Robert Southwell was a Jesuit priest who who worked as a missionary priest in England, based mainly in the Greys Inn and Clerkenwell areas of London before he was caught and imprisoned. He was taken first to the house of Richard Topcliffe, Queen Elizabeth’s principle torturer, where Topcliffe hung him from manacles for forty hours in an unsuccessful attempt to make him reveal those who had sheltered him. He was then taken to the Gatehouse Prison where he was again tortured and ‘left hurt, starving and covered in maggots to lie in his own filth for a month’ before being removed to the Tower of London. He was condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered, and executed on Febuary 21st 1995. On the gallows he professed his loyalty to Queen Elizabeth and asserted himself to be no traitor. There are credible reports that his face shone with an extraordinary radiance. The crowd who had come to feast on the obscenity were moved to tears, and demanded that he not be quartered while still alive but allowed to die by the more merciful manner of hanging. His, executioners, alarmed by the mood of the crowd acceded to this request. He was a poet and this is his best known poem;
THE BURNING BABE.
By Robert Southwell
As I in hoary winter’s night stood shivering in the snow,
Surprised I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow ;
And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near,
A pretty babe all burning bright did in the air appear ;
Who, scorchëd with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed
As though his floods should quench his flames which with his tears were fed.
Alas, quoth he, but newly born in fiery heats I fry,
Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I !
My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns ;
The fuel justice layeth on, and mercy blows the coals,
The metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defilëd souls,
For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good,
So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood.
With this he vanished out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I callëd unto mind that it was Christmas day.