St Margaret kneels in this portrait of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales by Daphne Pollen
Today is the feast of St. Margaret Clitherow, patroness of businesswomen, converts, martyrs and of the Catholic Women’s League.
Margaret Clitherow was born as Margaret Middleton. The daughter of a wax chandler, she married a butcher called John Clitherow when she was 15 years old in 1571. They had three children.
When Margaret was 18 she converted to Catholicism, although her husband, while supportive of his wife, remained Protestant. Margaret became a friend of persecuted Catholics in the north of England. Her son, Henry, trained at Reims in order to become a Catholic priest and they regularly held Masses at her home in York. In the event of a raid, there was a hole in her attic that enabled priests to escape to the adjoining house.
The house believed to have been hers is now called the Shrine of the St Margaret Clitherow and is open to the public. Margaret was arrested in 1586 for harbouring Catholic clergy. She refused to plead guilty to the charge because she knew her children would be brought forward as witnesses and consequently might be subjected to torture.
Margaret’s humanity and holiness can be readily evidenced in her words to a friend when she learned of her condemnation: “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 was executed by being crushed to death on Good Friday in 1586. The two sergeants hired to kill her used four beggars to do the deed instead. It took her 15 minutes to die as she was crushed with rocks and stones. Her last words were “Jesu! Jesu! Jesu! have mercy on me!”
Her body was left for six hours until the weight was removed. Her hand was saved following her death and is now a relic in the chapel of the Bar Convent in York.
When Elizabeth I heard of Margaret’s horrific death, she wrote to the citizens of York condemning the act and arguing that women should not be executed. Her son William also became a priest and her daughter Anne became a nun in Louvain, Belgium. Margaret was beatified in 1929 by Pope Pius XI and canonised in 1970 by Pope Paul VI. She is one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.
In 2008, a commemorative plaque was installed at the Micklegate end of Ouse Bridge in York marking the site of her martyrdom.
(Adapted from the Catholic Herald online)