Margaret Clitherow was a medieval butcher's wife who was born in York in the mid-1550s. She married John Clitherow in 1571, and they lived in the Shambles, a famous street which was the centre of the butchers' trade. About two years after her marriage, she converted to Catholicism, which was to be her undoing.
A Whistle-stop Tour Through Religion in Reformation England
At the time, England was a Protestant country, although it had been Catholic until fairly recently. The rivalry between the two religions for supremacy resulted in a great deal of violence. Henry VIII, father of Queen Elizabeth I, sovereign at the time, had changed England's religion from Catholicism to Protestantism. This was continued by his short-lived son and successor, Edward VI. Edward was soon succeeded by his elder sister, Queen Mary, who changed the country's religion back to Catholicism and persecuted those who stayed Protestant. When she died, her younger sister Elizabeth became queen, and she changed the national religion back to Protestantism. Are you still with me? Good.
Under Elizabeth, Catholic worship was mostly tolerated so long as it was private, not public, and the people involved publicly conformed to Protestantism. The authorities would not stand for the harbouring of Catholic priests, which they considered subversive.
John Mush, a Catholic priest who spent a great deal of time with Margaret, wrote of her martyrdom to encourage other Catholics to hold firm in their faith - it was a propaganda tool.
Margaret was immensely pious. She spent hours every day in prayer and aided priests wherever possible, helping them to hide and receiving mass from them. She fasted for four days a week. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays she ate only one meal during the whole day, and no meat. On Fridays, she ate only bread. Her husband, John, appears to have been unaware of her activities. She even sent their eldest son away to France to study Catholicism without his knowledge, in the hope that the boy would one day become a priest.
Margaret's stepfather, Henry May, was on the rise politically - he later became York's lord mayor - and his flagrantly Catholic stepdaughter was an embarrassment. His position may have protected her from earlier punishment, but her mother, May's wife, died in June 1585, which may have allowed her stepfather to act to remove her.
On 10 March, 1585 the Council of the North1 called John Clitherow to explain the absence of his son abroad. It appears that this was in fact just a ruse to get him out of the house so it could be searched. Margaret was arrested.
The authorities threatened a young Flemish boy who worked for the Clitherows, and he showed them where Catholic items were kept in the house.
On 14 March, Margaret was brought before assize judges and indicted for offences including hearing mass and harbouring priests (considered to be traitors). She refused to plead despite the fact that she would have most likely won any trial, as the only evidence against her was the testimony of a child. She also refused to attend Protestant sermons.
One reason why she refused to plead, Mush suggests, was that the only witnesses against her were her servants and family, and she wished to spare them the harrowing job of testifying against her. She told them she did not believe she had committed an offence, and therefore no trial was required.
The judges were forced to pass sentence, and Margaret was condemned to death. She was pleased with the verdict and delighted at having the opportunity to die for her beliefs. But her husband wept.
Margaret thought she was pregnant and was accordingly examined by women who confirmed this, as far as they could tell. Margaret would not confirm or deny her condition, despite being urged to say she was pregnant, as this would have spared her life. The sentence passed down was that she was to be stripped and placed on the ground under a door, which would then have rocks added to it until she was pressed to death. It would be gruesome and extremely painful.
Aware of the powerful symbolism the execution would entail, the authorities refused to allow it to take place at Knavesmire2, which was the usual site for such executions, including those of a number of other Catholic martyrs.
Margaret gave out alms on the way to her place of execution, and on arrival began to pray. Her Protestant executors asked her to pray with them, but she refused.
The women attending to her begged that she be allowed to stay clothed, but were forced to undress her. Margaret lay down and her hands were tied to posts on either side of her. A fist-sized sharp stone was placed under her back and weight was added to the door. Eventually, she died.
Catholics saw her as having been extremely brave and treated her as a martyr. She was canonised by Pope Paul VI in 1970, and is the patron saint of the Catholic Women's League. What was believed to be her house on the Shambles was turned into a small public shrine to her, although it is now thought the actual house was further down the street.