The Trials of Margaret Clitherow: Persecution, Martyrdom and the Politics of Sanctity in Elizabethan England

August 4, 2011

On 25 March 1586, Margaret Clitherow, a Catholic in York, was crushed to death as punishment for harbouring a priest. Just to repeat - crushed to death. This terrible event has resonated with historians and scholars of the period ever since, and the meaning and significance of Clitherow's case has been warmly contested (alleged heretic Anne Askew, tortured and burned at the stake, is a similarly celebrated early modern woman who was destroyed by the viciousness of the state).

Clitherow seems to exemplify the ways in which the paranoid, patriarchal (though, of course, literally matriarchal) state sought to control, discipline and punish, particularly in bolshie Yorkshire during the late Elizabethan period. Catholicism became a mode of resistance; most of those offending were women, using a particular ideological discourse to publicly express a nonconformist identity. Peter Lake and Michael Questier's lively new book on the subject seeks to "use the experience of English Catholics in the period after the Reformation to throw light on some of the central issues of that time and place". By considering this particular incident, horrific as it is, they can cover a huge range of issues - including female agency, the role of communities within larger political networks (such as towns or regions), the legal status of the individual, how national politics could effect change at a local level and the role of Jesuit evangelicals - and in general gain a nuanced understanding of how religious identity worked within the social and economic nexuses of early modern England.

They are interested in the ways that a newly evolving nation might deal with and confront those who choose ideological otherness. That said, much of the book centres on the relative ordinariness of Clitherow and the ways that her embracing of martyrdom was peculiar rather than inevitable.

The authors spend a lot of time, too, looking at the ramifications the case had for early modern English religious identity in the 1590s and into the early 1600s.

Their sensible approach is to devote short chapters to each particular grouping of issues. This leads them to think about the local repercussions of national (and international) politics, consider the key personalities involved, and try to work out exactly what happened and, moreover, what it meant. Or rather, the various things it might have meant, as Lake and Questier are keen not to make assertions, but instead demonstrate the possible implications of particular events. This is careful history, very keen to consider a range of ideas and contexts in order elegantly to suggest a similar range of interpretations.

In today's relatively secular society, comprehending both the actions of the state and the motivations of the victim is exceptionally difficult.

However, part of Lake and Questier's intention is to demonstrate the ways in which social and political relations work, and to make assertions about how states respond to the challenges of religious minorities. There are compelling ideas at play here about tyranny, state paranoia, the oppression of minorities (marginalised by both religion and gender), slander and gossip. So while this is a work that will resonate with Tudor historians, it is as interesting to a lay reader both for its historiographic approach and how it traces the workings of the polity.

The Trials of Margaret Clitherow: Persecution, Martyrdom and the Politics of Sanctity in Elizabethan England

By Peter Lake and Michael Questier. Continuum, 2pp, £19.99. ISBN 9781441104366. Published 24 March 2011

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