Having a fig in her hand

As a native of the fair city of York I have often walked down The Shambles, one of the most famous streets in England. A narrow medieval thoroughfare overhung with Elizabethan houses, The Shambles was originally a street of butchers. Nowadays it’s home to tired souvenir shops and cafes, but in the mid 16th century, the street was home to the saint and martyr Margaret Clitherow.

The Shambles, York

Known as ‘the Pearl of York’, Margaret Clitherow (1556?-86?), a Catholic convert, was married to the butcher John Clitherow. Their home became a refuge for Catholic priests seeking shelter during a time when Catholicism was being driven underground, and Margaret herself became a leader of the recusant community in York. Indicted for harbouring priests, she refused to stand trial, and was sentenced to peine forte et dure, pressing to death by stones. Today’s post is an account of her death, originally published in 1619.

After her examination she was put into a secret place under ground, and her husband into another, but about seven of the clock at night she was conveyed into the castle and there committed close prisoner, and her husband also about some hour after. Four days she remained there before she came to trial, during which time she never spake with her husband but once, and that in the presence of the jailer, after which time she could never be admitted to see him or speak to him.

During her imprisonment in the Castle she gave herself unto more strictness in abstinence and prayer. It being reported to her that the boy had accused her of harbouring and maintaining divers priests, and that according to a law newly in force, she was to suffer death for the same, she was much pleased with the news, and, smiling, thanked the messenger, wishing she had some good thing to give him, but, wanting better means, having a fig in her hand, she gave him that for a reward.

From the time that this holy martyr was committed to prison unto her death, which was some nine or ten days, she never wore any linen next unto her skin and her diet was water-pottage, rye bread, and small ale, the which she took once in the day but in little quantity. And from that time that she had certain notice that she should die she took no food at all.

The night before her death she spake unto the man’s wife that had the custody of her to have some women watch with her that night. ‘Not that I fear death,’ quoth she, ‘for that is comfort; but the flesh is frail.’ The woman told her that the jailer had locked the door and was gone to bed and, therefore, none could be had. But the woman herself, being ready to go to bed, put on her clothes again and sat by her until towards midnight. At this time the martyr rose up from her prayers, put off her apparel, and put on a linen habit. Without any other garment, she betook herself again unto her prayers on her knees until three of the clock, at which time she came unto the fireside and laid herself flat upon the stones where she lay until six in the morning.

At eight of the clock the sheriff came, and she went barefoot and bare-legged, and her gown loose about her, but her headgear was decently put on, and so she went cheerfully. The place of execution was the toll-booth some twenty foot distant from the prison. The street was full of people; insomuch as she could hardly pass. Yet as she went, she dealt her alms. The sheriff hastened her to come away, to whom she answered merrily, ‘Good Master Sheriff, let me deal my poor alms before I go. I have but a short time in this world.’

There were admitted into the room where she suffered death no more but the two sheriffs, one gentleman, one minister, four women, and those the sergeants had hired to to the execution. The martyr, coming into the room, kneeled and prayed unto herself. The officers and standers-by bid her pray with them and they would pray with her, which she denied, saying she would not so much as say ‘Amen’ unto their prayers. Then they willed her to pray for the queen whereupon she said, ‘I do pray for the Catholic Church, for the Pope’s holiness, for all such as have care of souls, and for all the Christian princes in the world.’ At which words the officers interrupted her, and commanded her not to put the Queen’s Majesty amongst that company. Yet she proceeded, ‘And for Elizabeth, Queen of England. And I humbly beseech God to turn her to the Catholic faith’. One of the sheriff’s, called Gibson, moved with compassion for her, withdrew himself unto the door and stood weeping. The other, nameth Fawcett, commanded her to put off her apparel, saying she must die naked.

She fell down on her knees, and the rest of the women with her, requesting him, for the honour of womankind, that she might not be seen naked, but be suffered to die in her smock, which he would not grant. Then she requested that the women might unclothe her, and they would turn their faces from her during the time of her unclothing, which was granted. And the women put upon her the long linen habit which she had brought with her, and so was quickly laid down on the ground, a sharp stone being laid unto her back. Her face was covered with a handkerchief, her secret parts with the linen habit, and all the rest of her body naked.

When the boards that were joined together in the fashion of a broad door were laid on her to bear the weight, she raised up her hands towards her face and joined them together. The sheriff commanded two of the sergeants to part them and to tie them unto two posts set there for that purposed, which was done, and so her arms extended and her body made a perfect cross. After this they laid weight on her, which when she felt, she cried out, ‘Jesu, Jesu, Jesu, have mercy on me!’, which were the last words that were heard to come from her. She was dying about one quarter of an hour. They laid on her about seven or eight hundred weight, which did not only break her ribs but caused them to break through her skin. And this was the end of this virtuous and glorious martyr, the day of her death the 25th of March.

Margaret’s death

Upon hearing Margaret’s sentence, her husband John reportedly wept until blood came from his nose and exclaimed, ‘Alas! Will they kill my wife?’

    The plaque outside Margaret’s former home on The Shambles
© 2009-2012 All Rights Reserved


  • September 27, 2011 - 1:33 pm | Permalink

    I read Hopkins’ poem about her death as a teen and many times since. I even have a small statue of her.
    I’ve also been into the shrine; there’s an odd atmosphere.

  • June 9, 2011 - 12:36 am | Permalink

    What a sad story. I new catholics were persecuted in these times, but I thought they were just banished or baned from practising their religion, and maybe had all their property confiscated. Never realised they were executed. And in such a harrowing way. Really interesting post.

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