Daniel F. McSheffery


Daniel F. McSheffery

You must return from whence you came, and there, in the lowest part of the prison, be stripped naked, laid down, your back on the ground, and as much weight laid upon you as you are able to bear, and so to continue for three days without meat or drink, and on the third day to be pressed to death, your hands and feet tied to posts, and a sharp stone under your back.

These words of condemnation were spoken by a British magistrate of her majesty Queen Elizabeth. On Tuesday, March 15, 1586, in the Court of York, Judge George Clinch condemned to death Margaret Middleton Clitherow, a 33-year-old Yorkshire housewife who was pregnant with her fourth child. Her crime was sheltering Roman priests who were "traitors and seducers of the queen's subjects."

We know many of the details of the life of this heroic martyr, especially her last painful days of imprisonment, from her spiritual director Father John Mush, a seminary priest. Recognizing the holiness of her life and the great inspiration she was to persecuted Catholics throughout Elizabethan England, Mush wrote a detailed biography in the days immediately following her gruesome execution.

Margaret Middleton was born during the last years of the reign of Mary Tudor. Her parents were Thomas and Jane Middleton. Her father was a respected businessman—a candlemaker—in the city of York. One of five children, she was brought up Protestant and like the other girls in the family she was not taught to read or write. This did not mean she was a neglected child but that the closing down of the religious orders had all but destroyed the country's educational system. Few of the girls living in the city of York in those days received any education at all.

Margaret lived in turbulent times. Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558. The vast majority of English people were Catholic and wished to remain Catholic. When the new queen threatened to destroy their Church, they shrugged their shoulders and waited for it to all blow over. It took several years for them to realize, when it was too late, that if they wanted to retain their faith, they must be ready to suffer for it. The law clearly stated that the Mass was outlawed and the whole population was ordered to attend the new services in their parish church.

The Middleton family accepted the new religion and the Queen as the head of the Church. Her father prospered and became sheriff of York. He died when his daughter was 14.

When Margaret was 18, her mother arranged that she marry a Protestant, John Clitherow, who owned his own meat business and became one of the wealthiest men in the city. He was confident that his new wife would join him in worshipping in the Queen's Church.

This she did for the first couple of years of their marriage. At the age of 21, however, the bride returned to the Church of her ancestors and made her profession of faith and allegiance to the Pope of Rome. At the same time John professed his Protestant faith and became a chamberlain in the city of York.

The Clitherow family reacted to this difference of religion in the same way that many of the wealthy families did. The husband conformed to the new religion while his wife did not. Throughout their marriage, John paid her fines for not attending church services, even allowed his wife to bring up their children as Catholics and was very careful not to know if the forbidden Popish Mass was being celebrated in his house.

John was not hostile to the Church. In fact his brother William was ordained a Catholic priest. Like many others in England of his day, the chamberlain of York probably expected the Catholic faith would return before long and he did not want to be completely on the wrong side of the fence if this should happen. So he did make things as easy as he could for his wife. He was careful to ignore the fact that Father Mush was a frequent visitor and obviously was celebrating Mass for Margaret and her friends.

Margaret proved to be a loving wife and mother. She was disturbed by John's protestations of faith in the Queen's religion but she still loved him dearly. Speaking of him in later life she remarked, "Know you, I love him next to God in this world. . . . If I have offended my husband in any way, save for my conscience, I ask of God and him forgiveness." Her husband shared her love. He said that he could wish for no better wife, "except only two faults, and these were, she fasted too much and would not go with him to church."

The Clitherows had three children: Henry, Anne, and the third child William born when she was in prison for failure to attend services at the established church. While in prison, she taught herself to read and write. She always maintained a great rapport with all her children and they grew up as staunch Catholics even though they never knew their mother beyond their twelfth year. Knowing that she could not educate them herself she violated the law by hiring a Catholic tutor, a man named Stapleton. He became responsible for the education of the two younger children and she secretly sent her oldest son to be educated in the Catholic college at Douai in France. She never lived to see the day when her two sons were ordained as priests and her daughter entered religious life.

Her home became one of the most important hiding places for fugitive priests in all of England. The Clitherow house was equipped with a secret cupboard where the vestments, the wine and the altar breads were kept. It also had a "priest's hole" where the fugitive cleric could be hid. When her house was under almost constant surveillance, Margaret hired a room some distance off that also provided a hiding place for the priest. Local tradition among the Yorkshire people said that she also housed her clerical guests right under the noses of the authorities in the Black Swan Inn at Peaseholme Green. Mass, it was said, was celebrated in the inn where the Queen's agents were lodged.

Margaret, meanwhile, was becoming a fearless and very outspoken Catholic.

The government was perturbed by the persistence of so many of the people of Yorkshire in the old faith. The area was far removed from London. For a long time past, the Kings of England had appointed a special body called the Council of the North to carry out the royal policy in this remote area of the land. From the reports of government agents, it was clear that the north was solidly Catholic in sentiment, though not always in outward behavior. The change of religion had to be carried out largely by men who were specially sent down by the government for that purpose.

A child weakened

Those close to the Queen demanded that the Council of the North crack down with strong measures to make an example of the prominent Catholics in the community. On March 10, 1586, the council summoned the Chamberlain of York, John Clitherow and demanded that he explain the absence of his son abroad. This was a bold move because the chamberlain was a well respected member of the Protestant community. He was outraged and refused to give them any information about the whereabouts or activity of his son Henry who had enrolled in the seminary in France.

Margaret was not upset to find out that her husband was summoned. She was sure that the authorities would use the occasion to search their home but she was certain that they would find nothing that would incriminate her or her husband. Mass had been said that morning and the priest had escaped. The faithful Mr. Stapleton was conducting class for a group of children. When the alarm was sounded, the teacher escaped through a window. When the searchers burst open the schoolroom door, they found nothing but a group of children studying their lessons. Had it been only the Clitherow children and their Catholic neighbors involved, the authorities would not have learned very much. The Yorkshire children were strong in their faith and were not easily intimidated.

There was in the group a weak spot. There was an older student whom the children considered a foreigner. He was older than all the rest-about 14 years of age. He was Flemish and a stranger to the ways of England and its anti-Catholic laws. Fear showed on his face and the authorities recognized it. They stripped him and threatened him with a flogging. He quickly gave in and told them everything he knew.

He showed them everything—where the Mass was said and where the vestments and altar breads were kept. This was more than the searchers had even hoped for. It clearly proved that Mass was being celebrated in the house despite the law. The Flemish boy told them everything he knew and even some things he did not know. He was only too willing to speak and not too accurate in what he said.

Quickly the authorities ransacked the house. They carried off all of the incriminating evidence. The two Clitherow children were taken to loyal Protestant families and Margaret was never allowed to see her children again. The servants were arrested and thrown into prison because they were loyal to their mistress. Once again Margaret found herself in prison.

When she was brought before the council, she astonished everyone. She was not only fearless, she had a smile on her face. She seemed relieved at being arrested. It was as if she had foreseen the danger and it may have been a relief to have the suspense end when the outcome was known to be inevitable. She was confined with her friend Anne Tesh who was being held for hearing Mass. The two were supportive of each other and confounded their captors with their continued good humor in their jail cell.

On the third day of her confinement, the authorities allowed her husband John to visit her briefly. The visit took place in the presence of the jailer. She was never to see her husband again. The meeting had a sobering effect on both.

During the days of her confinement, the authorities spread rumors about her throughout the community. One of the priests that said Mass at her home, Father Francis Ingleby was arrested but the Council could not find anyone who could connect him with Margaret. The great difficulty in getting evidence showed how strong was the popular sentiment on the Catholic side.

Many pleaded with her

Early in the evening of Monday, March 14, Margaret Clitherow was brought before the judges at Common Hall in the city of York. A large crowd was in the streets and in the court for she was dearly loved by many of the citizens. Her indictment was read and she was asked how she pleaded. In answer she said, "I know of no offense whereof I should confess myself guilty. Having made no offense, I need no trial."

Following her refusal to plead guilty the judges tried to convince her to stand trial. For hours they tried to discredit her but she refused to be shaken. Judge Clinch warned her that if she refused to stand trial, the law would sentence her to a far more painful death than a jury could. The other judges on the panel accused her of crimes of every kind including having intercourse with the priests she harbored. Nothing seemed to move her and the presiding judge sent her back to prison for the night hoping that the solitary confinement would alter her thinking and bring her to her senses.

On the next day she was taken back to the Common Hall in the early morning. Judge Clinch reminded her that under the law of Queen Elizabeth, when an accused person refused to make a plea and stand trial before a jury, the accused would be sentenced to what was called "peine forte et dure." The person was laid naked on the stone floor of an underground cell with a door laid over him and on the door heavy stones were piled. Further weights were piled upon him until he was pressed to death.

Margaret refused to make a plea and to stand trial because she did not want her young children called to court. She told her friend Mrs. Tesh that she knew she would be executed in any case and she did not want to have her children forced to give evidence against their mother. Many at the court pleaded with her to change her mind. Even the judge tried to persuade her to no avail.

Finally the judge passed sentence that she should be crushed to death as a punishment for having "harbored and maintained Jesuits and seminary priests, traitors to the Queen's majesty and her laws."

Ten days were allowed to pass between her sentencing and execution. On the day of her execution she was calm and forgiving. When asked to pray for the Queen, she asked God to turn Her Majesty to the Catholic faith. They placed the board upon her and the hired executioners placed the huge stones upon her. Within a quarter of an hour she was dead. The sheriffs left the body under the door from nine in the morning until three in the afternoon. They then buried her body in some waste ground, where they hoped it would never be found.

Her death took place on March 25, 1586 on Good Friday.

In 1970, Pope Paul VI canonized St. Margaret Clitherow under the charming title of "The Pearl of York." Her home at #36 The Shambles is on one of the most beautiful streets in her native city. It has become a martyr's shrine and each year thousands of pilgrims come to pay her homage.

Margaret Clitherow was a martyr for her Catholic Faith. She died because she harbored the priests of Christ's Church and made it possible for them to celebrate the Eucharist for the faithful in England in the time of Queen Elizabeth. It was through the faith and the courage of women like St. Margaret that the Church survived the Great Persecution and survives and flourishes today.

This article appeared in the April 1994 issue of "The Homiletic & Pastoral Review," 86 Riverside Dr., New York, N.Y. 10024, 212-799-2600, $24.00 per year.