St Margaret Clitherow, and The Shambles

Written By PhilG

York is a great place for a day trip or short stay. With lots of museums, restaurants, and pubs to explore.  

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The Shambles.

Shambles is York’s most famous medieval street. It starts in King’s Square, thought to be the site of the Viking King’s palace, and ends at a street called Pavement. Shambles was named in William the Conqueror’s Doomsday Book but most of the buildings in the street were built between 1400 and 1600.

In medieval times, Shambles was the street of the butchers, you can still see some of the benches and meet hooks the butchers used, but there are no longer any butchers shops in the street. The street gets its name from the shammel benches used by butchers to display their wares outside their shops.

The Shambles is a must see place for every York Explorer.

St Margaret Clitherow

No 35 Shambles is a shrine to St Margaret Clitherow. She was arrested and put to death because she harbored catholic priests which, in 1585 the time of Queen Elizabeth I, was punishable by death.

Shambles is a narrow street of timber framed jettied houses and shops. The top floor overhangs the ground floor and some of the buildings are so close together that people on opposite sides of the street can lean out of their bedroom windows and shake hands with each other.

The street of butchers shops.

In medieval times, before modern transport, animals were driven on foot to the yard at the back of the butchers shop and were fed and kept alive in the rear yard until needed. They were then slaughtered in the rear of the shop and their meat was sold on the benches and hooks at the front of the shop. An open sewer ran down the middle of Shambles where the butchers dumped their waste.

Phew…! I bet it was quit a stinky place.

Margaret Clitherow was the wife of one of the butchers in Shambles and she was a catholic.

Why was being a catholic a problem?

It became a big problem when King Henry VIII wanted a divorce from his first wife Catherine of Aragon and the pope wouldn’t allow the divorce.

Between 1532 and 1536 Henry gradually changed the law to make the king of England the head of the Church of England, previously the pope had been in charge of the church in England.

Henry VIII could now get divorced and marry his new sweetheart Anne Boleyn, but this caused chaos for the ordinary people who wanted to worship the same god in different ways. The real trouble began when Henry’s children came to power.

The ruling monarch’s religion was your religion.

First protestant then catholic then once again protestant religion was in favor and if you were of the wrong religion at the wrong time you could even end up being burned at the stake just because of your religion. Luckily it was your duty to worship whichever religion the King or Queen told you to worship, so it didn’t matter what you worshiped under the old king provided you changed your religion when the new queen told you to. If you insisted on keeping the old faith you were in big trouble.

Where does Margaret Clitherow fit in to all this?

Margaret Clitherow was the wife of a butcher who had a shop in Shambles; she was a catholic and had been imprisoned previously for her faith. But in 1585 a law was passed that made sheltering catholic priests a crime punishable by death.

Margaret had been hiding priests in the family home above the butchers shop and she was arrested. She knew if she went on trial her family would have to testify in court and this would place them in danger too.

Margaret refused to plead guilty or not guilty; this in its self was a crime punishable by death. But her family and friends would not be questioned in court.

Margaret was summoned to appear at the Guild Hall in York, she was sentenced to death for refusing to recognise the court and declare her innocence or guilt. She was then taken to Kidcotes prison which was on the old Ouse Bridge.

Margaret was laid on the floor of the prison with a rock under her back. A large door possibly from the Guild Hall was placed on top of her. Now heavy weights were placed on top of the door which slowly crushed Margaret to death.

Rumor has it that her accusers were too ashamed to do the foul deed themselves and paid two tramps to do the dirty work for them.

St Margaret Clitherow was canonized in 1970.

I’m not sure which house Margaret lived in; the experts think it may be number 10. It might not have been the one that is now a shrine to her memory, but it must have been close by.