Catholic Martyr and Saint
Plaque on Ouse Bridge
St Margaret Clitherow, Roman Catholic martyr, was born in York, the youngest of four children of Thomas Middleton (d.1567), wax chandler and freeman of York, and his wife, Jane (c.1515-85), daughter of Richard Turner, innkeeper. She was almost certainly baptized at the church of St Martin, Coney Street where her father was churchwarden between 1555 and 1558. She was 18 years old when she married John Clitherow, a widower with two sons, on 1 July 1571.
Clitherow, a prosperous butcher who had become a freeman in 1560, was elected a chamberlain in 1574. Upon her marriage, Margaret moved to the Shambles, the butchers’ street in York, where she assisted her husband in the business. Although John Mush, who wrote the biography which is the principal source for her life, described her as a ‘plentiful mother’ (Morris, 368), the number of children she had is unknown. In addition to her stepsons, William (1563-1636) and Thomas (d.1604), we know of Henry (b.1572) and Anne (1574-1622). In 1576 she was reportedly pregnant and, in 1581, she was released from prison to give birth but the names of these children and their survival is uncertain.
Conversion to Catholicism
Margaret Clitherow’s life changed immeasurably when she took the bold step of converting to Catholicism about 1574. She was apparently drawn towards the faith by stories of the heroic suffering of priests and lay people for their beliefs. Inspired by their example, Margaret accommodated fugitive priests and provided her neighbours with facilities for regular access to the Catholic sacraments. The high incidence of recusancy in her parish of Christ Church during the 1570s and 1580s perhaps reflects her missionary success. Inevitably her actions drew official censure and from 1576 John Clitherow incurred regular fines for her recusancy. He remained a protestant and is said to have railed against the Catholics when drunk at a banquet, upsetting his wife. He then tried to reassure Margaret that he was not referring to her, since she was a good wife in all but two things: her excessive fasting and her refusal to go to church with him.
Margaret was imprisoned several times for her nonconformist behaviour, serving three separate terms in York Castle (August 1577 – February 1578; October 1580 – April 1581; March 1583- winter 1584). In prison she learned to read and apparently relished the semi-monastic regime of prayer and physical deprivation that incarceration offered. Despite this punishment and increasingly punitive anti-recusancy legislation which in 1585 made harbouring clergy a capital felony, Margaret Clitherow maintained her activities. On 10 March 1586 the Clitherow premises were searched and a frightened child revealed the priest’s secret room replete with items of Catholic worship. The priest was hidden safely in the house next door thus avoiding capture.
Margaret was taken to prison and on 14 March appeared at the assizes charged with harbouring. Although repeatedly asked to plead, she refused trial by jury thereby incurring the penalty of peine forte et dure. During the next week she was visited by protestant preachers and kin who in vain asked her to submit or to admit that she was pregnant and thereby obtain a stay of execution. On 25 March she was taken to the toll booth on Ouse Bridge and pressed to death under 7-8 hundredweight. Six weeks later John Mush and other friends found her body and buried it in an unknown location in accordance with Catholic rites.
Margaret maintained that she died for the Catholic faith attributing her refusal to plead as a device to prevent her children and servants having to testify against her and to protect the souls of the jury who would find her guilty. It is more likely that she wanted to shield other recusants who had assisted her whose identity would inevitably have been revealed at her trial. However, her biographer affirmed that she was attracted to martyrdom which she believed would secure her salvation. Her apparent calm, even joy, at the prospect of death led some contemporaries to suggest she was mad. Indeed she was not without her detractors including her stepfather Henry May, the Lord Mayor of York, who accused her of committing suicide and fuelled rumours of an improper relationship with her confessor. Most people could not comprehend her apparent disregard for her husband and children. To counter such views she sent her hat to her husband, to acknowledge his authority, and her hose and shoes to her daughter, Anne, as a signal that she should follow her mother’s virtuous steps.
After Margaret’s death John Clitherow remarried, still a protestant. However, her children inherited their mother’s recusant legacy. Anne Clitherow ran away from home and was imprisoned at Lancaster on account of her religion in 1593. She became a nun at St Ursula’s in Louvain in 1598. Henry Clitherow studied at the English colleges in Rheims and Rome and temporarily joined the Capuchins in 1592, then the Dominican’s, dying either insane or unconvinced of his vocation. Of her stepsons, William became a seminary priest in 1608 and Thomas, a draper, was imprisoned for recusancy and died in Hull prison in 1604.
Margaret Clitherow was beatified in 1929 and canonized on 25 October 1970 as one of the 40 English martyrs. A relic, said to be her hand, is held at the Bar Convent in York.
- Morris ed., ‘Mr John Mush’s life of Margaret Clitherow’, The troubles of our Catholic forefathers related by themselves, 3, (1877), 333-440
- Mush, An abstracte of the life and martirdome of mistres Margaret Clitherow (1619)
- Claridge, (K. Longley), Margaret Clitherow, 1556?-1586 (1966); completely revised edition as K. Longley, Saint Margaret Clitherow (1986)
Plus other sources listed in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, pp.159/60, author: Claire Walker.
© Pat Hill