The northern English town of York boasts a cathedral church among the most magnificent in Europe. While it may rival even Florence’s Duomo or the Cathedral church in Cologne, even the famous York Minster cannot claim the title “pearl of the city.” That attribution—the Pearl of York—belongs to the saint and martyr Margaret Clitherow (1556-1586). She died 437 years ago today, March 25, 1586.
Along with 39 other martyrs of the English reformation, she was canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1970, who recognized the title invoked by Catholics of the region. She is indeed the Pearl of York.
For residents of Elizabethan Yorkshire, Margaret Clitherow began as an unlikely martyr. Daughter of the sheriff of York, her family observed Henry VIII’s newly established state religion. Despite the unhappy legal consequences, Margaret converted to Catholicism sometime in 1574. Evidently, the wife of a prominent local Catholic instructed her in the apostolic faith. Late 16th-century England did not present an easy time to become a Catholic. Margaret was imprisoned three times for failing to observe aspects of the state religion. After a prison stay of some 20 months, which afforded her the opportunity to learn to read Latin, she made a pilgrimage to the gallows at Tyburn where five priests had been hanged in the two years prior.
Soon Margaret’s home become a center of clandestine Catholic life in late 16th-century Yorkshire. In 1581 the English Parliament had made the harboring of Catholic priests an offense punishable by death. At the time, wealthy Catholic homes enjoyed the space to host priests—especially Jesuits—without detection of the townsfolk. Margaret disliked this restriction of sacramental life to those with financial means to escape notice of the Protestant officials.
She began reserving in a hidden cupboard the vestments and necessities for divine worship. Eventually, when her giving hospitality to Catholic priests was discovered, Protestant officials of the state ordered her execution. The method chosen—being crushed by heavy weights—was so brutal that even the Protestant Elizabeth I, in a letter to the townsfolk of York, distanced herself from the killing.
3 Lessons for today
St. Margaret Clitherow, the “Pearl of York,” offers three pertinent lessons for today’s Catholic.
First, Catholic life revolves around the sacraments. Preaching and devotional exercises find their fulfillment in the sacred liturgy and sacramental life of the Church. In what perhaps could have been made clearer in recent years, for those in danger of death the sacraments of Penance and Holy Anointing remain the only means Christ established to ready a soul for Heaven. Pandemic or not, any priest should risk death to ensure Catholics receive these saving sacraments. More generally, Catholic life is marked by the regular reception of the sacraments. Other devotional exercises may have escaped the notice of Yorkshire officials. Yet, Margaret gave her life to ensure the sacraments were available to the people of York. Put simply, the sacraments of the Church are worth dying for.
Second, Margaret Clitherow, like any ecclesially recognized martyr, reminds us that for the Christian, inconveniences and even great sufferings are part of the package. As Benedict XVI reminded us: “Those who suffer are God’s neighbors.” Even the prospect of death did not deter the Pearl of York from making available, through the instrumentality of the priest, the means to Heaven. Crosses large and small should be embraced. Faith in the power of the Cross—re-presented every day at the altar—casts out all fear.
Third, York’s favorite saint harbored priests. That is to say, St. Margaret Clitherow recognized that in the divine constitution of the Church priests occupy an indispensable place. Right-thinking Catholics love their priests. Then and now, they are generous with their shortcomings. They welcome them into their homes and into their lives. They do so not because of the priest’s personality or whatever status his presence may still afford them. Rather, Catholics of sound mind see in the priest something of Christ himself. They recognize how Christ has established his Church. This truth of the Christian religion is not clerical, nor should it make the priest arrogant. Rather, reflection upon it makes him want to be holy.
Four centuries ago today, the martyrdom of Margaret Clitherow shocked England and it has inspired Catholics until the present moment. Today the Church exalts St. Margaret Clitherow’s undaunted courage, passionate faith, and unfailing perseverance.
Small wonder, she is the Pearl of York.