Thursday, June 30, 2011

Book Review: The Trials of Margaret Clitherow

Subtitle: Persecution, Martyrdom and the Politics of Sanctity in Elizabethan England
by Peter Lake and Michael Questier
New York: Continuum, 2011

Book Description from Continuum:

The story of Margaret Clitherow represents one of the most important yet troubling events in post-Reformation history. Her trial, execution and subsequent legend have provoked controversy ever since she became a cause celebre in the time of Elizabeth I. Through extensive new research into the contemporary accounts of her arrest and trial the authors have pieced together a new reading of the surrounding events. The result is a work which considers the question of religious sainthood and martyrdom as well as the relationship between society, the state and the Church in Britain during the sixteenth century. They establish the full ideological significance of the trial and demonstrate that the politics of post-Reformation British society cannot be understood without the wider local, national and international contexts in which they occurred. This is a major contribution to our understanding of both English Catholicism and the Protestant regime of the Elizabethan period.


Acknowledgements \ Preface \ Abbreviations \ Part I \ 1. The Controversial Mrs Clitherow \ 2. The Radicalisation of the mid-Elizabethan Catholics \ 3. Mrs Clitherow, her Catholic household and her (both Protestant and Catholic) enemies \ 4. The Quarrels of the Catholic Community \ Recusancy and its Discontents \ Thomas Bell and his Enemies \ Christianity sans Eglise: the Religion of the Heart among Catholics and Puritans \ Fainthearted Catholics and Real Catholics: Mrs Clitherow and the Local Politics of Conformity \ 5. The Reckoning: Arrest, Trial and Execution \ Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know? \ Arrest \ Trial \ Awaiting Death in the Prison \ Appealing to the Court of Public Opinion \ Endgame: from Life to Death \ Part II \ 6. Mrs Clitherow and the Catholic Community after 1586 \ After the Execution \ The Tyrant and the Quisling \ Between Resistance and Compromise? \ 7. Thomas Bell’s Revenge and the 1591 Proclamation \ Thomas Bell changes Sides \ Acting on Information received \ Reading against the Grain; or what Thomas Bell had really been doing in Lancashire \ 8. Mrs. Clitherow Vindicated? \ The Church under the Cross and the Resort to the Public \ Thomas Bell and the Politics of Failure \ Mrs Clitherow entirely vindicated as the Epitome of Catholic Order \ 9. Aftermath: The English Catholic Community Tears Itself Apart in the Archpriest Controversy \ Epilogue: Margaret Clitherow and the English Reformation \Notes \ Index

About the Authors:

Peter Lake, Peter Lake is University Distinguished Professor of History and Professor of the History of Christianity, Divinity School at Vanderbilt University, USA. From 1993-2009 he was Professor of History at Princeton University, USA. He is the author of many books including The Boxmaker’s Revenge and a forthcoming volume on Shakespeare’s history plays.

Michael Questier, Michael Questier is Professor of Early Modern History at Queen Mary, University of London, UK. He is the author of Catholicism and Community in Early Modern England (CUP), Conversion, Politics and Religion in England 1580-1625 (CUP), and co-authored with Peter Lake The Antichrist’s Lewd Hat: Protestants, Papists and Players in Post-Reformation England (Yale).

My review:

I began with some misgivings as I wondered if the authors were to engage in a major deconstruction of the martyrdom of St. Margaret Clitherow, the position of Catholics in England, and the entire idea of martyrdom in England after the Reformation--and they do come close, although they recognize her independence, devotion and fortitude. This is not a work of hagiography. Instead Lake and Questier have presented the great complexity of the position of Catholics in England after the Reformation as they either negotiated some measure of conformity with their Protestant society and their rulers or maintained an absolute stance of Catholic separatism, risking imprisonment, torture and death. The whole notion of the Church Papist who offered a veneer of conformity to the established church was anathema to the group stressing absolute recusancy. Mostly represented by the Jesuits, the recusants believed that any compromise with the Church of England was a betrayal of the Catholic Church. The Church Papists argued that if they did not demonstrate some conformity with their neighbors and their rulers Catholics' loyalty as friends and subjects would always be suspect. If they did not attend their parish services they would not able to participate in community life and they would have no Christian fellowship at all. This debate divided Catholics and some Anglicans emphasized this division and used it as a weakness in the already suppressed Catholic community.

The plural form of "trial" in the title is important: Margaret Clitherow endured more than one trial and more than one type of trial. Once she became a Catholic just a few years after marrying John Clitherow, she wanted to practice her faith almost as a cloistered religious with devotions at certain hours, regular reception of the Sacraments, spiritual reading and formation, and contact with priests for spiritual counsel. Yet she was married to a Protestant tradesman, with a household and business to support, and she was adamantly opposed to any conformity with the Church of England. Clitherow organized her household and her daily activities around her devotions and her ascetism, but this brought her into conflict with her husband. In her zeal for recusancy and contact with priests, she added conflict with her neighbors, her family and her fellow Catholics in York.

In addition to those trials, her recusancy brought her legal troubles, questioning, and imprisonment. Her husband paid her fines and endured her sojourns in gaol, but he was out of the household and urged to be out of York when she was arrested the last time, tried, and executed for refusing to plead either guilty or not guilty. Although she was crushed to death on Good Friday, March 25, 1586, Margaret Clitherow's martyrdom did not put to death these debates about recusancy or conformity or questions about her behavior and reputation. The division between the Recusants and the Appellants over separatism and compromise only intensified into the conflict between the Jesuits and the secular priests in the Archpriest crisis from 1598 to 1602. Doubts about St. Margaret Clitherow's contacts with priests, which were often cast as scandalous and salacious, and whether her martyrdom was a suicide also continued--although the authors do pull back from the latter issue by acknowledging her stated rationale that because her children and neighbors would be called upon to testify and judge her case she chose not to plead at all. Clitherow is also accused of being a bad and disobedient wife and therefore Catholicism is implicated in encouraging her disobedience.

Throughout the retelling of St. Margaret Clitherow's story and its aftermath, Lake and Questier trace the career of Father Thomas Bell, a priest who had argued for a certain level of conformity. He eventually abandoned the Catholic faith and his priesthood, becoming an informer for the state to help them discover Catholic households and capture Jesuits in Lancashire and writing anti-Catholic pamphlets. Bell's betrayal demonstrated what Father Robert Persons, SJ and others had warned: any step toward conformity will lead to further steps toward betrayal.

I regret the absence of a full bibliography: Questier and Lake reference several contemporary documents including Father John Mush's "True Report of the Life and Martyrdom of Mrs. Margaret Clitherow", Father Henry Garnet's "An Apology against the Defense of Schism", Father Robert Person's "A Brief Discourse containing certain reasons why Catholics refuse to go to [Anglican] church" and "A Christian Directory", Edmund Bunny's Protestant version of the latter, "A Book of Christian Exercise", and Father Robert Southwell's "An Humble Supplication" written in response to Elizabeth I's proclamation of October 18, 1591 denouncing the treason of her Catholic subjects. Secondary studies include Alexandra Walsham's Church Papists: Catholicism, Conformity and Confessional Polemic in Early Modern England, Anne Dillon's The Construction of Martyrdom in the English Catholic Community, and K. J. Kesserling's work on the Northern Rebellion, previously reviewed here. The volume is well designed and very well illustrated.

No comments:

Post a Comment