Thursday, March 12, 2020

Who Was Margaret Clitherow? Guest Post by Tony Morgan, Author of The Pearl of York, Treason and Plot

Please join me in welcoming Tony Morgan back to Let Them Read Books! Tony is celebrating his newest release, The Pearl of York, Treason and Plot, and I'm happy to have him here today with a guest post about the heroine of his novel, Margaret Clitherow!

The Pearl of York, Treason and Plot –
Who was Margaret Clitherow?

When Margaret Clitherow is arrested on the dark streets of Tudor York, her friends, led by a youthful Guy Fawkes, face a race against time to save her from the gallows. As events unfold, their lives, and our history, change forever.

This is the premise behind my new novel, The Pearl of York, Treason and Plot, but who was Margaret Clitherow?

Margaret’s life had a profound effect on many lives. Some dedicated their future to her. In time, others called her the Pearl of York, whilst Queen Elizabeth wrote a letter to the people of the city condemning her treatment.

In 1553, Margaret was born in Davygate within the city walls of York in northern England. It was a time of change and turbulence in a country which had oscillated between Catholicism and Protestantism. In the reign of Queen Mary, it was firmly Catholic.

York had experienced decades of decline, triggered by the Reformation, plague and pestilence, but Margaret was fortunate. She was born into a prosperous family. Her father, Thomas Middleton, was a wax-chandler and a successful businessman. Margaret’s mother Jane looked after the children, supported the business and ran the household.

When Queen Mary died in 1558, her half-sister Elizabeth became queen. The state religion transformed back to Protestantism. Margaret’s father was part of the city’s governing class, and so the family conformed. Margaret was raised a Protestant.

Thomas Middleton was a popular man. In 1564, he was elected Sheriff of York. By all accounts, Margaret was raised in a happy household. She was brought up to respect hard work, and learned many practical skills needed to run a business, in the expectation she’d marry a man of similar social class and be expected to stand in for him on occasion.

Although he’d not been a well man, it must have been a shock in 1567 when Thomas died, leaving behind a legacy for his family, and a small amount of money for the city’s poor, on the understanding they’d pray for his soul.

Margaret’s mother Jane wasn’t a widow for long. In Tudor times, it was commonplace for women to remarry quickly but, even then, four months may have appeared quite soon. What’s more, Jane’s new husband, and Margaret’s stepfather, Henry Maye, was considerably younger than Jane and hailed from a lower social class. Tongues must have wagged on the streets of York!

To be fair, Henry was a hard worker. Supported by Jane’s assets and the family’s standing, he transformed their home into a successful inn, and pursued many other business interests. Over time, Henry, and his new family, prospered, until he took his own place amongst York’s governing class by becoming an alderman.

When all this was happening, Margaret was growing up. In 1571, she married a widower, the butcher John Clitherow, and moved to his household in The Shambles, a narrow street dominated by the city’s meat traders. In the years which followed, she raised a family, including a son Henry and a daughter Anne.

Critically, she was persuaded by a group of local women to convert to Catholicism. At the time, many people were Catholic. Most acted unobtrusively, playing along with the authorities. They attended official Protestant church services every Sunday (as the law ordered they should), before spiriting themselves away to illegal Catholic Masses whenever they could.

Others refused to conform. Even though her husband remained a Protestant, Margaret joined a tightly knit group of recusants - dissenters who refused to attend the official church services or swear allegiance to the queen.

Public non-conformity came at a cost. Records from the time highlight Margaret’s crimes and punishments. In addition to fines for her husband, she was sent to prison in 1577 and again in 1580. In 1581, she was temporarily released to give birth to a child, whilst in 1583 she was sentenced to a further 10 months in jail.

John Clitherow must have loved his wife. He remained a Protestant, and for a time was even responsible for identifying people who didn’t attend church services, but he paid her fines, and if he wasn’t actively supportive of her ways, at least he accepted them. Perhaps, this was at least partly due to the fact some of his relatives were Catholics too.

Refusing to attend Sunday service was an important crime, but not the worst. To be found guilty of helping Catholic priests, or hosting Catholic Mass, risked being sent to the gallows. On 10th of March in 1586, the city authorities lured John Clitherow away from The Shambles, so his house and premises could be raided by the Sheriff of York. Accused of harbouring Catholic priests, Margaret was arrested and dragged away from her children.

This was when the family intrigue aspect of Margaret’s story really begins. Her mother, Jane, had sadly died the year before. Following the family tradition, stepfather Henry had remarried quickly, to a much younger spouse. He’d also developed grander political ambitions. A month before Margaret’s arrest, he’d been elevated to the lofty position of Lord Mayor of York.

Imagine the controversy, the new Lord Mayor’s stepdaughter was openly Catholic and a convicted criminal. And now it was rumoured she might be hiding Catholic priests and allowing Mass to be held in her house. Did Henry order the arrest of his first wife’s daughter? He certainly had the motive and, now as Lord Mayor, he had the means.

What followed was a show trial at York Lent Assizes, but this blog is long enough already. I’ll leave you with one thought… Margaret and Guy Fawkes were close neighbours. Did what happen next inspire his future actions? To find out more, please read the book!

The Pearl of York, Treason and Plot is available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback formats. It can also be purchased locally in Yorkshire, for example at one of Tony’s history talks.

Amazon US     ~     Amazon UK

About the Author:

Tony Morgan is a Welsh author and university academic. He lives in North Yorkshire, near to the birthplace of Guy Fawkes and Margaret Clitherow. In addition to writing historical novels, Tony gives history talks covering the events of the Gunpowder Plot and the life and death of Margaret Clitherow.

To date, all profits from his novels and talks have been donated to good causes. In 2020, Tony is supporting St Leonard’s Hospice in York.

For more details, visit Tony’s website.


  1. Hi Jenny - Thanks so much for posting this. Margaret Clitherow's story is such a fascinating one. I love discussing the history of this time and would be very happy to answer any questions anyone might have.
    Many thanks, Tony.


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