The Life and Times of Saint Margaret Clitherow

In 1553, a baby girl called Margaret Middleton was born in Davygate within the city walls of York in northern England. It was a time of change and turbulence in a country which had oscillated between Catholicism and Protestantism. In the reign of Queen Mary, England was firmly Catholic.

York had experienced decades of decline, triggered by the Reformation, plague and pestilence, but Margaret was fortunate. She was born into a prosperous family. Her father Thomas was a wax-chandler and a successful businessman. Margaret’s mother Jane looked after the children, supported the business and ran the household.

When Queen Mary died in 1558, her half-sister Elizabeth became queen. The state religion was transformed back to Protestantism. Margaret’s father was part of the city’s governing class, and so the family conformed. From this time onwards, Margaret was raised a Protestant.

Thomas Middleton was a popular man. In 1564, he was elected one of two Sheriffs of York. By all accounts, Margaret was raised in a happy household. She was brought up to respect hard work, learned many practical skills and understood how to run a business. The expectation was she’d marry a man of a similar social class and be expected to stand in for him on occasion.

Although he’d not been a well man, it must have been a shock for Margaret in 1567 when her father Thomas died. He left behind a legacy for his family, and a small amount of money to be donated to the city’s poor, on the understanding they’d pray for his soul.

Margaret’s mother Jane wasn’t a widow for very long. In Tudor times, it was commonplace for women to remarry quickly but, even then, four months must have appeared quite soon. What’s more, Jane’s new husband, and Margaret’s stepfather, Henry Maye, was considerably younger than Jane and hailed from a lower social class. Tongues must have been wagging on the streets of York!

To be fair, Henry was a hard worker. Supported by Jane’s assets and the family’s standing, he transformed their home into a successful inn, and pursued many business interests. Over time, Henry, and his new family, prospered, until he took his own place amongst York’s governing class by becoming an alderman.

When all this was happening, Margaret was growing up. In 1571, she married a widower, the butcher John Clitherow, and moved to his household in The Shambles, a narrow street dominated by the city’s meat traders. In the years which followed, she raised a family, including a son Henry and a daughter Anne.

Critically, she was persuaded by a group of local women to convert to Catholicism. At the time, many people remained Catholic. Most though acted unobtrusively, playing along with the authorities. They attended official Protestant church services every Sunday (as the law ordered they should), before spiriting themselves away to illegal Catholic Masses whenever they could.

Others refused to conform. Even though her husband remained a Protestant, Margaret joined a tightly knit group of recusants. These were the dissenters who refused to attend official church services, due to the differences to Catholic Mass.

Such public non-conformity came at a cost. Records from the time highlight Margaret’s crimes and punishments. In addition to fines for her husband, she was sent to prison in 1577 and again in 1580. In 1581, she was temporarily released to give birth to a child, whilst in 1583 she was sentenced to a further 10 months in jail.

It’s likely John Clitherow loved his wife. He remained a Protestant, and for a time he was responsible for identifying people who didn’t attend church services, but he paid her fines. If he wasn’t actively supportive of her ways, at least he accepted them. Perhaps, this was partially due to the fact some of his relatives were Catholics too.

Refusing to attend Sunday service was an important crime, but not the worst. To be found guilty of helping Catholic priests, or hosting Catholic Mass, risked being sent to the gallows. On 10th of March in 1586, the city authorities lured John Clitherow away from The Shambles, so his house and premises could be raided by the Sheriff of York. Accused of harbouring Catholic priests, Margaret was arrested and dragged away from her children.

This was when the family intrigue aspect of Margaret’s story really begins. Her mother, Jane, had sadly died the year before. Following the family tradition, stepfather Henry had remarried quickly, to a much younger spouse. He’d also developed much grander political ambitions. A month before Margaret’s arrest, he’d been elevated to the lofty position of Lord Mayor of York.

Imagine the controversy, the new Lord Mayor’s stepdaughter was openly Catholic and a convicted criminal. And now it was rumoured she might be hiding Catholic priests and allowing Mass to be held in her house. Could Henry really have ordered the arrest of his first wife’s daughter? He certainly had the motive and, as Lord Mayor, he had the means.

What followed was a show trial at York Lent Assizes, but this blog is long enough already. I’ll leave you with this one thought… Margaret and Guy Fawkes were close neighbours. Did what happen next inspire his own future actions? A carefully researched and fictionalised version of Margaret’s story is told in my latest novel The Pearl of York, Treason and Plot.

All profits in 2020 are being donated to St Leonard’s Hospice in York. They do fantastic work and need additional funding now more than ever. For just a few pounds, you can read a five star rated novel and support this great cause. The Pearl of York, Treason and Plot is available now on Amazon in Kindle and paperback formats.

Winner of the Coffee Pot Book Club Highly Recommended award – “A heartbreaking book that grabs you from the first page and does not let you go until the last full-stop. I cannot praise this book enough. It was absolutely brilliant from beginning to end. This is an example of Historical Fiction at its most exquisite.”

Thank you. Tony Morgan.

Links to additional information:

The Pearl of York – Amazon UK

The Pearl of York – Amazon US

The Pearl of York – Reviews on Goodreads

St Leonard’s Hospice

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