The Catholic Defender: The St. Margaret Clitherow Story
St. Margaret Clitherow is a name I recall from reading the book, "The Prey of the Priest Catchers: The Lives of the 40 Martyrs" written by Knowles Leo and published by St. Paul: Carillon Books ( 1980). My Mother loaned me the book shortly after college in the early 1980's because of my recent return to the Catholic Faith.
Pope Paul VI canonized these holy martyrs who valued their eternal salvation over the easy route of apostasy that was rampant in England between 1535 - 1829. The book covers those faithful ones between 1535 - 1679.
Even today, it is extremely interesting to learn the ingenuity of those who hid Catholic priests traveling from place to place in one of histories great cat and mouse investigations of all time.
Despite the vast resource the Protestant Parliament in England held during this terrible persecution, The Underground True Church in England, the Catholic Church, people were moving about hiding their Catholic Faith.
What were called "priest holes" the faithful were successful in avoiding detection when houses were raided as priests were well hidden by fake walls and secret panels offering concealment.
Of these martyrs, Pope Paul VI wrote, "These martyrs take us back to those turbulent times when the Christian family was torn apart. Yet their canonization should not reopen old wounds. On the contrary, it should offer us a signal opportunity humbly to confess our own faults and to ask pardon for them."
St. Margaret Clithrow was born in Middleton, England, in 1555 to Protestant parents, one of five children of Thomas and Jane Middleton. By this time, Protestantism was but in England only 20 years, but the English Parliament made the Mass illegal to the point of death.
Thomas Middleton was a business man who served as a sheriff until his death in 1569 when Margaret was 14 years old. When Margaret was 16 years old she married John Clitherow in 1571 bearing three children.
Despite the religious persecution of Catholics, St. Margaret converted to the Catholic Faith in 1574 through John's brother, William, who was a Catholic priest underground. John successfully supported his wife paying his wife's fines for missing the Anglican service. St. Margaret was first imprisoned in 1577 for not going to the Protestant services. While serving a third sentence, St. Margaret's third child, William, was born in jail.
Despite being under surveillance, St. Margaret continued to hide priests building more chambers or renting other houses to hide them. Mass was being celebrated due through the heroism of St. Margaret frustrating the Protestant priest catchers.
It was well known that the Queen's agents occasionally stayed at the Black Swan Inn, yet, St. Margaret was able to hide Catholic priests right under their noses.
Henry, St. Margaret's first born son, left England for France where he trained for the priesthood which caused the Queen's agents to terrorize the Clithrow household.
A frightened neighbor boy was shamed and tricked to reveal a priest hole which ensured St. Margaret's arrest.
Being brought before a court in York accused of harboring Catholic priests, because of the threat of what the Protestants would do to torture St. Margaret's children she was sentenced to death.
The Protestant Minister of the Court attempted to have St. Margaret renounce her Catholic faith, but she followed St. Paul's words to stand firm in the faith.
1 Corinthians 16:13 says, “Be on your guard, STAND FIRM in the FAITH, be courageous, be strong. Your every act should be done with love”.
On March 26, 1586, St. Margaret, despite being pregnant with her fourth child, she was stretched out with a sharp rock the size of a fist planted on her back as she was held to the ground. A large heavy door was laid over her as they loaded weights until she died a slow unbearable death. After several bones were snapped in place, it took about 15 minutes before she finally died.
The executioners who were assigned to carry out the order were to cowered to act it out. They hired four beggars who were more than willing to accomplish the task for 30 pieces of silver.
They striped St. Margaret's clothes and tied a handkerchief across her face. They placed stones on the door placed over her until she died. Her body was left for several hours
St. Margaret had told a friend after learning of her execution, “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.”
The Catholic Church followed the Church calendar which March 26 was Good Friday that year (1586), but for the apostates, they called this day, "Lady Day".
Hebrews 12:1-2 states, "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God."
St. Margaret is now forever more among that great cloud of witnesses and her feast day in March 26.