Margaret Clitherow or the Construction of a Saint?

The season of blog posts by some of our Master’s students is upon us once more. Lula Brunel, Isaure Emmanuelli and Hector Erb share their research into Yorkshire martyr Margaret Clitherow. 

 

 

In contemporary British Catholic culture, Margaret Clitherow is regarded as a symbol of courage, devotion, and sacrifice, and has a significant legacy.

Born in 1556, Margaret Clitherow was raised protestant. She married John Clitherow in 1571 and converted to Roman Catholicism three years later. Being a Catholic, she did not attend mandatory protestant church services, which resulted in fines. However, these fines were paid by her husband; it is safe to say that Margaret Clitherow’s status as a married woman helped her subvert authorities. She was first imprisoned in 1577. She would then be arrested repeatedly during her lifetime, but always managed to escape death.[[1]]

However, her downfall came when she started harbouring priests and hosting mass. She was seized on March 10th 1586, during a raid on her home where authorities found evidence against her, such as a priest hole and catholic ornaments.

In 1584, The Act against Jesuits, seminary priests, and such other like disobedient persons had been passed by the Parliament. It targeted not only Jesuits and seminary priests but also people who harboured them who —if caught— would be fined and imprisoned for felony, or even executed for treason.[2] This sealed Margaret Clitherow’s fate.

She was put on trial and refused to plead guilty or innocent, stating that only God could judge her. Her refusal to plea resulted in an inevitable death sentence. She was sentenced to “peine forte et dure” which translates to “strong and harsh punishment”. She was crushed to death, pressed under her very own door which has been said to weigh 800 pounds.[[3]][[4]][[5]] Her death was so gruesome that Queen Elizabeth I, a Protestant, is said to have written a letter to her people, distancing herself from the execution.[[6]]

Margaret Clitherow gave her life to the Catholic cause. Canonised in 1970 by Pope Paul VI[[7]], she is a symbol of strength and hope. In their article Margaret Clitherow, Catholic Nonconformity, Martyrology and the Politics of Religious Change in Elizabethan England, Peter Lake and Michael Questier quoted Claire Cross, stating that “the Margaret Clitherow that has come down to us is largely a creation of Mush’s martyrological skills and polemical agenda.”[[8]] Indeed, all that has been written about Margaret Clitherow stems from John Mush’s account of her; The Life and Death of Mistress Margaret Clitherow[[9]], a hagiography he wrote the year she died.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a hagiography is a biography of a saint or a venerated person. It is also an idealising or idolising biography.[[10]] John Mush’s account of Margaret Clitherow fits both these definitions. John Mush was an English Roman Catholic priest and Margaret Clitherow’s confessor. Not only that, Clitherow was executed for harbouring him as well as another priest.[[11]] Naturally, Mush was biased when writing his account.

But how exactly did he manage to create this image of a Saint?

(Excerpt from the table of contents)

It all lies in the way he chose to write about her, from the words he used to the way he constructed his sentences. Upon reading his account for the first time, what is immediately noticeable is the way he has titled each chapter.

John Mush chose to describe Clitherow using words such as “virtuous”, “humility”, “perfect charity”, “obedience”, “zeal”, “devotion” and “abstinence” which all paint a picture of the ideal woman. Indeed, in patriarchal British 16th-century society, women were to be obedient, humble, and devoted to their duties as housewives. The choice of these words is not insignificant because they are qualifying adjectives that are semantically loaded; they hold an important meaning and positively influence how the reader will perceive Margaret Clitherow. Furthermore, all of these words are associated with the lexical field of Sainthood. It is possible that Clitherow was an ideal woman and respected the gendered norms of the time, however, there is a clear embellishment of her character through the language used.

(Excerpt from Margaret Clitherow’s trial, p.413)

In the text, the word “martyr” (as well as the derived word “martyrdom”) appears 150 times. Mush often refers to Margaret Clitherow as “the martyr” which, again, was not an insignificant choice. He especially refers to her as such during her trial, which emphasises the idea of sacrifice and courage. Plus, using such repetition pushes the reader to assimilate the idea that Margaret is “the martyr”; her name and the word become synonymous.

Furthermore, the idea that Margaret Clitherow has not committed any crime and hence, doesn’t need a trial, is repeated several times. According to her, no one can judge her except God, as everything she has done was for Him. Her actions are strictly between her and God because, in His infinite wisdom, He is the only one who is able to understand her doings.

(Excerpt, p.415)

This last sentence is very reminiscent of the words Jesus Christ spoke on the cross: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they do”[[12]]. The use of such a powerful reference reinforces the notions of altruism and sacrifice, again painting the image of a woman who knows she is right and ready to die for her cause.

Once more, it is not impossible that she could have said those words while on trial. Nevertheless, there once more seems to be an exaggeration of facts by the language used. There is an undeniable theatrical and dramatic dimension to this text, which is precisely what played in Margaret Clitherow’s favour because passages like these appealed to readers’ emotions. This was precisely John Mush’s intention because, in a zealously religious society, emotion dominated logic.

“Paradoxically the more careful the reading and closer the examination [of Mush’s text], the further the woman recedes and a series of archetypes begin[s] to move into her place.”[[13]]

This quote is extremely pertinent because it touches on a very factual matter: Margaret Clitherow’s status as a symbol precedes her womanhood.

When reading about Margaret Clitherow, it is possible to find information that contradicts itself. For instance, some write that she was pregnant when executed.[[14]] Whether it is true or not, this adds to the tragic dimension of Margaret Clitherow’s story. Furthermore, many facts about her remain unclear; such as her date of birth or motives to sacrifice herself for Catholicism. It has been said that Margaret Clitherow refused to plead because she wished to protect her children and close ones from being subjected to torture, which is highly altruistic. However, one can ask oneself: did her refusal to plea stem from this very reason? Or did she know that by doing so, she would be perceived and remembered as a martyr?All of these vague elements blur the lines between reality and fiction; turning Margaret Clitherow into a myth which is embellished over time.

In his account, John Mush wanted to create the image of a local and current Saint, one that would influence and encourage his contemporaries. He primarily wished to inspire Catholic women. Sixteenth-century England’s patriarchal society was — surprisingly— the perfect cover, allowing women to partake in clandestine activities. Although women could be imprisoned, sometimes for a long period of time, the Council in the North was generally reluctant to resort to this step.[[15]] Furthermore, according to John Mush, Margaret Clitherow saw her prison experience as beneficial.

(Excerpt, p.370)

In this excerpt, it is understood that prison was a positive experience, where one can strengthen their faith, uninterrupted by everyday life. This romanticised and even idealised vision of prison aimed at downplaying reality because if the consequences did not seem severe, then perhaps more people would be tempted to partake in the maintaining of the catholic faith; notably those who were in comfortable positions to do so.

Through clever elements like these, John Mush was able to create Saint Margaret Clitherow, The Pearl of York. In a post-Reformation England which sought to rid itself of Catholicism, Margaret Clitherow brought hope to those who needed it the most. Fighting for what she believed in, she was fervently devoted to her faith until her very last breath.

A true symbol of devotion and sacrifice, she has inspired many and remains a staple of Catholicism.

 

Bibliography

Primary source:

  • Mush, John. ‘A True Report of the Life and Martyrdom of Mrs. Margaret Clitherow’ in The Troubles of Our Catholic Forefathers Related by Themselves, edited by John Morris, 360-440. London: Burns and Oates, 1877.

https://sites.duke.edu/conversions/files/2014/09/Mush-True-Report-of-the-Life-of-St.-Margaret-Clitherow.pdf

Secondary sources:

  • Connors, Ryan . “The Pearl of York Isn’t Famous York Minster, but This Martyr.” Aleteia — Catholic Spirituality, Lifestyle, World News, and Culture, March 25, 2023.

https://aleteia.org/2023/03/25/the-pearl-of-york-isnt-famous-york-minster-but-this-martyr/.

  • Jenkins, John Philip, The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Gloria Lotha. “Peine Forte et Dure | English Law.” Encyclopedia Britannica, November 30, 2010.

https://www.britannica.com/topic/peine-forte-et-dure.

  • Lake, Peter, and Michael Questier. “Margaret Clitherow, Catholic Nonconformity, Martyrology and the Politics of Religious Change in Elizabethan England.” Past & Present, no. 185 (2004): 43–90.

https://www.jstor.org/stable/3600869.

  • Luke 23:34 (English Standard Version Bible)

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+23%3A34&version=ESV

  • Merriam-Webster. ‘Hagiography’. Accessed April 28, 2023.

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hagiography

  • Ridgway, Claire. “Margaret Clitherow (C.1552-1586) – the Tudor Society.” The Tudor Society, March 1, 2021.

https://www.tudorsociety.com/margaret-clitherow-c-1552-1586/.

  • Screti, Zoe. “Margaret Clitherow, the Pearl of York.” Historic UK. Accessed April 28, 2023.

https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/Margaret-Clitherow.

  • The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Saint Margaret Clitherow | Biography, Death, & Facts.” Encyclopedia Britannica, March 21, 2023.

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Margaret-Clitherow.

  • Wikipedia Contributors. “Jesuits, Etc. Act 1584.” Wikipedia, October 22, 2022.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesuits.

  • Wikipedia Contributors. “John Mush.” Wikipedia, March 29, 2020.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Mush.

 

Reference of the illustration:

  • Wikimedia Commons. ‘ Margaret Clitherow.’ 1750. Last accessed April 11, 2023.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:St._Margaret_Clitherow_JS.jpg

 

Notes:

[1] Zoe Screti, “Margaret Clitherow, the Pearl of York,” Historic UK, accessed April 28, 2023.

https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/Margaret-Clitherow.

[2] Wikipedia Contributors, “Jesuits, etc. Act 1584,” Wikipedia, October 22, 2022.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesuits.

[3] John Philip Jenkins, The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Gloria Lotha, “Peine Forte et Dure | English Law,” Encyclopedia Britannica, November 30, 2010.

https://www.britannica.com/topic/peine-forte-et-dure.

[4] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Saint Margaret Clitherow | Biography, Death, & Facts,” Encyclopedia Britannica, March 21, 2023.

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Margaret-Clitherow.

[5] Claire Ridgway, “Margaret Clitherow (C.1552-1586) – the Tudor Society,” The Tudor Society, March 1, 2021.

https://www.tudorsociety.com/margaret-clitherow-c-1552-1586/.

[6] Zoe Screti, “Margaret Clitherow, the Pearl of York,” Historic UK, accessed April 28, 2023.

[7] Ryan Connors, “The Pearl of York Isn’t Famous York Minster, but This Martyr,” Aleteia — Catholic Spirituality, Lifestyle, World News, and Culture, March 25, 2023.

https://aleteia.org/2023/03/25/the-pearl-of-york-isnt-famous-york-minster-but-this-martyr/.

[8] Peter Lake and Michael Questier, “Margaret Clitherow, Catholic Nonconformity, Martyrology and the Politics of Religious Change in Elizabethan England,” Past & Present, no. 185 (2004): 43–90.

https://www.jstor.org/stable/3600869.

[9] Mush, John. ‘A True Report of the Life and Martyrdom of Mrs. Margaret Clitherow’ in The Troubles of Our Catholic Forefathers Related by Themselves, edited by John Morris, 360-440. London: Burns and Oates, 1877.

https://sites.duke.edu/conversions/files/2014/09/Mush-True-Report-of-the-Life-of-St.-Margaret-Clitherow.pdf

[10] Merriam-Webster. ‘Hagiography’. Accessed April 28, 2023.

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hagiography

[11] Wikipedia Contributors, “John Mush,” Wikipedia, March 29, 2020.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Mush.

[12] Luke 23:34 (English Standard Version Bible)

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+23%3A34&version=ESV

[13] Anne Dillon quoted by Peter Lake and Michael Questier, “Margaret Clitherow, Catholic Nonconformity, Martyrology and the Politics of Religious Change in Elizabethan England,” Past & Present, no. 185 (2004): 43–90.

[14] Claire Ridgway, “Margaret Clitherow (C.1552-1586) – the Tudor Society,” The Tudor Society, March 1, 2021.

[15] Peter Lake and Michael Questier, “Margaret Clitherow, Catholic Nonconformity, Martyrology and the Politics of Religious Change in Elizabethan England,” Past & Present, no. 185 (2004): 43–90.



Cite this blog post
Laurence Lux-Sterritt (2023, July 11). Margaret Clitherow or the Construction of a Saint? Britaix 17-18 - Seminar on the early-modern anglophone world (Aix-Marseille University, LERMA, UR 853) . Retrieved June 23, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/m58l

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