One of the most fascinating aspects of this saint is the movement of his body since his execution at Tyburn in 1654. It was delivered to a member of the Duke of Norfolk’s family and then transferred to Douai (where Fr Southworth trained to be a priest) for burial. Other accounts say that the Spanish Ambassador bought his mangled body from the hangman and had it stitched together then sent to the College in France. The body was venerated up to the time of the French Revolution. When war broke out between the Jacobin Government and England after the execution of Louis XVI, a mob of citizens invaded the English College at Douai and seized numerous items. In 1926, the old buildings of the College, which had been used for various purposes since 1793, were pulled down to make way for developments. During the excavations, a laden coffin was found with Fr Southworth’s body in it. Near to the coffin, the hair-shirt of St Thomas of Canterbury and the scarlet biretta of St Charles Borromeo were found. The news quickly got back to England and the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster attempted to recover the martyr’s body. Eventually, a Rev Albert Purdie brought the body back to English shores. A hearse took it from Dover to St Edmund’s College, Ware. At the end of April 1930, it was taken to Westminster Cathedral and rested in the Chapel of St George in front of hundreds of priests and people. The body still lies encased in the Cathedral today.
John was born in 1592 into the staunchly Catholic Southworth family of Samlesbury Hall in Preston. His father had paid heavy fines for refusing to attend Protestant services and had even spent time in jail for harbouring St Edmund Campion at the Hall. John was sent to Douai at the age of 21 and educated there before being ordained in 1618.
Sent on the English Mission in October 1619, he initially served in his native county of Lancashire. But Fr John was arrested and condemned to death in 1627. He was first imprisoned at Lancaster Castle, where he gave the last rites to Jesuit Edmund Arrowsmith - who was to become another of the 40 martyrs – as he was being led away for execution. In April 1630, Fr Southworth was transferred to the Clink, London but a month later was released along with 15 other priests through the intervention of Queen Henrietta Maria, the wife of Charles I, who achieved reprieves for many condemned Catholic priests. They were delivered to the French Ambassador for banishment and were duly transported abroad. But despite the dangers, the determined priest returned to England a few years later.
Arrested numerous times after his return, it was then that Fr Southworth began to organise plague relief for the recusant poor of Westminster. Much of the work was done whilst he was on daily parole as a prisoner in the Clink.
As the outbreak of Civil War struck, the enforcement of the penal laws against "popish" priests was stepped up under Oliver Cromwell. Southworth’s final apprehension in 1654 was to be the final straw. Dragged from his bed one night by Colonel Worsley, the faithful priest fully admitted that he had exercised the duties of Holy Orders since his last release from prison.
During his trial at the Old Bailey, he insisted on pleading "guilty" to being a priest. Despite the reluctance of the Recorder of London, Serjeant Steel, he was sentenced to death.
On June 28, the 62-year-old was dragged to Tyburn on a sledge in mud and sludge. Despite a great storm, thousands came to watch his execution, including a number of gentry seated in horse-drawn carriages.
Unlike many of the martyrs, Fr Southworth was permitted to make a long speech at the gallows whilst wearing his vestments. In it he confessed that he was a great sinner for his offences against God but that he was innocent of any sin against the Commonwealth and the Government. After his speech was cut short and asking the Catholics in the crowd to pray fore him, he shut his eyes and prayed quietly. Then the trapdoor opened he was hanged, drawn and quartered.
Despite being imprisoned and released numerous times in a constantly changing political climate, Fr Southworth was defiant in his loyalty to serve the people of God in England. He was clearly respected amongst Catholics – peasants and nobility alike. His work amongst the sufferers of the deadly plague clearly identifies him as a saint to pray to for those with, and caring for, contagious diseases. The care and consideration taken by the Roman Catholic hierarchy in England to recover his body highlights the sacredness of saints’ relics, particularly those of the Reformation. These we must venerate at every possible opportunity and use to pray to Our Lord through the intercession of the saints.
Saint John Southworth, Pray For Us.