This dusk-dim room with windows deep embedded,
These breathing walls, carved cupboards, sloping floor,
Formed loom for her wed life so gaily threaded,
Shrill-sweet with children tumbling at the door.
- A York Shrine, D. Douglas Lord
- A York Shrine, D. Douglas Lord
In the Shambles, the old butcher street in York, there is an inconspicuous house with a green, oval, cross-marked plate at its door, telling the passers-by that this house is the shrine St. Margaret Clitherow. During my student days in York I walked through the Shambles several times and I noticed both the sign there and the one in Newgate Market, but although I often thought I should visit the shrine it soon escaped my memory altogether. Consequently it was not until my return to York in September of last year that I sought out the shrine of Margaret Clitherow and stopped there to pray and learn about the saint's history.
Margaret was born to the chandler Thomas Middleton and his wife Jane in 1553, and she was baptised in St Martin-le-Grand on Coney Street. That same year King Edward VI was succeeded by his half-sister Mary Tudor who attempted to bring England back into the Catholic fold after her father's break with Rome. Her campaign was not well-received, owing in large part to the burning of about three hundred Protestants on the grounds of heresy. It was this mass execution that earned her the nickname Bloody Mary, and the Catholic faith was more unpopular than ever before as a consequence.
Margaret grew up in Elizabethan England, an increasingly Protestant kingdom where Catholics eventually were prohibited from holding mass or do mission work. She married the widowed butcher John Clitherow in 1571 in the same church where she was baptised. John was a Protestant whose brother was a Catholic priest and Margaret converted to the forbidden faith in 1574, seemingly with her husband's compliance. Two years later conversion to Catholicism, recusancy, became a treasonable offence. Margaret opened her house to Caholic prests and masses were held there clandestinely. Although these services remained secret for quite some time Margaret's faith was not unknown and in the years 1577-84 she was imprisoned for her Catholicism several times.
When Margaret was not in prison she secretly instructed local children in the Catholic faith and continued to shelter priests and hold masses. Several of the priests she harboured eventually became martyrs for the faith by hanging, and it is said Margaret conducted secret pilgrimages to pray by the gibbet.
In January 1586 her stepfather Henry May became Lord Mayor of York. Henry was dedicated to the policies of the Council of the North, a council centred in York and established in the time of Henry VIII to persecute Catholicism which remained very strong in Yorkshire throughout the 16th century. In the first year of his mayoralty Henry May rounded up and punished a number of recusants, among whom were his stepdaughter Margaret. She was charged for harbouring Jesuits and other Catholic priests and for having her son be trained as a priest in Douai. On 14 March 1586, four days after her arrest, she was trialed at the Guild Hall where she refused to plead, because if she did the witnesses - the little children and the servants she had schooled in the faith - would be guilty of her condemnation too. The penalty for not pleading was peine forte et dure, a method of execution where the sentenced was placed under for example a door and stones were heaped upon it until the sentenced died. The following day she was held in prison on Ouse Bridge until March 25 when she was executed in this manner at the Ouse Bridge toll booth. Her last words are reported to have been "Jesu, Jesu, Jesu, have mercy on me!"
After her exection Margaret's body was buried beside a city dunghill. Six weeks later she was exhumed by a group of Catholics who carried the body away and gave it a Christian burial. Centuries later, October 1970, she was canonised by Pope Paul VI in the basilica of St. Peter's in Rome and she became the patron saint of the Catholic Women's League. Her right hand is currently preserved at the Bar Convent at York, and a statue of her can be found in the Church of St. Wilfrid.