If you ever go to York, you can visit a very old street (some of the buildings go back as far as the 1300s!) called The Shambles. It’s a narrow lane, with cobbles underfoot and timber-framed medieval buildings that seem to lean in on each other. You can’t help but think of Diagon Alley and Harry Potter when you see it. In J.K Rowling’s book, Diagon Alley is a similarly cobbled and winding street, it’s bustling shops completely hidden from the sight of the non-wizarding ‘muggles’.
In 1586, the Shambles was home to some very real secrets of its own. On a spring day that year, a search party came to raid the house of the Clitherows: a respected family who owned a butcher’s shop on the street. The house that was searched would turn out to be one of the most important hiding places for Catholic priests in the north of England, during a time when Catholics were persecuted for their faith. If somebody was caught helping to hide priests, they faced torture and a painful execution.
Margaret Clitherow, converted to Catholicism after getting married. She arranged for Mass to be secretly celebrated in the family home above the butcher’s shop, hid priests in a nearby house and ran a secret school to teach children about the Catholic faith.
Following the raid on her house, Margaret was charged with the crime of harbouring Catholic priests. She knew however that if she were to have a trial, that her children would be questioned (which might even mean torture) and that as witnesses they could end up betraying others, or be forced to deny their faith in public. So Margaret refused to answer the accusations. Because she wouldn’t give a plea (guilty or not guilty) Margaret was sentenced to death by crushing. She was made to lie with a sharp stone beneath her back and her own front door was laid on top of her. Gradually, stones were added to the door until she was crushed.
Margaret Clitherow is a real inspiration to us today, on a number of levels. She was a wife, a mother, a teacher and without doubt, a fearless woman! Not only did she follow her conscience, and remain loyal to her Catholic faith to the end, she did everything she could to protect her children and yet still pass on to them that same faith. Both of Margaret’s sons, by the way, went on to be ordained as Catholic priests and her daughter became a religious sister. The authorities were astounded by her joy when she appeared before them. She said to a friend, not long before her end,
“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.”
We have so many inspiring female saints, but any ladies who are beginning preparation for Confirmation this year might want to think about having Margaret as a patron!
Today, in this country, we celebrate the memorial of St. Margaret Clitherow, St. Anne Line and St. Margaret Ward (similarly awesome women martyr-saints from this time - I urge you to go and find out about them too!).
St. Margaret Clitherow: Pray for us! St. Anne Line: Pray for us! St. Margaret Ward: Pray for us!