Today is the feast day of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales, canonized by Pope Paul VI on October 25, 1970. These very brave men and women were martyred for the True Faith in England and Wales between 1535 and 1679, and they are representative of hundreds of Catholics in these countries who went to their death rather than to renounce their Catholicism.
John Pridmore, a reformed gangster from England, talks elquently about Saint Margaret Clitherow in the above video, and her life is typical of these brave champions of Christ.
Margaret Middleton, the Pearl of York as she has become known by future generations, was born in York. Her father Thomas was prosperous and eventually became Sheriff of that city. After the death of her father, her mother Jane arranged for Margaret to marry John Clitherow, a wealthy butcher in York. It was a love match from the beginning, and three children, Henry, Anne and William, signs of that love, quickly followed. In 1574 Margaret converted to Catholicism. Her husband remained Anglican but supported his wife in her decision to convert, perhaps influenced by the fact that his own brother William was a Catholic priest. John paid the fines assessed against Margaret for her not attending Anglican services, and allowed her to raise their children as Catholics.
Margaret throughout her life was always an extremely charitable woman and was beloved by all who knew her in York. It was only natural, although extremely dangerous, that she extended this charity to Catholic priests, who were hunted by the authorities in Elizabethan England as if they were wild beasts. Sheltering priests on the run, including her brother-in-law, was a constant occupation for Margaret. Some of the priests later went on to be die as martyrs at Tyburn in London, and Margaret went on clandestine pilgrimages to Tyburn to pray where these holy men had died.
Placed in jail for a time for her failure to attend Anglican services, she taught herself to read and write. Her son William was born while she was in jail. Margaret never hid that she was a Catholic, she was frequently outspoken, and she was becoming a symbol of Catholic resistance to the new religion and the regime that imposed it.
Henry her eldest son was sent abroad to study at Douai, the English seminary on the continent. This was the final straw for the authorities, and due to the testimony of a 14 year old Flemish boy, a member of the Catholics of York, who they threatened with a flogging, they learned that Margaret sheltered priests and sponsored masses. Brought into court in March 1586, she was asked to plead. She refused to do so. “I know of no offense whereof I should confess myself guilty. Having made no offense, I need no trial.” The Judge told her precisely the penalty that awaited her under English law if she did not plead:
“You must return from whence you came, and there, in the lowest part of the prison, be stripped naked, laid down, your back on the ground, and as much weight laid upon you as you are able to bear, and so to continue for three days without meat or drink, and on the third day to be pressed to death, your hands and feet tied to posts, and a sharp stone under your back.”
Ten days were given for Margaret to change her mind. All she had to do was plead, reveal all she knew about the activities of Catholics in York, and she could go free and rejoin her husband and her children. The temptation must have been overwhelming to do so. However, Margaret did not. The night before she died she sewed her burial shroud and said prayers for the Pope, the cardinals, the clergy and the Queen. As the weights that killed her on March 25, 1586 were being placed upon her, her last words were, “Jesu, Jesu, Jesu, have mercy on me.” She was in her early thirties at the time of her execution. Fittingly in1586 Good Friday fell on March 25. The authorities buried her body secretly in waste ground, in the forlorn hope that Catholics could ever forget a woman like Margaret Clitherow.
The Anglican Initiative of Pope Benedict carries on the work of Margaret Clitherow and her companions in courage. It is good that we remember them this day, and every day.