Name: Margaret Clitherow (née Middleton) Born: 1556, York, England. Died: 25th March 1586; York, England. Feast Day: 25th March; 30st August (England) Patron Saint of: Businesswomen, converts, Catholic Women’s League.
Margaret Middleton was born during the brief five-year reign of the Catholic Queen Mary I. The reprieve of English Catholics following the persecution under Henry VIII and Edward VI was short lived. When Queen Elizabeth I succeeded her half-sister, Mary, in 1558 the Church of England was sufficiently well-established institutionally and culturally that there was a significant proportion of the population with no memory of pre-Reformation Catholic England. Margaret was raised in a respectable middleclass Anglican family; her father was the Sheriff of York. At the age of 15 Margaret married a well-to-do butcher, John Clitherow, and together they had three children. In 1574, at the age of 18, Margaret converted to Catholicism, impressed by the willingness of priests, particularly the Jesuit missionaries, to suffer persecution and death for the sake of preserving the faith in England. Their clandestine mission was completely outlawed and captured priests were sentenced to death by being hanged, drawn and quartered. Although her husband, John, never converted to Catholicism he was sympathetic to the Catholic cause and moreover had a brother who was a Catholic priest. John was content to pay his wife’s crippling recusancy fines (the government’s fine for the ‘crime’ of not attending Church of England Sunday services). Beginning in 1577, Margaret was imprisoned on three occasions for her ‘recusancy’. Her third son, William, was in fact born while she was in prison. As heroic as this was, even more daring was her willingness to shelter priests. She had her own home fitted out with a ‘priest hole’ (an ingeniously concealed compartment in the house) into which the priests could hide in the event of a police search. These raids were sudden and exhaustive – sometimes lasting for days in a single home. Margaret also rented a separate lodging for the use of priests. An Act of parliament in 1584 made the harbouring of priests a capital offence. Margaret was resolute in her determination to help priests, knowing that without such places of safety the entire mission would collapse. Her eldest son was sent to Reims to study for the priesthood, furthering the suspicions of the authorities. In March 1586 the Clitherow home was searched and an empty priest hole discovered. Even so, Margaret was charged and sentenced to death for harbouring priests. At her trial she refused to enter a plea, stating “I know of no offense whereof I should confess myself guilty. Having made no offense, I need no trial.” This plea automatically sentenced her to death but it meant her husband and children avoided having to testify (and likely be tortured in the process) in a trial by jury. Margaret was in fact pregnant with her fourth child.
The timing and manner of her execution (the infamous penalty of peine forte et dure) caused a sensation. Margaret was blindfolded, stripped naked and made to lie with her back upon a sharp rock about the size of a fist. Her own front door was removed and placed upon her, and then slowly piled up with weights, until she was crushed to death. The execution day was 25th March, the Feast of the Annunciation, which that particular year also happened to be Good Friday. The two sergeants assigned to oversee the execution were so appalled that they paid four desperate beggars to carry out the ugly deed, whereby Margaret and her unborn child were killed before a crowd of horrified spectators.
St Margaret is an outstanding example of heroic fortitude and self-sacrifice. Aptly nicknamed the “Pearl of York” on account of the lustre of her flawless character, Margaret Clitherow herself renounced everything for the sake of ‘the pearl of great price’, namely her faith in Jesus Christ.
St Margaret Clitherow, pray for us!