LEANDA DE LISLE
A CATHOLIC I CON THE TRIALS OF MARGARET CLITHEROW: PERSECUTION, MARTYRDOM AND THE POLITICS
OF SANCTITY IN ELIZABETHAN ENGLAND
By Peter Lake and Michael Questier
(Continuum 244pp £19.99)
IN HER YORK prison Margaret Clitherow practised for her execution. She stripped naked and put on a crude linen shift she had made, unstitched at the sides. Then she lay flat on the stones. The next day, 25 March 1586, she lay down again, this time with weights laid over her, and was crushed to death. In 1970 the Catholic Church declared her a saint. But as Peter Lake and Michael Questier reveal, her fate was not only a consequence of Protestant persecution, but of a bitter ideological war between Catholics.
Eventually the regime, under the Lord President of the Council of the North, the third Earl of Huntingdon, decided publicly to shame this dissident voice.
The chief instigator of Clitherow’s arrest appears to have been her own stepfather, Henry May, who became Lord Mayor of York shortly before her trial. He wanted to produce enough evidence to bring her to heel, but not enough to make her a martyr. In the event the only real evidence against her came from a child. She was told they would not hang her on a boy’s word; all she had to do was make some public act of compliance. But May’s hopes for a show tr ial were dashed when Clitherow refused to plead. The punishment for this was the medieval sanction peine forte et dure. Desperate attempts were made to save her from this fate. Four women who examined her insisted that she was pregnant. But some local worthies wanted her dead, pregnant or not. They got their way. Her ribs burst through her skin as she died, slowly crushed under 800 pounds of weight, with a sharp stone under her back. On 25 March this year over 700 Catholics heard a Latin Mass held in Clitherow’s honour at York Minster, the first since the Reformation. But
The arrival of Mary Stuart in England in 1568 had prompted a Catholic revival in the north. The hope was that Mary would succeed Elizabeth. In the meantime the question for Catholics was to what extent they should defy the state in practising their faith. In particular, should they attend Protestant ser vices, as required by law? One Catholic pr iest, Thomas Bell, suggested that Catholics should attend Protestant services and announce that they did so, not out of any liking for the service, but as a demonstration of their l oyalty to the Queen. Other pr iests feared that even this level of compromise would end in the acceptance of heresy. They preached separatism, and asked Catholics to endure the fines and imprisonment that followed.
Clitherow was in her lifetime, and has remained, a controversial figure. Was she a saint or a suicide; a ferociously independent woman or the dupe of fanatics? Did she refuse to plead to ensure f amily and fr iends were not complicit in her death as witnesses and juror s? Or was it, as one historian has suggested, because she wanted to protect family property from confiscation? Peter Lake and Michael Questier certainly do not accept the latter suggestion. But nor do they simply reiterate more traditional views.
The laity often simply switched position from recusancy to so-called ‘church papistry’, depending on the intensity of the persecution and their personal difficulties. But here too there were those who took a harder line. Clitherow was one such. She had converted to Catholicism two or three years after her marriage to a York butcher in 1571. He remained Protestant while she fitted her duties as a wife, mother and the manager of his shop around her religious work and devotions. She turned her home over to religious services, visited Catholic prisoners, and urged others to do as she did. Her husband complained drunkenly about her enthusiasms, and even Catholics felt rather sorry for him. But others were also angered by her actions.
Taking a fresh look at the sources, the authors place Clitherow’s life and death at the heart of local, national and international politics. There is fascinating material on the role of women in defying the persecution, and on contemporary works of propaganda such as Leicester’s Commonwealth (I had no idea a similar work was penned attacking Huntingdon). But the authors’ principal focus is the divisions between those pr iests who preached separatism and those who allowed a degree of church papistr y. The issues at stake did not dissipate after Clitherow’s death, and the second part of the book describes how contemporaries understood her fate up to 1603. The real horror in this story unfolds here, for it lies not in Clitherow’s death, awful as it was, but in the vicious squabbles to which underground groups are so subject. Pr iests betrayed other pr iests to ter r ible
LITERARY REVIEW July 2011