A hidden saint

Yesterday we were up early to catch the train to York, for a day of sightseeing and shopping. In the rush, I didn’t think I’d have time to keep to my resolution, of reading the Gospel of the day, on the Universalis site. But I’m glad I did. As I opened the ‘About today’ page, I was astonished to find that, coincidentally, 30th May was the memorial of the Yorkshire Martyrs, including Margaret Clitherow.

St Margaret Clitherow

I’d completely forgotten about Margaret’s association with York and hurriedly searched the internet for further details. I discovered that there was a shrine in the street where Margaret lived, and a plaque marking the spot where she was martyred. Reading her story again, I was struck as before by Margaret’s fearlessness, following her conversion, in holding Masses in her home and sheltering priests, in defiance of Elizabethan law; by her selfless refusal to plead, so as to protect her children for having to give evidence against her under torture; and by her brave submission to the consequences: being slowly crushed to death by having heavy stones placed on top of her.

York Minster

York is a beautiful city, and yesterday it was at its best in the early summer sunshine. The Minster is an awe-inspiring masterpiece of Gothic architecture, soaring over the web of winding medieval streets. You can easily miss Margaret Clitherow’s shrine among the gift shops and bustling crowds of the Shambles, but once you step inside, it’s a haven of sombre peace:

The Shambles, York

Shrine of Margaret Clitherow

Inside the shrine

The tollbooth where Margaret met her death was at the end of one of the bridges spanning the River Ouse: once again, it’s easy to overlook the small plaque commemorating the event:

The half-hidden nature of these memorials to Margaret Clitherow, the fact that in the tourist bustle of the city she is almost forgotten, seems somehow significant. In her own time, she swam against the tide, converting to a minority, persecuted faith, one that had to remain hidden in order to survive, when she could have had an easy life conforming to the status quo. In the way she lived, and the way she died, Margaret showed incredible heroism: for all the beauty of its buildings and charm of its streets, her modest shrine is the hidden heart of the city.

Saint Margaret Clitherow, pray for your fellow converts, especially those of us who completely lack your constancy and courage…

Footnote: 1st June

There was no escaping Margaret Clitherow yesterday. Shortly after posting the above, I received the latest issue of Standpoint through the post. Among the many good things to be found inside, I came across a detailed, point-by-point refutation of the historical revisionism of novelist Hilary Mantel (in the bestselling Wolf Hall and its newly-published sequel Bring Up the Bodies) – by Laura Keynes, a writer I hadn’t come across before. I enjoyed Keynes’ critical interrogation of Mantel’s rehabilitation of  Thomas Cromwell, architect of the vandalous dissolution of the monasteries (I recently read, and thoroughly recommend, Geoffrey Moorhouse’s The Last Office), and the consequent sullying of the reputation of Thomas More, one of my heroes (John Guy’s A Daughter’s Love was another highlight of my recent reading, and I’m currently engrossed in Peter Ackroyd’s biography of the saint).

Googling Laura Keynes, to see what else she has written, I found her review, in an earlier Standpoint, of A.N.Wilson’s The Elizabethans, in which she takes the author to task for his ‘frankly hostile’ attitude to Catholicism. Keynes is particularly exercised by Wilson’s shoddy comparison of Elizabethan Catholics with twenty-first-century Islamists, and his consequent excusal of the drastic actions taken against them by the Protestant authorities:

Which is fine if you’re talking about Osama bin Laden, but not when you’re talking about a wife and mother like Margaret Clitherow, squashed to death for the grievous crime of harbouring a Catholic priest so that she and her family might continue to worship (in private) according to conscience.

Keynes continues:

Wilson makes light of torture inflicted by Elizabeth’s spymasters, presenting the narrative of Elizabethan torture as nothing more than a “cult” invented by “martyrologists” who like “to dwell on the quasi-pornography of torture”. From this point of view Margaret Clitherow brought her grisly, but titillating, end upon herself by effectively committing suicide, and Elizabeth is “not the monster queen” that revisionist historians have made her out to be.

Well said. I haven’t been able to find out much more about Laura Keynes, except that she has a DPhil from Oxford (presumably in History?), and I assume that she’s Catholic…? On the basis of these two reviews, she’s certainly a writer I’ll be looking out for in future.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s