Saint Margaret Clitherow

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Saint Margaret Clitherow

Portrait of Saint Margaret Clitherow

Saint Margaret Clitherow was put to death in York on 25 March 1586; she is an English saint and martyr who was canonised in 1970 by Pope Paul VI.

Margaret was born in 1555, in Middleton, into a Protestant family. Her father Thomas Middleton was Sheriff of York from 1564 to 1565. Margaret was married while only 15 years old to John Clitherow who had a thriving butchery trade; the couple had three children and lived in The Shambles, York. Although her husband remained a Protestant, Margaret converted to Roman Catholicism three years after their marriage, with his blessing. Henry, their son, trained as a Roman Catholic priest in France. This was a dangerous time for Roman Catholics; they were constantly pursued and persecuted. Being a fervent Catholic Margaret assisted both priests and fellow believers, by hiding them in her house. This extended to having a hole cut between the attics of her house and the neighbouring house, to allow for escape in case of a raid. Margaret also held secret masses at her home.

Eventually Margaret was discovered in her ‘illegal’ practices and was arrested. Standing before the York Assizes under charge of harbouring Roman Catholic priests Margaret stood firm and refused to deny her belief; neither would she plead the case as she wished to prevent any trial, which would require her children testifying maybe under their torture. All continued attempts to force her to deny her faith failed. Her sentence was declared: to be ‘pressed to death’ on March 25, 1586 (Good Friday), a punishment imposed not for harbouring fugitive priests but one imposed on all who refused to plead. On hearing of her fate Margaret’s words to a friend were, “The sheriffs have said that I am going to die this coming Friday; and I feel the weakness of my flesh which is troubled at this news, but my spirit rejoices greatly.”

Saint Margaret being executed

On the day of execution Margaret was stripped naked and forced flat on her back on top of a large sharp rock; a door was laid on top of her with ever larger stones being added to weight it down. This would have had the effect of making the small sharp rock underneath her to pierce and break her spine. She died in great agony in around 15 minutes, though the weights remained in position for many hours after her death. Her hand was removed after death and is housed as a relic in the Bar Convent’s Chapel on Blossom Street, York. Following her execution her body was hastily disposed of but Father John Mush, a priest with connections to the Bar Convent and once given safe hiding by Margaret, helped find her body.

Queen Elizabeth I stated that she ‘was horrified at the treatment of a fellow woman’. As a woman Margaret should not have been executed.

Shrine to Saint Margaret Clitherow on the Shambles

Shrine to Saint Margaret Clitherow on the Shambles

Plaque on the Shrine

Plaque on the Shrine

The Shrine of the Saint Margaret Clitherow, in a house in The Shambles, is open to the public and a commemorative plaque on the Ouse Bridge marks the site of Margaret’s martyrdom.

Plaque on the Ouse Bridge

Plaque on the Ouse Bridge

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