31 August 2022

A shrine in York dedicated
to Saint Margaret Clitherow,
the martyr ‘Pearl of York’

The supposed house of Saint Margaret Clitherow is on the right in the Shambles, York (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

In my brisk and all-too-short exploration of the mediaeval churches of York, one of the most unusual I saw must be a small building on the Shambles that is now the Shrine of Saint Margaret Clitherow.

Margaret Clitherow was executed on the bridge in York for harbouring a priest and refusing to abjure her faith.

However, the shrine is not actually in Margaret Clitherow’s house. She probably lived at 11-12 The Shambles, but her shrine is in a similar Tudor house across the street at 35-36 The Shambles.

Margaret Clitherow was born in 1553, the daughter of Thomas and Jane Middleton. Her father was a wax-chandler and Sheriff of York in 1564, a churchwarden of Saint Martin’s Church, Colney Street, and a member of a respectable, prosperous, Church of England family.

At the age of 15, she married a prosperous meat merchant, John Clitherow (or Clitheroe), a wealthy butcher and a chamberlain of the city. She moved into his house in The Shambles, where the butchers of York traded, and they were the parents of three children.

Margaret became a Roman Catholic in 1574 through the influence of the wife of Dr Thomas Vavasour, a prominent Catholic in York. This was a problem for John Clitherow, who was responsible for reporting suspected Catholics to the authorities. But it seems that for the most part, her husband. His brother William was a Catholic priest, and John was happy to look the other way and tolerate her religious activities and her insistence on educating their children as Catholics.

Around the same time, Canon Henry Comberford, former Precentor of Lichfield Cathedral, was imprisoned in York, and from his prison cell in the Upper Sheriff’s Kidcote on Ouse Bridge he seems to have spread his beliefs amongst his fellow prisoners. As his fame grew, those outside the prison walls sought audiences with him. The confessions of at least two York prisoners, William Tessimond and John Fletcher, suggest the influence of Comberford’s teaching.

The historian John Aveling points out the importance of Henry Comberford in the development of recusancy in York. He attributes to him no small part in the growth in number of recusants in the city from only 15 in 1568, to 67 in 1576.

However, in 1577, Margaret was cast into prison, not for worshipping as a Catholic, but for failing to attend Anglican services. Two further prison sentences followed, the longest lasting 20 months. While she was in prison, she learned to read Latin so she could follow the Catholic liturgy.

An Act of Parliament in 1581 made it an offence to worship at a Catholic service or to offer a hiding place to Catholic priests. Harbouring a priest was an offence punishable by death. The method of execution involved being pressed to death under a heavy weight, an extreme sentence that was rarely carried out.

Margaret Clitherow built a secret chamber inside her house in The Shambles, where priests could hide. Her home became one of the most important hiding places for fugitive priests in the north of England. Local tradition also says she housed her clerical guests in The Black Swan at Peasholme Green, where the Queen’s agents were lodged too.

She made a secret cupboard, where she hid vestments, as well as bread and wine for the Mass.

The Shrine of Saint Margaret Clitherow in the Shambles, York (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Her house in the Shambles was raided in March 1586. A priest who was sheltering in the house managed to escape, but a frightened boy revealed the location of the secret chamber.

Margaret Clitherow was arrested and tried at the Guildhall in York. She refused a trial by jury, saying, ‘I know of no offence whereof I should confess myself guilty. Having made no offence, I need no trial.’

The judges tried in vain to persuade her to renounce her Catholic faith and so avoid the death sentence, but Margaret refused. She found little sympathy, even among her family, and her stepfather, Henry May, then Lord Mayor of York, said that she had committed suicide.

Margaret Clitherow was taken to the Toll Booth on the Ouse Bridge on 25 March 1586, which was both the Feast of the Annunciation (Lady Day) and that year also Good Friday. There she was crushed to death by door of her own house, weighing 7-8 cwt, or about 800-900 lb. She died within a quarter of an hour, although her body was left for six hours before the weight was removed.

Queen Elizabeth I wrote to the citizens of York, expressing her horror at the execution, and saying that Margaret should have been spared because of her gender.

The English poet and Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote an unfinished poem honouring ‘God’s daughter Margaret Clitheroe.’ She was canonised on 25 October 1970 as one of 40 English martyrs by Pope Paul VI, who called her ‘the Pearl of York.’

Saint Margaret’s Shrine is at 35-36 The Shambles. John Clitherow had his butcher's shop at 35. However, the street was re-numbered in the 18th century, so it is thought their house was actually opposite.

Her supposed house is now a shrine served by the Fathers of the Oratory and open to all. One room open to the public is used as a small chapel with a plaque telling the story of Margaret Clitherow’s life. Mass is celebrated at 10 a.m. on Saturdays. A relic said to be her hand is housed in the Bar Convent, York. A plaque was installed at the Micklegate end of the Ouse Bridge in York in 2008 to mark the site of her martyrdom.

The Ouse Bridge in York, where Margaret Clitherow was martyred on 25 March 1586 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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