Robert Southwell was born in Horsham St. Faith, Norfolk, England in 1561 and spent much of his childhood in Sussex. He studied at Douai and Paris and wanted to be a priest from his earliest youth. In 1578, when he was barely 17, he was admitted to the Jesuit novitiate at Rome. Following ordination in 1584, he was appointed prefect of studies at the English College. Two years later he was sent to the dangerous English mission with fellow Jesuit Henry Garnett, arriving a year after it had become high treason for a priest trained abroad to be in the country. Harboring them was also a felony. He was aware of the risk, since it was just three years before that St Edmund Campion had been hung, drawn and quarter in London for being a Catholic priest.
On his arrival in England, Southwell attended a meeting at Hurleyford House in the Thames valley, which mapped out a new strategy for the survival of the Catholic Church in England. It was attended by the court composer William Byrd and several leading Catholics of the day. A solemn sung Mass was celebrated.
That day Southwell met Anne Dacre, countess of Arundel and Surrey, whose husband was a prisoner in the Tower of London. The priest was able to visit the count and minister to him in prison. For the next six years, Southwell lived in a small room at Arundel House in the Strand, known but to a few trusted friends and servants. He spent the days in prayer and writing, emerging at night to minister to Christians in London and the countryside. These were dangerous times, during the reign of so-called Good Queen Bess, and several times he narrowly escaped being caught by priest-hunters known as pursuivants.
In response to the Proclamation of 1591, claiming that Catholics were proscribed for treason only, not for religion, he composed his Humble Supplication to Her Majesty - a devastating attack on the government.
Despite the secrecy around his presence in England, Southwell became an influential figure in literary society. Some critics think it is likely he met Shakespeare and had some influence on his work.
In 1592 he was arrested by Richard Topcliffe, a priest-hunter who had already tortured, raped and killed a number of recusants. For several weeks, Southwell was tortured at Topcliffe's house in Westminster. He was then locked away in the Tower for three years. Finally in 1595 he was put on trial where even the judge expressed shock at the extent of Topcliffe's depravities. The sentence however, was inevitable. Robert was hung drawn and quartered at Tyburn together with a notorious highwayman, in front of a huge crowd. After praying for the country and the Queen he said, "whether we live or die we belong to the Lord... All you angels and saints assist me."
Soon after Southwell's death, St Peter's Complaint with other poems appeared in print, but without the author's name. A second edition, including eight more poems, appeared almost immediately. In April 1592, the publisher of Mary Magdalen's funeral tears entered the book in the Stationers' Register, and brought out a third edition. Saint Peter's Complaint proved even more popular than Mary Magdalen's Funeral tears, going into fourteen editions by 1636. Later that same year, a little book containing a further twenty-two poems was published under the title Maeoniae. When in 1602, publisher Cawood added another eight poems to his book, the English publication of Southwell's works came to an end. Southwell's "Of the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar," unpublishable in England, appeared in a broadsheet published at Douai in 1606. Famed writer Ben Jonson is reputed to have said that he would have been happy to burn all of his own works had he been the author of Southwell's The Burning Babe.
St Robert Southwell was the last Catholic to be executed by hanging, drawing and quartering at Tyburn. His reputation went far beyond Catholic circles and his writing and his death is reputed to have wrought a profound change in the moral climate of England. He was beatified in 1929 and canonized as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales in 1970.