Universe Column, September 16th 2007,
Most of the published lives of St. Margaret Clitherow, who was canonised 37 years ago by Pope Paul VI, state that the location of her grave is unknown.
Crushed to death – peine forte et dure – in York, on Good Friday, March 25th 1586, for harbouring a Catholic priest, Fr.Francis Ingleby, her body was thrown on a dung heap. The York assizes had ordered her to be stripped naked, for her to be laid on a sharp rock and for an immense weight of stones and rocks to be placed on a door. This was placed on top of her, crushing the life from her body.
Six week later a group of Catholics recovered the body, embalmed it, and had it taken to a secret place.
Margaret’s right hand was removed from her body and is kept at York’s Bar Convent.
But the whereabouts of Margaret Clitherow’s final resting place has been a matter of conjecture amongst scholars. Many believe the answer lies over the Pennines in Lancashire’s Ribble Valley.
Ribchester was a small Roman garrison town complete with baths and temple. Roman roads went north, south and east. It is quite possible that there were early Christians among the garrison.
In 410 the Romans left Ribchester – and Britain – but the area remained populated. Two hundred and fifty years later, in the seventh century, the district was evangelised by St.Wilfrid; the parish church at Ribchester being named for him. Half a mile to the north east of the parish church, and a short distance from today’s Catholic parish church of St.Peter and St.Paul (built in 1789) is the ancient chapel of St.Saviour, Stydd.
It is this little chapel, which has its origins in Saxon times, and whose present structure can be dated to the mid 12th century, that holds the clues to the whereabouts of St.Margaret.
The chapel at Stydd is believed to have been part of a small priory of Knights Hospitallers of St.John. Here they cared for lepers and for pilgrims. St.John’s holy well, said to have been a place of healing, is close by.
The Anglican rector of Ribchester, Fr.John Francis, deserves warm praise for his successful efforts to raise significant funds for the recent restoration of the chapel.
John Francis believes that the chapel not only links us to the earliest era of Christianity in Britain but that it also houses the remains of this singular Catholic saint.
Her journey to Stydd began when the priest whom Margaret Clitherow took under her roof, Francis Ingleby, arranged for her body to be taken west to a relative. Ingleby was related to the Catholic Hawksworth family of Mitton, near Ribchester. Four of William’s sons were secretly on the Continent at Douai training to be priests.
Missionary activity in the area was centred on Bailey Hall, in the parish of Mitton and it is believed that Margaret’s body was first taken to Bailey Hall. When in 1716, for supporting Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Hall was forfeit (by the Shireburn family) the saint’s body is believed to have been taken for safety to Stydd. In 1915 some students from Stonyhurst College excavated the ruins of a burial crypt next to the Hall and found the mausoleum empty.
Fr.John Francis believes that Margaret Clitherow’s body had been removed to the greater safety of Stydd.
In the Vavasour family there is an oral tradition that Margaret “was taken a horse’s journey at night and was buried; there she will remain until the Church is restored to its own.”
That Catholics held Stydd to be especially holy ground is borne out by the request of Fr. Sir Walter Vavasour – a Jesuit whose missionary work was based at Bailey Hall, and who died in 1789- to be buried there. Two other Catholic priests – Fr.Charles Ingolby and Fr.Richard Walmsley – made the same request.
More intriguing still is the white marble gravestone of Bishop Francis Petre. It must be unique for a Catholic bishop – and Apostolic Vicar at that – to have requested burial in an Anglican chapel. The Latin inscription on his tomb translates as follows: ‘Here lies the most Illustrious and Reverend Lord Francis Petre, Of Fithlars, of an illustrious and ancient family in the county of Essex, Bishop of Amoria and Vicar Apostolic of the Northern District; which he governed with discernment and care for 24 years, being its patron and ornament by his kind acts and apostolic virtues; then full of days and good deeds, after bestowing many alms, he died in the Lord on the 24th December of the year 1775, aged 84. May he rest in peace.’
Next to Bishop Petre’s grave is a simple cross and it is held that this is where Margaret Clitherow lies.
Margaret Clitherow was a Catholic convert, married to an Anglican. She had a brother-in-law who was an Anglican priest. She was renowned for her personal holiness – praying daily for an hour and a half and fasting four times each week.
On arrest, she refused to plead – since a plea would incriminate her family and her servants and she said that she wished to spare the jury’s conscience. She knew that the penalty for refusing to enter a plea was death by crushing.
Margaret Clitherow’s witness and her courage is a story for our own times. Her practical support and hospitality towards outlawed priests; the tolerance practiced within her own family; her spirituality and her fortitude are all a stirring rebuke to our half heartedness.
Rediscovering Margaret Clitherow – and understanding her story – more than repays our inquiries – so will a visit to Stydd.