Some people just can't take “no” for an answer. And for St. John Southworth, one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales, it was not “no” but rather, the command to “go” – to leave England and to settle in France or elsewhere in Europe – that toughened his resolve to remain.

From his earliest years, John Southworth saw evidenced in his own parents a vigorous faith which inspired them to disobey an unjust law. Rather than abandon their Catholic faith, as required under English law in the 16th century, the Southworths chose instead to pay heavy fines.

John Southworth studied for the priesthood at the English College in Douai, in northern France. In 1585, under the anti-Catholic policies of the English Reformation, a law had been passed which prohibited priests from returning to England. Any priest who entered the country, as well as any person who assisted a priest, would be guilty of high treason. 

However, Father Southworth believed that God was calling him to serve in his native land; so on Oct. 13, 1619, he returned to England, where he lived as a priest for five years. In 1624, he left England to serve as chaplain to a community of Benedictine nuns in Brussels; but he returned to Lancashire after only one year. 

In 1627 the British army caught up with him at Lancashire, and he was arrested and imprisoned in Lancaster Castle, where he saw his friend Edmund Arrowsmith executed – hanged, drawn and quartered – in 1628. The prisoner Fr. John Southworth was moved to The Clink, a historic prison under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Winchester, used at the time for imprisoning “heretics” – those who disagreed with the theology of the Church of England. Southworth was sentenced to death for professing the Catholic faith; but in 1630, Queen Henrietta Maria, queen consort and wife of King Charles I and a devout Roman Catholic, ordered that he and 17 other prisoners should instead be delivered to the French ambassador and deported to France.

 

Free – But Not for Long!

Safe in exile, Father Southworth remained determined to help the people of his native land; and despite the dangers of disregarding the anti-priest legislation and the health risks posed by a serious plague epidemic in 1636, he returned to England to minister to the sick and needy. With Jesuit Father Henry Morse, Fr. Southworth cared for those stricken by the plague in Westminster and raised money to help their families. 

But his freedom was short-lived: He was captured again in November 1637, and this time he was sent to Gatehouse Prison and then back to The Clink. He remained a prisoner at The Clink for four years before once again being released at the orders of the Queen. Again, and then again.... Father Southworth was arrested and then released three times, always returning to his vocation of priestly service in England. Finally, he was arrested and imprisoned a fourth time, but this time he escaped from prison; and for 14 years, from 1640 until 1654, he quietly continued his ministry while evading notice of the government.

 

Back to Prison – Then a Brutal Execution

In 1649, after years of conflict with Parliament, England's King Charles I was executed in front of Banqueting House in Whitehall. His widow Queen Henrietta Marie was forced into exile in her native France. During this period of Interregnum, anti-Catholic policies were again vigorously enforced, and Father Southworth was arrested again. This time he was tried under Elizabethan anti-priest legislation. There was little evidence to convict him, and his friends encouraged him to deny being a priest, but he refused. Standing calmly before his accusers, Fr. Southworth pleaded guilty to exercising the priesthood. He was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, the punishment meted out to those guilty of high treason, and was executed at Tyburn, London on June 28, 1654. Before he died, he proclaimed to those gathered, “This gallows I look on as His cross, which I gladly take to follow my dear Savior.”

After war broke out between England and France in 1793, Southworth's coffin was hidden in an unmarked grave in the kilns beneath the seminary for protection. For years it was lost, only coming to light again in 1927. His coffin was returned to England and is now kept in the Chapel of St. George and the English Martyrs in Westminster Cathedral. 

Father Southworth was beatified in 1929, and canonized with the Forty Martyrs by Pope Paul VI in 1970. His feast day is celebrated in the Westminster Diocese on June 27.