St. Margaret Clitherow

(1556-1586)

Among the Catholic martyrs of the English Reformation, St. Margaret Clitherow stands out like a pearl, as her name implies (Margarita = pearl).

She was born Margaret Middleton, and she was a native of Yorkshire, where Catholicism long remained stronger than the government of Queen Elizabeth I desired. Thomas, her father, was a wealthy and prominent citizen of York.

In 1571, Margaret wed John Clitherow, a stock raiser and butcher, and a man of civic prominence. Margaret had been raised a Protestant, but became a Catholic around 1573. John had been raised a Catholic, but since he could not be a Catholic and hold public office, he conformed to the established Anglican church. He had only two complaints about this wife: that she had fasted too much, and that she would not go to the state church with him. To his credit, however, this easygoing man let Margaret do whatever she wanted regarding the Catholic faith, even if it meant risk for him as well.

Mrs. C. was a loyal wife and an able business assistant. But after her conversion, she also made every effort to draw closer to God. She established a devotional regime in her own household. Family and servants, Catholics or non-Catholics, began their daily routine with 90 minutes of private prayer and meditation. Then, if a missionary priest was available, there would be Mass. Margaret also went to confession twice a week whenever possible. In these days of persecution, several Yorkshire priests had been hanged for their priesthood at Knavesmire outside the walls of York. Margaret and her friends often went boldly to Knavesmire gallows on pilgrimage. Some of the priests who had died there she had known well, like BB. James Thompson, William Hart and Richard Thirkeld.

When the government began to enforce Anglican Church attendance and forbade the Catholic Mass, her friends urged Margaret to be more circumspect about trying to make converts, rescue backsliders and protect priests. More than once her husband had to pay fines for her nonattendance at Anglican worship. Once she was imprisoned for two years. She also gave birth to one of her children while in jail on this account. But Mistress Clitherow turned her jail terms into prolonged spiritual retreats.

A greater risk still was her sheltering missionary priests. All Catholic priests were technically outlaws, and both they and their protectors were punishable by death. These laws merely encouraged Margaret to greater zeal. She provided room in her own home for Mass, and a hideaway for priests in case of raids; and she also obtained other alternative downtown Mass places. This handsome and competent woman undertook all such risks bravely and cheerfully. Even her Protestant servants admired her too much to betray her.

Finally, however, on March 10, 1586, the police swooped down on the Clitherow house. The family was out, but the constabulary frightened a foster child into showing them the priests’ hiding hole and the chalices and Mass books. They then arrested Margaret.

As soon as she knew that her children were safe, she went off “merrily” to jail. This time she knew she faced death. So when asked whether she pleaded guilty or not guilty, she refused to answer. Had she pled either way, there would have been a jury trial. That would have meant that her children and servants would have been subpoenaed and put into the dilemma of either betraying fellow Catholics or lying in her defense. She would have allowed neither. Unfortunately English law had a cruel penalty for non-pleading: the “peine forte et dure” – crushing to death. Margaret welcomed this fate with prayerful gratitude: “I am not worthy of so good a death as this!”

So they laid this courageous mother on the ground with arms outstretched and tied down, and a sharp stone under her back. Then they put a large door on top of her and piled upon it 700-800 pounds of weights. Death came after 15 minutes.

Margaret had bequeathed her shoes and stockings to her daughter as a parable to follow in her footsteps. The daughter became a nun. Two sons also became priests. Countless Catholics of her acquaintance likewise took courage from Margaret’s good-humored but heroic defense of the faith. Canonized a saint in 1970, St. Margaret Clitherow fully deserves her title “the pearl of York”.

What would we have done in her position?

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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