Saint Margaret Clitherow, by Father Hugh Francis Blunt

Saint Margaret Clitherow(15561586)

The English Reformation, if it has perpetuated for all time the picture of degraded womanhood in Queen Elizabeth, so also has it immortalized the memory of many a noble woman. How time shows the real value of things! Back in the year 1586 there were living in England two women: one was queen of a great kingdom, seated upon her throne, listening to the voice of flatterers, trembling for her very crown, which had come to her through the lust and dishonesty of the miserable Henry VIII. Her dainty fingers held the sceptre; she was a fortunate, a successful ruler. But in the eyes of God those dainty fingers were the fingers of a Lady Macbeth, red with blood which all the seas of the world could never again make white. Yet to the world of her day she was the most happy of women.

The other woman was deemed the most unhappy of women; a traitor to this great queen, a woman, too, whose gentle body was covered with blood, but blood that is the sign of glory unending. She was Margaret Clitherow, the first woman martyr in the reign of Elizabeth, a gentle wife and mother crushed to her death because she followed her conscience and served her God. An unfortunate woman to her age, a fool to lay down her life for such a simple thing as religion, when but a word would have saved her to years of happiness. But the centuries have gone by; and as we look across them to behold the queenly woman on her throne and the disgraced martyr on her bed of death, do we need to say which of them was the happier, which the more to be envied, the Queen who risked her eternal salvation for the bauble of a crown, or the young Catholic wife who chose to serve God rather than an earthly ruler, and so went the way of suffering and death to reign with Christ in Heaven?

Margaret Clitherow, whose maiden name was Middleton, was born and lived all her life in the city of York. Her father was Thomas Middleton, a wax- chandler, evidently a man of means and of some importance in the community, for we find him holding various offices, acting as sheriff for one year, and at different times a member of the Common Council. After his death his widow did not long remain inconsolable, for four months later she married a man named Henry May, who by a strange circumstance was lord mayor of the city at the time his stepdaughter Margaret Clitherow was put to death for her faith.

With her mother and her stepfather Margaret made her home for four years, until the time of her marriage in 1571 to John Clitherow, a wealthy butcher, who established her in a magnificent home which later on was to be the hiding-place of many a poor priest with a price on his head. It is said that she was very beautiful, the fairest of brides. It was a happy marriage, a home with all that the world could give, money, position, and love, with never a trial until the day when God tested her in his fiery furnace.

For some years now the Protestant religion was dominant in England. The revolt that had been begun by Henry in his lust and covetousness of the Church’s goods had been consummated by his illegitimate daughter Elizabeth. She had succeeded to the throne in 1558, two years after the birth of Margaret Middleton. Thomas Middleton, judging from the offices he had held, had evidently conformed to the new religion with his wife. At any rate, Margaret was brought up in the queer new Protestant religion. She knew no better. The old Catholic religion was a despised thing by those who sought preferment in holding to the new faith which Elizabeth set up in order to make her position secure. In a worldly sense she was driven to it, though she had little religion of any kind in her own make-up. Rome had in justice branded her as illegitimate from the fact that her mother’s marriage with Henry was null. Catholics in general regarded her as a usurper of the throne, which they declared belonged by right to Mary Queen of Scots. Hence her aim was to banish the old religion for her own safety.

And little Margaret Middleton, as she grew up, was made to conform to the new order of things. At the time she was married to John Clitherow there were in York many signs of the passing of the old order. The altars in the churches were being torn down, the altar- stones turned into pavements; the rood-lofts with their great crucifixes were burned, the glorious windows of stained glass broken, the gold and silver altar vessels melted down to enrich the destroyers, and the Scripture scenes that had been painted on the walls obliterated by coats of whitewash. There was an effort to make the people forget all the beauties that had been, and this with such diabolical hatred that in York itself no less than nineteen churches were destroyed.

But, try as she might, Margaret found no consolation in the new religion. For three years after her marriage – she was but fifteen when she married – she followed the new faith. But all the while it palled on her. Her soul was not satisfied. All the more was she discontented as she heard the touching stories about the priests and laymen who went to their death in defence of the old religion. She little thought that the day would come when she, too, would be called upon to lay down her life in defence of it. Even in those days the martyrs of the faith made an appeal to her. Surely, she thought, the faith must be true that could inspire such heroism. And so, after earnest prayer and study, the light of faith came to her, and she was received into the Catholic Church.

Even if Margaret Clitherow had never died the martyr’s death, her name would deserve to be held in everlasting remembrance as that of an exemplary wife and mother. Perhaps it was because she was such, corresponding’ so perfectly to all the graces of God, that she was at length enriched with the glorious privilege of martyrdom. From the time she became a Catholic her life was one great act of love for God.

We get a beautiful picture of her in the midst of her family. John Clitherow, her husband, belonged to the established church, though he had a brother a priest. He did not interfere, however, with her in the practice of her religion; and, moreover, he permitted her to bring up her children in the Catholic faith, a sign of the firm character of his wife at a time when a father knew that the Catholic faith was a handicap for his children. They had three children, two boys, Henry and William, who became priests later on, and one daughter, Anne, who became a nun at Saint Ursula’s, Louvain. They were blessed for their mother’s loyalty to the faith.

The Clitherows had an abundance of the goods of the world, but that did not make the young wife feel that she could be an idler. She was an example of the busy housewife who, with all her cares, could find time for the special service of God. She arose early every day, and spent an hour and a half, sometimes two hours, on her knees, praying and meditating. She had a room in her house set aside as a chapel, and there very often Mass was said by her spiritual director or by one of the missionary priests who, with a price on their heads, sought a refuge in her house, which was a centre of Catholicity, a refuge for all the priests who went up and down the country, looking after the spiritual wants of those who remained true to the old Church. What a happiness it was to her to harbor the ministers of God, finding her great reward in the blessing of having the Holy Sacrifice offered up in her own home! It was like a page from the story of the Catacombs, where the first Christians worshipped in secret. She was again the Roman matron presiding over the destinies of a proscribed people.

Mass over, she busied herself with the management of her household, striving to do the humblest tasks for the glory of God.

“Now for God’s sake pray for me,” she used to say to Father Mush, her director, who later wrote the story of her life and sufferings. “Methinks I do nothing well, because I overslipped this right intention, which God’s servants should always have actually, to refer all my doing to His glory.”

Her greatest joy was to serve the meals to the priests who sought her protection. She had many servants, but she did not disdain helping them in their work. Many a time did she spare them, and perform herself the humblest duties of the household, saying, “God forbid that I should will any to do that in my house which I would not willingly do myself first.” Nor did she hesitate to correct them when they needed it. Her confessor, noting this, asked her one day: “How is it that you dare speak so sharply to these servants, when they are careless in the performance of their duty? Have you forgotten that they have it in their power to revenge themselves on you by making it known that priests are concealed in your house?” j And she would reply: “God defend that, for my Christian liberty in serving Him in my House, I should neglect my duty to my servants, or not correct them as they deserve. God shall dispose of all as it pleaseth Him; but I will not be blamed for their faults, nor fear any danger for this good cause.” I

The servant problem would be settled very easily if there were more mistresses like Margaret Clitherow.

This valiant woman knew all the while that her life was in danger, but the thought did not make her morose or sad. She was always cheerful, always with a smile on her lips, and ready to take part in any fun. She reminds us of the dear Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, who, even while she wore the hair shirt of penance, could take part in the dance and bring pleasure to others. The only sorrow she had to drive the smile away was the fear for the life of the priests who left her house to go forth on their missionary journeys. Many a time, too, she was found weeping when her house was without a priest to say Mass, thinking that some fault of hers had made God take from her that grace.

At four o’clock in the evening, when most of the day’s work was done, she would spend an hour in prayer with her little ones gathered about her. We can fancy the things she talked about to them, telling them of the blessings of the faith, relating the heroism of the martyrs of their own times, and implanting in their souls the seeds that in later years were to give such abundant harvest. Then at eight or nine she would seek her spiritual director and get his blessing, after which she would spend an hour in prayer before retiring. And along with this life of prayer she practised severe mortification. Perpetually she curbed her appetite. Four days of the week she kept strict abstinence, and on Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday took but one meal. On Friday she fasted on bread and water, and scourged herself with the discipline whenever her confessor permitted her to do so. Busy as she was, she found time for the reading of pious books, her favorites being the New Testament, the Imitation of Christ, and Perin’s Exercise. She even learned by heart the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin in Latin, saying, “If it please God so to dispose, and that He sets me at liberty from the world, I will with all my heart take upon me some religious habit, whereby I may ever serve God under obedience/’ She little guessed in what way God was to set her at liberty from the world.

Twice a week she confessed, weeping over the smallest faults; and when she went to Holy Communion she took her place far from the altar, bowed down with her own unworthiness, and the tears would stream from her eyes as she received the Bread of Angels.

Such was the daily life of this wife and mother, mere like the life of the nun in her cloister away from the cares of the world. So that I say, even if Margaret Clitherow had not died the martyr’s death, she would still deserve everlasting remembrance as an exemplary woman in the world.

But even while she busied herself in her home and served God lovingly and whole-heartedly, martyrdom was coming near. Even if she had known that, it would not have frightened her; rather would it have given her joy, for if there was one thing that this beautiful, wealthy, happy young wife prayed for, it was that she would be permitted to suffer death for the sake of Christ. One day she related to her little daughter, Anne, the story of the martyrdom of Father Lacy, an old priest who had spent many days under her roof. He had been sentenced to death for high treason because in his trial he refused to acknowledge the Queen as the Supreme Head of the Church. “God be forever blessed,” he said; “I am now old, and by the course of nature cannot expect to live long. This will be no more to me than to pay the common debt a little before the time.”

“Mother,” said little Anne, “if you had stood at the bar and been sentenced to death like Father Lacy, would not you have been frightened and sad?”

But the mother answered: “Why should I be frightened and sad if I were condemned to die for the Catholic faith? Methinks I would die any death for so good a cause.”

With Father Lacy there was martyred another priest, Father Kirkeman, who, too, had enjoyed the hospitality of the Clitherow home. And when she had finished the story of these men of God, dragged on a hurdle through the streets and finally hanged at Tyburn, where criminals were put to death and their poor bodies drawn and quartered, she cried out, “Oh, children, how glorious a privilege it is to die for Christ! How sweet would it be to pour out every drop of blood for the Church He came on earth to found! Happy martyrs! who have merited the favor I, alas, am unworthy to obtain. From my heart I rejoice and am exceeding glad that these two blessed priests have suffered and died with courage, patience, and heroic constancy. Ah! it shall still, as heretofore, be my daily prayer that I may be worthy to endure whatever may betide for God’s sake and the Catholic faith!”

After the execution of these two priests in 1582, in the month of August, there followed in a few months’ time the martyrdom on the same spot of three other priests, Father James Thompson, Father William Hart, and Father Richard Thirkill, all of whom had been at one time or another her spiritual directors. It was only natural then that she, who had such a desire of martyrdom, should feel great devotion to the place where these her friends had laid down their lives before her. Tyburn, where stood the gallows, was situated about half a mile outside the city of York. Very often at night, either alone or with some of her Catholic neighbors, she would make a pilgrimage to this now hallowed spot, in order to spend some time in prayer where her priests had shed their blood. Always she went barefoot, considering the way they had gone to their death holy ground. Imagine her, if you can, this tender young wife, putting her little ones to bed, and then, close to midnight, tramping in her bare feet along the sorrowful way to kneel in the darkness beneath the gallows-tree where in ages gone by the worst criminals had forfeited their lives in payment for their crimes! It was an experience to bring terror to a gentle woman, but she thought not of the awful dreariness, the horror of the place; she thought only that on this spot men had died for God. So at the foot of the gallows she and her companions knelt in prayer, not mourning the martyrs, but thanking God for them, and begging their help for themselves and their families, praying for their poor country, now gone astray in heresy and crime, and even begging God to grant them, too, the grace of martyrdom.

In such devotion these short years went by. All the while the laws for the elimination of the very name Catholic became more brutal. And, indeed, for a long time these laws had been severe enough. Elizabeth, as we have said, in order to make her crown more secure, felt obliged to espouse the Protestant cause, even while, personally, religion bothered her very little. It was in 1559 that the law took effect – three years after the birth of Margaret Clitherow – abolishing the old worship and setting up the new. From that time Catholic worship could be held only in secret and at the risk of heavy punishment. For the first two years, however, there was a tendency not to push the law to extremes. Catholics were treated with comparative leniency; they were fined occasionally, had their goods confiscated, or were themselves imprisoned. But there was no shedding of blood. Elizabeth had the idea then that when the old priests died there would be none to take their place, and consequently the people now remaining Catholics would gradually come over to the new religion.

But she reckoned not with the zeal of the Catholic faithful. A seminary was established at Douai, and here were trained the missionary priests who for so many years, through suffering and death, were to come in secrecy to England to break the Bread of Life to the Catholics. Such an action roused the wrath of Elizabeth, and immediately she increased the severity of the penal laws. Catholics who would not acknowledge her as the Supreme Head of the Church in England were put to death as traitors. But in 1581 a man was considered a traitor who absolved or reconciled others to the See of Rome, or was willingly absolved or reconciled. And even a person who had harbored a priest was deemed guilty of treason. In the four months between July 22 and November 27, 1588, twenty-one of these seminary priests, eleven laymen, and one woman – our own Margaret Clitherow – were put to death for their religion. The total number of Catholics who suffered under Elizabeth was one hundred and eighty-nine, of which number one hundred and twenty-eight were priests, fifty-eight laymen, and three women, the other women being Margaret Ward and Anne Line, besides thirty-two Franciscans who were starved to death.

Every one of these martyrs might well be the subject of a book as well as Margaret Clitherow, but in telling her story of faith we tell the story of them all. There was none of them that prayed more earnestly for the gift of martyrdom, and at last her prayers were answered.

It was not the first time that a woman’s blood had flowed in these terrible days of the persecution of the Church. Elizabeth was but carrying out the policy of her bloodthirsty father. The first woman martyr of that period was the Blessed Margaret Pole, who was put to death in 1541, in the reign of Henry VIII. She was the daughter of the Duke of Clarence, and in 1491 had been given by King Henry VII in marriage to Sir Richard Pole, the son of the half-sister of the King’s mother, the sainted Margaret Beaufort. Her husband had died in 1505, leaving her a widow with five children, one of them being Reginald, afterwards Cardinal Pole. Henry VIII had great admiration for her, and considered her the saintliest woman in England. He made her Countess of Salisbury, restored her property to her, chose her as the sponsor for his daughter Mary, and made her governess of that princess and her household. There was even talk of marrying Mary to Reginald Pole. At the time of the divorce Reginald did not scruple about coming out against it, in spite of the bribes that were offered him to side with Henry. He fled to Rome and was there made cardinal. By his representation of the case, the excommunication of Henry was hastened. When Henry’s daughter Mary was pronounced illegitimate so as to favor the issue of Anne Boleyn, Henry removed the Countess of Salisbury from her position as governess, and she lived in retirement until the death of Anne, whereupon she returned to court.

But Henry was turning against the Poles. Soon after the passage of the Act of Supremacy steps were taken to despoil the smaller monasteries on any pretext. These monasteries were the only support of the poor, and the only places for education, but they were suppressed and the monks and nuns thrown out on the street to become beggars. The people in the North, seeing this, rebelled and, united in an army, thirty thousand strong, demanded redress for the Church they loved. The government was frightened at this display of strength, arid promised everything. But as soon as the army disbanded the hypocritical government turned against those who had rebelled, and farmers and yeomen were hanged by the hundreds. This v/as so encouraging to Henry that he determined to strike at the Courtenays and the Poles, families that were staunch defenders of the Catholic Church. Henry Courtenay was next in succession to the crown after Henry’s children.

When, in 1530, Cardinal Pole sent to Henry his defence of the Church, Henry went into a rage. He determined to be revenged on the Poles and especially on the Countess, whom he had once so admired. Her eldest son was executed on the evidence given against him by a younger brother, Sir Geoffrey Pole, and she and others of her relatives were executed. When the old woman – she was then nearly ninety – was arrested she said nothing, being so old that she scarcely knew why she was arrested. She was treated with indignity and was kept a prisoner in the Tower for two years. And then this noble, saintly old woman, herself a royal princess, was sent to the block. She walked to her death calmly, her last words being, “Blessed are they who suffer persecution for righteousness’ sake.”

So that Margaret Clitherow had, besides the example of her good priestly friends, that of a weak woman like herself who thought little of the hardships that bring one to God.

It was in 1585, when Elizabeth had been reigning twenty-seven years, that there was enforced the statute which made it a crime to give shelter to a seminary priest or a Jesuit, these men upon whose heads a price had been set. Now not only was the priest to be put to death, but even the one who harbored him. Some of the neighbors, knowing that Mrs. Clitherow was accustomed to have priests in her house, came to her to warn her of the new law that made her charity a crime. Her only answer was: “If God’s priests dare venture themselves in my house, I will never refuse them shelter.” She had no fear; in fact, being arrested for her faith was no new experience to her. Many a time had she been imprisoned, sometimes for two years at a time, and there were other Catholic wives and mothers who were persecuted in like manner.

One day she asked the advice of her confessor as to whether it was right for her to harbor the priests without asking her husband’s consent; and he assured her that it was not only her right but her duty. She was overjoyed at the decision.

“But,” said the priest, merrily, “you must prepare your neck for the hangman’s rope.”

“God’s will be done,” said she; “but I am most unworthy of that honor.”

But even then there was about to dawn the day when God would show this woman that she was worthy of the honor. For a long time the Clitherow house had been marked as a rendezvous for missionary priests where the Catholic inhabitants of the city might hear Mass and receive the Sacraments. Even those who had fallen away from the faith knew that almost at any time a priest might be found in some secret chamber. But, in spite of all that, she did not become cautious. No doubt her apparent boldness was merely her confidence in. God, her faith that He would save her house from harm as long as it was His good will. More than that, she had such a winning way that even her heretical neighbors could not bring themselves to accuse her before the law. There were a few, however, so filled with hatred of the old religion that they watched every opportunity to betray her.

She had two rooms fitted up where Mass was said, one adjoining her own dwelling and the other at a short distance from her house. The latter was used only in the very dangerous times, when her own home was unsafe. Both chapels were beautifully fitted with religious articles, vestments, etc., so much so that the authorities were amazed when the discovery was made. It was a proof of her wonderful love for the altar of God. All that she could spare went to its adornment.

About a year before her arrest she had induced her husband to send their eldest son, Henry, over to France, so that he might receive a Catholic education in one of the English seminaries abroad, an education such as it was impossible to get in England at the time. This was deemed a crime, and as soon as it became known to the Council which managed such affairs in the northern part of the kingdom, they cited John Clitherow to appear before them to be questioned as to his part in the crime against her Majesty’s statutes.

As soon as he left the house, two sheriffs of the city, accompanied by other men, came to search his home. His wife was busy about her duties when they arrived. She was not surprised at the visit; all these months she had expected it. Her fears were not for herself, but for the good priest, Father Mush, then in his room talking with some Catholics who had come to consult him, perhaps to go to confession. Before admitting the searchers she managed to go to the room to warn her dear friends, and to hide them in another secret chamber, where they escaped the spies and so saved their lives. She was calm as she admitted her enemies. They immediately arrested her, and asked her where she had secreted the traitor-priests, Mush and Ingleby.

“I shelter no traitors here,” she answered; “the members of my household are loyal subjects.” But the searchers proceeded to search the house for the concealed “traitors.” There were at that time many Catholic children in the house, her own and those of the neighbors, for she always dearly loved children, being instructed by a schoolmaster, a loyal Catholic who had been seven years in prison for the faith. Among them was a little Flemish boy whom she had charitably taken under her care. The authorities seized him, and threatened him with death unless he told them all that he knew about the visiting priests and their hiding-places. The boy, trembling for his life, told everything, and led his captors to the secret chamber in the house and then to the other chapel at a distance, telling them, too, the names of the Catholics who from time to time assisted at Mass there. They gathered together all the vestments and church articles, and carried them away, leading off as prisoners Mrs. Clitherow, her two children, and all the servants. The children and servants were sent to different prisons, but Mrs. Clitherow was brought to the Common Hall to be questioned by the Council. But, finding the questioning of her useless, they sent her a prisoner to the Castle.

It was a loathsome place, that dungeon, filled with dirt and swarming with vermin, its only furniture a hard pallet, the only food bread and water, which in her love of fasting she did not touch. Yet in the midst of such squalor she did not grumble, but even smiled and was joyous, singing hymns, so much so that the jailers were astounded that any woman in such circumstances could be so brave. Her only worry was for her husband and children, all in prison, and for the safety of the priests she had sheltered. Her prayer was that her little ones might not be led to deny their religion through persecution. And earnest was this prayer as she knelt through the night upon the cold stone floor, happy to begin her sufferings for God. Two days later her sister, Mrs. Ann Tesh, was thrown into the same prison for the crime of hearing Mass, and kept there till her fine of five hundred marks was paid. Strange to say, it was a joyful time, and the two sisters, one of them in the shadow of death, laughed and made merry as they tried to keep up their strength by eating the humble supper of bread and water. Those who love God can find joy even in affliction, and there were not on earth happier beings than those two sisters as they laid them down on the hard bed to sleep the sleep of the just.

It was a beautiful spring day when Margaret was led from prison to the Common Hall to be placed on trial. The streets were thronged as she walked along, most of the multitude filled with sympathy for this mother who bad been torn from her children. She did not flinch as she faced the Council, though she knew she could expect little justice from these paid persecutors. She was accused of harboring priests, of hearing Mass, and of sending her son to be educated in a foreign Catholic college, and then she was asked to plead guilty or not guilty. Margaret Clitherow threw back her head and stood erect, a woman of striking beauty.

“I know of no offence,” she said, “of which I should confess myself guilty.”

Again and again they tried to persuade her to have a trial by jury, but she refused. She knew that the only witnesses against her would be her servants and her own children, and she wished to save them from having any part in her condemnation.

Long did the officials harass her, insulting her religion, and then, seeing that their urging was of no avail, they ordered her to a private jail, there to await sentence. It was night as she was conducted to the jail, but the streets were still crowded as she passed along, her face beaming with joy while she scattered money to the poor, now as always the angel of charity.

The next day she was brought again before the Council. Again they pleaded with her to stand trial. Again she refused, and the judge, seeing that it was a waste of time to seek to break her will, pronounced the terrible sentence.

“If you will not stand your trial,” he said, “this must be your sentence. You must return from whence you came, and there, in the lowest part of the prison, be stripped naked, laid down, your back upon the ground, as much weight laid on you as you are able to bear, and so continue three days without water, and the third day to be pressed to death, your hands and feet tied to posts, and a sharp stone under your back.”

As this terrible sentence was pronounced, she stood with head uplifted, a smile upon her lips, as she said, “I thank God heartily for this.”

“Have you no consideration for your husband and children?” they asked.

“I would to God,” she said, “my husband and children might suffer with me for so good a cause.”

They bound her hands with ropes, and sent her back to jail, where the Protestant ministers and the minions of the law vainly tried to shake her faith. For several days this situation continued. There was dissension in the Council as to putting her to death. One of the judges in particular sought to defer action. All humanity was not dead in him, for Margaret Clitherow was with child, and he dreaded the wrath of Heaven in putting to death not only the mother, but also her unborn child. But he was not strong in character, and feared the wrath of the crown if he let pity persuade him against this awful crime; and so he tried to assuage his conscience by letting the other judges settle the question. And settle it they did. Margaret Clitherow was to die.

Meanwhile the condemned woman was preparing for death. Tranquil and cheerful she was, as if in her own home instead of the jail. All her time was spent in prayer, fearing that God might deny her the crown of martyrdom which was so near. She managed to get word to Father Mush, begging him to pray for her martyrdom, and telling him that the heaviest cross she had to bear was the fear that she would be set free. In those last days she longed to see her husband before she died, but they refused her this consolation unless she would consent to hear a sermon from one of the Protestant ministers, a condition to which she would not listen. Her husband meanwhile had been let out of prison, but he was warned to keep out of the city for some days. When he heard that his wife was condemned to death, he raved as one mad.

“Alas! alas!” he cried, “they will kill my poor wife! She has been the best wife and the best Catholic in the whole country. The Council may have all my goods if they will but spare her.”

When one of her neighbors told her this, she said: “May God enlighten him to see the true faith, that so at least his soul be saved.” She sent to him her hat as a sign of her duty and obedience to him. At the same time she sent her shoes and stockings to her daughter Anne, saying, “Tell her they are to remind her to serve God and to practise all virtues. I trust to God that she will leave this wicked world, so full of snares for one so young and fair, and consecrate herself to her Divine Spouse in some fervent community abroad.” Ten years later Anne joined the English Augustinians at Louvain. Her mother’s prayers were heard.

At last the day of her martyrdom dawned. It was Good Friday, and also Lady Day, March 25, 1586. Through the crowds, congregated to see the strange sight of a woman led to slaughter, surrounded by the officers of the law and by her executioners, she was led from the private jail where she had been guarded to the tolbooth, or prison, where she was to lay down her life. Four women attendants unrobed her, and then put on her a linen garment which she herself had made. She lay down upon the ground, and a sharp stone was placed under her back. She was calm and peaceful, her soul rapt in prayer, so that the very light of Heaven shone from her face. So beautiful was her countenance that the sheriff ordered a handkerchief to be spread over it, fearing the effect her glorified look would have upon the spectators, many of whom were Catholics. A heavy door was then placed upon her, her hands were bound to two posts on either side, and then every one of the four executioners, at the command of the sheriff, raised a heavy weight and let it fall forcibly on the door. It was the work of barbarians, of devils. Her bones were broken, but she made no outcry of pain.

“Jesu! Jesu!” she pleaded. “Help me, blessed Jesu! I suffer this for Thy sake.”

She still lived. The sheriff ordered more weights to be thrown upon her. The bones burst through the skin. She still lived. “Jesu, Jesu, Jesu, have mercy on me!” Those were her last words, the words of one of the sweetest and gentlest of women, done to death with unbelievable brutality because she would not be false to her conscience.

We are told that her body remained in the press till three o’clock in the afternoon. Then the poor blood- covered mass was taken out and rolled up roughly in a sheet. At midnight the executioners buried the body secretly, lest the Catholics might claim her bones as relics. And they buried it beneath a dung-heap. Some weeks later the Catholics discovered where the body had been buried, and in the dead of night rescued it from its ignominious grave and brought it, still incorrupt, to some point far distant. There, in a grave now unknown, they reverently buried this noble woman, Margaret Clitherow, the Pearl of York.

There are other stories of the heroism of womanhood that could be told of these days. Margaret Clitherow was not the last to suffer. How inspiring is the story of Margaret Ward! She was companion to a Catholic lady of London, and having heard that a certain missionary priest, Father William Watson, was in jail and in danger of perversion, she determined to come to his help. Taking a basket of provisions, she bribed the jailer’s wife, and so was able to succor the poor priest.

She finally arranged to help him escape, and got the aid of a young Irishman, John Roche, to further her plans. The priest escaped, but Roche and Margaret Ward were arrested. Roche was executed at Tyburn. Margaret was thrown into prison, where she was flogged and hung up by her wrists, the tips of her toes only touching the ground, for so long a time that she was crippled and paralyzed. Liberty was offered her if she would ask the Queen’s pardon and promise to go to the Protestant church. She declared that she had committed no offence against the Queen. “With regard to my going to church,” she said, “I have been convinced for many years that it is not lawful to do so, and I would lay down many lives, if I had them, rather than act against my conscience or do anything against God and His holy religion.” And so she was put to death.

Another woman who was very like Margaret Clitherow was Mrs. Anne Line. She was the widow of a staunch Catholic who had given up a big estate rather than sacrifice his faith and had lived abroad until his death. Then she had returned to England, and had been chosen to manage a house in which priests might find a refuge during the days of persecution. She was physically weak. “Though I desire above all things to die for Christ,” she said to Father Gerard, “I dare not hope to die by the hand of the executioner; but perhaps the Lord will let me be taken in the same house as a priest, and then be thrown into a chill and filthy dungeon, where I shall not be able to last out long.”

She was at last arrested for harboring priests, and asked to plead guilty or not to the charge.

“My lords,” she exclaimed, “nothing grieves me but that I could not receive a thousand more!”

She was so weak that she had to be carried to court in a chair. She was condemned. On the day of her execution, kissing the block with joy, she knelt to pray, and kept on praying till her head was struck off. This was in February, 1601, fifteen years after the death of Margaret Clitherow.

What noble women were they all! But none is quite so appealing as Margaret Clitherow. What a glorious example is she to the wife and mother! Her heart was filled with love for her husband and her children. Yet willingly she parted even from these dear ones, willingly let her home be broken up, willingly let her little flock be scattered, for the glory of God. When God showed her the way of the Cross and commanded her to take it, she did not plead that she was a wife and mother, that her duty was to stay with them, her loved ones that so needed her. No. It was enough that God called. He had a greater claim even than her little ones. She would seek first the Kingdom of God and His justice, knowing that a greater love than hers would come to care for her children when she was gone, even the love of Him who so loved the little ones.

Blessed the children that have a mother who loves God even more than she loves them!

– text taken from the book Great Wives and Mothers by Father Hugh Francis Blunt, 1917