St. Margaret Clitherow
Husband and Wife: Diverging Paths
When Margaret Clitherow married, she left the house in the Davygate where she had been born and went to live in her husband's house in the butchers' quarter of York; for in those days men practicing the same trade lived in the same part of the town. The most likely tradition says that her new home was the house now known as No. 36, The Shambles. Another favors No. 3, the Little Shambles. These streets have changed as little as any in the ancient city of York. The houses are still the over-hanging, wooden-fronted dwellings which Margaret knew. On the ground floor were the shops. Behind and above, the families lived, so that the wife could keep an eye on her husband's business when he was away. In the case of a butcher's wife, this was specially necessary, as the butcher might have to be away for days at a time buying cattle for slaughter.
John Clitherow was not a bad sort of man, but he had no idea of bringing unpleasantness on himself for the sake of his religion. He seems to have ended his days as a Protestant. But at first he was what Catholics called a "schismatic" and Protestants a "church Papist." That means that he went to the English services in his parish church at the Government's bidding, but secretly preferred the Catholic religion. Church Papists offered many excuses for this behavior. The services, they pointed out, were unobjectionable; and as for the sermon, there was no need to listen to that. Some even went so far as to received Communion according to the Protestant rite, on the grounds that, since it was no true Sacrament, it was a meaningless act and so harmless. Even the decision of the Church, taken at the Council of Trent, forbidding them to purchase safety by deceit, often did not alter their conduct.
Bad as that conduct was, they were in a most painful position. An open Catholic, that is, one who refused to go to the parish church, had to pay a fine of a shilling for every absence, which is more like fifteen shillings today. If he persisted, he could be imprisoned. Besides official penalties, he had to suffer much unofficial robbery. All public office was closed to him, and if he were in business, he risked ruin; either he lost business, or else customers could refuse to pay for work done, and the law would give him no redress. To a man with his living to get, open profession of Catholicism meant bringing his children to want. Only the wealthy landed families could hold out - and as we saw, they were at a later state attacked by enormous fines. Concern for their children did more to drive the men of England from the Faith than torture, imprisonment and death.
As a result, in a good many families the husband conformed while his wife did not. He paid her fines, let her bring up the children as Catholics, and was careful not to know if Mass were said in his house. One reason for the very slow death of the Faith in England was that the mother again and again passed it on to her children, while the father waited for his deathbed to be reconciled to the Church. But inevitably, men who acted like this tended to drift insensibly into real heresy. After all, every sermon they heard contained some attack on the Church. If people hear a thing often enough, without ever meeting a reply that grips their attention, they generally end by believing it. This is the principle of all propaganda and all advertising. The Government judged very shrewdly when it insisted that every single person must come within earshot of its licensed preachers once a week.
John Clitherow, however, went further than simply going to church. He was prepared to accept public office, which means that he was prepared to declare publicly that he accepted the Queen's supremacy in religion. Six months before he married Margaret, he had been made a bridgemaster, that is, one of the citizens responsible for the upkeep of the bridge over the Ouse. Now, on the Ousebridge was one of the worst prisons in York, the one where Margaret was to spend her last days on earth. And close to it was the building called the Toll Booth, where she was to die. There is something ironic in the position; in the months when John Clitherow was preparing to bring home his bride, he was also, all unwittingly, helping to prepare the place of her death. If he could have looked ahead those fifteen years, would he, one wonders, have chosen as he did?
In 1572, the year after his marriage, John Clitherow was one of the men specially sworn in, in every parish, to keep a look out for "the late rebels and other evil-disposed persons suspected of Papistry." This was a small matter - indeed, it is possible that he could have salved his conscience by saying that if this business could be kept in the hands of local men, they would be able to protect their Papist neighbors; for the citizens of York were very, very unwilling to put the law into force against the Catholics. More than in any other part of the country, the Government had to send special emissaries to the North to carry out its policy.
The year 1574, however, brought crisis to both husband and wife. She became a Catholic, he a chamberlain. This was an important piece of promotion, for a chamberlain of York was entitled to be addressed as "Mr." and took rank as a gentleman; all social distinctions were much more sharply defined then than now. And so, at the very time of her reconciliation to the Church, Margaret Clitherow had to see her husband take this decisive step into bondage to the powers of this world. For the more he owed to the world, the harder would it become to break the net in which it held him. And every such promotion meant a fresh affirmation of his acceptance of the royal supremacy in religion.
To make it yet harder for her to bear, both his brothers were making a firm stand. Of one, a draper, we know little save that he was a staunch Catholic. But the other brother, William, must have touched Margaret's life in some profoundly personal way, for she named a child after him. The baby born in the year of her reconciliation was a little girl, Anne - and the only Anne in Margaret's story was a Mrs. Anne Tesh, a noted Catholic, who for some days shared Margaret's prison cell, and who clearly was a close friend. Quite possibly it was after her that little Anne Clitherow was named.
But two years later we get another clue. In 1576, a list of recusants* mentions that Margaret was in prison, and pregnant. Now, 1576 was in all probability the year in which her brother-in-law, William Clitherow, entered the College at Douay to study for the priesthood, for we hear of his ordination six years later. Did Margaret and her brother-in-law talk out together their difficulties? It is even possible that it was her gay, gallant example which set him thinking of consecrating his life to the service of God. The dates, at any rate, suggest that baby William's name is a memorial of precious sympathy and help within her family circle.
Not that John Clitherow was exactly hostile. Like many others he probably expected the Faith to return before very long, and he did not wish to be too completely on the wrong side of the fence when that should happen. So he made things as easy as he could for his wife. He turned his broad back and was careful to know nothing of the priests who came to his house to say Mass. Nor did he stint her of money, which one satirist hints was the usual fate of a church Papist's wife. Margaret always had money for her works of charity. Her life in prison had shown her how poor prisoners might literally starve to death if no one came to their aid. Her alms to prisoners and their families were constant and abundant and, to do John Clitherow justice, he never seems to have complained.
They had their tiffs. Margaret admits to "such small matters as are commonly incident to husband and wife," and one may suspect that her own temper was on the quick side. One of the things they differed about was the shop. John Clitherow was a wholesale butcher and not merely a retailer, and since the wholesale business brought them in a very good income, Margaret wished to give up the shop; she did not like too great eagerness to make money. Indeed she knew very well that this was the weak point in her husband's character. Perhaps she hoped that if he would conquer his desire for gain at this point, it might start him on the road of his conversion. But he would not listen to her - she was in fact thoroughly out of fashion in being so free from the get-rich-quick mania which was seizing the country. In the end, she had to content herself with another outlet for her feeling about money, in some ways smaller and yet of great importance; before they began selling in the mornings, she used to send out to learn what other butchers were charging and charge the same. She would not attract business by underselling nor make an unfair profit by overcharging. In an age of hustle and grab, Margaret loved her neighbor as herself, whether he came to her as a customer or a rival tradesman.
Her husband's personal kindness, however, did not at all lessen for Margaret the conflict of loyalties in which she was caught. These conflicts of loyalties are among the most painful trials to which human beings can be subjected. St. Thomas More named one when, on the scaffold, he said: "I die the King's good servant, but God's first." Every martyr of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries could have echoed him, for their main conflict lay between the claims of God and of the Government. In the case of Margaret Clitherow, there was something further. Where St. Thomas More was the head of his family, Margaret was under the authority of her husband. She thus had to take into account her duty towards two earthly authorities, not only the civil government, but her husband as well. And naturally, it was the domestic conflict which was the more painful. Where More protested his loyalty to the King, Margaret protested her love for her husband. "Know you," she declared, "that I love him next unto God in this world...If I have offended my husband in anything, but for my conscience [i.e., but for my religious duty], I ask God and him forgiveness."
That he obligingly turned his back for her convenience did not really comfort her. Part of her grief sprang from the fact that, to him, it should be only a question of convenience, not of principle. Besides, her frank, open nature found concealment abhorrent. What nerved her to hide things from him was the knowledge that her duty to God involved her husband in personal danger, if it became known that she had Mass said in his house. But she hated the need to keep him in the dark, and it was an abiding misery to her that he should be so blind to his highest good. Behind all her gaiety, she lived with a sword in her heart.
Because she felt all this so keenly, she tried to make it up to him by being, in all save her conscience, just as good a wife as she could be. Here she succeeded. John Clitherow was in the habit of saying that he could wish for no better wife, "except only for two faults, as he thought, and those were, because she fasted too much, and would not go with him to church." Since conscience forced her to go against him in matters of moment, the same conscience obliged her to see that he should have no cause of complaint over anything else.
As time went on, things grew harder, not easier, for as more severe laws were passed, the trouble she might bring on her husband grew graver. When the worst of the Penal Acts was passed, the terrible statute of 1585, under which most of the martyrs suffered, a timid Catholic came and remonstrated with her. His advice was "to be more careful of herself, and since that virtue and the Catholic cause was now made treason and felony [i.e., sine it was now treason to be a priest and felony to harbor one], that either she would not with such danger receive any priest at all, or else very seldom: and this added also, that it was no wisdom to admit her children and others to God's service [i.e., to Mass in her house], and that she ought not to venture upon these things without license of her husband."
This talk left Margaret worried, though her good sense told her that nothing ought to be allowed to come before obedience to God. It was three days before she had a chance to consult Father Mush. "May I not," she asked him, "receive priests and serve God as I have done, notwithstanding these new laws, without my husband's consent? ... I know not how the rigor of these new statutes may alter my duty in this thing: but if you tell me that I offend God in any point, I will not do it for all the world."
Father Mush put three points to her in his reply. First, it was for her husband's own safety that he should know as little as possible about Mass being said in his house. Second, that no laws of man could alter her duty to God, no matter how cruel they might be; and that where her duty to God was concerned, she was not under the authority of her husband, but directly answerable to her own conscience. Thirdly, that anyone obeying these wicked laws shared in the guilt of those who enacted them.
This last was a point likely to come home to Margaret with great force, for she had an extraordinarily sensitive conscience about leading others into sin, or making worse what they were already doing wrong. She carried this to such lengths that she refused to allow a friend to bribe her executioners to finish her off quickly, for fear of increasing their guilt. Her judges, jury and executioners were to be the object of her solicitous charity, a charity so rare that no one was able to guess what was in her mind until she told them.
Yet it was no sudden spurt of noble sentiment that carried Margaret through
her martyrdom. It was the habits she had been steadily practicing, at home
or in prison, for twelve years, above all the habit of putting God first
in all her actions. Then there was a further habit of looking carefully to see
how what she was doing would help or hinder others in pleasing God. At the end,
we see her standing on a shining pinnacle of consummate charity. But she had
climbed there, step by step, through the day-to-day relations with her
husband, children and servants. The high charity of her death was all of a piece
with her life.
Taken from St. Margaret Clitherow by TAN Books & Publishers, Inc.
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