Recusants and Punishment in Elizabethan York

When researching the history of a time and/or a place, it’s sometimes hard to know where to begin.

My latest novel The Pearl of York, Treason and Plot is set in atmospheric Tudor York. When researching the novel, I discovered some very interesting resources. One or two I felt were too good to keep to myself, so I’d like to share them with you.

A quick Twitter and email exchange with a historian at the University of York set me off on an internet search for a number of second-hand books. One of his best recommendations was D M Palliser’s “Tudor York. This became as invaluable resource, helping me develop a feel for the city as it was 400 years ago. In particular, it aided my understanding of the people who lived there, their occupations, institutions and motivations, along with the city’s social problems, solutions and governance. I’ve written a separate blog about this book.

Given my novel’s set in York in the year 1586, another great academic resource was J C H Aveling’s “Catholic Recusancy in the City of York 1558-1791. This may sound a little boring, but the contents were fascinating. We’ll come back to the book later.

First, a little background. In my mission to explore what could have happened to Guy Fawkes to set him off down the road to (attempt to) blow up Parliament, I came to the conclusion something must have happened in his youth, and this could well have been linked to the treatment meted out to Catholics, perhaps to someone he personally knew.

Under Queen Mary, the whole population was expected to be Catholic. But when Mary died and was succeeded by her half-sister Elizabeth, the official church changed overnight in favour of the Protestant faith. Failure to confirm to the norm under either of these Tudor half-sisters would be bad news, resulting as it could in punishment and even, for some, death.

After copious executions of leading Protestants under Mary, things didn’t seem so bad at first under Elizabeth. She appeared to be more moderate and even accepting of some Catholic traditions. Over time things changed. In a way, I can understand her government’s growing paranoia against English Catholics. Pope Pius V in Rome certainly didn’t help. In 1570, he declared Elizabeth a heretic and promptly excommunicated her. The Papal Bull or order he’d made against her basically invited Catholics to remove Elizabeth from the throne, none too subtly encouraging her assassination.

In the background, of course, lurked the perfect Catholic replacement, Elizabeth’s cousin Mary Queen of Scots. Held under house arrest by the English authorities, Mary became increasingly linked to as number of Catholic plots. Unfortunately for her, this would only lead to her downfall. But that’s another story…

Under Elizabeth, the laws of “recusancy” made it illegal for anyone not to attend the Protestant Church of England service in their local parish every Sunday and on religious holidays. Failure to comply would see your name added to a list, one you wouldn’t wish to be on.

Let’s return to J C H Aveling’s book about Catholic recusancy. In the 1570’s and ‘80’s, many people in Yorkshire and beyond still supported the Catholic Church. But they did so quietly, attending the state service every Sunday, perhaps with their fingers crossed, whilst waiting for the opportunity to sneak off to attend an illegal Catholic Mass.

A small minority though were more openly defiant. They refused to swear any allegiance to the Queen above the Pope and refused to attend Church of England services. These were the recusants. And not long after her marriage, Margaret Clitherow, a butcher’s wife in York, was persuaded to convert to Catholicism and join them.

Margaret lived with her husband, John Clitherow (a Protestant) and their family in a narrow street called The Shambles. If you’ve been to York, you’ll most likely have been there. The overhanging buildings look lovely these days, but the butchers’ shops are long gone. Harry Potter memorabilia sellers have moved in instead.

Being a recusant was a risky business. A man’s property could be confiscated, and he could be barred from high office. Although this didn’t apply to Margaret (she was a married woman after all, so why would she have her own property?) her husband could be fined for her bad behaviour and she, herself, could be sent to prison. And this is exactly what happened, at least at first.

For much of the book, Aveling provides a detailed analysis of recusancy in Tudor York. Whilst this of interest, I found myself increasingly more drawn to the appendices and index. The content here was painstakingly extracted from official records of Tudor York. The recusants, their parishes in York, dates and their punishments are listed and quoted in detail. Here are some of the details about Margaret’s “criminal record”:

  • 2nd August 1577 – John Clitherow’s wife refuseth service and sermons… and committed to York Castle prison
  • 9th February 1578 – Margaret Clitherow appeared with husband and took bond to yield herself prisoner again at the Castle on Tuesday after Low Sunday, and not to confer with disobedient persons, the husband to pay 2 shillings for every Sunday and holiday his wife misses church
  • 10th June 1578 – Dispensed from returning to prison, Margaret Clitherow’s husband seeing to her good behaviour and paying forfeitures for her
  • 6th October 1578 – Margaret Clitherow’s husband to pay 30 shillings forfeitures and takes a new bond
  • November 1578 – Certificate required of payment of 30 shillings to poor
  • 3rd October 1580 – Margaret, wife of John Clitherow butcher, refused to take an oath or conform; committed close prisoner to York Castle
  • 24th April 1581 – Margaret Clitherow released from gaol to return 6 weeks after childbirth – her husband John Clitherow butcher for York to take bond
  • 8th March 1583 – Margaret wife of John Clitherow butcher – 10 months with sentence of forfeiture and committal to York Castle

As we can see, Margaret was in and out of jail for almost a decade, whilst at the same time she was raising a family. The 1581 entry is particularly enlightening, with Margaret released on licence to give birth. She’s one of hundreds of recusants listed in the book, with detailed records too for her friends Dorothy Vavasour, Anne Tesh and many others.

I felt this, and other research, gave me a feel for the lives the recusants must have lived. Never really knowing the next time they’d be arrested and sent once again to prison, but remaining defiant, no matter what the cost.

As the 1580’s progressed, the sanctions against Roman Catholics in England increased. Being a Jesuit or seminary Catholic priest in England was already a capital crime. Priests executed in York in the early 1580’s alone include Richard Kirkham, William Lacey, James Thompson and Hugh Taylor.

New laws were also introduced. Hosting a Catholic Mass, harbouring a Catholic priest or even helping one could lead a man or woman to the gallows. One such man was Marmaduke Bowes, executed in York in November 1585 for harbouring a priest.

Despite the risks, we know several priests resided in York during the first months of 1586, hidden and fed by local Catholics. Francis Ingleby and John Mush were amongst them. There were whispers both fathers were living in The Shambles at the back of a butcher’s house. But the new Lord Mayor was none other than the stepfather of Margaret Clitherow. Surely, he’d protect her? No. Following a morning raid, Margaret was arrested.

What happened next to his near neighbour may have radicalised the young Guy Fawkes, or perhaps he believed he could save her? Find out more by reading The Pearl of York, Treason and Plot. Every penny of profit in 2020 is being donated to St Leonard’s Hospice in York, who need these funds now more than ever.

To find out if this book’s for you, why not read the latest reviews on Goodreads

To purchase the book directly – Buy Now on Amazon in Kindle and Paperback

If you do read the book, please do leave a review and let me know what you think.

Many thanks, Tony Morgan.

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