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robert southwellModern England is so secular in her orientation and so narcissistic in her hedonism that she treats her own heritage with scornful and supercilious neglect. This was made painfully clear to me this January when I returned to my native land to film a documentary on the great Catholic poet, Francis Thompson. Described by Chesterton as “a major poet” and “a major prophet,” Thompson is indubitably one of the finest poets that England has ever produced. His most famous poem, “The Hound of Heaven,” lauded by Chesterton as “the greatest religious poem of modern times and one of the greatest of all times,” should be taught to all Englishmen as an invaluable part of their heritage in which priceless pearls of wisdom can be found. Instead the poet and the poem are unread, untaught, and unknown.The neglect of Thompson’s legacy was incarnated in the weathered plaque outside the house in Preston in which he was born and in the unkept and unkempt grave in London’s Kensal Green Cemetery in which he is buried. The former, unheeded and unseen by the hundreds of people who walk past it every day, and the latter, unvisited, smothered with ivy, and sinking into the unfeeling earth, serve as a fading memorial of England’s majestic past and as a withering metaphor of her meretriciously myopic present. It is indeed ironic that the decaying memorials serve as a living metaphor of England’s decay. Like the picture of Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde’s novel, the ugliness of the neglect reflects the ugliness of England’s neglectfulness, a mirror of her own decadence, decay and impending death.

For those with eyes that see and hearts that know, the ivy-covered grave is a memento mori, reminding us of death and the eternal judgment that follows. What we are witnessing in the neglect of the poet’s grave, and the neglect of the poet that it represents, is the reflection of modernity’s nihilistic suicide, its deterioration into the nothing that it idolizes.

So be it. Indeed, Deo gratias!

This long perambulatory preamble serves to illustrate the position of another English poet, unjustly neglected by his native land. The martyred Jesuit, St. Robert Southwell, is one of the greatest Englishmen in the whole of England’s long and chequered history. A convert to the Faith who was forced into exile in order to study for the priesthood, Southwell returned to the shores of his homeland to minister in secret to England’s outlawed Catholics. As with the other English Jesuit missionaries to England, Southwell knew that, if caught, he faced imprisonment, torture, and an excruciatingly slow death through being hanged, drawn, and quartered. He knew also that Queen Elizabeth’s extensive spy network amongst the Catholic community made it very likely that he would be caught sooner or later. In the event, he eluded arrest for several years, even though he was based in London, in the very heart of the beast and under the very noses of Bloody Bess and her blood-stained ministers. During this time, he befriended Shakespeare’s patron, the Earl of Southampton, becoming his confessor, and in all probability became a confidant of Shakespeare himself.

Whereas England’s anti-Catholic propagandists condemned Southwell as a “traitor” and a “spy” in the service of the Scarlet Woman of Rome, he was to England’s beleaguered Catholics a dashing and daring hero more akin to the Scarlet Pimpernel of later legend. The difference was that the Scarlet Pimpernel was a fictional hero during the Great Terror in France; Robert Southwell was a real-life hero, one of “God’s spies” during the earlier Terror in England.

Following his arrest in 1592, Southwell was tortured repeatedly and imprisoned for three years before facing gruesome execution. At the time of his death, his poetry was widely known and widely read, even by his enemies. He would influence many of the greatest poets in the English language, including Michael Drayton, Edmund Spenser, John Donne, George Herbert, Richard Crashaw, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. More importantly, he was canonized in 1970 by Pope Paul VI as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.

As with Francis Thompson, this great saint, poet and martyr is unknown and unappreciated in his native land. In a BBC poll of the hundred greatest Britons, conducted in 2002, he is conspicuous by his absence. Those on the list included John Lennon, David Beckham, David Bowie, Princess Diana, Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, and Freddy Mercury. The only saint to make the list of greatest Britons was Thomas More, who was forced to sit uncomfortably beside both Henry VIII, who had ordered his execution, and Elizabeth I (Bloody Bess herself), who had ordered Southwell’s torture and death.

None of this matters. Robert Southwell no longer belongs in such company. He is in the company of the saints.

St. Robert Southwell, priest, poet and martyr, pray for England and pray for us.

Books by Joseph Pearce may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreRepublished with gracious permission from the St. Austin Review.

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4 replies to this post
  1. The preface to this piece regarding Thompson brings to mind two allusions: In the chapter “Many Partings” from Lord of the Rings, Galadriel, Celeborn, and Gandalf sit and talk to one another, and

    “If any wanderer had chanced to pass, little would he have seen or heard, and it would have seemed to him only that he saw grey figures, carved in stone, memorials of forgotten things now lost in unpeopled lands. For they did not move or speak with mouth, looking from mind to mind; and only their shining eyes stirred and kindled as their thoughts went to and fro.”

    In a similar manner, Chesterton writes of the fading outline of legend in his Ballad of The White Horse:

    And all the while on White Horse Hill
    The horse lay long and wan,
    The turf crawled and the fungus crept,
    And the little sorrel, while all men slept,
    Unwrought the work of man.

  2. This is so sad but true. During our recent trip to the British Isles, I was saddened in that although it was a Catholic British Isles pilgrimage, the Catholic British Isles no longer exist, or else it’s in hiding somewhere. All the old churches are now more like cold museums – even those that are still used for some sort of Christian service. The great saints are forgotten and the old Catholic Churches now have signs noting that this Church was “inherited” in year such and such… usually the early 1600s or something. To pray at the execution site of St. Thomas More was to kneel in a very small and busy intersection on a street which was surrounded by cars and buses and noise of all sorts. I’m not British, but I feel for Mr. Pearce and for the people who still hold to the Catholic Faith. To see hundreds of years of such brilliance and holiness buried and unappreciated breaks my heart, so I can imagine his. I am grateful to authors like Joseph Pearce who remember and write so eloquently of the beauties that were once England.

  3. Dear Mr. Pearce,
    Would you consider writing about Robert Aske and the Pilgrimage of Grace? On my several trips to England I have asked people at the Tower of York (where he was executed) and they knew nothing about him. A Catholic man leading people who desired only that the Mass be restored to them and that the monks and nuns be restored to their convents and monasteries is almost totally unknown. You write so beautifully, please consider it.

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