The date 29 March 1586 marks one of the saddest days in the history of York, when Margaret Clitherow was executed in the city for her religious beliefs.
Though raised as a Protestant, Clitherow eventually converted to Catholicism and sheltered Catholic priests in her home. At the time, during the reign of Protestant Elizabeth I, this was considered a capital offense.
Clitherow was arrested, tried and sentenced to death. On 29 March 1586, she was publicly executed, crushed beneath several large weights.
Here’s the story of Margaret Clitherow, the saint who was executed for her Catholic faith in 16th-century England.
Margaret was born Margaret Middleton in 1553. After the coronation of Elizabeth I, and the Church of England’s breakaway from the Catholic Church in Rome, Margaret was raised, probably reluctantly, as a Protestant. Her father Thomas was a wax chandler, a profession which fared better under the Catholic Church. When he died in 1567, her mother Jane remarried. Margaret’s new stepfather Henry Maye closed the chandlery and opened a tavern.
In 1570, Margaret married a local butcher, John Clitherow. The couple lived in The Shambles in central York, a narrow street where the city’s butchers lived and traded. Margaret gave birth to a son, Henry, and a daughter, Anne. Around this time, Margaret converted to Catholicism.
As a recusant, she refused to attend parish church services, considering them to be heretically Protestant. Non-attendance was illegal. Parishes compiled lists of anyone who failed to conform. Margaret’s name was added to the list.
Although John remained a Protestant, he and Margaret were summonsed to appear in court in 1577. Margaret and several other Catholic women were found guilty of non-attendance of church and sent to York castle prison. They spent the winter together, the punishment deepening their devotion. In 1580 and 1583, Margaret served two further prison sentences.
By this time, Margaret’s stepfather Henry Maye was one of 13 aldermen of York. Although a Protestant loyalist, he may have been influenced by his wife to protect her daughter, for Margaret stayed out of prison for three years. In 1585, Jane Maye died. Henry remarried. At the beginning of March 1586, he was elected Lord Mayor. There was only one problem: what to do about his Catholic stepdaughter.
Arrested and sentenced
By now, Margaret had moved beyond recusancy. She allowed Catholic priests to hold Mass and hide out in a secret room in her house, a capital offence. Only a week after Henry Maye became Mayor, Margaret was arrested. During the raid on her house, the Sheriffs’ men discovered priestly clothing and vessels used to hold Mass. A tip-off seems likely, but who would inform on a butcher’s wife? Many of Margaret’s neighbours were related to John Clitherow. Some were Catholics themselves.
The timing of Margaret’s arrest was crucial. The travelling assizes court was due to arrive in York. At any other time, Margaret’s case would have been heard by a local court. As it was, Margaret’s case was first up at the assizes, to be heard by Judges Clench and Rhodes.
We know so much about Margaret, including her court case, as one of the Catholic priests she harboured, Father John Mush, survived to write her story. Of course, he couldn’t have been in court, but he must have had someone in the public gallery.
Father Mush provides a gripping account of the court case. Under huge pressure, Margaret refused to make a plea. Judge Clench tried to convince her to plead not guilty and face the jury, but she refused. There were multiple reasons for this, which we don’t have time to go into here. It’s possible, if Margaret had made a plea, she may have been found not guilty. This would have saved her.
Eventually the judges lost patience. Judge Clench sentenced Margaret to peine forte et dure (strong and harsh punishment), the traditional sentence for refusing to plead. Father Mush attributes the following words to Judge Clench: “You will be stripped naked, laid down, with your hands and feet tied to posts and a sharp stone placed beneath your back, with as much weight laid upon you as you are able to bear, until you are pressed to death.”
Three attempts were now made to save Margaret’s life. Sadly, all failed.
Margaret’s family and friends claimed she was in the early stages of pregnancy. When Judge Clench was informed, he stated Margaret couldn’t be executed. It was illegal to harm an unborn child. A group of women were sent to examine Margaret. Incredibly, when asked, she said she wasn’t sure if she was with child or not.
The women told the judge they couldn’t be sure, but believed Margaret was pregnant. The judge reaffirmed his position, but faced a barrage of arguments from Judge Rhodes, the Council of the North and churchmen. A compromise was made. Judge Clench delayed any decision until the assizes court left York. He passed responsibility for Margaret’s fate to the Council of the North. An opportunity to save her life or defer her execution was lost.
In her prison cell, Margaret was visited by Protestant preachers, Council of the North officials and Henry Maye. They asked her to apostatize and renounce her Catholic faith. She was told to change her mind, make a plea and go back to court. Margaret refused. By this time, it appears she was committed to martyrdom.
On the day of her execution, Margaret was led from her prison cell to the tollbooth on Ouse Bridge. There was one last opportunity to save her. When the Sheriffs ordered their men to place heavy weights onto Margaret’s body, they refused. However, the Sheriffs rounded up beggars and forced then to do the deed instead.
Father Mush reports: ‘After this they laid weight upon her, which when she first felt, she said, “Jesu! Jesu! Jesu! have mercy upon me!” which were the last words she was heard to speak.’
Margaret Clitherow was made a saint in 1970. Her story is remarkable. We know so much about the life of this “ordinary” woman thanks to Father John Mush.
Tony Morgan is an Associate Professor at the University of Leeds. He’s written three historical novels, including the acclaimed The Pearl of York, Treason and Plot. His latest book Power, Treason and Plot in Tudor England is a non-fiction history, which takes a fresh look into the religious struggles of Tudor England, the impact they had on the city of York and the life and death of Margaret Clitherow. Tony gives history talks to many local groups and societies.