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More than a womanly ornament

21 June 2011

Lavinia Byrne reads a new study of a recusant martyr

The Trials of Margaret Clitherow: Persecution, martyrdom and the politics of sanctity in Elizabethan England
Peter Lake and Michael Questier
Continuum £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18

I SO wanted to like this book. After all, I lived for five years at the Bar Convent in York, where Margaret Clitherow’s memory is revered, and the relic — her hand — is preserved.

I had taken it out on to the street to be venerated by more than one devout handicapped pilgrim from the safety of a taxi, while the meter ticked over. I had visited the but-chers’ quarter, the Shambles, where Margaret had sheltered Roman Catholic priests in her husband’s shop. I had stood on the Ouse bridge where she was martyred, crushed to death under a door.

I had been fascinated by this free spirit, who stood up to the Sheriff at her trial, assuring him that she died for “the love of the Lord Jesus”, not for the political motives he was trying to attribute to her, according to the account of her life written by her confessor, Fr John Mush.

The authors write: “We want to demonstrate that Clitherow’s story was integral to mid- and late Elizabethan politics, one crucial component of which was the radicalization of post-Reformation Catholicism.” But, by line 11 of chapter one, my spirits sank; for there she is described as an “ornament of womanly virtue”. This is the language of hagiography, not of the forensic analysis to which the authors aspire. So their thesis is also the source of my doubt: had they picked up on the polemic, but totally missed the person?

What we have here is a defence of a certain view of Elizabethan religion, where the adversaries can come from both within and without, and both Catholics and Protestants can be enemies by turn. The narrative is detailed and intriguing, because Lake and Questier have turned up a wealth of new evidence to defend their case. Thanks to this, we enter the world of Elizabethan religious politics in all its intensity. Who are the heroes and who the villains? The scholarly debate is advanced by this book, and is set to run still further.

Nevertheless, Margaret herself emerges victorious, clutching her martyr’s crown, certainly more than an ornament, and radicalised beyond any traditional reading of womanly virtue.

Lavinia Byrne is a writer and broadcaster.

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