Wander the cobblestone streets of The Shambles in central York today and you find yourself snickering at the tumbledown techniques builders used centuries ago. Most of the shops lie askew, and floors and walls jut out at pedestrians as if this ancient English town was poking its tongue at modern-day visitors.
There are buildings where a resident on the top floor can stick their arm out their window and shake hands with a neighbour in the room across the street.
In amongst The Shambles you’d be forgiven for missing it. Number 35. A Dark Door. Second-floor leaning at an angle. A former butcher’s shop that hid secrets over four hundred years ago.
Margaret Clitherow, a butcher’s wife, risked her young life by harbouring priests during the persecutions of the Roman Catholic Church in Reformation England. Her home in The Shambles became one of the most important hiding places in northern England for fugitive Catholic clergy.
At her trial in 1586 thirty-year-old Margaret refused to enter a plea. She feared her three children, or any of the other children from the school she ran, would be called as witnesses. In 1586 a witness of any age could be tortured to reveal their details, and young Margaret didn’t want to expose any child to that possibility. So she declined to anything.
The English courts had a solution for anyone who refused to enter a plea. Margaret Clitherow was taken to the main bridge in York and was forcibly laid down over a sharp stone in the middle of her back. With her eyes to the sky the front door of Margaret’s home was placed on top of her. With a crowd watching on that Friday heavy stones were placed one-by-one on top of the door. It was expected that with the increasing pain Margaret would cry out a plea – but she remained silent.
It took fifteen minutes of stones being placed on top of her door, but finally the stone laying underneath Margaret broke her back.
Margaret was pregnant with her fourth child at the time of her death. She lay dead on the bridge for another six hours before the weights were removed and her body, and that of her unborn child, were carried away.
Faith in the face of persecution has always required robust courage. Difficult times call for determined people willing to stay committed to their Creator. “For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.”
(2 Timothy 1:7)
Author: David Riley is a minister on the Gold Coast in Australia. This blog is a series of articles and “rambles” on the Reformation and christian church history.