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To speak truth to power

02 November 2006

MARGARET CLITHEROW was born around 1553, the year of the Catholic Queen Mary’s accession, so in all probability she was brought up as a Catholic until she was eight, when her widowed mother married a Protestant. After that, Queen Elizabeth having ascended the throne, the religious influences in Margaret’s growing-up years were all Protestant.

At the age of 15, she married John Clitherow, a local widower and Protestant butcher old enough to be father. Within three years of her marriage, however, Margaret had been reconciled to the Catholic Church, although we cannot know how or why. By the time she was a young matron of 18, her house was established as the principal mass centre, and thus the heart of the underground Catholic community, in York.

For the rest of her life, Margaret befriended and harboured priests in her home, running a small (and illegal) school for the education of children, and “providing place and all things convenient” for celebration of the mass. For most of a decade, she was in and out of prison for these crimes, released once only long enough to deliver a child.

Margaret’s time in prison, in company with other recusant Catholics, seems to have been a profound experience of religious community: she used the time to study, pray, and strengthen her faith. During one of her long captivities, she learned to read and write.

But the deadly risks of recusancy caught up with her at last. A raid on the Clitherow house in March 1586 revealed the existence of the priest’s hiding place in the attic (although the priest had time to escape), as well as the altar, chalice, books and vestments for the mass.

Margaret was arrested, imprisoned and formally charged. Allowed no counsel, she conducted her own defence, repeatedly refusing to consent to a trial (“Having made no offence, I need no trial”, she calmly told the judge), lest her own and others’ children be compelled to give testimony against her.

This compassionate and courageous stand doubtless saved several lives, but cost Margaret her own: her refusal to enter a plea left the court no alternative under law but to pronounce the sentence of death by peine forte et dure, being pressed to death by heavy weights laid upon her prostrate body.

This terrible death had been known to take as long as three days, but was swift in Margaret’s case: as the weights were laid on her, she prayed: “Jesu, Jesu, have mercy on me.” Within a quarter of an hour, she was dead.

From her prison cell the night before she died, Margaret made a final bequest: she left her shoes to her eldest daughter, Anne, who was then 12 years old, and who, as a scholar in her mother’s illegal school, had also been arrested and imprisoned.

There is a strong motherly admonition implicit in the gesture. Follow in my footsteps, the wordless gift seems to say: carry on. Anne seems to have taken the hint: she was imprisoned again for “causes ecclesiastical” at the time of her mother’s death, and she later escaped an arranged marriage and made the hazardous journey to the Continent, where she became a nun in a Flemish convent.

I am intrigued by this pair of shoes. I think they have much to teach us as we seek to know what it is to stand fast while moving forward. Our world, and our still-divided Church, have changed in many ways in 400 years, but both still need Christians with the wisdom and courage to persevere in what matters most.

Margaret Clitherow reminds us that to stand fast is not to stand still. Steadfastness of purpose does not imply a heels-dug-in refusal to move into the future. Rather, to stand fast is to be deeply willing to continue on the way.

We are called to be a pilgrim people, headed ever deeper into God on whatever highway we have chosen. Like Margaret Clitherow, we may need to know when to speak truth to the powerful; when to live with failure; and even when to die in apparently ignominious defeat, planting what seeds we may, and entrusting to God and the future a harvest we will never see.

This is an edited extract from Pilgrims in the Kingdom: Travels in Christian Britain by David and Deborah Douglas (BRF, £12.99 Church Times Bookshop £11.70; 1-84101-265-3).


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