Saint Margaret Clitherow: Martyred on Good Friday

The “Pearl of York,” Saint Margaret Clitherow, martyr, feast day, March 26.

Margaret Clitherow (née, MIddleton) was born at York of Protestant parents in 1555. The popular  Christian name is derived from the Greek word for “pearl.” Margaret married John Clitherow when she was only fifteen. Three years later, she converted to the Catholic Faith. Her husband, although a member of the government “Established Church,” had a brother who was a priest, working clandestinely. Perhaps he influenced her conversion, although I could find no information from the internet as to the particular motive for her conversion.

Margaret was on fire with zeal and love for God and neighbor. She was a force to be reckoned with, hated by demons and loved by the angels. She courageously harbored recusant priests in her home, where they offered Mass. In this, she was supported by her husband. In the event of a search, the Clitherows had a hidden door to their attic through which a priest could escape to the adjacent house of a sympathetic neighbor. She also provided another chamber elsewhere in the city where the faithful could attend Mass on the occasion of a priest’s visit. Some of these brave priests were martyred.

Suspecting that Mrs. Clitherow was harboring Christ’s outlawed priests, the authorities arrested her on March 10, 1586. She kept silence when questioned by the judges about her activities; this silence was to protect her three Catholic children, who, if she had admitted her “crime,” would likely have been also accused.

Margaret, during her sixteen years as a Catholic, would often go to the city square and there she would pray at the fixed scaffold that she might be worthy of dying for the Faith. Her prayer was answered. Her trial was swift and she was sentenced to die five days after her arrest. There was no official executioner. Wretched ruffians from the street were employed to torture her with the peine forte et dure (long and hard punishment). “God be thanked, I am not worthy of so good a death as this”, she said.  The cruel dolts laid her on the ground, face up, and fastened her arms to posts with a sharp rock placed behind her back. Then, they laid a door over her and piled rocks on the wood. It took fifteen minutes to crush her to death. Her last words were “Jesu! Jesu! Jesu! have mercy on me!”

Peine forte et dure

The diabolical cruelty of it all! Why? Were they hoping for an admission of guilt under pain? Then what? The guillotine, or an axeman, at least would have gotten the wicked deed over quickly. But no! And this inhuman spectacle was justified to honor Christ!!  “Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall put you to death: and you shall be hated by all nations for my name’s sake” (Matt. 24:9).

And it was not just Catholics that the English heretics put to torture. Two Scottish Presbyterian women, both Margarets, were savagely executed a hundred years after Margaret Clitherow for refusing to accept the King as head of the Church. Margaret McLachlan and Margaret Wilson were tied to stakes and planted in the sand on the shore until the tide came in and drowned them. May we hope that they renounced whatever heresy they held before going to their eternal judgment. God knows.

Saint Margaret Clitherow had three children. Her two boys became priests. And her daughter, Jane, became a nun. I need to read her biography. I do not know what happened to her husband.

One more point. Do you think the English heretics of the sixteenth century would have at least refrained from spilling innocent blood on Good Friday? No, they did not. Margaret, the “Pearl of York,” was executed on a Good Friday, in that year, 1586, the feast of the Incarnation, March 25. Her feast day is March 26. I was reminded of this heroic martyr two days ago because March 19 was my mother’s birthday. Her name was Margaret.