1586: Saint Margaret Clitherow, pressed Catholic

1 comment March 25th, 2013 Courtney Thomas

(Thanks to historian Courtney Thomas for the guest post. -ed.)

On March 25, 1586 Margaret Clitherow, the wife of a York-based butcher, was subjected to one of the more obscure forms of capital punishment in early modern England: she was pressed to death, the mandated form of punishment for those who refused to enter a plea to a legal charge.*

Margaret was a victim of increasingly stringent attitudes toward recusants in the second half of Elizabeth I’s reign (1558-1603): Margaret was pressed to death just a year before the execution of Mary Queen of Scots for her role in a Catholic plot to overthrow the Elizabethan regime and two years before the 1588 Spanish Armada.

The two officials who were tasked with carrying out the sentence allegedly employed several beggars to perform the job instead and Margaret was taken to the toll-both on the bridge that straddles the river Ouse where she was stripped and had a handkerchief tied over her eyes as a blindfold. She was then placed upon a rock roughly the size of a baseball or an adult’s fist and a large panel of wood (roughly the size of a door) was put on top of her and slowly loaded with 700-800 pounds of rocks and stones.

In theory the smaller rock beneath her would break her back when the heavy rocks were piled on.

Witnesses report that she expired within about fifteen minutes. Other victims of this punishment were not typically so lucky. For example, Giles Corey, executed in Salem in 1692, had weights slowly piled on him for a period of several days (being asked daily before more weight was added if he wished to enter a plea to the charge that he was a warlock) before he expired.

Margaret was born Margaret Middleton in 1552/3, the daughter of a wax-chandler named Thomas and his wife Jane, the daughter of Richard Turner, an innkeeper. One of four children, she was born during the reign of Mary I (who has gone down in history with the unfortunate (but not entirely undeserved) appellation “Bloody” attached to her).

A bit of background on the process of the various reformations in England is necessary to understand why Margaret’s Catholic beliefs were treated so harshly.

Having broken with the Roman Catholic Church and founded the Anglican Church in the 1530s through a legislative reformation designed to assist him in securing the dissolution of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that he could wed Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII saw many of his religious policies undone by his heirs.

He was succeeded on the throne in 1547 by his son (with his third wife, Jane Seymour), Edward VI, who made England into a more recognizably Protestant state than Henry appears to have intended (while Henry was interested in reforming stances, he appears to have identified most strongly with Catholic principles and geared his reformation toward abolishing the authority of the Pope in English ecclesiastical affairs, rather than changing beliefs and practices).

Edward was, however, a short-lived king, having died in 1553 after but six years on the throne. He was succeeded by his half-sister Mary (daughter of Henry’s first wife Catherine of Aragon) who was a devout Catholic and spent much of her reign steering England back into the port of Catholicism — a task which involved martyring approximately three hundred of her subjects for their Protestant sympathies.

Mary, in turn, was succeeded by Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth was of a Protestant mindset and reinstituted the Anglican Church. Though initially reluctant to persecute people for their beliefs (she expressed herself as having no desire to “make windows into men’s souls”), political circumstances involving a plethora of plots on the part of Catholics (both real and perceived) against the Queen resulted in a hardening of attitudes.

While fines and penalties were in place for non-attendance at Church of England services, the regime also began to enforce strict penalties against those found guilty of sheltering priests and Jesuits. And it was to these laws that Margaret fell victim.


On July 1, 1571, when she was about eighteen years old, Margaret wed John Clitherow, a local York butcher and a widower with two sons. The number of children borne by Margaret to her husband is unknown; in addition to her stepsons William (1563-1636) and Thomas (d. 1604), she bore Henry (b. 1572) and Anne (1574-1622) and there is mention of other pregnancies but the details do not survive.

In 1574, when she was twenty one, Margaret experienced a spiritual awakening and converted to Catholicism.

While her husband did not join her in converting, members of his family also held Catholic sympathies and he was not unsupportive of her conversion, with the exception of one recorded incident when he railed against Catholics while drunk at a banquet.

Margaret soon became highly involved in northern England’s underground Catholic community. She regularly held masses in her home in the Shambles (where she assisted her husband with his business) and her son, Henry, traveled to Rheims (a Jesuit centre) to train for the priesthood. Inside her home, Margaret created a series of architectural features to facilitate the concealing of priests, including a priest hole and a hole which was cut between the attics of her house and the adjoining house which could be used by a priest to escape in the event that the house was searched.

Inevitably Margaret’s involvement with the local Catholic community drew official censure, and from 1576 onwards, John Clitherow incurred regular fines for her refusal to attend Church of England services with him. She was also imprisoned several times for her refusal to conform, serving three separate terms in York Castle as a recusant (August 1577 – February 1578; October 1580 – April 1581; March 1583 – winter 1584).

Once released, despite her efforts at concealment, on March 10, 1586 Margaret was arrested for harbouring priests (which, in 1585 had been made a capital offense). In a search of her house, a frightened child had revealed the location of a secret room containing Catholic paraphernalia and designed to shelter a priest.

After her arrest, Margaret was jailed and on March 14 she appeared at the assizes. Although she was repeatedly asked to plead, she refused a trial by jury and thereby incurred the penalty of peine forte et dure: being crushed or pressed to death. Margaret maintained that her refusal to plead was a measure to prevent her children and servants having to testify against her and also served to protect the souls of the jury which would find her guilty. It is very likely that she also wanted to protect other local recusants who had assisted her and desired to prevent the revealing of their identity, which a trial would have uncovered. However, many contemporaries simply thought her mad and wondered at her seeming indifference to her husband and children — and Margaret’s willingness to abandon them for martyrdom.

Yet, despite her imminent death, Margaret allegedly did not forget her family in her final days and reportedly sent her hat to her husband and her hose and shoes to her daughter, Anne. Some people, including her father-in-law, engaged in scurrilous mongering and postulated that Margaret’s willingness to die stemmed from guilt over an illicit encounter with her confessor, whose child she now carried. Such views, however, did not attain much popularity.

After her sentencing, she was visited by several local Protestant preachers and kin, who endeavoured in vain to persuade her to plead guilty and throw herself on the mercy of the assize justices. She also appears to have been pregnant at the time as many people urged her to publicly admit her condition and thereby obtain a stay of execution.

Margaret steadfastly refused to consider any of these things; she had embraced martyrdom. After her death, local family and friends (one of whom, John Mush, later authored a biography that remains the primary source for her life) found her corpse (buried anonymously as a criminal) and reinterred her in an unknown location in accordance with Catholic rites.

After his wife’s death, John Clitherow married for a third time and remained a convinced Protestant until his own death. The couple’s children, however, embraced their mother’s Catholic faith. Anne Clitherow was briefly imprisoned in 1593 for her refusal to attend Church of England services and eventually became a nun at the convent of St. Ursula’s in Louvain in 1598. Henry (the son who had traveled to Rheims) studied first to be a Capuchin (he joined that order in 1592) and then to become a Dominican. He died, possibly insane, without having firmly settled on an order. Margaret’s stepson, William, became a priest in 1608, and her other stepson, Thomas, a draper, was imprisoned for his recusancy. He died in Hull prison in 1604.

Margaret’s work for the English Catholic community and her martyrdom resulted in her canonization in the twentieth century. She was beatified in 1929 and canonized in October of 1970 — one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. After her execution, somebody apparently chopped off her hand to preserve as a relic at the Bar Convent in York. Margaret’s feast day in the current Roman Catholic calendar, together with that of the other thirty-nine English martyrs, is May 4 — although in England it is celebrated on August 30.

A few books about Margaret Clitherow

* Editor’s note: the trial could not begin without a guilty/not-guilty plea, so pressing was a means of forcing a mum defendant to the bar. Brute force often succeeded in extracting the necessary plea; however, because death by pressing preceded trial or conviction, a defendant hardy enough to undergo that fate could use it as a means to skip to the “execution” without suffering the other pains of criminal conviction. In Margaret’s case, she avoided the potential implication of other furtive Catholics at trial; in Giles Corey’s case, he avoided forfeiting his property upon the inevitable witchcraft conviction, and passed his estate to his heirs instead.

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1586: Anthony Babington and fellow plotters, Walsingham’d

4 comments September 20th, 2010 Headsman

The recently completed papal visit to England has summoned many a recollection of that country’s traumatic break from the Church. (As well as more recent embarrassments.)

While we know the schism from the comfort of retrospection, those present for its 16th century inception (and long afterward) had the task of sorting out winners and losers on blood-soaked scaffolds.

So we pause this date to note the extirpation September 20 and 21 of the Babington Plot, a half-baked scheme to re-establish the Old Faith that turned into one of history’s signature achievements of espionage.

Its namesake, young Sir Anthony Babington, was a secret Catholic with more money than sense; like many a Catholic of this time, he bristled under the rule of Elizabeth I, the daughter of the very woman who started all this English Reformation trouble.

Besotted with fellow-Catholic Mary Queen of Scots after having served as her page in his youth, Babington was easy prey for the fellow invariably described as Elizabeth’s “spymaster”Francis Walsingham.

Not one for scruples where his own security or his sovereign’s was concerned, Walsingham had long considered Mary Queen of Scots too dangerous to be left alive: every Catholic plot against Elizabeth intended to replace her on the throne with this Catholic cousin.

Trying to overcome Elizabeth’s reluctance to off fellow royalty — dangerous precedent, in these dangerous times — Walsingham entrapped Babington and a coterie of other Catholics into designing and documenting a scheme to assassinate Elizabeth and support a Spanish invasion.

And most importantly to Walsingham, they got Mary to sign off on it.

Though the design was grandiose, the real danger was pretty much nil — since Walsingham, a Renaissance reconnaissance man famous for his continent-spanning intelligence network, had penetrated the circle months before.* Walsingham let the conspiracy ripen long after he had the goods on the likes of Babington, intending to make it the instrument of Mary’s destruction. He succeeded.

Coded correspondence that Mary thought she was smuggling in and out of her cell was in fact being intercepted and decrypted.

When Babington wrote to her, alluding to his intent with “six noble gentlemen” to murder Queen Elizabeth, Mary doomed herself with a favorable reply:

The affair being thus prepared, and forces in readiness both within and without the realm, then shall it be time to set the six gentlemen to work; taking order upon the accomplishment of their design, I may be suddenly transported out of this place.

Within days, all — Mary, Babington, six gentlemen, and more — were in chains, and the commoners were being tortured into confessions and implications.**

The reckoning for Mary Queen of Scots would not arrive for some months yet.

But those of lesser breeding were dispatched with dispatch. Tried in two bunches, there were 14 in all condemned; on this date, Babington, was hanged, drawn and quartered for treason, along with accomplices John Ballard, Thomas Salisbury, Robert Barnewell, John Savage, Henry Donn and Chidiock Tichborne — the last of these leaving behind this doleful poetic adieu:

Elegy

My prime of youth is but a frost of cares,
My feast of joy is but a dish of pain,
My crop of corn is but a field of tares,
And all my good is but vain hope of gain;
The day is past, and yet I saw no sun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.
The spring is past, and yet it hath not sprung;
The fruit is dead, and yet the leaves be green,
My youth is gone and yet I am but young,
I saw the world and yet I was not seen;
My thread is cut and yet it is not spun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.
I sought my death and found it in my womb,
I looked for life and saw it was a shade,
I trod the earth and knew it was my tomb,
And now I die, and now I am but made;
My glass is full, and now my glass is run,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

-Chidiock Tichborne

(Hear this bummer of a verse read aloud here and here.)

The torture these first seven unfortunates endured as their entrails were ripped from their still-living bodies was so horrible that Elizabeth ordered the seven others awaiting execution the next day simply to be hanged to death before all the disemboweling business.†

A few books about spymaster Francis Walsingham

* Walsingham had plenty of plots to contend with, but did Elizabeth even greater service keeping tabs on the buildup of the Spanish Armada through a spy network in Italy — even using it to delay the invasion by a crucial extra year by drying up Spain’s credit line with Italian bankers. (Source, via (pdf))

Incidentally, and completely off topic: the subversive, forward-thinking philosopher Giordano Bruno — an Italian who was eventually executed by the Inquisition — has been alleged to be one in Walsingham’s employ.

** Luckily for Elizabeth, the treasonous Protestants who supported her back when she was at the mercy of her Catholic half-sister Mary Tudor were better able to hold their tongues under duress.

† One of those executed on September 21, Charles Tilney, has an oblique Shakespeare connection: he’s one possible author of the play Locrine, which Shakespeare might have revised and/or staged; Locrine is in the Shakespeare Apocrypha.

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