Thursday, June 28, 2012


Yesterday was the feast day of St. John Southworth, although today is the anniversary of his martyrdom. As you would guess from the name, he was an English martyr. He studied at Douai to become a priest; when he returned to England he was caught and condemned to death in 1627, but after three years in prison the sentence was commuted to deportation. He later returned to England, and settled quietly in Clerkenwell. While he was there a plague broke out and he devoted himself to tending to the sick. This was during the Interregnum, under Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector. Unfortunately, this brought him to the notice of the authorities. He was arrested, let go, and then arrested again, at which point he was tried for the capital crime of being a Catholic priest, and of course he was convicted, in part because he insisted on pleading guilty to the charge of being a priest. He was then sent to Tyburn. It was a rainy, stormy day, but executions at Tyburn often drew large crowds regardless of weather and this was no exception. As sometimes happened, he was allowed to give a speech at the gallows, and we actually have an eyewitness account of the speech. Christ sent the apostles, Fr. Southworth said, and the apostles their successors, and the successors had sent him; and he had done as he had bid. He intended to no evil against the Lord Protector, and only sought to save souls:

How justly, then, I die, let them look to who have condemned me. It is sufficient for me that it is God's will: I plead not for myself, (I came hither to suffer,) but for you poor persecuted catholics, whom I leave behind me. Heretofore liberty of conscience was pretended as a cause of war; and it was held a reasonable proposition that all the natives should enjoy it, who" should be found to behave themselves as obedient and true subjects. This being so, why should their conscientious acting and governing themselves according to the faith received from their ancestors, involve them more than all the rest in that universal guilt? which conscientiousness is the very reason that clears others, and renders them innocent. It has pleased God to take the sword out of the king's hand, and put it in the protector's. Let him remember that he is to administer justice indifferently, and without exception of persons. For there is no exception of persons with God, whom we ought to resemble. If any catholics work against the present government, let them suffer; but why should all the rest who are guitless, (unless conscience be their guilt,) be made partakers in the promiscuous punishment with the greatest malefactors?

(You can read the full speech attributed to Southworth here.) At this point he was pretty much told to hurry it up, so he ended with prayer and was hanged, drawn, and quartered along with a handful of counterfeiters; he was about sixty-two years old. If I recall correctly, he was the last person in England to be executed for being a priest until the Popish Plot scare stirred up by Titus Oates (the anti-priest law continued to exist but was not enforced for quite some time), and is the only English Catholic martyr under Cromwell (most Catholic martyrs under Cromwell were Irish).

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