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The Shrine of Saint Margaret Clitherow (York)

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An English saint and martyr of the Roman Catholic Church. The shrine in her honor consists of a single, small room in a house off the famous medieval street known as The Shambles in York, England.

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      19.04.2008 19:13
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      A medieval house in York converted to a shrine during times of Catholic persecution

      I love to stumble upon places by chance and the Shrine of The Saint Margaret Clitherow is an example of one such place that I recently discovered. It is located within a small medieval house in The Shambles area of York, which is the oldest part of the town where many of the buildings are black and white timber framed. Unless you knew of its existence you would almost certainly pass it by. The exterior of this house is nothing out of the ordinary and its very existence is not widely publicised. On the outer wall, sandwiched between the many shop doorways there is a small plaque to mark its presence but other than that there is a just a small doorway. Walk through the tiny doorway however and you find that the entire front room of this building has been converted into a shrine, complete with an altar.

      Margaret Clitherow was a remarkable woman in many ways but her early life was nothing out of the ordinary. She was born Margaret Middleton, the daughter of a candle maker in 1556 at the end of the reign of the Tudor Queen Mary and lived her early life as a Protestant. In her late teens she married a local butcher called John Clitherow who was also a Protestant but sometime shortly after this marriage she converted to Catholicism. This was a time when the Catholic Church in England had been outlawed, having been abolished by Queen Mary's grandfather, King Henry V111. Meanwhile her husband remained a Protestant but he was tolerant of his wife's new faith and it is said that he regularly paid her fines for failing to attend the services at the Protestant Church. He also turned a blind eye to the fact that was raising their children in the Catholic faith.

      As persecution of those found to be still practising Catholicism intensified under the reign of the new Queen, Elizabeth 1, Margaret turned her home into a place of refuge. Inside her house she converted her front living room into a holy shrine and she had a secret cupboard that contained vestments, bread for Mass and wine. In 1586 there was a big crackdown on Catholicism in the north of England and Margaret's husband was questioned about the whereabouts of one of their sons who was studying to become a Catholic Priest abroad. John refused to divulge any information and as a consequence the house was searched.

      With the secrets of Margaret Clitherow revealed she was imprisoned but when she came before court she refused to offer a plea stating that she had committed no offence. She was sentenced to death by crushing aged just thirty. A thorough search of her house later revealed a "Priest hole" where she had regularly hid the Cleric himself.

      In recognition of her devotion Margaret Clitherow was canonised by Pope John Paul V1 in 1970 and given the posthumous title of Saint Margaret. Today her home survives almost intact and survives as a stark reminder of her martyrdom.

      I thought that this place was initially quite eerie if I am honest with you. It is very small and a bit claustrophobic but I was quickly overwhelmed by the story associated with this place, which is told on a board at the back of the room. This board is written in fancy calligraphy and was presented to the shrine by the Catholic Women's League, of which Margaret is their patron saint. At the side of this board, in the bay window that juts out into The Shambles there is a brass figure of St Margaret Clitherow.

      At the front of the room there is the altar, which is very ornate with lots of gold and besides this there are tables draped in plush red velvet. At the back of the altar there is a cross with a figure of Jesus on it and scattered all around the room there are several hymn books. These books are replicas of what might have been here originally and are placed to add to the ambience of the room but most of the other items here are original.

      It is quite dark inside the shrine and the lighting is obviously designed to create a mood. The décor is very dark with floors that are covered in dark wood, with more dark wood panelling on the walls and also in front of the altar and there are original black wooden beams across the ceiling. It is also notable just how low the ceiling is.

      I spent several minutes inside this room and during our visit we were the only people in here. We only found this place by chance because as we were walking by a couple were coming out of the door and I spotted the sign outside on the wall, intrigued I pushed open the door and I am so glad that I did. When we left we closed the door behind us and left it for someone else to discover.

      The Shrine of The Saint Margaret Clitherow is open daily from 9am. Entry is free.


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