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Saint of the week

The 17th-century martyr whose corpse was found in the 1920s

St John Southworth (June 28) was arrested five times before he was eventually hanged

By on Friday, 24 June 2011

John Southworth (1592-1654) was the only Catholic priest to be executed under Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate.

The Southworths were a Lancashire family who, notwithstanding persecution and fines, had remained fiercely loyal to the old faith. They were based at Samlesbury, near Preston, where, as a government spy reported, there was a popish schoolmaster.

At 21 John Southworth became the third member of his family in three generations to be trained for the priesthood at Douai. Ordained in 1618, he arrived back in England at the end of 1619. For the next 35 years he bravely carried out his pastoral duties, chiefly in or around London.

In 1624, however, Southworth was recalled to the continent to act as chaplain to Benedictine nuns in Brussels. A year or so later he returned to his native Lancashire, where in 1627 he was arrested on the charge of  being a Catholic priest.

In 1630 Southworth was taken to London and there released, along with 11 other priests, at the instance Henrietta Maria, Charles I’s Catholic French wife. The new sentence, though, was  perpetual banishment: should any of the exiled priests ever be found in England, “the Law should pass on every several person without further favour”.

Southworth took not the least notice of this threat, and was soon back in London. Although records of his precise whereabouts are scarce, there are glimpses of him serving the poor in Westminster and Clerkenwell. During the plague years of the mid-1630s he administered the last sacraments careless of personal risk and raised money for the families of victims.

Four times Southworth was arrested, and three times released by the Secretary of State Sir Francis Windebank, heavily influenced by Henrietta Maria in Catholic affairs. On the fourth occasion Southworth managed to escape.

Nothing is known about him in the period of the Civil War. During the Protectorate Cromwell was disposed to leniency towards English – as opposed to Irish – Catholics. 

In 1654, however, the discovery of a plot to assassinate the Protector unleashed a tide of anti-papal feeling. Southworth was again arrested and condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered, apparently under the commuted sentence of 1630.

The prisoner was advised that, if he denied being a priest, his life would be spared, but of course Southworth was having none of that. Foreign ambassadors pleaded for him; equally Cromwell made it clear that he disapproved of the execution, though he had no power of pardon.

The Protector did, however, order that surgeons should sew up Southworth’s mangled corpse and return it to Douai for burial. When Douai College was demolished in the 1920s Southworth’s remains were discovered and given a place of honour in Westminster Cathedral.

John Southworth was canonised in 1970 as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.