June 27th, 2012St. John Southworth: Martyred Under Cromwellby Joseph Pearce

When we think of the English Martyrs we rightly think of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, whose feast day was celebrated last Friday. We probably think also of the tyrannical reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I as the time of persecution in which the Martyrs were put to death. In point of fact, however, Catholic priests continued to be put to death for a further eighty years after Elizabeth's death. One of these later Martyrs was St. John Southworth, who was hanged, drawn and quartered during the Puritan dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell.

Southworth was born in Lancashire in 1592. Ordained as a priest at the English College in Douai, he returned to England in 1619 and ministered to the people of his native Lancashire until his arrest in 1627. After spending three years in prison, he was delivered, along with fifteen other priests, into the hands of the French Ambassador for transportation abroad. Returning secretly to England, he was again arrested and imprisoned. Released in 1636, he took up residence in London and ministered to those dying of the plague, winning many deathbed converts. He was arrested again in 1637. After spending a further three years in prison, he was again liberated in July 1640 but was re-arrested a few months later. At his trial, against the advice of his counsel, he insisted on pleading "guilty" to being a priest and was consequently condemned to death. As England descended into its fratricidal Civil War and its chaotic and turbulent aftermath, St. John Southwell languished in prison awaiting his execution. At the age of sixty-two, he finally endured the full, slow and sadistic torture of being put to death by being hanged, drawn and quartered on July 28, 1654 (though his feast is celebrated today on July 27).

Southworth's body was handed into the custody of the family of the Duke of Norfolk who sent it to the English College at Douai. The body was sewn together, buried and venerated as a relic until the French Revolution, when it was hidden in an unmarked grave to save it from destruction by the secular fundamentalist Revolutionaries. The grave was rediscovered in 1927 and Southworth's remains were returned to England. In 1930 the body was transferred to Westminster Cathedral, where it is kept in the Chapel of St. George and the English Martyrs.

Southworth was beatified by Pope Pius XI in 1929 and canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1970.

Whenever I find myself in London, I make the shrine to St. John Southworth a place of pilgrimage, at which I light a candle for the conversion of my beleaguered and largely faithless nation.

St. John Southworth, we ask your intercession for the people of England and especially for English priests, that they may have the courage to follow your example in giving powerful witness to the truth of Christ and His Church in the face of mounting persecution.

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  • June 30 2012 | by Mary

    Thank you for this wonderful article. I love to go to Westminster Cathedral whenever I am back home. Last year I went to early Mass there and then walked up Victoria Street to the Abbey. If you attend the early service there (which is in the chapel of St Edward the Confessor) you don't have to pay the entrance fee. Fortified by the blessed Sacrament and buoyed by the numbers at Mass I was brought down to the depths of despair at the Abbey (more like a museum!) of Westminster. There were five of us, including one poor demented lady, present in body only. The manly looking lady 'presider' finally did it for me and I had to leave before the 'service' began. St John Southwell, pray for us.