Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Margaret Clitherow anticipates her execution

My dearest husband and children, who would have ever thought that our greatest fears would come true and that I would be facing death within three days from now, even though I have made no plea either of innocence or of guilt.

I could say nothing. You know that. If I had declared that I had been hiding priests in the house, then not only would they have been at risk, but so would you, whom I love so much. Could I have even thought for one moment of endangering you? Never! Those who had attended Mass, however secretly, would also have been put in peril of a brutal death. You would have been forced to testify against me and I could not have you faced with the dilemma of either being untruthful or, instead, condemning your wife and mother to death.

Neither could I myself say that I had not harboured priests and have sent them safely on their way, for that would have been a lie. Even if it means that I will die a death which chills me to the bone with fear, I will not lie.

I took the middle path and refused to testify in court, even though the lawyers tried to frighten me with the consequences. They succeeded in one thing: they truly terrified me. The consequences of my silence are as severe as an admission of guilt.

Peine forte et dure. That is the penalty. Tomorrow I will be removed from this prison cell and will be forced to lie on the ground, where they will fasten me so that I cannot move. The judge showed a little leniency because if he had adhered to the strict letter of the law, I should be naked, but he has relented and has allowed me to wear a light cotton shift that I have made in anticipation. He has also allowed that, on alternate days, I will be allowed to drink a little puddle water, but will be denied food. On the second day, I can eat some bread, but cannot drink.

“You must return from whence you came, and there, in the lowest part of the prison, be stripped naked, laid down, your back on the ground, and as much weight laid upon you as you are able to bear, and so to continue for three days without meat or drink, and on the third day to be pressed to death, your hands and feet tied to posts, and a sharp stone under your back.”

My dear family, the words of the judge are engraved in my soul. Is it any wonder that I am afraid? I would have loved it so much if I had been allowed to continue serving in our little butcher’s shop in The Shambles. I enjoyed that work, you know, because it gave me so many opportunities for meeting and helping people. It was easy to pass on messages about the dates and times when a priest would be available for Mass and the Sacraments. I suppose it was also the way in which I was discovered. There was a young Flemish boy who passed on information to the authorities when they intimidated him and promised to kill him. I cannot blame him for showing them where I had hidden the vestments and the chalices.

John, my dear husband, I have been so proud of you. You have been good to all of us. You know as well as I do that although I reverted to Catholicism and you chose not to do so, your brother was one of the priests who found safety in our home. You were so good not to admit that our son is himself studying for the priesthood.

Henry, William and Anne, as you can see, I have taught myself to read and write whilst I have been in prison awaiting my trial. There is so much that I would say to you, my dearest children, but just know this, that however much your father and I love you, God loves you even more. "I know of no offense whereof I should confess myself guilty. Having made no offense, I need no trial." This was my message at the trial and it remains my defence. Be strong. Give your lives to our beloved Lord.

I now take my leave of you all. I love you with all my heart. Pray for me that I might be strong to endure the death that I must soon die.

God bless,
Sr. Janet