St John Southworth is one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales who paid the ultimate price for his faith. Visitors to the Cathedral of Westminster often ask about the casket which is currently in the Holy Souls Chapel. Part of the work of the Guild of Saint John Southworth is to tell the story of this much loved Westminster priest.
Saint John Southworth is often referred to as a ‘Parish Priest of Westminster’ who welcomed everyone. Yet, he wasn’t really a parish priest in the traditional sense but a priest who came to this area of Westminster and, under threat of death, continued to serve and help the poor – notably during the plague years of the early 17th century.
He was not a Londoner but came from a Lancashire family who lived at Samlesbury Hall near Preston. He is thought to have been born in 1592. He studied for the priesthood and was ordained priest in 1618 at the English College, Douai in Northern France.
He was sent to minister to English Catholics and under the penal laws in force at the time was arrested in 1626 in Lancashire. He was condemned to death and imprisoned first in Lancaster Castle, and afterwards in the Clink Prison, London.
During the plague of 1636 we have accounts of him in the area of Westminster, administering the sacraments and comforting the sick and the dying.
Following the execution of King Charles I and the establishment of the Commonwealth, laws against Catholics were more vigorously enforced. In 1654, an informer told the authorities that a Catholic priest was working in Westminster. Commonwealth soldiers arrested Saint John Southworth.
He was tried at the Old Bailey. There was little evidence against him and friends advised him to deny being a priest – however he would not deny his priesthood and was condemned to be hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn on the 28 June.
We have a detailed record of the Saint John Southworth‘s gallow speech. He went to his brutal death with great bravery.
“This gallows I look on as His cross which I gladly take to follow my dear Saviour,”
he said. The Spanish ambassador bought the body from the executioner and the corpse was sewn together, embalmed and returned to Douai.
When England and France went to war in 1793 St John Southworth’s coffin, along with other holy relics, was buried beneath the seminary, in the kilns for protection. It was subsequently lost and not discovered again until 1927.
Fr Purdie, a Westminster priest, was sent by Cardinal Bourne from England to receive and identify the remains, which were brought initially to St Edmund’s College, Ware. On April 30th 1930 his relics were brought first to the convent at Tyburn and then, on 1st May, to Westminster Cathedral.
John Southworth was beatified in 1929 and declared a saint just over 40 years later in 1970. His reliquary, previously in the Chapel of St George and the English Martyrs, can be now found in the Holy Souls chapel. Especially for his feast today, though, you can find the Saint John Southworth’s relics at the centre of the Cathedral.
For further details on the Guild of St John Southworth please contact Anne Marie Micallef on 0207 931 6067 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.