The Trials of Margaret Clitherow

Jonathan Wright on the contested figure of a Catholic martyr

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Reviewed by: Jonathan Wright
Author: Peter Lake and Michael Questier
Publisher: Continuum
Price (RRP): £19.99

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In March 1586 Margaret Clitherow was executed in horrific fashion.

She had been charged with harbouring Catholic seminary priests (a major felony since 1585) but had refused to plead at her trial. Such a deed carried the ancient penalty of peine forte et dure: being crushed to death under a weighted wooden board.

For excellent reasons, Clitherow has always been one of English Catholicism’s most cherished martyrs but Lake and Questier reveal that she was also a controversial figure, both in life and legacy.

Elizabethan Catholics faced many agonising decisions about how to behave under a Protestant regime. Some urged partial conformity (attending church occasionally, for instance, or grumbling in the pews and refusing to receive communion); others, like Margaret Clitherow, would accept no compromise.

From the mid-1570s she had taken up the cause of recusancy and sought to embolden her fellow Catholics in York. This was the mark of a tender conscience but it also exposed the squabbles within the Catholic community.

The authors do a superb job of analysing these fault lines. They take the time to place Clitherow’s story in the context of her family life and local political events (a very impressive exercise in well-researched micro-history) but they are not afraid of drawing broader conclusions.

In their hands Clitherow’s sorry tale reasserts itself as one of the most important prisms through which to view the puzzling internecine struggles of Elizabethan Catholicism (Yorkshire-based and national) as well as the contours of early-modern martyrdom.

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We’ll continue to argue about Clitherow: was she saintly or stubborn? The best place to begin any study of this conundrum is this outstanding book.
 
Jonathan Wright is the author of
Heretics: The Creation of Christianity from the Gnostics to the Modern Church (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011)