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June-July 2011


On Saturday, 26 March 2011, 700 Catholics attended the first celebration of a Catholic Mass in York Minster since the Reformation. Organised by the Latin Mass Society as part of its first annual York pilgrimage in honour of St Margaret Clitherow, one of the Society's patron saints, it was a sung Mass in the ancient Latin Rite, celebrated at the High Altar by Fr Stephen Maughan of Middlesbrough. The massive choir of York Minster was packed and over 150 people had to be accommodated in the nave with extra seating brought in.

"Afterwards," reported the LMS, "the huge congregation processed through the streets of York in public witness of the Catholic Faith to the Shrine of St Margaret Clitherow in York's historic Shambles, and then across Ouse Bridge, the place of her execution. The sight of so many Catholic pilgrims publicly processing and praying the Rosary drew the notice of Saturday afternoon shoppers, and a respectful silence fell as the procession passed."

A memorable day was completed at the Catholic Church of the English Martyrs, where a relic of St Margaret Clitherow, on loan for the occasion from York's Bar Convent, was venerated and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament was conferred by Fr Michael Brown, the LMS's Northern Chaplain.

Widely covered by TV, radio and local press, the LMS organiser, Paul Waddington, commented on the overwhelming response by "faithful Catholics" and the particularly encouraging presence of many "young families with children in buggies." Michael Lord, LMS General Manager, added:

Something special happened in York on Saturday. Hundreds of Catholics gathered in this historic centre of northern Christianity to honour one of England's bravest women in a quite extraordinary way. Indeed, some people travelled from as far away as London, Oxford and Dublin.

It is against this glorious background, so full of faith and hope, that we wish to juxtapose the following review of the latest pernicious attempt by CINO intellectuals to deconstruct the English martyrs: in this case St Margaret herself, the very object of the veneration that took place in York on 26 March! Dr Gardiner's previous scathing review of a similar work by Anne Dillon, The Construction of Martyrdom in the English Catholic Community, can be found in our May 2007 edition. Predictably, we find that Dillon's perverse take is now quoted favourably by her fellow CINO, Michael Questier. More surprising, perhaps, is the fact that Dillon is now an important figure in the Catholic Record Society, and that Questier is a guest speaker at the Society's forthcoming conference in July! Despite its reputation for orthodoxy the CRS is blind to the enemy within, seemingly oblivious to the damage it is doing to the Faith of the English martyrs whose lives they have long championed: by embracing writers who revise Catholic faith and history in the godless manner expertly highlighted by Dr Gardiner. Until such time as Anne Dillon and Michael Questier are prepared to renounce their injurious views, all faithful Catholics are obliged to spurn them and their works [3Thess. 6, 14], and certainly not promote or recommend them, as the CRS (and some misled orthodox bloggers) have done.

Meantime, the LMS proposes an even better response to the deconstructors and revisionists, making plans "for an even bigger celebration in honour of St Margaret Clitherow next year"!

Blaming the Victim

THE TRIALS OF MARGARET CLITHEROW: PERSECUTION, MARTYRDOM AND THE POLITICS OF SANCTITY IN ELIZABETHAN ENGLAND by Peter Lake and Michael Questier, New York and London: Continuum, 2011. 244 pp + xix, 23 plates. Paperback, $34.95, £19.99.


We live in an age when Catholics in great numbers are persecuted for their religion around the globe, but their suffering is virtually ignored in the secular media. We find the same thing happening in academe. The suffering of Catholics in former ages is either ignored or treated as if it had been well deserved. The prevailing axiom today is, ‘only Catholics are, and ever have been persecutors’.

This way of treating Catholics is just what we find in The Trials of Margaret Clitherow, a collaborative effort by two British historians – the agnostic Peter Lake and the Catholic Michael Questier. They inform us that ‘if Clitherow was a victim, she was also, perhaps primarily, a victim of herself’ (204). They put the blame for her death not on the ‘allegedly persecutory’ State, but on her ‘defiant recusancy’ and ‘staggering intransigence’ (87, 89).

Godless framework
The authors explicitly banish the transcendent from their work. What remains is politics. They declare that Trials is a ‘narrowly contextual exercise, which seeks to place Clitherow in the local cultural, political and polemical circumstances that framed her life and fate’ (238). They insist they must take this narrow view of her to make her experiences ‘intelligible to a secular age’ (201).

Whereas Mush emphasized St. Margaret’s profound reverence towards the priests who risked their lives to bring the sacraments to Catholics in York, Lake and Questier dismiss this as ‘hagiography’. For them, holiness is unrealistic and must be excluded from their earthbound considerations. They recast her experiences in ‘material terms’ (201). Worse still, they pretend to have more insight into her private feelings than her own confessor had. What this means is that they treat her throughout the book as a non-saint – as a proud, unruly woman who was disobedient to her husband and the State. Although Catholics revere St. Margaret as a saint and martyr, these authors present her as a self-centered termagant and her martyrdom as a ‘macabre’ and ‘grisly fate’ brought on by her own ‘noncompliance’ (59, 109, 90).

There is a very serious challenge to the Catholic Church concealed beneath this debasement of St. Margaret Clitherow. When it comes to canonisation, the Church’s infallibility is deeply involved. Now the fact that this holy woman was canonised in 1970 is mentioned only once in Trials, in parentheses, at the very end of the book, but this is misleading. In fact, the Church’s process of canonisation is implicitly disparaged throughout the work. Always present in the background is the unstated assumption that the Church made a serious mistake in raising such an unholy woman to the altars.

Baseless revision
John Mush had been St. Margaret’s confessor for two years when she died on 25 March 1586. He wrote his "True Report" right after her martyrdom, and the work was soon circulating in manuscript. No one at the time came forward to confute his testimony. But now, 425 years later, Lake and Questier presume to reconstruct his text from a purely secular viewpoint and to inform us, without a shred of evidence, that St. Margaret thought her life had ‘changed for the worse’ when she married John Clitherow and that she ‘expected better for herself’ than the status of a butcher’s wife in York (34-35). The authors claim Mush ‘implies’ this snobbery, but that is not the case at all. It is an example of how they misread "True Report" by looking at it through the dark glasses of their methodological naturalism. They call this ‘reading against the grain’ (197). From such misreadings they draw the following conclusion: that St. Margaret used the missionary priests to assuage her ‘intense feelings of despair’ (39).

They also accuse her of defying her conformist husband and being emotionally, or maybe sexually unfaithful to him: ‘The intensity of her relationship with the priests and of her public identification with them as actual or potential martyrs . . . organized her serial defiance of the wishes and authority of her husband under the sign of religion and conscience rather than under that of female wilfulness and disobedience’ (200). Never mind that the authors contradict themselves elsewhere in the book when they concede that John Clitherow’s view of his wife’s nonconformity ‘was never made entirely clear’ (21). For all we know, he may have admired her stand, though he lacked the courage to follow her example.

On this shaky ground of the presumed opposition of her husband, the authors assert that St. Margaret ‘wrenched control over large chunks of her own life’ from her ‘unfortunate spouse’ and created a ‘stage’ on which she could ‘play a massively enlarged role’ – ‘a far wider, more assertive and contentious role’ than was possible to her as the obedient wife of a conformist butcher (198-199). They also claim to find an ‘almost ruthless avidity’ in the way she sought out priests and an ‘internal logic, indeed perhaps even an inherent plausibility’ in the charge that she was sexually unfaithful with them (103). They ask whether the priests were not ‘battening off’ this ‘unhappy and uneducated woman’ (200).

Monstrous caricature
By excluding the supernatural with which St. Margaret’s life was imbued and reinterpreting her story from the perspective of naturalistic psychology, Lake and Questier manage to create a monstrous woman. Yet no woman of the sort they describe would have given up her life to protect her children and neighbours from committing sin.

Besides characterizing her as proud, disobedient, and perhaps sexually unfaithful, the authors accuse the saint of being ‘threateningly divisive’, ‘socially disruptive’, indeed ‘doubly disruptive’, because her acts of defiance were directed against ‘the authority of her husband and of the Protestant State’ (46, 81). They charge her with an ‘intransigent refusal to attend the services of her local parish church’ and with practicing some of the ‘most extreme’ forms of Catholicism – for example, going at night to pray at the scaffold where priests she had known had been martyred (33).

In "True Report" Mush writes that some Catholics turned against her because of her zeal, yet she ‘kept a most pure and hearty love to them’. Lake and Questier comment acidly on this passage, that by continuing to love her Catholic enemies Margaret Clitherow displayed her ‘moral superiority’ to them and played a game of ‘spiritual one-upmanship’ (47). Again one might ask, how can they pretend to know her secret feelings better than her confessor? Are they historians or novelists?

To top it off, the authors present the saint’s martyrdom as a suicide: ‘Mush’s narrative makes it clear that there was an important sense in which Margaret Clitherow actually chose to die – and this makes comprehensible the claims that her death was in effect a suicide’. And they wonder if her death provides the ‘final proof both of her own spiritual pride and obstinacy’ and of the ‘sinister emotional influence’ the missionary priests had on her with their ‘cult’ of martyrdom (201). They see her as staging her execution by giving an ‘impeccable performance’ in front of the judges, adopting the ‘pose of a martyr’, and acting out ‘her role as a bride of Christ, prepared and preparing to go to the “marriage”, as she called it, of her martyrdom’ (90, 92). They even suggest that she trapped her judges with an ‘all too well-thought-out-strategy’ and a ‘martyrly mien’ disguising her ‘aggressive passivity’. She played a ‘game’ with them, a ‘finely calculated’ game of ‘chicken’, and so managed to ‘orchestrate’ her own death (102).

Lake and Questier lament, however, that her execution turned into ‘something like a public relations disaster’, obliging the government to ‘tarnish’ her reputation for damage control (203). For suddenly Margaret Clitherow, ‘the disorderly woman, disobedient wife, embarrassing stepdaughter and harbourer of politically threatening and religiously recalcitrant priests’, became the ‘poster child’ of English Catholics when John Mush used her story for ‘virulently partisan propaganda purposes’ and Richard Verstegan caused her to achieve, by means of his illustrations, ‘the full apotheosis of martyrdom before a Europe-wide audience’ (87, 110, 204).

Blaming the victim
Blaming the victim in Trials does not end with St. Margaret Clitherow. It is a strategy that permeates the whole book. For example, St. Henry Walpole was martyred in York after being arrested virtually upon landing in England. Lake and Questier inform us that while he was in prison, he too showed an ‘intransigence and belligerence’ that ‘led, inevitably, to his execution’ (171). Likewise, St. Edmund Campion brought on his martyrdom by making a ‘direct assault’ on the ‘legitimacy and authority of the regime’.

The authors tell us that when Campion and Robert Persons proposed ‘a set of ideological and political claims in the face of the demands of the State’, causing Catholics to absent themselves from local Protestant churches, the State was ‘virtually forced’ to ‘defend itself against them’. Yes, it was forced just like those judges who condemned St. Margaret to be pressed to death. So now you see why Campion had to be ‘publicly executed’ as ‘a traitor’ and why all those ‘who had given him aid’ had to be hunted down. Robert Persons mistakenly ‘took’ this ‘to be persecution’ (51-3).

In Trials it is not the English Protestants who were guilty of ‘separatism’, though they broke off from all Christendom East and West; it is the Catholics who refused to attend the local church. The authors find their refusal incomprehensible after 1588:

‘One might have expected also that the Armada’s failure would have seriously diminished the extent or at least the overtness of Catholic separatism among Elizabeth’s Catholic subjects. Why would any Catholic want to be tainted with political disloyalty in an apparently defunct cause?’ (128-9)

In this passage Lake and Questier suggest that Catholics should have outwardly conformed to the State Church once their ‘cause’ was ‘defunct’ in 1588. Well, they are wrong. The Spanish invasion was defunct, not the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.

Exculpating Judas
The flip side of blaming the victim is exculpating Judas. No surprise then that a large portion of Trials is devoted to the defense of Thomas Bell, a priest who taught that it was licit to attend Protestant services as a sign of ‘temporal subjection’, provided that a ‘verbal protest’ were made that ‘he or she was there only to obey the queen’. Bell argued that what he needed to prove that this type of conformity worked was some obscure parish ‘where the gentleman protester is chief and lord of all, or where there is neither hot-spirited minister nor Protestant that will discuss or look into his master’s or his neighbour’s doings with any malicious complaint to molest them’ (61, 164).

John Mush replied that those who dared make a ‘verbal protest’ would end up being in ‘greater danger of her Majesty’s laws than they were in only for recusancy’, because the government had enacted penalties for those guilty of ‘despising, depraving or derogation’ of the 1559 prayer book. Even in Catholic Lancashire it was doubtful whether verbal protests ‘could go on unmolested for long’ because ‘in short time the rumour thereof will fly to the ears of some malicious minister, justice of the peace or other Protestant that will be glad, for the more vexation of Catholics and protesters, to call it in further question and prefer it to the higher powers. And thus the practice of it, in short time, cannot be without extreme dangers of the queen’s laws anywhere’.

Although Lake and Questier impugn Mush’s reply as part of his ‘vicious’ campaign against Bell, they later make a huge concession – that by 1592 ‘Bell’s position had proved unworkable’ even in Lancashire and that this ‘goes a long way towards confirming Mush’s analysis of the realities of late Elizabethan politics’ (63, 164).

Even so, much of Trials is devoted to the defense of Thomas Bell, a priest who apostatized in 1592 and joined in the persecution of his former co-religionists. The authors report that ‘contemporary Catholics’ described Bell’s change of religion as ‘apostasy’ and that Henry Garnet called him ‘another Judas’ who ‘betrayed his friends, and abandoned his faith and his religion’ (131). But Lake and Questier keep using the word ‘defection’ for Bell’s change of religion, as it if had been a political matter. They claim too that he was forced out of the Church when John Mush, Henry Garnet, and others ‘attacked and ideologically destroyed’ him (183).

The authors give a detailed account of Thomas Bell’s betrayal of his fellow Catholics after his so-called ‘defection’: he drew up a list of Catholic houses in Lancashire to be searched and went there to ‘help round up the Catholic seminarist clergy and their harbourers’; he not only gave ‘rules for searching’ Catholic houses, but ‘led night-time searches’ himself, even advising ‘the use of the rack to get Catholics to talk’; he named sixteen ‘gentlewomen to be proceeded against’ and made a list of all those who had given him money when he was a priest, this being ‘evidence of harbouring, sufficient to convict under the statute for the same offence with which Margaret Clitherow had been charged’; and he even sat with the judges when they decided the fate of Catholics. After this, he went on to write ‘abusive Protestant theological tracts’ against the doctrines he had once taught (133-5, 226-8).

Oh, but how many excuses Lake and Questier find for Thomas Bell! They present him as the hapless victim of a ‘vicious propaganda campaign’ conducted by Mush and Garnet (161). They say he had to fight ‘a desperate rearguard action against his Catholic critics’ and was finally ‘driven out of the Catholic community’ because of his ‘principled protestation-based style of Catholic conformity’ (131, 139).

Yes, twice they inform us that he was principled and was driven into his so-called ‘defection’. They shoot themselves in the foot, though, when they examine one of those pieces of ‘vicious propaganda’ that sent him willy-nilly into the arms of the Elizabethan State – an anti-Bell tract by Garnet called Treatise of Christian Renunciation. Here Garnet warns against attending Protestant services by citing first our Lord Jesus Christ, who says ‘that if any one come unto me and hates not his father and mother and wife, he cannot be my disciple’, and in second place St. Paul, who, ‘in the case of heresy, commands to avoid all persons without exception’. Then he cites the Church Fathers, among them St. Jerome, who warns not to prefer ‘wife nor children nor friends nor any affection which may exclude us from the kingdom of heaven before the love of our Lord’. Garnet concludes that if a woman’s husband tries to make her do ‘any unlawful act of religion’ she must ‘ forsake him, lest loving danger, she perish therein’ (178-9).

Lake and Questier attack this Treatise as ‘an extended exhortation, indeed a paean of praise, to disobedience’ – though the work is based on Scripture, Tradition and the teachings of the Council of Trent. They blame Garnet for trying to ‘scare Bell’s followers out of their wits’ with threats of excommunication and damnation when he was only trying, in charity, to bring them back to their duty. To counter the heavenly counsel given in Garnet’s Treatise, the authors make the following worldly comment:

‘Given the very large number of households headed by conformist husbands yet containing recusant wives this was potentially extraordinarily disruptive, indeed, subversive advice’ (176-9).

So then, our Lord Himself, the Apostles, the Church Fathers, and the Council of Trent were all ‘disruptive’ and ‘subversive’. What better proof can we have of how far these authors are from understanding St. Margaret Clitherow, St. Edmund Campion, and the other Catholic martyrs of the Elizabethan age?

Subversive sneer
The many pages defending the Judas-priest Thomas Bell are supposed to provide a context for Lake and Questier’s debasement of St. Margaret Clitherow. The authors conclude that the ‘martyrs’ created in York ‘provided the ideological and narratological materials out of which the likes of Mush were able to construct their case against Bell and his friends’ (199). Here St. Margaret Clitherow is just one of several individuals who were made to look like ‘martyrs’ in narratives like "True Report" in order to make a case against Thomas Bell and lead English Catholics to embrace ‘separatism’ or recusancy rather than conformity to the State Church.

What this work amounts to, then, is an underhanded attack on the Catholic Church and its claim to infallibility. Contrary to the general view of theologians that canonisation is a ‘theologically certain’ pronouncement involving ‘the fact of papal infallibility’ (Catholic Encyclopaedia), the authors contend that the sainthood of Margaret Clitherow is an invention of anti-Bell propaganda, a construction of a martyr for political ends.

So then, has the Catholic Church raised a fabricated saint to the altars? Throughout this book, Lake and Questier keep implying that it has. Their entire book, then, is a sneer at the Catholic Church’s process of canonization.



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