The Body of a Martyr
In the Archdiocese of Westminster, today is the memoria of St John Southworth (1592-1654), one of the many martyr priests who lived and died in London during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Originally from Lancashire (always a strongly Catholic area), he is particularly remembered for working with the plague stricken in London during the epidemic of 1636. In this demanding work, he was joined by another future martyr, St Henry Morse (known as the 'Priest of the Plague'). Southworth was arrested several times, and on one occasion released at the intercession of Queen Henrietta Maria. He was finally condemned to death during the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell and hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn on 28th June 1654. Southworth is singled out in our diocesan calendar because his body was re-discovered in 1927 and moved to a special shrine in Westminster Cathedral (see picture above).The story of his body is as fascinating as that of his life. After the execution, the martyr's body was sent overseas thanks to the Howard family and ended up at the English College, Douai, where it was buried beneath St Augustine’s altar. There the martyr remained for nearly a century and a half, the centre of a local cult. In May 1793, as the College community prepared to return to England as a result of the Revolution, the body was hidden beside the malt kilns used for making the College beer. Two other great College treasures were hidden in a wooden box that was buried eight feet away from the body: part of the hairshirt of St Thomas Becket and the biretta of St Charles Borromeo. Sadly the College never returned to France and the Douai buildings were sold in 1834 for use as a barracks. In 1927, as workmen were demolishing the old buildings, Southworth's leaden coffin was discovered, with his well preserved body inside. We have some amazing photos of the body in the Archives, showing his head (complete with Cardinal Richelieu-style moustache) sewn onto his body. X-rays revealed that the body had been quartered: 'the head had been cut off probably with an axe or chopper, and both legs had similarly been severed: there was a violent cut through the dorsal vertebrae, and the pelvis was irregularly broken in two.' The wooden box containing the other relics was also found. Unfortunately, in their hope of finding hidden treasure of a different kind, the French workmen threw away what they assumed to be a bit of old cloth. Thus the hairshirt of Becket was irretrievably lost. However, three pieces of St Charles' biretta were saved and are now kept at St Edmund's College, Ware (Hertfordshire). The rediscovery of Southworth's body was, indeed, providential. He was beatified by Pius XI on 15 December 1929, together with 135 other martyrs, and his body solemnly translated to Westminster Cathedral in 1930. His body now rests near the streets in which he laboured, especially during those difficult times of plague.