Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The Pearl of York, Treason and Plot – Political Intrigue in Tudor York

By Tony Morgan

Margaret Clitherow was the wife of John Clitherow, a successful businessman and butcher. Her arrest and subsequent trial for harbouring Jesuit priests in March 1586, was chronicled by Father John Mush.

As Father Mush was a Catholic priest himself, he couldn’t risk attending the court in person. Someone else had to be his eyes and ears on the streets of York and at the Lent Assizes. Could this really have been Margaret’s near neighbour, a youthful Guy Fawkes?

Margaret Clitherow was born around 1553 into a prosperous family. Her father, Thomas Middleton, was a wax-chandler, at a time when everyone needed candles, and an alderman of the city. His wife Jane busied herself looking after the family, supporting the business and running the household.

With the family firmly part of York’s merchant class, Margaret was raised a Protestant. Their conformity and position in society was confirmed in 1564, when Thomas Middleton was elected for a one-year tenure as Sheriff of York. When he died three years later, he left behind a legacy for his family, and a small amount of money for the city’s poor, with a request they’d pray for his soul.

His widow Jane quickly remarried. Her new husband, Henry Maye, was a younger man and from a lower social class, which would have been a surprise to many. He quickly transformed their home, however, into a successful inn and pursued various business interests. Over time, Henry, and his new family, prospered. His place at the heart of York’s governing class was eventually accepted, and he became an alderman, himself.

Margaret is said to have had a good relationship with her stepfather. The family would have been pleased in 1571, when she married the well-to-do widower John Clitherow, and moved to his household in The Shambles, a narrow street dominated by the city’s meat traders.

The Shambles, York

In the years which followed, Margaret raised a family and controversially converted to Catholicism. Most Catholics stayed true to their faith unobtrusively. They attended Protestant church services every Sunday, as the law demanded, before sneaking off to secretly attend an illegal Catholic Mass.

But Margaret Clitherow was no ordinary Catholic. She refused to hide her new religion. Instead, she joined York’s recusants - dissenters who shunned the official church services and objected to swearing allegiance to the queen. Over the next ten years, she was imprisoned and fined multiple times for her crimes. Once, she was even released on licence for a few weeks to have a baby.
John Clitherow remained a Protestant. For a time, he was even a church warden, responsible for naming people who didn’t attend church. But he paid Margaret’s fines, and welcomed her home whenever she returned from prison.

At the time, there was a major power struggle underway behind the scenes in York. In one corner was the Council of the North. the Queen’s official representatives in this part of England. Based in the King’s Manor in York, near the city walls, the Council was responsible for preventing and putting down religious or other uprisings in this unruly place, two hundred miles north of the Queen’s power base in London.

In another corner was York Corporation. This was effectively York city council, run by the merchant classes, rather than councillors from political parties or independents. The Corporation set local taxes and laws in the city, controlled the powerful guilds, ran correction facilities and at times gave alms to the poor. Based in the building known as the Common Hall, above the banks of the River Ouse, the Corporation was led each year by the Lord Mayor and a senior Sheriff.

There was also a third powerful body to consider, the Church of England. Headed locally by the Archbishop of York, the Church operated the city’s churches, had its own prison and an Ecclesiastical Court, which had employed Guy Fawkes’s father and grandfather in days gone by. The major locations of the Church in York included York Minster and the Bishop’s Palace, located just outside the city.

York Minster

In some ways, all three vied for the Queen’s favour, and what better way of getting this than by persecuting Catholics? Methods includes fining and imprisoning recusants and capturing and executing any Catholic priests found in the city. In addition, a new law had been introduced. Anyone found guilty of allowing Catholic Mass to be said in their house or aiding a Catholic priest in any way could be executed, as local layman Marmaduke Bowes discovered to his cost in the year 1585.
In the same year, Margaret’s mother Jane died. Following the family tradition, her stepfather Henry remarried quickly to a much younger spouse. Margaret’s stepfather’s star was on the rise. In February 1586, he was elected, with great fanfare, as the new Lord Mayor of York.

There was only one problem, Margaret’s recusancy. What sort of example did this set to the city? The representatives of the Council of the North must have been rubbing their hands together. This was something they could exploit to their own benefit. Equally, Henry Maye would have been cursing Margaret and wondering how he could wash his hands of this blot on his reputation.

Both parties then, as well as the Church, had motive enough to investigate Margaret further. When whispers went around that she might be hiding priests and allowing Mass to be said in her house, which body would have acted first? Or for once, did they act in co-ordination?

For only one month after Henry Maye’s inauguration, John Clitherow was summoned to the King’s Manor to speak to the Council of the North. As soon as he was away from his house, the Corporation acted. The Sheriff of York raided the premises. Margaret was arrested, and although no priests were found, she was sent to trial at York Lent Assizes.

What happened next had even more political intrigue, as the Council and Corporation attempted to influence events in favour of their own agenda. Father Mush watched on from the side-lines. What role did he and the Catholic Church have to play in Margaret’s downfall?


Tony Morgan is an author and university academic. He lives in North Yorkshire, near to the birthplace of Guy Fawkes and Margaret Clitherow. In addition to writing historical novels, Tony gives history talks covering the events of the Gunpowder Plot and the life and death of Margaret Clitherow.
To date, all profits from his novels and talks have been donated to good causes. In 2020, Tony is supporting St Leonard’s Hospice in York.
For more details, visit Tony’s website - or follow Tony on Twitter @MorgantheBook

If you want to find out more about Margaret, and Father Mush's role in proceedings, The Pearl of York, Treason and Plot is available from March 2020 on Amazon in Kindle and paperback formats. It can also be purchased locally in Yorkshire, for example at one of Tony’s history talks.

1 comment:

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.