Renaissance and Reformation Margaret Clitherow
Stella Fletcher
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0476


In the life of Margaret Clitherow (b. 1552/3–d. 1586), international Counter-Reformation piety met English national and provincial politics and led to the creation of a Catholic martyr. She was born Margaret Middleton in predominantly Protestant York and in 1571 married a widowed butcher and father of two, John Clitherow. By the end of 1574 she had given him at least two more children but had also embraced Catholicism, refusing to attend prescribed Protestant services. This recusancy resulted in three prison terms, each of six months or more, in 1577–1578, 1580–1581, and 1583–1584. She was particularly inspired by the heroism of missionary priests from the English seminaries in Continental Europe and made a point of sheltering them at the family home in York’s Shambles. One such was John Mush, who returned from Rome to England in 1583 and became her spiritual director from c. 1584. The 1585 Act against Jesuits and seminary priests made it a capital felony to harbor such clerics: the sentence could be death. On 10 March 1586 the Clitherows’ house was searched, evidence of Catholic worship was found and Margaret arrested. Her trial followed four days later, though it was for her refusal to enter a plea that she was sentenced to death peine forte et dure, being crushed to death. Her stepfather was then serving as York’s lord mayor, so it was a high-profile case in a close-knit community. Every effort was made to prevent the law taking its course, but Margaret would not be dissuaded from the path of martyrdom. The sentence was executed on 25 March, crushed to death under a door loaded with weights. Mush was among those who buried her body; he then wrote a life of the martyr. That Life is integral to all subsequent developments: popular Catholic devotion to the “Pearl of York,” her inclusion among the lives of the martyred priests, the opening of a formal process in 1874, beatification by Pius XI in 1929, and canonization—as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales—by Paul VI in 1970. Apart from the pious and the scholarly, there are few obvious divisions within the literature on Margaret Clitherow: Reference Works and an Overview derive from John Mush’s Life. Other Lives either parallel Mush or follow in his wake, though there are many other sources for wider studies of Recusancy in Yorkshire. For the martyr’s Trial and Death one must rely on Mush and his sources. His failure to locate the place of her burial has had diverse consequences, as conveyed in the final section of the present article, Burial and Legacy.

Reference Works

Innumerable reference works could be cited for 16th-century English history. The present selection includes bibliographical and biographical staples: Bibliography of British and Irish History and Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB). A subject such as Margaret Clitherow can be found in works devoted to Christian history, including the Catholic Encyclopedia 1907–1912 and Farmer 2011. She lived and died in York, a city now geared to tourism, with websites devoted to the various visitor attractions. Those relating to the Bar Convent Living Heritage Centre and St Wilfrid’s Catholic Church in York have been selected because each has a particular connection to the local martyr.

  • The Bar Convent Living Heritage Centre.

    The Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary was founded by Mary Ward in 1609, and its house in York, the Bar Convent, dates from 1686. A hand, said to be that of Margaret Clitherow, bequeathed by John Mush to Mary Ward, is preserved there. The convent houses a “living heritage centre”, devoted to Catholic history, focused on York, and featuring Clitherow. Its website is designed to reflect the visitor experience.

  • Bibliography of British and Irish History.

    This was formerly a print publication, but is now maintained exclusively online, being updated three times a year. It is a vitally important resource for any aspect and period of British and Irish history. Access is via the website of the publisher, Brepols. Searches can be done bibliographically or by subject, including places and persons. Alternatively, the subject tree allows users to home in on specific areas using progressively more detailed categories.

  • Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1907–1912.

    Published in fifteen volumes, the scope of this work is conveyed by the subtitle An International Work of Reference on the Constitution, Doctrine, Discipline, and History of the Catholic Church. The entry on Margaret Clitherow appears in vol. 4 (1908), but is now more easily accessible online. The author is Dom Bede Camm, some of whose publications are cited as Camm 1904–1905 (cited under Other Lives) and Camm 1929 (cited under Trial and Death).

  • Farmer, David. The Oxford Dictionary of Saints. 5th rev. ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    Hagiography has been a standard literary genre throughout Christian history. Since its first publication in 1978, Farmer’s collection of saints’ lives has become a familiar reference work. Reflecting the author’s specialist interests, it has a bias toward English and monastic history. The entry for Margaret Clitherow appears on pp. 94–95 of the revised fifth edition and consists of a brief biography, notes on her posthumous impact, and a brief bibliography.

  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    As ever for the history of the British Isles, the ODNB is the principal biographical reference work for this subject, available in print and online. The entry for Margaret Clitherow ([doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/5692]) is by Claire Walker and was updated in 2017. The later lives of her husband and (step-)children are summarized, but there is no link to the entry for her martyrologist, John Mush ([doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/19669]), which is by W. J. Sheils.

  • St Wilfrid’s Catholic Church in York.

    This is the website of an active city-center Catholic parish, served by Oratorians, which happens to include the Shrine of St Margaret Clitherow, located in the Shambles, York’s most famous street, where John Clitherow had his butcher’s shop. It is cited here because it contains details of how and when to visit the shrine, though it is likely that the Clitherows occupied a different property.

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