Monday, 27 June 2011

St John Southworth - Westminster Cathedral's saint

Today, a special solemnity is being celebrated at Westminster Cathedral - namely the feast of its own saint, the 17th century priest-martyr, John Southworth. Some of you might already be aware that his body was moved to the middle of the nave last week, in preparation for today's celebration. St John is familiar to many who have visited the Cathedral - he can normally be seen lying in a large, glass reliquary (a feretory) in the Chapel of St George and the English Martyrs. For those not so familiar with his life, though, here is a short outline of the main points.

St John Southworth was a Lancashire man. Born, in 1592, into a branch of the Southworths of Samlesbury Hall, Blackburn. The Southworths were a recusant family, who had remained loyal to the Catholic faith despite the many hardships this incurred. In fact, St John’s father had been penalised by heavy fines for his refusal to attend the local Anglican parish church. He had also spent some time in prison for his role in harbouring the famous Jesuit martyr-priest, St Edmund Campion. These were dangerous times to be a Catholic in England and Wales, and, as St John would have known from his earliest childhood, many good men and women had to pay with their lives for their desire to follow Christ in the Catholic Church. It shows amazing bravery on his part, then, that at the young age of 21 he decided to go abroad and train as a priest specifically for the English mission. He knew that this vocation could end up in his own martyrdom.

Many young men had gone over to French Flanders to train for the priesthood at Douai. In 1613 John Southworth joined them. Little is known of his time here, though we know that he was ordained in 1618, and, after further training, was sent back to England in October 1619. Like many of the men who worked as priests in the home mission Fr Southworth went back to his home turf. We know that he remained active in the north-west for several years, and was probably well accustomed to hiding in priest-holes from time to time! During 1624 and 1625 St John Southworth went back to Douai, before returning to his native Lancashire. In 1627, though, he was arrested. This was his first arrest of many! Another priest, St Edmund Arrowsmith, was arrested with him. They were both tried for treason (by being active Catholic priests), and both were found guilty and detained at Lancaster Castle. St John was given a reprieve, but not before seeing Fr Arrowsmith being led to his gruesome execution. In fact, John Southworth gave his friend absolution as he was led past his cell window.

The Queen, Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I, was a Catholic and worked hard to try and save as many priests as she could. It was probably at her request that St John Southworth was moved from his miserable conditions in Lancaster Castle to The Clink prison (built for the purpose of housing religious dissenters), in Southwark. In April 1630 the Queen moved again, with the help of the French Ambassador, and managed to release 16 priests from The Clink into exile, and safety, in France. St John was amongst these prisoners. Some suggest that he didn’t actually cross the Channel, but others seem to think that he probably did, and that he went back to Douai. Whatever happened to him during that time, we do know that he was back in London and specifically in the Westminster area in 1636 - where he remained off-and-on for the rest of his life.

Westminster at the time of St John Southworth was known for its dark, rambling alleys, extreme poverty, and for the criminal underclass that lived amongst the mashes and hovels just south of where the Cathedral stands today. During the Middle Ages Westminster had become a centre of power, thanks to the Royal Abbey and the greater role of Parliament (which met within the Palace of Westminster). Many powerful people moved into the area, and they were catered for and served by the poor of the marshland. Also, during the Reformation many places of Sanctuary (where suspected criminals could seek refuge from the law) had been dissolved or abandoned (and rights of sanctuary removed). One of the greatest Sanctuaries was Westminster Abbey, and many suspect characters had sought refuge there. During the 16th Century many criminals, who had left the Abbey (now it wasn’t a safe place to hide), decided to settle in the locality. This established Westminster with a reputation for danger and criminality, which lasted even to the time of Dickens, who called area “the Devil’s acre”! During the time of St John Southworth this same place would have had a very bad reputation, and there were parts that were definitely to be avoided by “the great and the good”. It was in this area that our Saint found himself in the 1630s.

Westminster Abbey had a prison, called The Gatehouse, which had been in use since the 14th Century. In 1636 St John Southworth was committed to this prison – though also seems to have had a dwelling in Clerkenwell. The Gatehouse was what we would nowadays call an “open prison” and many inmates were allowed out on day-release or even to live in their homes outside the prison walls. It was whilst he was a prisoner at here that St John, together with the Jesuit, St Henry Morse, tended to the spiritual and material needs of local Catholics. The years of 1636/7 were known for a plague epidemic in London. Westminster was badly hit by this disease. Most people in need had to rely upon the charity of the local (Anglican) parish, therefore Catholics were left unaided. Frs. Southworth and Morse would visit Catholics in the marshes and alleyways of Westminster, to distribute alms (probably provided by the Queen and foreign Embassies) whilst officially being prisoners of The Gatehouse themselves!

One of the curates at St Margaret’s, Westminster, complained of two “Popish priests” [Southworth and Morse] who “…under the pretence of distributing alms sent from the Friars at Somerset House [the Queen’s chaplains] and other Papists, doth take occasion to go into divers plague-stricken houses in Westminster, namely into those of William Baldwin and William Stiles, in the Hemp Yard, Westminster…”. It seems that the curate, William White, was worried that parishioners of his, suffering from the plague, had converted to Catholicism through St John’s ministry, as he wrote that “…Baldwin…received the sacraments from him according to the Church of Rome and so died a Romish Catholic…thus under the pretence of relieving the bodies of poor people, he poisons their souls.” The complaints of local clergymen led to Fr Southworth’s arrest and detention at The Gatehouse on the orders of Sir Dudley Carlton, Clerk to His Majesty’s Privy Council. In 1640 he was transferred to The Clink, where the Commission for Causes Ecclesiastical confirmed his imprisonment. By mid-1640 St John Southworth was free again, but by the end of the year he appears to have been detained at The Gatehouse once more. During these various imprisonments Fr Southworth was protected by the Secretary of State to the King, Francis Windebank, who seems to have allowed him relative freedom, and who eventually became a Catholic himself.

His Royal protectors were soon to be of no use, as England became a Protectorate and virtually a Puritanical nation under Oliver Cromwell, and King Charles I himself was executed (1649). Still, St John Southworth continued in his ministry amongst the poor of Westminster. He seemed to have been living in the area when he was apprehended whilst in bed in 1654. When St John Southworth was finally arrested and brought to trial at the Old Bailey many people urged him to plead “not guilty” to the charge of administering the sacraments as a Catholic priest. Even the Judge himself is said to have advised him to deny the charge – having no real evidence against him. Fr John Southworth, though, could not deny his priesthood and as a result was found guilty of the treasonable charge. At the sentencing it is said that Serjant Steel, who read out the sentence, wept bitterly. It would be true to say that many people, even outside the Catholic Church, loved Fr John Southworth.

On 28 June 1654 St John Southworth was dragged to the gallows at Tyburn. He was to be hung drawn and quartered. The executioner felt such pity for the 62-year-old that he let him hang to death – thus relieving him of the torture of quartering. St John was allowed to make a speech and to wear his vestments at the place of execution – a rare privilege. An eye-witness recorded his last words during which he said:
“My faith and obedience to my superiors is all the treason charged against me; nay, I die for Christ’s law, which no human law, by whomsoever made, ought to withstand or contradict… To follow His holy doctrine and imitate His holy death, I willingly suffer at present; this gallows I look on as His Cross, which I gladly take to follow my Dear Saviour…I plead not for myself…but for you poor persecuted Catholics whom I leave behind me.”
It seems that the butchered corpse was bought by the then Duke of Norfolk and given to the Spanish Ambassador, who ensured that St John Southworth’s remains were buried at Douai. There he remained at peace until 1793, when the French Revolution reached the seminary, and his body was hidden and buried in an unmarked grave. In 1927 the Saint’s body was rediscovered during some building work, and was returned to England by Rev Albert Purdie. A hearse took the relics from Dover to St Edmund’s College, Ware.

When John Southworth was beatified in 1929 his relics were enshrined at Westminster Cathedral – where he now rests in the Chapel of St George and the English Martyrs. St John’s remains are the only complete relics of any of the Martyrs of England and Wales. On October 25th 1970 Pope Paul VI canonised John Southworth, along with the other Forty Martyrs.

St John Southworth, ora pro nobis

Posted by Dylan Parry at A Reluctant Sinner


  1. We still say a convicted person is "in the Clink". I now see why though, as with many words I never questioned it before.
    From the Web:
    "The origins of the name "The Clink" are uncertain, but it is possibly onomatopoeic and derives from the sound of striking metal as the prison's doors were bolted, or the rattling of the chains the prisoners wore."
    Thank you for an interesting post. The GBTB is becoming a valuable archive.

  2. Thanks for such an inspiring post.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...