On March 25th, 1586, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, St. Margaret Clitherow was executed for hiding a priest in her house. She had been arrested on March 10th and refused to enter a plea, saying “I know of no offense whereof I should confess myself guilty. Having made no offense, I need no trial.” She was found to have “harbored and maintained Jesuits and seminary priests, traitors to the Queen’s majesty and her laws.”
Judge George Clinch knew just how to take care of these uppity Catholic women:
You shall return to the place from whence you came, and in the lower part of the prison be stripped naked, laid down on your back to the ground, and so much weight laid upon you as you are able to bear, and thus you shall continue three days. The third day you shall have a sharp stone put under your back, and your hands and feet shall be tied to posts that, more weight being laid upon you, you may be pressed to death.
No one did torture quite like the English.
Her response? “God be thanked, I am not worthy of so good a death as this.”
Asked one final time to recant, she said, “No, no, Mr. Sheriff. I die for the love of my Lord Jesu.”
As promised, she was blindfolded, stripped, bound, and laid on sharp rocks. A door (possibly the door from her own house) was laid on top of her. Heavy weights were added to the door until she died. It took about 15 minutes. She cried “Jesu! Have mercy on me!” three times and died.
She was 29 years old and pregnant with her fourth child. She sewed her own shroud while awaiting punishment. In some accounts, she is said to have sewed a shift to wear, because the idea of being naked through the ordeal was the only thing that really worried her. She was denied even that small dignity. Her body was left in the press all day.
St. Margaret’s hand is kept at St. Mary’s Convent in York.
An unfinished poem by Gerard Manly Hopkins
God’s counsel cólumnar-severe
But chaptered in the chief of bliss
Had always doomed her down to this –
Pressed to death. He plants the year;
The weighty weeks without hands grow,
Heaved drum on drum; but hands also
Must deal with Margaret Clitheroe.
The very victim would prepare.
Like water soon to be sucked in
Will crisp itself or settle or spin
So she; one sees that here and there
She mends the ways she means to go.
The last thing Margaret’s fingers sew
Is a shroud for Margaret Clitheroe.
The Christ-ed beauty of her mind
Her mould of features mated well.
She was admired. The spirit of hell
Being to her virtue clinching-blind
No wonder therefore was not slow
To the bargain of its hate to throw
The body of Margaret Clitheroe.
Great Thecla, the plumed passionflower,
Next Mary mother of maid and nun
And every saint of bloody hour
And breath immortal thronged that show;
Heaven turned its starlight eyes below
To the murder of Margaret Clitheroe.
She was a woman, upright, outright;
Her will was bent at God. For that
Word went she should be crushed out flat
Fawning fawning crocodiles
Days and days came round about
With tears to put her candle out;
They wound their winch of wicked smiles
To take her; while their tongues would go
God lighten your dark heart – but no,
Christ lived in Margaret Clitheroe.
She held her hands to, like in prayer;
They had them out and laid them wide
(Just like Jesus crucified);
They brought their hundredweights to bear.
Jews killed Jesus long ago
God’s son; these (they did not know)
God’s daughter Margaret Clitheroe.
When she felt the kill-weights crush
She told His name times-over three;
I suffer this she said for Thee.
After that in perfect hush
For a quarter of an hour or so
She was with the choke of woe. –
It is over, Margaret Clitheroe.
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