Margaret Clitherow's House
Margaret Clitherow's House
A small medieval house on The Shambles is the location of St Margaret Clitherow's House. Clitherow was executed at the height of anti-Catholicism in Elizabethan England for harbouring a priest and refusing to abjure her faith. The house thought to have been hers is now a shrine.
Margaret Clitherow was born in 1553, the daughter of a Sheriff of York and churchwarden of St Martins, Colney street. In other words, she was born to a respectable, well-to-do family. A Protestant family, it should be noted. At the age of 15 she married a prosperous meat merchant named John Clitheroe and moved to this modest house in The Shambles, where the butchers of York held sway.

Sometime in the 1570s Margaret was converted to Catholicism on the instigation of the wife of Dr Thomas Vavasour, a prominent Catholic in York. This posed a problem for John Clitheroe, who held responsibility for reporting suspected Catholics to the authorities. But it seems that for the most part her husband was happy to look the other way and tolerate his wife's religious activities, and her insistence on educating their children as Catholics.

However in 1577 Margaret was cast into prison, not for worshipping as a Catholic, but for failing to attend Anglican services. Two further prison sentences followed, the longest lasting 20 months. She learned to read Latin while in prison, so that she could both read and speak a Catholic service.

In 1581 an Act of Parliament made it an offence to attend a Catholic service for worship, or to offer a hiding place to Catholic priests. Harbouring a priest was an offence punishable by death - a quite dreadful death, by being pressed to death, though such an extreme sentence was rarely carried out.

Margaret built a secret chamber within her house in The Shambles, were priests could hide from the authorities. She also made a secret cupboard, where she hid vestments, plus wine and bread for saying Mass. In March 1586 a raid swooped down on the house. A priest who was sheltering in the house made good his escape, but a frightened boy revealed the location of the secret chamber, and Margaret Clitherow was arrested and tried at York's Guildhall. She refused trial by jury, saying, "I know of no offense whereof I should confess myself guilty. Having made no offense, I need no trial." She was aware that if a trial was held, her children would almost certainly be forced to testify against her. This refusal to accept a trial all but guaranteed her death sentence. Though the judges tried in vain to persuade her to renounce her Catholic faith and avoid the death sentence, Clitherow refused. She got little sympathy, even from her relations; her stepfather, Henry May, then Lord Mayor of York, said that she had committed suicide.

On 25 March 1586 Margaret Clitherow was transported to the Toll Booth on Ouse Bridge, and there pressed to death under a weight of some 7-8 cwt (hundredweight), about 800-900 pounds. She died within a quarter of an hour. In a somewhat odd twist, Elizabeth I wrote an official letter to the citizens of York, expressing her horor at the execution, and saying that Margaret should have been spared due to her gender.

In October 1970 Margaret Clitherow was canonized as one of 40 English martyrs by Pope Paul VI, who called her "the Pearl of York". Her house on The Shambles is now a shrine to this remarkable woman, who is the patron saint of the Catholic Women's League.

Margaret Clitherow's House is open to all, without charge, though a small donation is requested. There is one room on view to the public, with a plaque telling Clitherow's life story. At the Bar Convent they hold a relic, said to be the saint's hand. A plaque at the Micklegate end of the Ouse Bridge marks to site of her execution.