The Story of St. Margaret Clitherow
She was a devoted wife and mother and well known for her happy and generous nature. In 1586 she was alleged to have hidden Jesuit priests in her house in the Shambles and allowed Mass to be said. The authorities decided that she should be put to death and, on 17th March 1586, she was martyred. The night before she died, she sent her hat to her husband as a sign of her loving duty to him. St. Margaret Clitherow’s house in the Shambles is now a shrine and Mass is said there every Saturday.
About four hundred years ago, in York there lived a family called Middleton. Thomas Middleton was a wax chandler, and his wife’s name was Jane. They had two sons, Thomas and Robert, and two girls Alice and Margaret. Margaret was probably born about 1553, and was one of the younger children. When Margaret was five Queen Elizabeth came to the throne and made England a Protestant country. A law was passed forbidding the Mass, and so Margaret’s father and mother became Protestants, and brought up their children in the new church.
Margaret, like every other girl in those days was taught how to bake bread, brew ale, supervise the weavers and tailors, run a house, and to manage her husbands business while he was away. However she was not taught to read.
When Margaret was eleven her father became one of two sheriffs of the city of York. In 1567, when Margaret was fourteen her father died. Her mother remarried shortly latter, to Henry Maye who did not have a lot of money nor a high position within the society. Thanks to his wife, he prospered and became Lord Mayor of York.
When Margaret married John Clitherow she was a beautiful young woman with a mass of light brown hair and a clear skin. She had a gaiety and an irrepressible sense of humour. John was a wealthy butcher, the one Protestant out of three brothers.
Men like John Clitherow were known as “schismatic” or “church Papists”. This is because in obedience to the law they attended English services, whilst secretly preferring the Catholic religion. To openly confess to being a Catholic would mean fines and possibly imprisonment for not attending English services. It would also mean they could hold no position in their society, and their business may face ruin. Therefore it often was the case that a husband would conform, whilst his wife did not, although Jane died before he began his year of office.
After their marriage they lived in the Shambles in York, which still exists today. The shop was on the ground floor, and the family lived in the rooms behind and above. It was there that she gave birth to her three children, Henry, Anne, and William.
Her husband John meanwhile, did not stop her work, nor did he leave her without money.
Margaret was imprisoned many times and she realised that prisoners might stave to death if no outside relative or friend came to their aid, and so she gave generously to prisoners and their families.
During one of her imprisonment’s she learn to read and this made her determined to have her own children educated.
Such was Margaret’s burning enthusiasm for her religion she kept nothing hidden from her children. They all knew of the secret cupboard where the priest vestments were stored, the altar breads, and the priest hole in their home. It was this openness which brought about her final arrest.
As Her husbands concern for her grew so too did that of fellow Catholics who warned her to take greater care and not receive the priests into her home. Margaret began to realise it was the beginning of the end when John was summoned by the Council to explain the prolonged absence of his eldest son, Henry who had been sent abroad to receive a Catholic education two years earlier.
One day, while the Council was questioning John, the Sheriff arrived to search the house. Their tutor Mr Stapleton made his escape out of the window and down through the house next door. Margaret’s own children gave nothing away. However they seized a foreign boy who looked weak. He gave way under their rough handling and threats, showing the Sheriff everything, including the vestments and priest hole.
Margaret was immediately arrested and imprisoned. Her children never saw her again. Her servants and children were also arrested and confined separately and were not allowed to return home to John until Margaret’s death.
Her daughter Anne was placed “in ward” in the hands of Protestants and subjected to harsh treatment to made her go to church. It was after Margaret’s death that she was told she would have saved her mother’s life if she had yielded and went to church. When she learned of the cruel trick they had played on her she refused to go again and never once gave in. In fact poor Anne never settled down at home after her mother’s death. At fourteen years old she ran away but was caught and imprisoned in Lancaster until she was eighteen. Her father had remarried and procured her release by promising to convince her of the truth of the Protestant religion. Nothing could shake her and after three years she slipped out of the country and entered the convent of the Austin’s Canonesses of Luain – St. Ursulas.
Margaret’s sons William and Henry remained strong in their faith too, both becoming priests.
The Council of the North had become intent on seeking evidence against Margaret as she was greatly loved and respected by everyone who knew her. They were further confused by Margaret herself. She was not fearful and intimidated by the situation; she was courageous, merry and smiling before the council. She kept saying “I know of no offence whereof I should confess myself guilty”.
She was subjected to much verbal abuse, scoffing, jeering, situation and misquoting. John Clitherow would not hear a word against her saying “she is the best wife in England, and the best Catholic also.”
She received her death sentence calmly. Despite expecting to be hanged, as she refused to give evidence or to plead, she was sentenced to the “peen forte et dure” which is to be laid naked on the stone floor of an underground cell, a door placed over her and then weights would be piled on the door.
During her last days she stitched a plain white linen robe to wear at her death. She sent her bonnet to her husband “in sign of her loving duty to him as to her head”. Her shoes and stockings she sent to her daughter Anne admonishing her “to serve God and follow in her steps.”
She prayed constantly and would not be bribed for a speedy death. Four sergeants could not bring themselves to carry out the execution and so four beggars were hired. At the toll both Margaret refused to pray, but when ordered to pray she prayed that the Queen might turn to the Catholic faith.
As the hired beggars began to lay the weights upon her, she was heard to say “Jesu! Jesu! Jesu! Have mercy on me!” These were her last words and a quarter of an hour later she was dead. The sheriffs arranged a burial to take place secretly, in waste ground, hoping that it would never be identified. Six weeks later a group of Catholics located her grave and were able to open it. The found her body still uncorrupted, Two weeks later after embalming her, she was reburied. The secret of her burial place was so closely guarded that it is now lost. A hand, which was detached before her final burial, is now one of the most precious treasures of the Bar Convent in York.