Margaret Clitherow was one of only three women to be executed for her Catholic faith during the reign of Elizabeth I, after being arrested for sheltering priests and refusing to plea guilty or not guilty. In recent years she has been turned into a saint, and become on of a set of English martyrs.
There are two strands to this book. We start with an introduction to the religious history of the England from Henry VIII onwards, and the impact it had on a city like York. The national story then becomes one of our strands, tracing how wider events influenced the laws against Catholics, the debate within the Catholic community about how to act and the Government’s response to a genuine threat from Catholic powers and some elements of the Catholic community. The second strand looks at the life of Margaret Clitherow, from childhood to her eventual execution.
Both of these strands are interesting stories. Margaret was part of the establishment of York, and was actually the daughter-in-law of the Mayor at the time of her execution! During her life her family had worked as butchers in the famous shambles, and run successful taverns. She was married with children, one of whom she sent overseas to study at a Catholic seminary (what his attitude to this was is unknown). Her life story brings us into the heart of Tudor York, a city that suffered from the dissolution of the Monasteries, but was generally recovering under Elizabeth. She was raised Protestant but converted to Catholicism, and we also learn a great deal about the surprisingly well documented Catholic community of York in this period.
To modern eyes the main villain of the piece is Father Mush, one of the priests Margaret was sheltering and the author of the most detailed history of her life. He seems very much to have wanted to create a martyr, and took advantage of someone that even his own writing suggests was a vulnerable person who needed help, not a fanatic willing to take advantage of her. To then go on to celebrate in print the death he helped paints him in an even worse light.
The author makes an interesting comparison between the reigns of Elizabeth and her sister Mary. During the six year reign of Mary nearly 300 Protestants, including 56 women, were executed for their religion. In contrast during Elizabeth’s forty five year long reign 200 Catholics were executed, some of them for taking part in genuine plots to overthrow the Queen.
Margaret herself is difficult to judge – we know plenty about her life, but most of the material on her attitudes and character come from Mush, not a reliable witness and one with a clear agenda of his own. By our standards her later behaviour seems self-destructive, but it wouldn’t have seemed that way too many of her contemporaries. Her fate was terrible, so we have to have sympathy for her, while at the same time struggling to really understand her motivation.
1 – Introduction
2 – Power and Religion (Prior to 1547)
3 – Turmoil and Decline (1547-1558)
4 – Change and Slow Recovery (1558-1570)
5 – Family and Marriage (1570-1574)
6 – Conformity or Recusancy (1574-1580)
7 – Schism and Crackdown (1580-1585)
8 – Treason and Plot (1585-1586)
9 – Arrest (1586)
10 – Trial (1586)
11 – Punisment (1586)
12 – Post-mortem (1586 and Beyond)
13 – Closing Thoughts
Author: Tony Morgan
Publisher: Pen & Sword History