This calendar of saints is drawn from several denominations, sects, and traditions. Although it will no longer be updated daily, the index on the right will guide visitors to a saint celebrated on any day they choose. Additional saints will be added as they present themselves to Major.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

February 21 -- Feast of Saint Robert Southwell

 "A poet, a lover and a liar are by many reckoned but three words with one signification."

Saint Robert Southwell
That was the cynical admonition of the poet Robert Southwell, addressed to his cousin, W.S., believed by some to have been William Shakespeare. The two were contemporaries who indisputably read each other's works. Shakespeare, a humanist with no apparent religious zeal, admired Southwell's poetry, but Southwell, a Jesuit priest, seems to have had reservations about literature that did not advance spiritual perfection. 

On this day in 1595, Robert Southwell was hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn, England.  One source lists Blessed Thomas Pormort, who was hanged on February 20, 1592, as sharing this feast, though Pormort is among the eighty-five martyrs of England and Wales celebrated on May 4.  Given the link of a common antagonist, I don't imagine that Father Southwell would mind sharing the feast with Father Pormort.

The link between Southwell and Pormort (other than Christ) is Richard Topcliffe, at one time a man so infamous that his name was eponymous for torture.  He was a hunter of Roman Catholic priests in Elizabethan England, dedicated entirely to his work with disturbing enthusiasm.  He was permitted by Queen Elizabeth's spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, to use his own house as a prison and torture chamber.  Topcliffe bragged that he had a machine there which was more effective than the rack.  He occasionally overstepped, being himself twice imprisoned for crimes, but his usefulness as a prosecutor of Papists always restored his freedom, privilege, and wealth.

Newgate Prison: Sub Quo Limbo Erat
Southwell was an English Jesuit, poet and pamphlet writer.  He seems to have been exposed as a Catholic priest by Anne Bellamy, one of Topcliffe's prisoners.  Rape was among the tortures to which Topcliffe subjected Bellamy, and to avoid the scandal which might have resulted from her pregnancy, Topcliffe coerced one of his servants into marrying his prisoner.

Southwell was held for three years, racked at least ten times, and tortured incessantly.  His family petitioned to advance the date of his trial so his suffering could end sooner.  Following his conviction, he was placed in Limbo, the notorious dungeon for the condemned in Newgate Prison.  Conditions there were vile; if Southwell had not been executed promptly, he surely would have died of disease, neglect, and abuse.  In what passed for mercy in Elizabethan England, Southwell was hanged until dead before being drawn and quartered.

 HRH Elizabeth: legs, belly, breasts and all
Pormort had been ordained in Rome and served at a college in Milan before wending his way slowly back to England.  His godfather, Archbishop John Whitgift, was an Anglican with enough juice to have been present at the deathbed of Queen Elizabeth.  Whitgift wanted to delay his godson's execution, hoping to persuade him to abandon Catholicism, and might have even been successful in that if Topcliffe didn't have a personal stake in the execution.  But Pormort had testified that during the long, brutal interrogations, Topcliffe had bragged of intimacy with the Queen.  He said that she had allowed him to fondle her legs, breasts, and belly, and that she had given him a pair of white linen hose.  On the bitterly cold February day when Pormort was to be hanged, Topcliffe left his prisoner shivering at the top of the ladder, rope around his neck, waiting to be dropped, for two full hours, all the while demanding that Pormort retract the testimony about the boasted intimacy with Her Majesty.  Pormort, to his credit, did not cave in.

I always hope that someone like Richard Topcliffe would end his days in Newgate Prison, dying of tetanus while awaiting execution, but sadly, it doesn't work that way.  He eventually lost favor and retired to the estates he had extorted from suspects and died the peaceful death of a country squire.  The men like Topcliffe might tempt us to hope that Hell exists, but we would do well to remember that our notions of justice are imperfect, and in wishing that, we deliver ourselves to the Devil.

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