Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 17, 2003
St. Margaret Clitherow
Pressed-to-death saint's Shambles cottage preserved
St. Margaret Clitherow - Feast Day - March 25
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
Each day, thousands of office workers and shoppers stream across the Ouse River Bridge into old downtown York, many unaware that they are passing the place of martyrdom of a fearless, dedicated Christian heroine. Beside this bridge, in 1586, 31-year-old Margaret Clitherow was "pressed" to death for her faith during religious persecutions under Queen Elizabeth I.
Today, visitors and pilgrims may view her likeness in St. Wilfrid's Church, visit the parish church she attended as a child, and honour her memory in a little chapel in her home in the street known as the Shambles.
Margaret was born in 1556 during the brief reign of Catholic Queen Mary. Her father, a wax chandler, was church warden at the parish church of St. Martin Le Grand where she was baptized.
With the accession of Protestant Elizabeth in 1558, her father retained his church position by changing religions so that Margaret was raised in the Church of England. Her church, with its unusual 1778 clock, is historical in its own right. It's open to visitors and, no longer a parish church, serves as a chapel of ease to nearby Anglican St. Helen's.
St. Martin's was heavily damaged during a Second World War air raid but has been restored as a memorial to all who perished in the two world wars. The treasures of the church are its very old stained glass windows, particularly the huge St. Martin of Tours window. Plaques and ancient tombstones honour noteworthy parishioners. But, there's nothing in the church to suggest a Catholic saint once practised her faith here.
Margaret's father died when she was 11, leaving a family of some prominence since he had been named sheriff. Four years later she married John Clitherow, a prosperous butcher and a Protestant.
Surprisingly, in 1574, Margaret converted to Catholicism. She began to lead a double life, was jailed several times for visiting incarcerated priests, but was always supported by John. Her son was preparing for the seminary in France and she soon became notorious for sheltering priests and attending secret Masses in her Shambles home. Hers was a risky life since it was almost impossible to keep secrets in the congested laneways of the walled city. These terrible times pitted relatives one against another in what was still quite a strong, though underground, Catholic community.
In 1585 a new act was passed by Parliament in London that specified the death penalty for anyone caught sheltering foreign-trained priests. Margaret's house was soon searched, religious items found and witnesses produced to condemn her.
When jailed, she refused a trial to protect friends and family members from testifying, although she knew both the penalty and form of punishment this entailed. On March 25, 1586 she was taken from the jail on the Ouse Bridge and executed nearby. Mercifully, her jailers hurried the process so that she died within 15 minutes. Her final words were "Jesu, Jesu, Jesu, have mercy on me".
Today, the narrow Shambles is a tourist attraction, with shops occupying very old, one-time residences. Margaret's nondescript house there is preserved and is now a shrine to the saint, where Mass is celebrated weekly in a tiny, ground-floor space. The house is identified by plaques on the street and is open to the public.
Margaret Clitherow was canonized in 1970 by Pope Paul VI and her statue graces a small shrine in St. Wilfrid's, main York Catholic parish.
She is also remembered on the feast day of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales on Oct. 25 each year.
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
Our mission: To serve our readers by bringing the Gospel to bear on current issues in the Church and in secular culture through accurate news coverage and reflective commentary.