Polemic and paradox in Robert Southwell's lyric poems

Criticism, Fall, 2003 by Sadia Abbas

IN 1591 ELIZABETH I issued a proclamation that targeted Jesuits and seminary priests. It was "A declaration of great troubles pretended against the Realme by a number of Seminarie Priests and Jesuits sent, and very secretly dispersed to the same, to worke great Treasons under a false pretence of Religion, with a provision very necessary for remedy thereof." (1) Although the title paid lip service to a separation between the religious practice of the Catholics and the activity of seminary priests and Jesuits, portions of the text made explicit the longtime Elizabethan equation of Catholicism with treason.

The proclamation linked the presence of the Jesuits and seminary priests in England with Spain's expansionist aims. The men were called "Dissolute," "unnatural subjects," "Fugitives, Rebelles, and Traitors." They were accused of trying to "mooue, stirre up, and perswade as many of [Elizabeth's] subjects, as they dare deale withall, to renounce their naturall allegeance due to [the Queen and her] Crowne, and upon hope by a Spanish Invasion to be enriched and endowed." The priests were said to use the sacraments to make the Queen's subjects switch their allegiance to the King of Spain. Papal bulls and indulgences were also identified as tools of this treacherous persuasion. (2)

The proclamation went on to insist that no Catholic had to fear death for practicing his or her religion. Catholics only had to pay fines for not attending the British church. But by equating attendance at church with fealty to the state, the government had already made loyalty to any church other than its own treason. The rest of the proclamation made this clearer. Ecclesiastical members of the Church of England were asked to be diligent in teaching people to stay steadfast in their "profession of the Gospells, and in their duties to almightie God and us." (3)

The state was declared to be prepared for a sea battle with greater strength at sea than it had ever had. To aid in a confrontation on land, the realm had been divided into several "lieutenancies," so that the requisite steps could be taken to defend the country from within. Subjects were asked to defend their families, land, and "posterities" "against ravening strangers, willful destroyers of their native countrey and monstrous traytors." (4) Those who harbored Catholics were also to be "charged by law to their great danger." (5) Subjects of every estate and kind were to be asked if they knew of any such people. If such invaders were found, inquiries were to be made about where they had been for the previous year and whether they had attended church in accordance with the English laws. The Crown had appointed commissioners in every shire, city, and port to look for people who were attempting to make subjects relinquish their allegiance to the Queen, or "to acknowledge any kind of obedience to the Pope, or to the King of Spaine." (6) Subjects who had information and did not come forward within twenty days of the proclamation were to be punished as "abettors and mainteiners of traytors." (7) The choice between Queen and Pope, between country and Catholicism, could not have been more stark. To be Catholic was, in effect, to be a traitor.

In An Humble Supplication to her Maiestie in Answere to the late Proclamation (1591), Robert Southwell responded systematically to the government's charges. He dismissed the idea that Catholics were not persecuted for their religion and posed a series of impassioned questions:

   Was it not punishment for Religion, when a Company of honorable
   and worshipfull Ladies, and gentlewomen were most uncivilly lead
   through Cheapside, with their Priest before them, only for hearing
   Masse; and that before Priesthood was enacted to be Treason? Is not
   that very statute a most heavy oppression, now, when the most of the
   few Queene Mary Fathers that are left, are become soe old and
   impotent, that they cannot possibly supply Catholiques spirituall
   necessities, to make it by Law felony to receaue yonge Priests?
   (Southwell's italics) (8)

Southwell's argument exposed the fact that by targeting seminary priests, the government was, in effect, committed to the eradication of the old religion in England. If priests could not practice or be trained, in England, the pragmatics of the situation would result in quiet extinction. On the charge that Catholic priests and Jesuits were "unnaturall" subjects, he wrote:

   If we seeke with our deepest perills to plant [Catholicism] in our
   Realme, and to winne soules from misbelief unto it, we thinke that
   we owe a most sincere and naturall love unto our Cuntrie (for even
   by Christ's own testimony, noe man's charity reacheth to any higher
   point than to yeald his life for the benefitt of his Friends).
   (Southwell's italics) (9)

An Humble Supplication exhibits Southwell's speculative and rhetorical power, his habits of careful and systematic argument, and his sensitivity to contradictions. He identifies the conceptual crux of the assumptions in the proclamation and responds to it accordingly. Since Catholicism is equated insistently with treason, Southwell responds to the equation latent in this identification: treason requires a betrayal of one's compatriots, implicitly of one's friends, family, neighbors; but it would be a greater betrayal to let the souls of one's compatriots, friends, family, and neighbors be lost. For it is, after all, the height of charity to "yield one's life for the benefit of [one's] Friends." The opposition between body and soul occurs more explicitly twice in An Humble Supplication. No matter how priestly activity and Catholic belief are given the wrongful title of treason, "it will ever be Religion, and nothing but religion, for which we expose our blood to the hazard of these Lawes and for the benefit of our soules and yeald our bodies to all extremities." (10) In response to the law that even those who comfort priests will be punished, Southwell writes bitterly: "we are compelled to accuse those whom our conscience assureth us to be innocent ... to whose Soules we be Pastors, and they the Fosterers of our bodies." (11)


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