The biographies always begin with her nickname, “The pearl of York.” The daughter of the sheriff of York and married to a wealthy and prominent man, said to have been beautiful, St. Margaret Clitherow had it all. Then she entered the Church at the age of eighteen, in 1574.
She joined what looked to be a losing cause, and threw herself into it with divine abandon. She had in her own home a “priest-hole,” a hiding place for the priests who travelled the country in secret, saying Masses and hearing confessions. That by itself was a capital offense. She had another one in a different part of York.
From Strictness to Savagery
Queen Elizabeth and her henchmen raged against the Church, banning Masses and torturing and killing every priest they could find, and any layman who helped them. As Evelyn Waugh wrote in his book about the Jesuit martyr Edmund Campion, the state “felt that the Catholics constituted a grave menace. They were proving more stubborn in their faith than had at first seemed likely. . . . Here was something unexpectedly vigorous and up to date, which must either suffer decisive and immediate defeat, or conquer.”
The state ordered its agents to repress Catholicism even more than it had. Its agents could no longer look the other way. “The repression had begun which was to develop year by year from strictness to savagery, until, at the close of the century, it had become the bloodthirsty persecution in which Margaret Clitheroe was crushed to death between mill stones for the crime of harboring a priest.”
After twelve years as a Catholic, and a subversive one, Margaret was finally arrested. The sheriffs raided her home. Finding nothing, they stripped a boy naked and threatened to beat him till he gave up the house’s secrets. He led them to the priest’s hiding place, from which the priest had escaped, where they found all the religious items they needed to arrest Margaret.
Brought before the Council, Margaret infuriated her persecutors by being cheerful and brave, and by not caring about their threats. She had said, “I am fully resolved in all things touching my Faith, which I ground upon Jesu Christ, and by Him I steadfastly believe to be saved . . . 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 than we have received, the Apostle biddeth us not believe him.”
The court quickly tried and convicted her for harboring priests and hearing Mass. It is said she refused to plead, so her children and servants wouldn’t be called as witnesses, though that meant automatic conviction. She may have been pregnant, but that would make no difference to the persecutors.
They ordered her to die by being slowly crushed to death under weights. “God be thanked, I am not worthy of so good a death as this,” she said. She told a friend, “”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.”
I Die For the Love of the Lord
Fifteen days after her arrest, on Lady Day (the Feast of the Annunciation), she was executed. She walked to the place of execution barefoot, having sent her shoes and socks to her daughter, it is said as an encouragement to follow her in serving Jesus. Hoping for a prize to use against the Church, officials begged her to renounce her faith. She refused, explaining, “No, no, Mr. Sheriff, I die for the love of my Lord Jesu.”
The executioners laid her on the ground with a sharp stone under her back, tying her outstretched arms to posts, put a door on her, and then began piling weights on the door. This method took fifteen minutes to kill her. Her last reported words were, “Jesu! Jesu! Jesu! have mercy on me!”
St. Margaret Clitherow was canonized by St. Pope John Paul VI in 1970 as one of the forty martyrs of England and Wales. Her feast is celebrated on March 26th. Her story can be found in the original Catholic Encyclopedia and found also in the biography written by her confessor, Father John Mush, among other sources. You can read Waugh’s Edmund Campion online here. For other stories of the saints’ deaths, go here.
The illustration is taken from