The City of York is one the major tourist destinations of England, perhaps rivalled by Oxford or Stonehenge but by few other places outside London. Long stretches of the medieval city wall survive, and small patches of Roman masonry, as well as one of Europe’s great Gothic cathedrals (York Minster), more medieval stained glass than can be seen in any other place on earth, and countless lesser buildings dating back to Tudor and Stuart times. The grand, neo-classical Assembly Rooms (where balls would have been held in Jane Austen’s time) now house a pizza restaurant, and the Archaeology Department of York University is based in King’s Manor, a royal mansion in the Tudor style where the Council of the North once met. There is an entire street, The Shambles, that has changed little in 400 years. The timber-framed houses lurch upwards and forwards, each storey up jutting a couple of feet further into the street than the one below. One of these timber-framed houses was once the home of Margaret Clitherow, the Pearl of York, one of England’s best known saints.
Born in 1556, by the age of 18, when she was reconciled to the Catholic Church, Margaret was the wife of a prosperous butcher and the stepdaughter of a local bigwig. Once a Catholic, she rapidly became a pillar of the Catholic underground in the city. She ran clandestine catechism classes for local children, but she was also in and out of prison for refusing to attend Anglican church services on Sundays (as required by the 1559 Act of Uniformity). In the reign of Elizabeth it was death to be a Catholic priest in England, and in August 1582 James Thompson was arrested in York and admitted to being a priest. He was hanged outside the city on 28 November. Margaret venerated him as a martyr (he was beatified as such in 1886). A new priest, John Mush, arrived in York in 1583, followed by Francis Ingleby in 1584. By this time Margaret had had a priest hole built in her home, and when her house came under surveillance she rented a property where the priests could hide. The typical image of those sheltering priests is of Catholic gentry on their country estates, rather than a butcher’s wife in the centre of a bustling city. In 1585, Parliament passed a law making it a hanging offence to harbour ‘seminary priests’. Margaret’s stepfather was now the mayor of York, and was politically compromised by his stepchild’s known disaffection from the established church. In 1586 she was arrested and brought to trial in a test case of the new law.
Historians who have worked on the case take the view that the intention was to make her back down and sue for mercy, allowing the regime to look stern but benevolent. Things did not work out that way. Far from confessing her wrongdoing and throwing herself on the mercy of the court, she refused to recognise the court’s authority over her conscience and twice refused to plead to the indictment. Those familiar with the play (or the film) The Crucible will know that a man called Giles Corey was crushed under a door for refusing to plead in the Salem witch trials. This was the Common Law practise, inherited from the Middle Ages, to force defendants to recognise the authority of a court and answer to the question “Guilty or not guilty?” It was also to be Margaret Clitherow’s fate. “This way to heaven is as short as any other,” she is reported to have said. On 25 March 1586, she was stripped, bound, and laid flat on the ground with a sharp stone under her back. A door was placed on top of her (in one account her own front door), and weights were piled on until she died.
Most of what we know of her comes from a biography by John Mush, one of the priests she hid. This was not printed in full until 1849, as The Life and Death of Margaret Clitherow, the Martyr of York, but as early as 1619 An Abstracte of the Life and Martirdome of Mistres Margaret Clitherowe was published in Belgium. Shortly after her death somebody removed her hand as a relic, and a century or more later this was gifted to the Bar Convent in York, which was then a secret establishment of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, running a clandestine school (it is now the oldest convent in England). In York last November with a group of students, I was able to use a couple of hours off to visit the chapel and venerate the relic.
I had vague memories of watching a BBC dramatization of Margaret Clitherow’s story 30 or 35 years ago, but online searches indicate that my memory must be at fault. The only BBC dramatization I can find any record of was a 1982 radio play. The search did, however, turn up this 2010 Woman’s Hour interview with one of the IBVM sisters and with an ecclesiastical historian (starting around 32 minutes in). It is well worth a listen.
Like Week 22’s John Kemble, Margaret Clitherow was canonized by Pope Paul VI on 25 October 1970, as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. The Pope ended his homily on that occasion with a prayer that seems to prefigure Benedict XVI’s erection of the Anglican ordinariate:
May the blood of these Martyrs be able to heal the great wound inflicted upon God’s Church by reason of the separation of the Anglican Church from the Catholic Church. . . . There will be no seeking to lessen the legitimate prestige and the worthy patrimony of piety and usage proper to the Anglican Church when the Roman Catholic Church – this humble “Servant of the Servants of God” – is able to embrace her ever beloved Sister in the one authentic communion of the family of Christ: a communion of origin and of faith, a communion of priesthood and of rule, a communion of the Saints in the freedom and love of the Spirit of Jesus. Perhaps we shall have to go on, waiting and watching in prayer, in order to deserve that blessed day. But already we are strengthened in this hope by the heavenly friendship of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales who are canonized today. Amen.Paul Arblaster is my second oldest internet acquaintance (The oldest is Mary who also comments on this blog.). He has also written about St. Anthony, St. Cuthbert, Margaret, St. Kizito, and St. Peter Ascanus for this series.
If you want to see all of the posts in this series, click HERE.