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Peter Lake and Michael Questier, The Trials of Margaret Clitherow: Persecution, Martyrdom and the Politics of Sanctity in Elizabethan England (Continuum International, 2011)

Peter Lake and Michael Questier, The Trials of Margaret Clitherow: Persecution, Martyrdom and the Politics of Sanctity in Elizabethan England. Continuum International: London/ New York, 2011. ISBN: 9781441104366. XIX+244 pp. Pbk. £19.99.

Reviewed by Adam Morton

[1]  In this superb display of historical imagination Peter Lake and Michael Questier demonstrate how one horrendous event — the pressing to death of a Catholic woman, Margaret Clitherow, at York in March 1586 — can be suggestive of a great deal about the community and state in which it occurred. Clitherow — a devout butcher’s wife — was executed after refusing to plead to the charge of harbouring seminary priests in her home. Having converted to Catholicism two or three years after her marriage in 1571 to a husband who remained Protestant, Clitherow balanced her role as wife, mother and manager of a butcher’s shop with her devotional life, opening her home to Catholic priests and services. In the face of a resurgent European Catholicism and, from 1568, the presence in England of a potential heir to Elizabeth in Mary, Queen of Scots, such activities were understood to be dangerous. At the instigation of her father in law — Henry May, Lord Mayor of York — and a vocal part of the community Clitherow was consequently brought before the Council of the North, led by the 3rd Earl of Huntingdon. Here then, the expression of personal faith had caused conflict in families, communities and politics both local and national. It is the interaction of these elements in the life of Clitherow which Lake and Questier strive to unpick as means of peering into the evolution of post-Reformation inter-confessional politics in late sixteenth century England.

[2]  In traditional historiography her execution was seen to encapsulate the cruelty of the Protestant regime. For Lake and Questier, however, Clitherow tells us much more. Building on the previous generation of scholarship which has qualified the quiescent nature of the post-Reformation Catholic Community they suggest that Clitherow — and the Catholics who recorded her fate — were far from ‘victims’ passive in the face of a monolithic state. Rather Clitherow is indicative of the potential radicalism inherent within the Catholic community’s attitude towards that state. The issue here was not solely one of heresy, but order. Recusant women challenged traditional bonds of both patriarchy and gender relations (encapsulated in Clitherow’s refusal to submit to the authority of her Protestant husband) and society and politics (the law understood refusal to attend Church as an affront to monarchical authority). To read Clitherow’s confrontation with the state is therefore — Lake and Questier suggest — to learn much about the politics of religious change in Reformation England. Indeed, Clitherow’s example is suggestive on a range of issues — the relationship of national and local politics, the status of ‘others’ within the community, the role of those communities within larger political and confessional networks, and female agency in early modern England — all of which are detailed with aplomb.

[3]  Indeed in truth, this book is as much about the Catholic Community as it is Clitherow. The second half details how Clitherow’s memory was used in various intra-Catholic disputes. Clitherow became a prism through which conflicts concerning the ways in which Catholics should navigate the challenges of ecclesiastical dissent: could one reconcile the practice of an heretical faith with loyalty to the Queen and her state? Significant here was her treatment by Thomas Bell — who suggested that Catholics should attend Church of England services as an expression of loyalty to their Queen and posited strategies for alleviating the consciences of those who did so — and seminary priests like John Mush — who argued that to do so was to accept heresy, and consequently advocated separation (whatever the consequences). In Mush’s account of her martyrdom, Clitherow is not only an embodiment of a triumphant victim cruelly condemned for her ardent spiritual convictions, but an encapsulation of the ideal English Catholic (as the seminary priests saw it) — one whose life and devotion discredited those believers who expressed timidity in the face of persecution. Reading Clitherow’s life thus is perhaps in tension with the earlier aspects of this book — Clitherow is an abstraction through which Catholics debated the status of their faith, and yet historians are able to read ‘against the grain’ of those abstractions to uncover the truth of her role within the community and the circumstances leading to her prosecution — but the inventiveness with which Lake and Questier approach their sources yields rich rewards, particularly in demonstrating the role of a nascent ‘public sphere’ in contesting meaning within post-Reformation England.

[4]  We will continue to argue about Clitherow. What Lake and Questier have done is to show how fruitful doing so can be for historians, and what the life of one woman can reveal about the workings of the communities in which she lived — both local and national — more broadly. Indeed, this account of Clitherow has much to tell us about how a nation evolving its collective identity processed and understood those who were ideologically ‘other’. However, in light of recent scholarship unpicking what Willem Frijhoff terms the ‘ecumenicity of the everyday’ — how people of different confessional affiliations rubbed along in the face of official and legal intolerance — it is worth suggesting that studies of Clitherow’s antithesis, those Catholics who were open in their faith yet strove to co-exist with Protestants within the bonds of community, would be equally revealing of the processes of the state, the workings of communities and the status of Catholicism in post-Reformation England. Clitherow was no ordinary Catholic — whilst begrudging toleration and the vicissitudes of neighbourliness might not leave such extensive traces upon the historical record or be as overtly captivating objects of study, they remain an important and vital corollary to Clitherow’s tale in need of substantial historical contextualisation in order to demonstrate how truly exceptional that tale was.

University of York, June 2012