A guest post by Supertradmum
Some of you may have remembered my blog, Etheldredasplace. On that blog, I wrote of the lives and deaths of many of the English martyrs. One dear to my heart is St. Margaret Clitherow, the sprightly, beautiful wife of a well-to-do butcher in York, John, who was a “Church Catholic,” a phrase labelling a Catholic who had given in to going to the Anglican services on Sunday, in order to avoid paying the heavy fines the recusant Catholics had to endure. John allowed his popular wife to have secret Masses in their home in The Shambles, the area of York close to the market. Margaret also held Catholic tutoring in her home, hiring a Catholic man to teach her children as well as others in the Catholic community. At the time, Elizabeth I, who had not only invented the Star Chamber, where one could end up in prison or be executed without trial, but the Secret Police, a network of spies run at first by Robert Cecil, Lord Burghley, and then Sir Francis Walsingham, the queen’s spymaster, as he was called.
The spies had their eyes on the north, and especially on Margaret Clitherow, who was gaining a reputation of hiding priests and holding illegal Masses. They had questioned her about sending her oldest boy to France for an education, an illegal activity for Catholic parents, but it was only when a juvenile who was part of the tutoring group spilled the beans and showed the authorities where Margaret kept vestments, and a priest hold, that she was arrested.
Margaret was held in prison and examined, even by a Protestant minister, who she almost succeeded in converting. She held fast to her Faith, was not allowed to see her children or husband, and was badgered by the authorities to plead not guilty. She did not, as she did not want her children to be interviewed, which they would have been if she had pleaded. As she did not plead, she was condemned to death by pressing. She was to be laid naked on the floor, with a sharp large stone under her back, while heavy weights were laid on the door to break her back and ribs, as well as snuff out her life.
Some of the Protestants who knew and loved this happy, friendly woman, who was only 33 and a socialite because of her husband’s position in the local government, wanted to bribe the executioners to put all the weights on at once, to kill her quickly, but Margaret refused to let them cause sin in another person. The fact that she had to lay down naked bothered her sense of modesty and caused the local Catholics and Protestants to see the unfairness of her death. Margaret sewed a linen gown to wear under the heavy door. She died within 15 minutes, groaning “Jesus have mercy”, and it is thought she was pregnant at the time as well.
The cruelty of death in 1586 was part and parcel of the anti-Catholicism of the reign of Elizabeth.
Margaret’s four children managed to escape to France for good, the two girls becoming nuns and the two boys becoming priests. Her greatest sorrow was that she had not been able to re-convert her husband, the “Church Catholic,” who not only married a Protestant woman after Margaret’s death, but died a Protestant.
Margaret’s mangled body was thrown in to a dung heap as the authorities feared the people who had loved this young, popular woman. For weeks, as the sun set late in the Spring in York, her body, although finally discovered by faithful Catholics, could not be removed, until one night in May, during a rainstorm. One of Margaret’s hands was cut off for relics, but her body was taken, as one biographer wrote, “far away.”
Now, where the body was taken was known only to a few people, for fear that the Protestants would destroy it to stop the faithful honouring this young martyr.
Where was Margaret’s body taken? I finally found out from two friends in Lancashire just recently. In the dead of that raining night, most likely a priest who had gathered information, and a handful of laymen, took the incorrupt though mangled body to a far away place, about three days, at least, into the wilderness country side of the most Catholic recusant area of England at the time. There, in Stydd, Lancashire, in a small church founded by the Knights of Malta in the 13th century, the little group brought Margaret’s still incorruptible body to rest.
She is buried in an unmarked grave within the Church of St. Saviour, Stydd, which is a small ancient church surrounded by fields of sheep. There, the Lancashire faithful laid the saint in the floor of the Church in the valley of the Ribble River, near the old Roman camp town of Ribchester. Margaret’s grave is only marked with a simple cross, as one can see from the photograph.
Although the church was administered by the Anglicans from 1717, a group of Catholic laymen, James Stanford, Richard and John Shireburne and Richard and John Walmsley, all gentlemen, bought the burial rights of the churchyard for the specific purpose of burying Catholics. This was allowed, as some of the Protestants honoured their local Catholic gentry and recognised the evil of the persecutions, continuing into the centuries after Margaret’s death.
Amazingly, a Vicar Apostolic, and four Catholic priests are buried in this little church: Reverend Lord Francis Peter of Fithlars, Esquire, Father William Walmsley and Father Charles Ingolby, as well as Father Sir Walter Vavasour. Their tombs are seen in this article.
Margaret’s tomb is the least obvious and only the oral tradition of the locals kept alive the fact that this perky, beautiful woman had been taken from York to this tiny church in the fields of Stydd.
Where a once prosperous hospital and shelter for the local lepers had been established by the Knights of Malta in 1292, now houses the venerable tombs of Margaret and four priests, who worked before the emancipation of Catholics in the 19th century.
Where the long faithfulness of Catholic recusants remembered this burial place to the present day is a testimony to the love of the Catholic Church and her martyrs which the people of Lancashire had until recent times.
Margaret’s hand is kept in the Bar Convent in York, the oldest existing Catholic convent in England.
As Margaret had helped her husband in his business, she is the patron saint of businesswomen.
This quotation is from the book St. Margaret Clitherow, by Margaret T. Monro, published in 1946 and from 2003 available from Tan Books
“Margaret’s school of holiness, Father Mush tells us, was prison. It was this that gave her the leisure for God which is necessary for those who are to learn His secrets.” Page 31
St. Margaret of Clitherow, pray for us.
JMJ, pray for us.
God is good,