We had come to York for a day of sightseeing, unaware that our excursion was to become a pilgrimage.
We decided to pay a brief visit to St. Wilfrid's Catholic Church, next door to the well-known York Minster. Inside St. Wilfrid's was a statue of the “Pearl of York,” St. Margaret Clitherow, who was canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1970 as one of the Forty English Martyrs. A small sign near the statue mentioned her shrine, which, we learned, is located nearby in the Clitherow home and former butcher shop.
We easily found our way to the street called The Shambles. The Shambles is a picturesque medieval street with overhanging windows leaning in toward the center of the narrow cobblestone street. We could almost imagine life in medieval York, with busy shoppers and gawking visitors peering into shop windows.
The Shambles has changed little in 400 years, except the butcher shops that once lined the street now offer trendy gifts, upscale clothing, souvenirs and cappuccino.
Engulfed in so much activity, we walked right past the nondescript building, No. 35, which houses St. Margaret's shrine. Doubling back, we noticed the signboard proclaiming the site a Catholic shrine and asking visitors to please keep quiet when stepping inside. Once inside, we felt compelled to whisper. Other travelers sat on the wooden benches that line the walls of the plain room. An altar was at the far end of the room and a small statue of St. Margaret was behind it.
The simple furnishings and humble interior belied the incredible feat of the courageous woman who lived there. She probably would have preferred it that way.
Margaret was born during the brief reign of Mary Tudor, whose attempts to return England to the Catholic faith were quickly suppressed. In 1558, when Margaret was about 2 years old, Elizabeth I ascended the throne and began to systematically obliterate the Catholic Church in England. Margaret's family, like many other loyal subjects of the queen, went with the times and followed the changing religion.
At the age of 15, Margaret married a prosperous butcher, John Clitherow. John was raised in a Catholic family but held to the state religion. Margaret, raised a Protestant, converted to the Catholic faith shortly after they were married. She may have been influenced by John's brother, who eventually became a Catholic priest. The couple soon had three young children and, by all accounts, were doing well. Margaret was a devoted wife and mother and a keen businesswoman who worked hard in her husband's butcher shop. Nonetheless, her greatest devotion was to her Lord — and she endeavored to serve him above all else.
Under Elizabeth I, everyone was required to attend Anglican services. There were severe penalties for nonattendance and no Catholic priests were allowed to minister to the faithful. Catholics caught meeting in secret for Mass and the sacraments faced terrible punishments, including death. Margaret Clitherow was among the stalwart souls of the north who were willing to risk their lives rather than submit to the new religion.
Margaret sheltered priests, had Masses said in her home and kept priestly vestments in a hiding hole. Her husband tolerated her religious practices and paid her fines. He could not keep her out of prison, however, and she was arrested and imprisoned several times over a period of seven years.
The Clitherows sent their older son to Douai, France, to continue his Catholic education with hopes of entering the seminary there. At that time it was a treasonable offense to go abroad to receive holy orders with the intention of returning to England as a priest. It was also a felony, punishable by death, to shelter priests. Against this backdrop, it is all the more remarkable that Margaret would display such heroic zeal in her example of Christian witness. Meanwhile, John Clitherow grew more anxious for his young wife's safety.
Pressed into Heaven
Margaret was arrested for the last time in 1586. She was charged with harboring priests and hearing Mass. She did not want to plead and thus bring herself to trial, which would require that her husband, children and servants testify against her. Her refusal to plea infuriated her captors and they gave her the harshest penalty: peine forte et dure, (strong and difficult pain). She was to be laid naked on the ground with sharp stones under her back and a large wooden door laden with heavy stones placed on top of her. She was then to be given nothing for three days but a little barley bread and some “puddle water.” At the end of the three days, she was to be pressed to death, with her hands and feet bound to large posts.
Margaret's response to her death sentence was: “God be thanked, I am not worthy of so good a death as this.” Her husband wept bitterly and declared, “She is the best wife in England, and the best Catholic also.”
Margaret had great concern for her modesty and stitched a white linen garment for herself in prison, which she was permitted to wear for the execution. She sent the remainder of her clothes to her family. To her 12-year-old daughter, Anne, she sent her shoes and her stockings, admonishing her to serve God and follow in her steps. To her husband she sent her bonnet, a sign of her loving duty to him as her head.
On the day of Margaret's execution, March 25, 1586, she was taken to the tollbooth on the Ouse Bridge in York. There she was made to lie down beneath the heavy door, her arms outstretched and her wrists bound to large stakes. Four beggars were hired as executioners. They could not bear to hear her suffering as she cried out, “Jesu! Jesu! Jesu! Have mercy on me!” The weights were piled on quickly and within 15 minutes she was dead. It was Good Friday.
Her corpse was taken to a dung heap for burial, but six weeks later her still incorrupt body was recovered by some Catholics and secretly reburied. Her new burial place was so closely guarded a secret that it's now unknown. Her followers detached her hand from her body to keep as a relic before reburying her. This relic, now shriveled and yellow with age, is one of the most precious possessions of the nuns at the Bar Convent in York.
The Pearl of York embraced the cross and understood what it meant to let her heart and mind be guarded by a peace that surpasses all understanding. She put herself totally in God's hands and trusted him to care for her children in her absence.
The children who once laughed and played in No. 35 held fast to the faith of their mother. Her two sons became priests and served among the English Catholics. Her daughter became a nun after escaping to Belgium. Her husband remarried and nothing more is known of him.
We have since been back to St. Margaret's shrine several more times. Each time we visit, we come away with a greater appreciation for the humble wife and mother who faced persecution and martyrdom with uncommon joy.
We shall never know how many souls were saved the day Margaret Clitherow laid down her life.
As a wife and mother, I can't begin to comprehend willingly leaving my husband and children to face a martyr's death. Perhaps Margaret understood that God will not be out-done in generosity. More than 400 years later, we still find her home a safe haven.
Debbie Nowak lives in North Yorkshire, England.