Richard Topcliffe and the capture and torture of Robert Southwell

The capture and torture of Southwell is a perfect example of Topcliffe’s full-service approach to persecution: it was his own handiwork through and through, and took extensive planning and thought.

Southwell, a Norfolk man, had left England for the Catholic English College at Douai in the summer of 1576. He was not yet 15. Two years later he was on his way to Rome to join the Society of Jesus, and there he had stayed until his passionate self-doubting desire to prove his spiritual worth led him to volunteer for the English mission. Accompanied by Henry Garnet, he had arrived back in England from Rome on 7 July 1586, with, he wrote ‘the highest hope of martyrdom’. He could hardly have chosen a worse time to arrive.

The previous year, the government had made it a treasonable offence to be a Rome-ordained priest in England; harbouring such missionaries, or helping them in any way, was to be a capital crime. When Southwell and Garnet set foot in England there were five other Jesuits here, but four of those were already in prison. The fifth, and the head of the English mission, William Weston, was the only one at liberty, and he met the two young men for the first time at a London inn on 13 July.

With exquisite timing, Anthony Babington revealed the details of his plot to Weston the very same day. Weston needed little time to realise the danger of such knowledge to the English mission, and fled with Southwell and Garnet the following morning to a safe house in Buckinghamshire. But his premonition proved correct, and Weston would be arrested on his return to London on 3rd August – just outside Bishopsgate – as part of the operation that would eventually sweep up the Babington conspirators.

Garnet then took over the leadership of the mission; but he and Southwell were now alone and facing the greatest wave of anti-Catholic sentiment yet. Southwell would focus on London, and here he set up a secret press, publishing A consolatory letter to all the afflicted Catholikes in England and Southwell’s own An epistle of comfort, to the reverend priestes, and to the honorable, worshipful, and other of the laye sort, restrayned in durance for the Catholicke fayth.

It was this propaganda effort that would make him such an important catch, particularly after he had responded to Burghley’s autumn 1591 proclamation against the missionaries – A declaration of great troubles pretended against the realme by a number of seminarie priests and Jesuists – with a detailed rebuttal – entitled An humble supplication to her Majestie – that included a forceful argument in favour of the idea that Sir Francis Walsingham was the principal architect of Babington’s failed coup.

The government was desperate for details of Southwell’s appearance. They tortured out of another priest from the continent, John Cecil, the fact that he had distinctive auburn hair.

Six years was a long time for a Jesuit to remain free in Elizabethan England, and Topcliffe, laid a his trap with care. He purposedly seduced a young Catholic woman – Anne Bellamy –whose family were well known for their loyalty to the old faith; according to some reports, he got her pregnant. In any event, she revealed to him the location of the secret chamber at her family home, Uxendon Manor, not far from Harrow-on-the-Hill – the very same house at which Babington had been cornered and seized six years earlier.

Topcliffe bided his time, keeping horses at the ready for three weeks until, on 25 June 1592, word reached him that Southwell was on his way to the house for the night, accompanied by Anne’s younger brother Thomas and ironically at the behest of Garnet, who wanted him out of London and safely stowed in Warwickshire.

Topcliffe was in Greenwich attending Elizabeth at court when he got the news. He gathered his men and rode out poste haste to Uxendon, arriving there close to midnight.

There are several accounts of what happened next. Some have a slightly worked feel, as if Southwell and Topcliffe knew what parts they had to play. One, for instance, has Topcliffe running at Southwell, rapier drawn, shouting at him that we was ‘a priest and a traitor’, and Southwell standing his ground: ‘It is neither priest nor treason that you seek for, but only blood.’

Well, perhaps.

All the sources agree that Southwell had only been in the house a few hours before Topcliffe and his men arrived. He had been preaching to the gathered family, perhaps leading them in prayer, when they heard Topcliffe’s men approaching outside.

Southwell hastily gathered together the sacred furniture – canopy and altar, candles and cruets – that comprised the holy sanctuary, and dashed for the hidden chamber, while the servants of the house bartered for time, delaying Topcliffe’s entry at the door.

When the servants relented at the door, Topcliffe rushed in, men at his side, ‘breathing out threatenings and slaughter’.

The master of the house was absent and Topcliffe was met by Mrs Bellamy.

He demanded to know where the priest was. He used the name Cotton, the alias Southwell was travelling under, but he certainly knew the real identity of his prey.

‘Indeed,’ Mrs Bellamy said. ‘What priest are you shouting for? And with what useless alarms are you going about to make fools of us?’

‘Thou knowest that they are not vain today,’ said Topcliffe.

He asked to be shown to the secret room. Mrs Bellamy said she knew of no such place.

‘Then,’ said Topcliffe, ‘I do.’

He made straight for Southwell’s hiding place, secreted behind a trap door in the pavement, ‘secured by the most unobservable fastening’. Topcliffe opened it and called for Southwell – still desperately trying to stash away his sacred furniture – two or three times; then Topcliffe brought him back out, the young priest with red-brown hair, goading and mocking him all the while, strapped him to a horse – a lean and miserable brute, it was said – and rode with him in triumph back to Westminster Yard along the unseasonably wet London roads.

Once in Topcliffe’s custody, Southwell’s hands were shackled while Topcliffe gleefully wrote to Elizabeth enquiring whether it was her pleasure that Southwell be tortured. (I have quoted the letter here.)  We must assume that it was.

Another priest, John Gerard, left a description of one of the more standard methods of torture, and how it felt:

They led me to a great upright beam or pillar of wood which was one of the supports of this vast crypt. At the summit of this column were fixed certain iron staples for supporting weights. Here they placed upon my wrists gauntlets of iron and ordered me to mount upon two or three wicker steps; then, raising my arms, they inserted an iron bar through the rings of the gauntlets and then through the staples in the pillar, putting a pin through the bar so that it could not slip. My arms being thus fixed above my head, they withdrew those wicker steps I spoke of, one my one, from beneath my feet, so that I hung by my hands and arms. The tips of my toes, however, still touched the ground [Gerard was an unusually tall man] so they dug away the ground beneath…

Thus hanging by my wrists, I began to pray, while those gentlemen standing round asked me again and again if I was willing to confess. I replied, ‘I neither can nor will,’ but so terrible a pain began to oppress me that I was scarce able to speak the words. The worst pain was in my breast and belly, my arms and hands. It seemed to me that all the blood in my body rushed up my arms and into my hands; and I was under the impression at the time that the blood actually burst forth from my fingers and at the back of my hands. This was, however, a mistake: the sensation was caused by the swelling of the flesh over the iron that bound it.

I had hung in this way till after one of the clock as I think, when I fainted. How long I was in the faint I know not – perhaps not long; for the men who stood by lifted my up, or replaced those wicker steps under my feet, until I came to myself; and immediately they heard my praying they let me down again. This they did over and over again when the faint came on, eight or nine times before five of the clock…

Early next morning… I went down [again] in a sort of cloak with wide sleeves, for my hands were so swollen that they would not have passed through ordinary sleeves… We descended with the same solemnity as before into the place appointed for torture and again they put the gauntlets on the same parts of my arms as before; indeed they could not be put on in any other part, for the flesh had risen on both sides so that were two hills of flesh with a valley between, and the gauntlets would not meet anywhere but in the valley.

Gerard was tortured in this manner a third time too. It would be three weeks before he could even move his fingers again.

But Southwell, received slightly different attentions. Sir Robert Cecil, who was by now Topcliffe’s putative rackmaster, is said to have expressed the highest admiration for his new style of torturing, as described to Elizabeth, in which the prisoners arms were spread cruciform against the wall before he was suspended. A simple elaboration but apparently effective. It was, Cecil said approvingly, much more painful than the rack.

Southwell claimed at his trial in to have been tortured ten times while in Topcliffe’s care. The accusation was in any case batted away with some indifference by the attorney-general Edward Coke: “Mr Topcliffe has no need to go about to excuse his proceedings in the manner of his torturing,” he said.

Topcliffe and his men would only allow Southwell to rest when he lost consciousness and they feared he might be dying. Then they would take him down, and rouse him by holding burning paper under his nose. He would then vomit blood, after which he was hung up again.

He did not break, however. He was transferred to the squalid Gatehouse after a few days and from there – apparently at the intercession of his father, a protestant whose loyalty to Elizabeth was well known – to the Tower on 28 July. But it wasn’t until 6th April the following year that he admitted his identity to Sir Robert Cecil, and wrote a justification for his presence in England.

He was not tried until 20 February 1595, ‘decayed in memory,’ he said, ‘with long and close imprisonment’. When he pointed out that he was the same age as Jesus when he was crucified, Topcliffe shouted him down.

Southwell – who had expected martyrdom on his return to England – was hanged, drawn and quartered the following day.

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