Four hundred and seventy years ago on March 25, 1586, St. Margaret Clitherow was pressed to death in York, England. The day of her execution — which was Good Friday that year — and the method of her martyrdom were extraordinary.
She was laid supine on the ground, a small stone placed beneath her back. She was naked, except for the shift placed on top of her. Her arms were outstretched like Jesus’ on the cross and tied to stakes, and the executioners placed a door on top of her. Then the executioners placed nearly 700 pounds of rocks on top of the door. She was crushed to death in about 15 minutes, speaking the name of Jesus as her ribs broke: “Jesu! Jesu! Jesu! Have mercy on me!”
What brought her to such a horrible martyrdom?
Clitherow was a Catholic convert in Elizabethan England who refused to attend Anglican services, raised her children as Catholics and hosted Catholic priests — who were considered traitors by their mere presence in England — to say Mass in her home. Catholic laymen and women who assisted priests were felons, usually punished by being hanged to death.
But Margaret Clitherow, who might even have been pregnant at the time of her execution, was crushed to death because, when accused of harboring priests, she refused to enter a plea, guilty or not guilty.
Wife, Mother and Convert
Margaret Middleton was born in 1556, and she married John Clitherow, a wealthy butcher, when she was 18; when she was 21, she became a Catholic. Her husband paid her fines when she refused to attend Church of England services, but he could not prevent her from being arrested and jailed for what authorities considered obstinate “popery” (her refusal to conform to the official national church). While she was in prison, however, she learned how to read and write, and she delivered her third child, William.
She and her husband had two other children (Henry and Anne); John had also allowed her to raise them as Catholics. Clitherow hired a Catholic tutor named Stapleton to teach the children the faith. One of their sons, Henry, left York to attend a Catholic school on the Continent.
John Clitherow became a chamberlain of the city of York and was outraged when the authorities questioned him about his family’s faith and his son’s absence. John’s own brother William was a Catholic priest, so he was vulnerable, in spite of his public conformity to the Anglican church.
On March 10, 1586, the authorities raided the Clitherow household and found the tutor, Anne, William and neighborhood children doing their lessons. One little boy, from Flanders, after being threatened with torture, told the authorities about the priests who visited the household and showed them where the vestments were hidden. They arrested Margaret and accused her of breaking the laws against attending Mass and harboring Catholic priests.
When she came to trial, Margaret refused to enter a plea because she did not want her husband and children to be questioned. She told the judges, “I know of no offense whereof I should confess myself guilty. Having made no offense, I need no trial.”
As the little boy had been threatened with torture, she feared the same for her family. They would have to testify against her or perjure themselves to defend her. She also knew that family and friends would likely be on the jury. After one brief visit from her husband, Margaret never saw her family again.
After sentencing, she sent her shoes to her daughter Anne as a reminder to follow in her faithful footsteps.
Because she would not plea and submit to a jury trial, she was sentenced to peine forte et dure (“hard and forceful punishment”): “You must return from whence you came, and there, in the lowest part of the prison, be stripped naked, laid down, your back on the ground, and as much weight laid upon you as you are able to bear, and so to continue for three days without meat or drink; and on the third day to be pressed to death, your hands and feet tied to posts, and a sharp stone under your back.” The purpose of this punishment was to induce the prisoner by torture to make a plea. If the prisoner entered a plea in the first two days, the punishment would end and the trial begin.
The authorities did not give Margaret three days to endure this torture, but compressed the sentence into that one Good Friday afternoon. They left her body under the weights for another six hours and then buried her secretly. Her right hand was retrieved as a relic; it is kept at the Bar Convent in York.
Good Friday and Easter
In England, March 25 was called Lady Day — and since England was still observing the Julian calendar, it was also New Year’s Day. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII had announced reforms to assure the correct observance of Easter, but Protestant England would not accept Catholic changes to the calendar, no matter how scientifically valid. While the Christians of England were remembering the crucifixion of Our Lord on March 25 according to the Julian calendar, Catholics on the Continent would not celebrate Good Friday until April 4 and Easter on April 6 that year.
Margaret’s sons Henry and William became priests, and her daughter Anne became a nun at St. Ursula’s in Louvain. Whether or not John married again, we do not know.
Margaret Clitherow was canonized among the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales in 1970 by Pope Paul VI. This Good Friday, we can remember her love for Jesus, her devotion to him in the sacrifice of the Holy Mass, her brave defense of Catholic priests and her protective love for her family.
Stephanie A. Mann is the author of Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation,
available from Scepter Publishers. She resides in Wichita, Kansas, and blogs at SupremacyandSurvival.blogspot.com.