting him down to further the cruelties of drawing and quartering before Southwell was dead. Yet, despite their efforts, according to one account, he was still breathing when cut down. When the hangman lifted Southwell’s head up before the crowd, no one cried “Traitor.” Even a pursuivant present admitted he had never seen a man die better.
Southwell was not executed on charges of heresy. The “Church in England” as it was often called then, though it did have some doctrinal disputes with Rome, still considered itself “Catholic” (and still does). The charges brought against Southwell were charges of treason. Since Henry VIII, who ironically retained the title “fidei defensor” given him by Leo X, had declared himself (and his successors) “Head of the Church in England,” and since Pius V’s bull “Regnans in Excelsis” had declared Henry’s successor and daughter Elizabeth to be a heretic and placed anyone who obeyed her under ban of excommunication, English religion had become irrevocably politicized.
Eventually, the Catholic priesthood, liturgy, and sacraments were illegal in England, and the Parliament passed laws which forced the Church into the catacombs. Southwell and priests like him, many of them Jesuits, were not interested in spreading dissent, nor were they engaged in plots to overthrow the government or assassinate the queen. Their mission was the conversion of souls and the administration of the Sacraments to Catholics in hiding. Southwell was eventually caught while hiding in a “priest hole,” an artfully contrived hiding spot in the wall of an English manor. After two years of regular torture at the hands of chief “priest-hunter” Richard Topcliffe, Southwell was executed. Soon after his death, Southwell’s religious poems were published, finding readership among not only recusant Catholics, but also among Protestant believers, both Anglican and Puritan.
(President Obama speaks at Georgetown University)
The current political climate in the United States is, I think, not entirely dissimilar to that of late-sixteenth-century England. American Catholics (as well as other believers) are expected to keep their faith in the cultural catacombs since there is purported to be “separation of Church and State,” which has become a kind of secular article of faith. Likewise, they are essentially disallowed from bringing their faith with them into the “public sphere,” as if religion were an article of clothing or a kind of hat easily removed when occasion arises. These are the unwritten rules of the American sovereign state (nod to Giorgio Agamben).
However, this door does not swing both ways. The Sovereign State, it seems, assumes that it can intrude into religious spheres (let’s call them “open-air catacombs”) such as hospitals, adoption agencies, credit unions, and schools and impose its will into their domains.
The Sovereign State, that is, wants to force these charities to be secularized, to submit to the sovereign will. If the charities do not capitulate, there will be hell to pay. The State may be separate from the Church, but the Church, apparently, cannot be extricated from the sovereign will. Southwell and his companions were not willing to accept the anti-Catholic laws the English Parliament enacted. Some rules, they argued, were not made to be followed.
The British Sovereign State of the sixteenth century begged to differ, as the American Sovereign State does today. But the Sovereign State is right about one thing. There will be hell to pay.
Spero columnist Michael Martin is a professor of English literature at Marygrove College in Detroit MI.