We know that God must come first in our lives. That means that everything and everyone must come to second to God. We can find that to be challenging when we look at the lives of some of the married saints whose lives demonstrated how radical God's call can be.
For instance, consider St. Margaret Clitherow (1556 - 1586). Today, mothers and fathers leave their children in the care of others to work to support their families or to further their education to increase their opportunities to support their families. What are we to make of this saint who left her children because she was arrested and taken to jail? And, what are we to think of this saint who was willing to leave her children without a mother rather than to deny her faith? Surely, the ways of God are not our ways.
Early Life and Marriage
The saint was born Margaret Middleton in the year 1556 in York in Elizabethan England. Margaret's father was named Thomas and her mother was named Jane. Thomas was a candlemaker and for two years was the Sheriff of York. The family held to the Anglican faith and because of that fact, young Margaret was not troubled by the persecution of Catholics that was part of the landscape of her day. Instead, she was considered a happy child, and later, a pretty young woman.
Margaret caught the eye of John Clitherow who was a widower and a butcher. John also had political aspirations, and thus, because he was not of the revolutionary type, he would fain ever do anything that would rock the boat. He was cautious about his business and about all of his other affairs.
If everything were up to him, he would choose the safe path of conformity to the laws of the land. If he had known what was in store by marrying Margaret, he would likely not have done so because he would have preferred a "safe" bride to help him move up in the world.
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Conversion to the Catholic Church
However, only three years after her marriage, Margaret became a Catholic much to the consternation of her husband. The reasons for her conversion are not clearly known other than she simply found the truth in the Catholic faith and she was moved by the Catholics who were willing to suffer and die for their faith in light of it being illegal to be a Catholic in England at the time. (Later she would often spend time praying near the gallows where Catholics had been martyred.)
As can be imagined, for a convert to the Catholic Faith in a country where it is forbidden to be a Catholic, one does not do things by halves. Margaret took her new faith very seriously and allowed it to influence every aspect of her life. By her own admission, Margaret was keen to be a good wife and mother. She noted that after God, she loved her husband.
The key is that Margaret put God first. By doing so, she began actively engaging in illegal activities. Margaret would hide priests in her home. She would participate in mass which was celebrated in her home by those same priests that she hid. And, she was teaching the Catholic Faith to her own children and the children of others. All of these actions were strictly prohibited and they put her three children and her very risk-adverse husband at risk. His business was prospering, and any issues with the law might sink him.
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Over time, Margaret was arrested for some minor offenses related to her Catholic faith. Each time she was placed in jail. On one occasion, she was in prison for a two year sentence. The local government would force her children to learn the Anglican faith, and Margaret could do little other than pray for her beloved sons and daughter.
The times she spent in jail, of course, were extremely painful separations for Margaret. That she was able to do this as a devoted wife and mother was due to the fact that she was not focused simply on the moment but on eternity. In her mind, the love she must share with her husband and children was a love that placed God first in order that all of them might reach eternity. If she were to not live her Catholic Faith by doing the things she did, she would have considered it a failure to love either God or her family.
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Final Arrest and Trial
Finally, in 1586, the day came when the local constables found Margaret in the midst of teaching a class on the faith with her own children and the children of other families. A very frightened boy told the officials all of the details including the hiding of priests and the celebration of mass. These were no minor offenses, like having a holy card. No, these were major crimes, and the judge would not be satisfied with giving her jail time as a punishment.
First, the court intervened and placed her daughter Anne and her son William in Protestant homes. When the other child, Henry, could not be found, it was discovered that he had been sent abroad to Reims, France in order to attend a Catholic school. This would be another charge against Margaret.
While in jail this time, Margaret was forbidden from seeing her children. However, any amount of people who hoped to persuade her to recant were allowed to plague her with their efforts. Although Margaret was illiterate she proved to be more than a match for Protestant ministers who tried to argue with her theologically. She believed, and she knew what she believed and why she believed it.
In the trial, she was charged with treason which was a standard charge made against Catholics. In the eyes of the law, it was a crime against the state to hold to a foreign religion, and her belief in the Catholic faith undermined the stability of society. The judge asked Margaret to enter a plea. She refused.
Of course, she did not believe she was guilty of treason as she was an adherent of the true faith. What could be treasonous about that? However, she did not want to enter a not guilty plea because her case would go to a trial by jury. Although it is likely that a jury might acquit her, as frequently happened in these cases because the average person was not a rabid anti-Catholic, she did not want her family to be subject to the questioning that would occur in the trial. Margaret had no desire for her husband and, especially, her children to have to testify against her.
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The Time Before Death and the Execution
With no plea entered by the defendant, the judge found her guilty and sentenced her to death by being crushed. The days before her execution were filled with more visitors trying to save her, fasting, happiness, and fear. Margaret fasted in preparation for her martyrdom. And there were even times when she was cheerful because the Lord was with her in this time of severe trial. However, she was also fearful as she was a young woman and she was never again to see her husband or children. Nonetheless, she was able to remain faithful through her own prayers and the prayers of those who supported her.
To her husband, she sent her headdress, which was commonly worn at the time, in order to express that she meant to do her duty by her husband. And to her daughter she sent her shoes and stockings in order that Anne might follow in her footsteps.
Then the day came, and Margaret was led out to a place where a crowd had gathered. She prayed for the Catholic Church, the pope, and all priests. Margaret was ordered to announce that she was to be put to death for treason. Instead, she said that she was to be killed for her love of Jesus. Then the sentence was carried out by placing a small rock under her and a heavy door on top of her. Then several beggars who were paid by the men who were supposed to do the job proceeded to place heavy weights on the door until she was crushed to death.
As far as it is known, John Clitherow never converted to the Catholic Church. However, he was not a man without a heart and despite what many might have thought of Margaret, it was reported that when he learned of her death sentence he said, "Will they kill my wife? Let them take all I have and save her, for she is the best wife in all England, and the best Catholic also."
The legacy of Margaret was also witnessed in the lives of her children. Both of her sons were ordained priests, and her daughter became a nun.
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