In 1581 an Act of Parliament outlawed Catholic religious ceremonies and made sheltering a Catholic priest a criminal offence, punishable by death. Among the many brave people who gave their lives to keep the Catholic faith alive in these troubled times was Margaret Clitherow, a butcher’s wife from York.
She Spent Eighteen Months in Prison
Margaret Clitherow, a housewife and mother was jailed in York Castle for a year and a half in a cold, dirty, dark cell. She received little food and was separated from her family and friends. Yet despite this, Margaret is quoted as saying that it was “a happy and profitable school” since no one interrupted her prayers and fasting. She learned to read and write while in prison so that she was could teach Catholic children on her release.
Raised as a Protestant
Born in 1553 in York, her father was the sheriff of the city and a church warden. As a child she went to her father’s church and followed the Protestant religion as ordered by the state. She married a wealthy butcher at the age of 15 and as he already had children, she devoted herself to the care of her step-children.
She Became a Catholic
At some stage in the early 1570s she converted to Catholicism and stopped attending the Protestant Church This was very difficult for Margaret’s husband as he was a Protestant and was responsible for reporting Catholic worshippers to the Protestant authorities in the parish. At first the authorities fined her husband for her non-attendance at Church but as she would still not agree to attend their church, she was put into prison three times to try to make her change her ways.
The Hunt for Catholic Priests
Around this time the authorities were determined to hunt down any Catholic priests and execute them. Between 1582 and 1583 five were put to death in York. When Margaret was not in jail she would make a night-time pilgrimage to the place of their execution to pray. As soon as she was able, she created a secret room in her house as a hiding place for priests and her home became a Mass centre for local people. But the local authorities were watching her closely and during a raid on her home in March 1586, the room was discovered along with vestments and articles that were needed to say the Mass.
She Refused to Stand Trial
Margaret was again imprisoned and questioned. They gave her the chance to renounce the Catholic faith and become a Protestant once more but she would not agree. She also refused an offer from the authorities to stand trial because she was worried that her family and friends would be forced to give evidence and get into trouble themselves. She knew that by choosing not to stand trial she would automatically be sentenced to a very painful execution, but she accepted this to save her husband and children. When she heard the date of her execution she said, “The sheriffs have said that I am going to die this coming Friday; and I feel the weakness of my flesh which is troubled at this news, but my spirit rejoices greatly. For the love of God, pray for me and ask all good people to do likewise.”
Margaret Clitherow was canonized in October 1970 as one of the 40 Martyrs of England and Wales. You can still visit her house today in the Shambles, York where she lived and sheltered priests.