The awful death of Margaret Clitherow stands out in an era of persecution, says Simon Caldwell
The Trials of Margaret Clitherow
BY PETER LAKE AND MICHAEL QUESTIER CONTINUUM, £19.99
Even in an era when Catholic priests were disembowelled alive for their faith, the martyrdom of St Margaret Clitherow stands out as an act of singular violence that shames the Protestant Reformation and puts the lie to the assertion that it was a moderating and enlightened force for good.
Let’s cut to the chase: for refusing to plead during her trial for harbouring priests and hearing Mass, the butcher’s wife from York was sentenced to be crushed to death. She was taken from her cell to a toll-booth on the River Ouse where she was stripped naked and laid face-up on the floor, on top of a stone “the size of a man’s fist”, her hands pulled apart and tied to stakes so her body formed a cross. A door was laid on top of her and about 800lb of weight piled on top of it. She took about 15 minutes to die, her ribs broken and bursting from her skin. The date was March 25 1586, the Feast of the Annunciation – a cruel irony, perhaps, as both Clitherow and the women who had examined her just days earlier believed she was pregnant.
Her acts were recorded by her spiritual director, Fr John Mush, and she was included among the 40 martyrs of England and Wales canonised by Pope Paul VI in 1970, when she was infallibly declared to be a saint.
Of course, it is impossible to rationalise, justify or defend such an act of barbarity by the Elizabethan state. But in this work Michael Questier, Professor of Early Modern History at the University of London, and Peter Lake, Professor of History at Vanderbilt University, America, appear tempted to do that to some extent. They use Mush’s text as a lever to prise open the world of mid-Elizabethan local and national religious and secular politics to create the context to try to better understand how a respectable and deeply pious wife and mother was put to such a horrible death.
The book demonstrates that behind the objective facts of Clitherow’s martyrdom were a number of struggles, often overlapping. There was the obvious clash between Catholics and the Protestant regime, but there was also the bitter feuding between Catholics divided over how far they could legitimately conform to antiCatholic laws without sinning by aiding, or succumbing to, schism and heresy.
Furthermore, there were the petty neighbourhood politics of York, and family rifts and tensions, particularly between Clitherow and Henry May, her adulterous stepfather and a man who had tried to rape her during the time she lived with her mother, Jane.
The ambitious May, the Lord Mayor of York, was embarrassed by Clitherow’s Catholicism, and took the opportunity following the death of his wife in 1585 to bring the young woman down a peg or two by giving her a “severe fright” and humiliating her with false accusations of adultery. He played a role in her arrest, wrongly predicting that she would capitulate in the face of the male authority figures of the court.
Not to be cheated by her death, May later joked about her enjoying sexually perverse relationships with the priests she had sheltered in her home. It was men such as he who were driving the Reformation.
But Questier and Lake note, without a shred of sympathy, that the persecution of Catholics had intensified with the arrival of the Jesuits on the English Mission in 1580 and the bold insistence of St Edmund Campion and his companions that the practice of “Church popery”, the conformity by some Catholics to statutes demanding all to attend Protestant services, was a grave sin against the unity of the Catholic Church. Instead, Catholics were forbidden to accommodate such unjust laws but were urged to defy them at the cost of their land, property, children, liberty and their lives. Clitherow, a convert, was one who embraced this position and who lived out the demands of her faith to the letter, much to the chagrin of weaker Catholics rattled by her zeal and preferring to seek ways to avoid suffering quite so acutely.
So Questier and Lake blame the Jesuits and their friends for the predicament of the Catholics. They also effectively accuse Mush and the Jesuits of being part of a “rigorist”, “separatist” faction who milked the death of the “martyrworshipping” Clitherow to win an internecine battle against Churchpopery in the space of just 20 years, after which time this struggle was conveniently forgotten.
Yet they also show that the English Mission was directed not first and foremost at confronting heresy but in consolidating and fortifying the faith of a wounded and confused Catholic flock. Clitherow, in spite of their uncharitable depiction, still emerges, like Campion, as the Counter Reformation saint par excellence.
Where the book fails most profoundly is that her death and its aftermath are explained starkly in political terms and in the crude conjecture of cod psychology, which, to put it mildly, are inadequate when dealing with religious matter.
In their epilogue, the authors ask the following question: “In order to render her ineffably religious commitments and experiences intelligible to a secular age are we recasting the essential religious and emotional categories that framed her life and death into other reductively material terms and quantities?” The answer, sadly, is yes – they most certainly are. In trying to offer original insight the authors end up obscuring, to my mind, events that have been previously observed with clarity.
There is also a sneering tone. Take for instance the description of Mush’s reaction to Clitherow’s execution, of how he “poured out his loathing of those who had murdered his spiritual child”. This seems to suggest there was something selfish and political about his grief. Was it really too much to assume that he simply loved her?
That said, The Trials of Margaret Clitherow is an interesting addition to the historical canon that shows the so-called “Golden Age” was in fact heavily characterised by a frenzy of persecution.