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  • The Trials of Margaret Clitherow: Persecution, Martyrdom and the Politics of Sanctity in Elizabethan England by Peter Lake and Michael Questier
  • Marcus Harmes
Lake, Peter and Michael Questier, The Trials of Margaret Clitherow: Persecution, Martyrdom and the Politics of Sanctity in Elizabethan England, London, Continuum, 2011; paperback; pp. 244; 23 colour illustrations; R.R.P. £19.99; ISBN 9781441104366.

This book is not so much a biography of Margaret Clitherow, the Elizabethan Catholic martyr (and now saint), but rather tells the story of her trial and execution in order to illuminate aspects of the experiences of Catholics, lay and clerical and male and female, under the Elizabethan state. Clitherow, the wife of a butcher from York's Shambles, was put to death by the state by the especially horrible method of peine forte et dure. In other words, she was crushed to death.

Peter Lake and Michael Questier have produced an extensive number of texts on Elizabethan religion, both singly and as joint authors. In their latest work, they take Clitherow and situate her in a broader context of not only recusancy in the north of England, but of widespread arguments within the Catholic community in Elizabethan England about how recusants could respond to demands of obedience from the state and the strikingly divergent conclusions Catholic clergy reached about reconciling their faith with the state.

Yet neither the story of Margaret Clitherow nor the arguments within the Catholic community are especially new to scholarship. There are limitations to the text, in that, apart from some records from her trial, the only way to access Clitherow's life is through the hagiographic texts written about her by Elizabethan Catholic clergy. It is on these sources that Lake and Questier must rely, and at times they seem surprisingly happy to take their word for certain points.

Questions of balance also appear at times. Most notably, Archbishop Matthew Hutton is described in this text as 'the odious and crawling' Dean of York. This is how Elizabethan Catholics thought of him, but at the moment of this description Lake and Questier give no sense that they distance themselves historically or academically from this judgement, and simply let it stand without comment.

Clitherow herself disappears from view for much of the latter half of the text. This may be because, once the admittedly horrible story of her execution has been told, there is not much more that can be said about her that is especially significant or even interesting. Lake and Questier do draw out some issues of interest. One of these is the tensions within the Clitherow household itself, which fractured along religious lines as Clitherow's husband was a Protestant; not only was he married to a Catholic, she also brought [End Page 269] Catholic priests into his home. Lake and Questier discuss the factors of interest in these domestic relations, and the manner in which Clitherow's faith impacted on her role as wife and mother, her interactions with her husband, and the levels of obedience she was prepared to show him.

But the text has a much broader canvas than the butcher's shop in York, as the latter part of the book discusses the wider world of Elizabethan Catholicism and the politics of religion that fractured this community. In particular, they explore the controversial literature produced by John Mush, Henry Garnet, and Thomas Bell, and their very public disagreements with each other about obedience and what came to be called 'Church Papistry', a derogatory term referring to Catholics who, far from seeking martyrdom, were prepared to conform outwardly to the oaths of obedience and the religious observances demanded by Elizabeth's government.

Given this line of argument, it is perhaps inevitable that they conclude their study with a discussion of the so-called 'Archpriest Controversy', a major and very public flashpoint of argument between Catholic clergy about different lines of authority. Yet much has already been written about the Archpriest Controversy, and nothing new is offered here, beyond seeing it as playing out in the aftermath of Clitherow's execution. Where the text does come to life is the way Lake and Questier interpret the multiple levels of...


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pp. 269-270
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