The Chapel of Saint George and the English Martyrs in Westminster Cathedral, London is a moving testament to those who were brutally executed for their Catholic faith. Many were priests working clandestinely to minister to believers during the reigns of Elizabeth the First, James the First, Charles the First and Charles the Second.
Edmund Bonner, Bishop of London – “I possess three things, soul, body and property; of the last two you can dispose at your pleasure. But as to my soul, God alone can command me.” He died in the Tower of London during the reign of Elizabeth the First.
St John Southworth was born in 1592 into a recusant family: the Southworths of Samlesbury Hall near Preston in Lancashire. He entered the English College at Douai in 1613 and was ordained to the priesthood in April 1618, returning to England in December of that year. He ministered first in London and then his native county of Lancashire. It was there in 1627 that he was arrested tried and Condemned to death for exercising his priesthood. Following a reprieve at the intervention of Queen Henrietta Maria, he was transferred from Lancaster Castle to the Clink prison in London in 1630. He remained a prisoner there for the next 20 years although for much of that time he was effectively on parole working amongst the Catholic poor in the parishes of St Giles, Holborn and St Margaret’s Westminster. He was especially renowned for his ministry to the sick and the dying even during the plague years of 1636 to 1637.
He was he was arrested again in 1654 and brought to trial accused of being a Catholic priest. The judge advised him that, as there was no proof of his priesthood, a plea of ‘not guilty’ would ensure his release. John Southworth refused to enter this plea on the grounds that to do so would harm the faith of all those to whom he had ministered. Consequently he was found guilty and condemned to death for a second time, and on June 28th 1654 aged 62 he was taken to the gallows at Tyburn when he was hung drawn and quartered.
His body was bought for 40 guineas by the Spanish Ambassador, embalmed, sewn back together and smuggled from England back to Douai where it quickly became the focus of a cult. During the French Revolution the College was closed and the body of John Southworth was secretly buried to avoid its theft. In 1927 the old buildings of the College were demolished to make way for a new road system and the lead coffin containing his body was discovered. The body was returned to England in 1929 and was taken to St Edmunds College, Ware. On 30th of April 1930 John Southworth was brought to Westminster Cathedral and solemnly enshrined in St George’s Chapel in the presence of all the Bishops of England and Wales. He had returned to the very place where he had so faithfully exercised his ministry among the Catholic people of Westminster. Canonized as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales on 25th of October 1970, St John Southworth in a particular way continues his ministry.