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  • Writer's pictureMary Allen

Robert Southwell's Hundred Meditations of the Love of God

St Robert Southwell SJ (1561-1595), whose feast day is celebrated 21 February, is one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales canonised in 1970. The youngest of eight children of Norfolk gentry, Southwell was sent to Douai in 1576, where he studied at the French Jesuit College of Anchin. In 1578, he set off on foot to Rome, with the intention of becoming a Jesuit. Although he was at first denied entry to the novitiate, he was eventually admitted to the probation house at Sant’Andrea on 17 October 1578 and in 1580 he joined the Society of Jesus. He was ordained as a Jesuit priest just four years later, in the same year that an act was passed forbidding any English-born subject of Queen Elizabeth who had entered into priests' orders in the Catholic Church since her accession to remain in England longer than forty days on pain of death.

However in 1586, at his own request, Southwell was sent to England with Fr Henry Garnet SJ. After six years of missionary labour, Southwell was caught and arrested by the priest hunter, Richard Topcliffe in 1592 and imprisoned in the Tower of London for three years. In 1595 he was moved to Newgate Prison before his trial, at which he was condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered – the punishment for treason. On 21 February 1595, Robert Southwell was executed at Tyburn.

Today, Southwell is remembered for his poetry and prose. Most of his English works were written between the time of his return to England in 1586 and his capture in 1592. His first full-length English work was An Epistle of Comfort in 1587, which originated as a series of letters written to Philip Howard, the earl of Arundel, who was imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1585. This and other of his religious tracts, A Short Rule of Good Life, Triumphs over Death, and a Humble Supplication to Queen Elizabeth, circulated in manuscript, while Mary Magdalen's Funeral Tears was openly published in 1591. It proved to be very popular, going through ten editions by 1636. After his death, St Peter’s Complaint and several other of his poems also appeared in print and went through several editions before 1636.

Front cover of a book. It is a dark red with gold lettering and gold Jesuit insignia in the centre
Morris' 'Meditations'

One work, however, has caused some confusion over the last century or so. At Stonyhurst College is a 17th century manuscript volume containing A Hundred Meditations of the Love of God. The transcriber dedicates it to “the Lady Beauchampe” and writes that the discourses were “written with Mr. Robert Southwell’s own hand”. A second, contemporary, copy but in a different hand was purchased around the turn of the last century from a London bookseller and has been, for at least the last 90 years, at Farm Street.

When Fr John Morris SJ (1826-1893) printed the Meditations in 1873, he took for granted, as everyone else had, that the author was Robert Southwell. It now seems, however, that the work owes its authorship to a Spanish Franciscan. The discovery was made by Fr Charles Newdigate SJ (1863-1942), who found “a shabby old duodecimo in the dust of a top shelf of the Farm Street library” (writing in The Month, November 1925) with a remarkably similar title: Reverendi Patris Fratris Didaci Stellae Minoritani De Amore Dei Meditationes Piissimae. The title page went on to say that, having been first translated from Spanish into French, the work had now been translated from French into Latin by the priest and theologian Joannes Governerius, and was imprinted at Cologne in 1603. There were a hundred of these Meditationes, and “a very hasty inspection sufficed to show that they were, in Latin, precisely the same hundred meditations which the Ven. Robert Southwell was supposed to have given us in English.” Which version had come first?

Diego de Estella (1524-1578) was a Spanish Franciscan friar, a preacher and confessor to King Philip II. The First edition of the Meditations, of which there is a copy at the British Library, appeared in Salamanca in 1576 when Southwell was only 16 years old, pointing to de Estella as the original author. The Italian version, by Fr Gianbattista Peruschi SJ, was first printed at Florence in 1585. The date of the French translation by Gabriel Chapuys is unknown.

The "shabby old duodecimo", Joannes Governerius' Latin translation of the Meditations, with a note in Fr Newdigate's hand

Southwell could not have seen the Latin version, which was printed in 1602, after his death. According to Newdigate, “apart even from the date, a comparison of the Latin and English texts proves their independence; for the Latin translator or his printer has thought good, for some unexplained reason, to mutilate the closing chapters of the book to the extent of many pages, which are found entire in the English translation.” It is therefore most likely that Southwell’s Meditations is a translation of Peruschi’s Italian text, which appeared the year before he started for the English mission, and was in a language with which he was familiar. “In the richness of its vocabulary and the raciness of its Elizabethan idiom it is quite unlike most modern translations, and worthy of the pen of the martyr-poet who was a contemporary of Shakespeare.”

Meditatio I: Howe every thinge created inviteth us to the love of the Creator

So although Southwell’s Hundred Meditations cannot be treated as an original composition, it goes far beyond a literal translation. “The important point”, wrote Pierre Janelle (Robert Southwell the Writer, 1935), “is that he handled his original with a certain amount of freedom, and altered its literary character appreciably; that in fact, where he found a plain, unpretentious text … he took great pains to improve its cadence and harmony. He thus manifested his subtle sense of the fitness of the English language for the dignified expression of devotional feeling, and succeeded in giving his translation that fullness and stateliness, which is mostly known to us through the sober majesty of the Book of Common Prayer.”

If you are interested in the works of Robert Southwell, the archives also hold the Waldegrave Manuscript, a contemporary volume of prose and poems, as well as early printed volumes of his works. Please contact us for more information.

You can listen to a series of readings and reflections on the Hundred Meditations below.

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