Modern myth-makers have propounded a view in films and books showing Catholic women ‘oppressed’ by their religion – relegated to the status of inferiors, incapable of valour or great deeds. As the stories of these two great Englishwoman demonstrate, real history tells a very different story.
My Lady Margaret, A King’s Niece
She lived at the summit of English society. In 1473, Margaret Plantagenet was born at Farley Castle, near Bath. Margaret’s family was the famous Plantagenet royal dynasty, which had ruled England since the late 12th century. Indeed, she was the niece of two kings — King Edward IV and King Richard III of England. Her father, Prince George, was brother to two kings. Her mother, Isobel, was the daughter of Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, the most powerful man in England after The King, known as “Warwick the Kingmaker”.
Power and connections, however, have their price – especially if you happen to be born, as Margaret was, in the midst of the tumultuous and bloody Wars of The Roses. Anyone familiar with Shakespeare’s history plays will know the cast of characters from this period of English history. Rival factions of the Plantagenet Dynasty, the Houses of Lancaster and York, were vying for the Crown. In 1476, when Margaret was three years old, her mother, Isobel, died. Two years later, her father, George, Duke of Clarence, was imprisoned in The Tower of London after he led a revolt against his brother, King Edward IV. He was later tried and executed — in Shakespeare’s Richard III, he is drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine.
Now an orphan, Margaret lived at Court with her cousins, the children of King Edward IV. When he died in 1483 and was succeeded by Margaret’s other uncle, Richard, both Margaret and her brother Edward continued to reside at court. A scant two years later, Richard III was defeated by Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth. In 1487, Henry VII married Margaret’s cousin and the daughter of Edward IV, Elizabeth of York, a move uniting the rival factions of The Wars of The Roses. The child of this union would be the future King Henry VIII.
A frail and ill old lady, Margaret was dragged from her cell, still protesting her innocence, and refusing to put her head on the block willingly.
When Margaret was eighteen, Henry VII gave her in marriage to his cousin and supporter, Sir Richard Pole. The marriage was a happy and fruitful one, as Margaret soon gave birth to five children. The background to her happiness was deeply overshadowed, however, when Margaret’s brother Edward, was imprisoned in the Tower of London simply because he was a claimant to the throne. In a foreshadowing of the cruelty of the Tudors, Edward was later executed, alleged to have been involved in a plot against Henry.
Lady Margaret, however, was considered to be blameless. She was appointed to be Katherine of Aragon’s lady-in-waiting when Katherine was betrothed to Henry VII’s son, Prince Arthur — but this was short lived, as Arthur died soon thereafter. Just two years later, Sir Richard Pole suddenly died, leaving Margaret a widow with five children. She was left with only a small amount of land, no income or future prospects.
Lady Margaret’s fortunes took a turn for the better when she once again became Katherine of Aragon’s lady-in-waiting after Katherine married Henry VIII in 1509.
Her fortunes and outlook continued to improve after Parliament restored the lands and titles from her brother, Edward, which had been confiscated by the Crown. Lady Margaret became the Countess of Salisbury, and by 1538 she was one of the richest nobles in England. After the birth of Henry VIII’s first child, Princess Mary, she was chosen as her sponsor at Baptism and Confirmation and later appointed her Governess.
Lady Margaret had placed her promising son, Reginald, in the care of the Church after she was widowed. Now Reginald was a rising star, educated at Oxford University and Padua in Italy. Half his tuition fees were paid for by Henry VIII; when Reginald Pole returned home, Henry VIII offered him the Archbishopric of York or Bishop of Winchester. Either appointment would come at a great price, however: Henry wanted Reginald’s support in his annulment from Katherine of Aragon.
She lived at the summit of English society. Power and connections, however, have their price.
In a move that would have catastrophic consequences for his mother, Lady Margaret, Pole withheld his support and went into self-imposed exile in Italy and France. By 1536, Reginald Pole finally broke with Henry VIII over his divorce of Katherine and his marriage to Anne Boleyn. At this point, events overtook the Pole family in breath-taking sequence. Over his objections, Reginald was appointed Cardinal by the Pope. Cardinal Pole then encouraged the Catholic monarchs of Europe to overthrow Henry. He also wrote to Henry indicating his objections and criticisms of Henry VIII’s policies concerning the Church in England and his marriage to Anne Boleyn.
Henry was incensed by the Cardinal, and ordered his agents to assassinate him. Several attempts ended in failure, so Henry exacted his revenge on Lady Margaret and her other children. They were all arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London; Margaret was stripped of her titles and property. She was held in the Tower for two and half brutal years before being sentenced to death for High Treason against The Crown – an accusation she denied to the end. That end came on the morning of the 27th May, 1541, when she was executed on Tower Hill.
Because she was of noble birth, she was spared the humiliation of being executed as a public spectacle. By now a frail and ill old lady, she was dragged from her cell, still protesting her innocence, and refusing to put her head on the block willingly. As she struggled on the block, the inexperienced executioner swung down but gashed her shoulder and missed her neck. It needed a further ten blows to finally execute her.
Lady Margaret was buried in the chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula (St. Peter in Chains) within the Tower of London. After her execution, a poem was found inscribed into the stone of her cell:
For traitors on the block should die;
I am no traitor, no, not I!
My faithfulness stands fast and so,
Towards the block I shall not go!
Nor make one step, as you shall see;
Christ in Thy Mercy, save Thou me!
When he heard of his mother’s brave death, Cardinal Reginald Pole said he would “ ….never fear to call himself the son of a martyr.” Lady Margaret’s trial and execution were considered a grave miscarriage of justice, both at the time and subsequently. Some say that Henry VIII’s cruelty when dealing with Margaret and her family can be traced to the fact that they were the last direct Plantagenet descendants and therefore possible claimants to the throne that Henry’s own father had seized at The Battle of Bosworth.
On December 29th, 1886, some 350 years after her execution, Lady Margaret Pole was beatified by Pope Leo XIII. (See ‘The Honour Role of English Martyrs” in this issue.)
Margaret Clitherow, A Butcher’s Wife
She is called the ‘Pearl of York.’ St. Margaret was born in the Northern English city of York about the year 1533, just two years before the Church in England broke with Rome under Henry VIII. At the age of 18, Margaret married a butcher and chamberlain of the city, John Clitherow. Margaret and her husband moved into a house on a street known as ‘The Shambles’, which still stands today.
John Clitherow had embraced the new Protestant faith but several of his family were Recusants, and it was under their influence that Margaret began to associate with other Recusant Catholics. Finally she reverted to the Catholic Faith of her childhood. By this time, Henry VIII was dead and his third child, Elizabeth, was Queen of England. In Margaret’s young life, the faith and religious landscape of England had changed completely.
John Clitherow already had several children when he married Margaret, but she cared for them as if they were her own. John was fined repeatedly because Margaret refused to attend the Church of England. (The fine for non-attendance at C of E services was about £20 per month, an enormous sum of money in Elizabethan England.)
Margaret remained steadfast in her Catholic Faith; she was eventually imprisoned for two years for repeated non-attendance at her local C of E Parish Church. Despite being kept in a cold, damp cell away from her family and being fed meagre prison food, she kept her faith and described her imprisonment as a, “a happy and profitable school,” since she was able to fast and pray without interruption. It was during her imprisonment that Margaret learned to read and write and upon her release she applied her new-found education to teach the Catholic children of her neighbourhood about the Faith.
Even though John Clitherow attended C of E services, he supported Margaret for she was, “a good wife, a tender mother, a kind mistress, loving God above all things as herself.”
John Clitherow said his wife Margaret was “a good wife, a tender mother, a kind mistress, loving God above all things as herself.”
Under Queen Elizabeth I it had become High Treason against the Crown to assist a Catholic priest ordained outside of England; the punishment was execution. The Clitherows’ house in The Shambles became a Mass centre and a hiding place for Catholic priests; one of the priests Margaret sheltered was her husband’s brother. In time, Margaret’s own son, Henry, was sent to Douai College in France to train for the priesthood.
Margaret was brought in for questioning in 1584, as the authorities were suspicious about her son’s disappearance and his whereabouts, since any prolonged period of absence, especially overseas, was interpreted as meaning those involved were linked to the Catholic Mission. For sending her son abroad, Margaret was placed under House Arrest for a total of eighteen months, though she was able to slip out at night, to pray at places where Catholic priests had been executed.
From time to time, those suspected of harbouring priests would have their houses searched; in Margaret’s house there was a hole cut between the attics of the neighbouring house and hers, so that a priest could escape if there was a raid. During this time, John Clitherow remained silent which made him an accessory to her deeds, which suggests a possible sympathy with the Catholic cause. In 1586 he was called in for questioning about his son’s continued absence, whilst at the same time the authorities went to search the Clitherow’s house. A little Flemish boy guided them to a place where Mass vestments were hidden.
Margaret was promptly arrested and called before York assizes for the crime of harbouring Catholic priests, specifically Fr. John Mush and Fr. Francis Ingleby. She charged with High Treason. She was interrogated at length by both civic and ecclesiastical authorities but she would not yield to accepting the Church of England. John and the children were also seized and imprisoned at isolated places around the city. Her twelve year old daughter, Anne, was especially harshly treated after she refused to answer questions about her mother’s activities and because she continued to pray according to Catholic practice.
At her appearance before the judges at York assizes, Margaret refused to plead to the charges against her saying, “Having made no offence, I need no trial. If you say I have offended, I will be tried by none but God and your own conscience.” Margaret refused to plead so as to spare her family the ordeal of being called as witnesses. But by refusing to enter a plea, Margaret was condemning herself to death. The trial judge had little choice in issuing the sentence and, despite his qualms about executing a woman, The Council of The North laid down what he must do.
The judge pronounced her sentence, “You shall be taken to the place from whence you came, and in the lower part of the prison be stripped naked, laid down with your back on the ground, a door placed over you and as much weight laid upon you as you are able to bear and thus you shall continue for three days without meat or drink except a little barley bread and puddle water; and the third day you shall have a sharp stone placed under your back and your hands and feet tied to posts, that more weight being placed upon you, you shall be pressed to death.”
Margaret calmly accepted the verdict and began to prepare for her death. In the days leading up to her execution, she was repeatedly urged to conform to the Church of England and so save herself or at least offer a plea to the charges, but Margaret’s knowledge and love of her Catholic Faith was enough to rebut the arguments of those trying to persuade her to abandon her Catholic Faith. Further pressure was put on her when it was discovered she might be pregnant, but still Margaret refused to tell the judge, which might have saved her life.
Margaret declared, “I die not desperately, nor procure mine own death; for not being found guilty of such crimes as were laid against me, and yet condemned, I could but rejoice – my cause also being God’s quarrel. I die for the love of my Lord Jesus. I ground my Faith upon Jesus Christ and by Him steadfastly believe to be saved, as is taught in The Catholic Church through all Christendom and promised to remain with her unto the world’s end and hell’s gates shall not prevail against it: and by God’s assistance, I mean to live and die in the same Faith; for if an angel come from heaven and preach any other doctrine, I should disobey the Apostle’s Commandment.”
The three day sentence as handed down by the judge was not carried out but on Good Friday, 25th March 1586, Margaret Clitherow walked barefoot, to Ouse Bridge Tollbooth. She had sent her shoes to her daughter, Anne, so she could follow in her mother’s footsteps. The authorities tried to persuade Margaret to plead and still accused her of High Treason but she responded, “No, no, Mr. Sheriff, I die for the love of my Lord Jesu.”
Two Sergeants chosen to carry out the task could not bring themselves to do so, so they hired four desperate beggars to execute her. She was stripped naked and then laid down with her arms outstretched, with a sharp rock, the size of a man’s fist, underneath her back. A door was then placed on to of her and gradually loaded with immense weight of rocks and stones so that, eventually, her spine would be broken. Unusually, Margaret’s execution was held in private, possibly because it was so opposed by the residents of York.
As the weight placed upon her was increased, and with it her suffering, Margaret cried out in excruciating pain, “Jesu! Jesu! Jesu! Have mercy upon me!” She endured about 15 minutes of suffering before her sternum gave way and was crushed causing her ribs to burst out from under her skin and she was then left for a further six hours before the weight was removed from her corpse.
After her death, her corpse was buried in secret on a dunghill within the confines of York city walls, so as to prevent Catholics from taking her remains for veneration and as relics. However, about six weeks later, her remains were found uncorrupted by a party of Catholics and they buried her privately away from the city. One of her hands was removed (a common practice with Catholic Martyrs during Penal Times) and is now preserved in the Bar Convent, York.
In an ironic gesture for our ‘gender-neutral’ times, after Margaret’s execution, Queen Elizabeth I wrote to her subjects in York to say how horrified she was at the treatment of another woman; due to her gender, Margaret should not have been executed.
St. Margaret’s stepson, William, became a priest, as did her own son, Henry, whilst her daughter, Anne, became a nun at St. Ursula’s in Louvain, France.
On the 26th October, 1970, Margaret Clitherow, along with thirty-nine other English and Welsh Catholic Martyrs from Penal Times, was canonised by Pope Paul VI. Collectively they are known as the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. Her feast day in the current Roman calendar is the 26th March.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: On 4th May, 2013, Michael Durnan attended the National Pilgrimage to York in honour of St. Margaret Clitherow which was organised by The Latin Mass Society of England and Wales. The Pilgrimage started with Solemn Mass in the Extraordinary Form at St. Wilfrid’s Catholic Church, York, followed by a procession carrying a statue of St. Margaret through the streets of York to the house where she lived. The procession ended at the English Martyrs Catholic Church where there was Benediction and Veneration of the relic of St. Margaret.