John Dee’s Protestant Calendar and the search for God’s Longitude

When is Easter this year? It’s a question that vexes us and causes all sorts of problems with holidays and school terms.

Unlike Christmas, which always falls on the 25th December, Easter is a moveable feast that can occur any time between the 22nd March and the 25th April.

In 325, the Council of Nicaea decreed that Easter should fall on the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring on or after the vernal equinox. In 725, Bede wrote ‘The Sunday following the full moon which falls on or after the equinox will give the lawful Easter’. The flaw in this arrangement was that when the Gregorian Calendar replaced the flawed Julian Calendar in October 1582, famously robbing people of ten days of their lives, it was still not perfect and although the Catholic church presumed that the vernal equinox would fall on the 21st March, in reality, the vernal equinox doesn’t always fall on the same date. It can be on the 19th, 20th or 21st, and this year it is on the 20th March because it is a Leap Year and we have gained a day.

The problem for both these calendars is that there aren’t exactly 365 days in the year. There are six spare hours. It’s why we have a Leap Year every four years, although even that is not strictly true because there are some times when we don’t need to have one. The rule is that a year whose number is divisible by four is a Leap Year, unless it is divisible by 100 but not 400. This means that although 1600 and 2000 were Leap Years, 1700, 1800 and 1900 were not and 2100 won’t be either.

When the Gregorian Calendar was introduced by Pope Gregory VIII in 1582, the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I refused to adopt it. Instead, the Tudor magus, John Dee, came up with an alternative – a new Protestant Calendar.

John Dee, who was amongst other things an astrologer, proposed the use of a calendar

John Dee
John Dee

that was based on a 33 year cycle (the number of years in Jesus’s life).  Dee’s calendar has seven four year periods, in which the fourth is a leap year, followed by a five year period in which the fourth year is a leap year. He also calculated that this calendar would ensure that the vernal equinox always fell on the 21st March, provided that it was used at the correct longitude. The snag was that Dee’s calculations placed God’s Longitude somewhere on the east coast of America, in places that were already being colonised by the Spanish Catholics. Dee advised the queen that an expedition should set out to North America to take possession of at least some of the land through which this longitude ran and it has been suggested that the scientific mission to Roanoke Island was to take measurements to try to establish the exact position of God’s Longitude.

It also seems possible that one of the main reasons for the colonisation of Roanoke Island was so that this superior Protestant calendar could be implemented, showing the pope in Rome that his calendar wasn’t quite good enough. It never happened though. What happened to the Roanoke Colonists remains a mystery, and in 1752, England lost 11 days and the Gregorian Calendar we still use today brought us into line with much of the rest of the western world. Then, in 1884, Greenwich became the Prime Meridian, the place where the day would be deemed to begin. God’s Longitude was forgotten and now lingers unobserved somewhere on a line that includes New York and Guantanamo Bay. John Dee also fell from grace and was side-lined from the court, ending his days in poverty at his home in Mortlake.

And in case you’re still wondering about Easter 2016, the moon is full on the 23rd March this year, so the following Sunday, the 27th is Easter Day.

If you want to read about Dee’s proposed calendar in more depth these are a couple of excellent articles:

John Dee’s Calendar and God’s Longitude

The Non-implemented 33-Year English Protestant Calendar

And watch out for my next novel, The Merlin’s Wife, which will follow the story of John Dee’s wife, Jane Fromonds, as she travels with him across Europe in the company of Edward Kelley. Does it include the infamous wife swapping incident? You’ll have to read it to find out.



The builders of the Ribblehead Viaduct

If you have been following the television drama series Jericho, you may be aware that it is loosely based on the building of the railway viaduct near Ribblehead in North Yorkshire.

Ribble source to sea pics (Yorkshire) 012The magnificent Batty Moss viaduct, 1320 feet long and 104 feet high with its 24 arches which span the valley has been heralded as one of the great achievements of Victorian engineering.  It was built by the Midland Railway between 1870 and 1874 and it crosses some of the most difficult terrain in the country.


At one time 7000 men, known as navvies, were employed on the railway project, with 2000 of them in the Ribblehead area.  They laboured in horrendous conditions and lived, many with their families, up on the moors in shanty towns during its construction.  The towns were complete communities with post offices and schools. Some were given supposedly inspiring names such as the Crimean victories at Inkerman, Sebastopol and others, like Jericho, had biblical names. The remains of one of these camps, Batty Green, where over 2000 people lived and worked can still be seen near Ribblehead.

Life was brutal. The work was hard and difficult and performed mostly without the aid of mechanisation. The boggy ground meant that piers had to be sunk to a depth of 25 feet below the peat and set in concrete to provide foundations.

Death and disease were common.  Smallpox as well as accidents took many lives.  Eighty people died at Batty Green alone following a smallpox epidemic and the victims were buried in local graveyards in unmarked graves.

Memorial to railway workers St Leonard Chapel le Dale
Memorial to railway workers St Leonard Chapel le Dale

To mark the millennium in the year 2000 a memorial was placed in the graveyard at the church of St Leonard in nearby Chapel-le Dale.  A large stone, part of a redundant gatepost from a local farm, has a memorial plaque which is inscribed: The church community of Chapel le Dale erected this plaque To the Memory of the many men, women and children resident in this Parish between 1870 and 1877 who died through accident or disease during the construction of the Settle to Carlisle Railway and who were buried in this churchyard.

The memorial in the church at Chapel-le-Dale.
The memorial in the church at Chapel-le-Dale.




The churchyard, which had to be extended to accommodate the hundreds of deaths,  also has other graves connected to the building of the viaduct.  One is the grave of James Mather, to be found near the church porch. He was the popular host of the Welcome Home – a drinking place frequented by the navvies.  He was visiting Ingleton when a horse and cart ran out of control.  James bravely tried to grab the reins of the startled horse but was dragged under its hooves and died.  He was aged 45 years.


The grave of Ribblehead viaduct subcontractor Job Hirst.
The grave of Ribblehead viaduct subcontractor Job Hirst.

Another grave, near the lych gate, is that of Job Hirst. The inscribed tombstone records that he was a sub-contractor of the Batty Moss viaduct.  He was mugged by unknown persons whilst riding a horse towards Ingleton.

It would seem that the true stories of these workers is at least as sensational as their fictional counterparts. Ans although the viaduct is very picturesque  those who lost their lives during its building should never be forgotten.

First Footers

A first footer is the first person to cross the threshold of a house on New Year’s Day and who that person is will dictate the luck you will have in the following year. In Lancashire, a tall, dark-haired man will bring you the best luck, especially if he also brings a gift. My uncle, who was dark-haired, was often asked by his neighbours to visit their homes just after midnight and ‘bring in’ the New Year for them. He would take with him a lump of coal which symbolises warmth and comfort in the home. The neighbours were then assured of good fortune for the coming year and did not have to fear the bad luck that would be brought in by a fair-haired man or woman being the first to enter their house on New Year’s Day.

Another tradition associated with the New Year is mummers. They would come to the house wearing a scarf and flat cap and with blackened faces to disguise themselves. They would bring with them a dustpan and brush and were not allowed to speak, only to ‘mmm’ (to frighten away any evil spirits) until they had swept away the bad luck from the doorstep.

The New Year was also closely associated with the art of divination. If a girl wanted to know more about her future husband she would pour some melted lead into a glass of water and watch to see what image would be formed as it cooled. If it resembled scissors then she would marry a tailor, if she could see a hammer then she would marry a carpenter and so on.

The New Year was also a time to watch the weather carefully. If New Year’s Day dawns with dusky red clouds there will be much strife and debate during the coming year as well as many robberies.

The Mexico Disaster


The lifeboat memorial where five crew men of the Laura Janet are buried at St Annes parish church.
The lifeboat memorial where five crew men of the Laura Janet are buried at St Annes parish church.

The Mexico was a large barque from Hamburg which set sail from Liverpool bound for Guayaquil in Ecuador on the night of 9th December 1886. Not long after setting out,  it signalled that it was in distress to the south-west of Lytham.  At around ten o’clock the Lytham lifeboat, Charles Biggs, was launched in a moderate west-north-west gale with a very heavy sea.  At eleven o’clock that same night the lifeboat from Southport, the Eliza Fernley was also launched and managed to come within about twenty yards of the Mexico, which was breaking up, but a huge wave struck the lifeboat, tipping her upside down and all her crew were washed into the raging sea.  At around half past ten the St Annes’ boat, Laura Janet, had also set out, under sail, but she was quickly swept away.  The boat from Lytham eventually managed to reach the Mexico, plucking the captain and crew from the sinking vessel and bringing them safely to shore.  Coxswain Thomas Clarkson and his crew then went back into the raging sea to try to save the crew of the St Annes boat.  But they were too late.  All the crew of the St Annes boat drowned that night.  A total of twenty-seven lifeboatmen died at sea in the Mexico disaster.

In the churchyard of St Annes parish church there is a memorial, paid for by public subscription, which marks the grave of five members of the St Annes lifeboat crew:

Charles Tims age 43, Reuben Tims age 30,Thomas Bonneyage age 35, James H Dobson age 28,Thomas Parkinson age 28. The memorial is also inscribed with these words from the gospel of St John: Greater Love Hath No Man Than This.  That A Man lay down His Life For His Friends.

Laura Janet memorial St Cuthbert's Lytham
The Laura Janet memorial at St Cuthbert’s, Lytham.


There is another memorial at St Cuthbert’s church in Lytham  where other members of the drowned crew are buried:

James Bonney age 21,Nicholas Parkinson age 22,Richard Fisher age 45, Oliver Hodson age 39, James Johnson age 45, John P Wignall age 22,William Johnson (coxswain) age 35. It also mentions James Harrison age 19 who is buried in Blackpool Cemetery.



The grave that adjoins the memorial at St Annes is that of Sir Charles Wright Macara.

lifeboat memorial and Charles Macara's grave

He was born in 1845 at Strathmiglo in Fifeshire and was the eldest son of Rev William Macara who was a minister in the Free church of Scotland.  After being educated by his father and at school in Edinburgh he began work, at the age of sixteen, for a firm in Glasgow whose business took him on visits to Manchester where he subsequently worked as a representative of Cox brothers of Dundee.  In 1880 he became a partner in the firm of Henry Bannerman and Sons and acting as the managing director from 1884.  And in 1875 he married Marion, who was a granddaughter of one of the founders of the firm.

Charles Macara's grave St Annes parish church

In 1884 he fought a strike by the Bannerman workers but became associated with the rights of both workers and employers.  From 1894-1914 he was president of the Federation of Master Cotton Spinners’ Associations and in 1899 was instrumental in the formation of the Manchester Cotton Employers’ Parliamentary Association. During the cotton strike of 1892-3 he resisted the workers’ wage demands but also opposed employers’ attempts to crush the union and as chairman of the Manchester Master Cotton Spinners’ Association he was largely responsible for the Brooklands Agreement of 1893, which established new guidelines for negotiations during labour disputes within the cotton industry.

From 1885 he spent his weekends at St Annes where he loved to sail and when donations

The lifeboat memorial at St Annes.
The lifeboat memorial at St Annes.

to help the bereaved families of the Mexico disaster, including contributions from Queen Victoria, the German Emperor and the Port of Hamburg, were received he became the chairman of the Relief Fund.  Following this he founded the Lifeboat Saturday Fund.  The first event was held in 1891 in Manchester when thirty thousand people attended and five and a half thousand pounds was collected.  The Fund spread to the rest of the country and became an annual event and his wife Mrs Marion Macara helped set up the Ladies Auxiliary Committee which led later to the formation of the Ladies Lifeboat Guilds.   Charles Macara revolutionised charity fundraising and his ideas still raise money for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

Charles Macara was created a baronet in 1911. He died at his home at Hale, Cheshire on the 2nd January 1929, but was buried at St Anne’s.








Halton Castle

If you have read The de Lacy Inheritance you will know that it begins at Halton Castle in Cheshire as Richard is read the Mass of Separation. I visited the castle when I was researching the novel but didn’t write about its history at that time, so when I made another visit at the weekend I decided it was time for some photos and a bit more information.

The remains of Halton Castle.

The hill where Halton Castle is sited must have been a defensive position long before the Norman Invasion. The view is amazing, even on a fairly dismal day, and I must try to visit again when the weather is clear and remember to take my binoculars with me. You can see across the river Mersey to Lancashire, to the distant mountains of north Wales, across the Pennines to Yorkshire, to Derbyshire and of course swathes of Cheshire. So, it isn’t surprising that it was on this sandstone outcrop that Nigel of Cotentin, the first Baron of Halton, built his Norman stronghold.

The Barons of Halton Castle.
Looking out over the Mersey towards Stanlow. The castle controlled a strategic river crossing.

It was Nigel’s son, William FitzNigel,the second Baron of Halton, founded an Augustinian Priory  in 1115 at Runcorn. This religious house was moved by his son, William FitzWilliam, to Norton in 1134. The castle and the priory are still linked today under the care of The Norton Priory Museum Trust, although after a varied history the castle is now part of the Duchy of Lancaster.

Those familiar with the story of The de Lacy Inheritance will know that Albreda de Lacy, the cousin of Robert de Lacy (2) was the wife of Richard FitzEustace, the fifth Baron of Halton and she bequeathed her share of the de Lacy estates to her grandson Roger who took the name de Lacy. He became the seventh Baron of Halton and from that time the castle remained in the ownership of the de Lacy family until it was surrendered to King Edward II on the execution of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster who had married Alicia de Lacy. You can read more about that story in Favoured Beyond Fortune.

The castle may have lost some of its importance after it came into the possession of the de Lacy family. They had bigger and better castles, such as Pontefract, and probably didn’t spend much time living at Halton, although it would have been an important administrative base. There was a visit from King John in 1207 and he gave £5 towards the upkeep of the chapel.


By 1362, John of Gaunt was using the castle as a hunting lodge and between 1450 and 1457 a new gatehouse was built at a cost of £347. A survey  from 1476 mentions a number of  buildings  at the castle, including a great chamber, a withdrawing room, a chapel, a hall and domestic buildings including a stable.

During the English Civil War, the castle was a royalist stronghold in the charge of Earl Rivers, who was Steward of Halton. The priory, which had passed into private ownership following the Dissolution, was owned by the Brooke family who were parliamentarians. There were two sieges of the castle and it was eventually taken by Cromwell’s men. Much of the castle was deliberately ruined at this time to prevent its future use by the royalist supporters.

P1040494In 1737, the gatehouse was demolished and a courthouse was built in its place. You can see the remains of the lock-ups in the castle bailey. The building currently houses a pub.

In the 1800s, the Brooke family kept the castle as a ‘romantic ruin’, building new follies and creating a sunken Victorian garden.

Remains of the Victorian sunken garden.
Remains of the Victorian sunken garden

Today, what remains is a Grade I listed building and research into the castle’s history is ongoing. This summer (2015) there was an archaeological dig which uncovered, amongst other items, two skeletons. The age of these remains and whether they were buried within the castle chapel is part of an ongoing investigation. I’ll be interested to see what is revealed.

Priory or Friary – Who Lies Where?

The histories of various well-known people, including Richard, Duke of York and Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, record that they were buried at Pontefract. However it takes a little more digging to discover exactly where, because Pontefract had both a priory and a friary and even the information displayed on the signage board at the site of St John’s Priory seems to be incorrect when compared with historical records.

P1030922 The Cluniac Priory of St John is the older of the two monastic establishments. There are no remains above ground but the site of the priory is preserved and the outlines of the buildings can clearly be seen on images from Google Earth. The site can be found on Box Lane, close to Pontefract Castle.

The Priory of St John was founded by Robert (1) de Lacy in the reign of William Rufus, although the exact date is unknown. Norman lords were keen founders of ecclesiastical institutions and the foundation of St John’s near to the castle at Pontefract was no doubt an attempt to ease the passage of the de Lacys to heaven. The priory was founded ‘for the good estate of the founder, and the souls of William I, the founder’s parents – Ilbert and Hawise – and all his ancestors and heirs’.

The priory was a daughter house of La Charité-sur-Loire. The first monks came from thereP1030926 and were housed in what later became St Nicholas’ Hospital. The appointment of the prior was by the mother house in France and a yearly payment was sent from Pontefract, although this was confiscated in the reign of Edward III.

It’s recorded in the Historia Laceiorum, a 15th century genealogy of the de Lacy family, that several members of the de Lacy family lie here. Robert’s parents, Ilbert and Hawise are said to be buried at the right and left of the altar. Robert’s son Ilbert is recorded as being buried between the tomb of his mother, Matilda, and the wall at the altar of St Benedict, and the founder himself is recorded as being buried at the right hand corner of the altar of St Benedict, within the priory church. Most historians dismiss this information and record that the date of death and place of burial of both Ilbert de Lacy and Robert de Lacy is unknown. The probable reason is that the Historia Laceiorum is a flawed document with provable errors which has led to it being widely mistrusted, but it would be reasonable to suppose that at least Robert’s wife, Matilda, and son, Ilbert, were buried here.

Another burial in the priory was that of Archbishop Thurstan. He retired here in January 1140 to fulfil a vow taken in his youth to become a monk of the Cluniac order. He died on 5th February after reciting the office of the dead. ‘Whilst the rest were kneeling and praying around him he passed away to await in the Land of Silence the coming of that Day of Wrath, so terrible to all, of which he had just spoken.’ Some years later his grave was opened and his remains were found to be sweet smelling and undecayed.

It was also in St John’s Priory that Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, was buried in 1322 following his execution after the Battle of Boroughbridge where he had led a rebellion against Edward II. After he was beheaded on a nearby hill, the monks begged for his body and buried it at the right hand of the high altar. It was to this church that pilgrims, who viewed Thomas as a martyr, began to come in their thousands as stories of miracles began to spread. ‘Certain miracles which were said to be done near the place both where he suffered and where he was buried caused many to think that he was a saint. Howbeit, at length, by the king’s commandment, the church doors of the priory where he was buried were shut and closed, so that no man might be suffered to come to the tomb to bring any offering or to do any other kind of devotion to the same.’ 

P1030950The Dominican Friary of St Richard at Pontefract has also disappeared, although traces were found during the construction of the new hospital when it was discovered that it lies somewhere to the east of Friarwood Valley Gardens.

The friary was founded by Edmund de Lacy in 1256. After the death of his father, John de Lacy, Edmund became a ward of the king and was given into the care of a tutor, Richard Wych, who later became Bishop of Chichester and was made a saint after his death on 3rd April 1253. Edmund chose the town of Pontefract to establish the friary in his honour and the story of the foundation is told by a contemporary Dominican, Ralph de Bocking, in his life of Richard Wych. Edmund de Lacy, accompanied by discreet men, both religious and secular, laid the foundation stone with his own hands, saying: ‘To the honour of our Lady Mary, mother of God and Virgin, and of St Dominic, confessor, to whose brethren I assign this place, and also of St Richard, bishop and confessor, formerly my lord and dearest friend, I wishing to found a church in this place lay the first stone’. Upon these words, the stone split into three parts, as if to approve the choice of the three patron saints.

Unlike the Cluniac order, the Dominicans were an open order who went about the countryside in pairs, preaching. They were known as the Black Friars from their black habits.

When Edmund de Lacy died on 22nd July, 1257, he left his heart to be buried in the Dominican church at Pontefract. It’s probable that the church was not complete at this date and the rest of his remains were buried beside his father and grandfather at Stanlaw Abbey in Cheshire, but were later moved to Whalley Abbey when the monks transferred there.

A list of burials at St Richard’s Friary was compiled by John Wriothesley, Garter King-of-Arms, who died in 1504. Presumably taken from the friary records, he records that the heart of the founder, Edmund de Lacy, is buried there. Also listed are Edmund’s wife, Alice, daughter of the Marquess de Saluzzo, their infant son John and daughter Margaret; also the heart of Alice’s husband, George de Cantlowe, and their infant son; also Agnes de Vescy, who was Alice’s sister.  He also lists the hearts of Richard, Duke of York and his son Edmund, Earl of Rutland; also Richard Nevill, Earl of Salisbury, and his son Thomas. These are the Yorkist noblemen who were killed at, or executed following, the battle of Wakefield. It is sad, however, that when I visited Pontefract, the information board that has been put up on the site of the Priory of St John claims that those who were killed at Wakefield were buried there.

The bodies of the duke of York and his son Edmund were transferred from Pontefract in 1476 when the duke’s son Edward was king. They were taken in procession to the church near to their family home at Fotheringhay.  Richard Nevill and his son Thomas were removed to Bisham Abbey.

At the reburial of Richard III earlier this year, Benedict Cumberbatch commented that P1030934having found the king under a car park, in the remains of the Greyfriars, he hoped the tomb in Leicester Cathedral would not be lost to future generations. It was a thought-provoking thing to say because I’m sure that Robert de Lacy and Edmund de Lacy never even considered that their magnificent religious foundations would one day no longer exist and that their tombs would be destroyed. It took the actions of only one man – Henry VIII. We must strive to ensure that someone in the future doesn’t destroy the history we have now and that what remains is recorded accurately and preserved.

The Secret Burial of Saint Margaret Clitherow

Stydd Chapel: Up a narrow track on the outskirts of the village of Ribchester is the small Stydd Chapel and Ribchester 001chapel of St Saviour, Stydd. It is a tranquil place and the simple building with its stone-flagged floor and plastered, white-washed walls is one of only a few early medieval churches in Lancashire still in use as a place of worship; monthly Sunday services are held here in the summer, as well as at Christmas, Easter and on other special occasions.  Yet, in this unprepossessing place it is believed a saint is buried. Beneath the altar at Stydd chapel are thought to lie the remains of St Margaret Clitherow, also known as St Margaret of York or the Pearl of York.

There has been a place of worship here since the 12th century when deeds refer to ‘the hospital of St Saviour, under Longridge and the Master and brethren also serving God there’.  It could have been a monastery and perhaps a place where travellers could stay on their journey, as the term ‘hospital’ referred to hospitality before it became widely used as the name of a place to cure the sick.  And as Ribchester, once a Roman settlement, was sited at an important road junction where the north/south crossing of the Ribble met the east/west route across the Pennines it would seem reasonable to assume that such a resting place would have been welcome.

In the mid 13th century there is a record that the Knights Hospitallers of the Order of St John of Jerusalem acquired the site from Adam, the Chaplain-Warden of the house of St Saviour at Dutton, ‘together with the surrounding plough-lands, wood and moor and with rent from land in Dutton, Ribchester and elsewhere.’ 

By the 14th century the religious community was gone and the Knights Hospitallers rented out the land for agriculture use, although the chapel survived as the tenant was required to keep it maintained and to provide a chantry chaplain to sing masses for the dead.  In 1501 Nicholas Talbot endowed a priest to sing for twelve months at Stydd, where his mother and father were buried.  Local parish registers record that the burial ground surrounding the chapel was still in use up until 1879 when burials were formally discontinued.

 After the Reformation in the reign of Henry VIII, land owned by the Knights Hospitallers was forfeit to the crown and Stydd was sold to Sir Thomas Holt of Grizehurst, though still on condition that he paid a small stipend to a chaplain to hold occasional services in the chapel.

In 1686, Stydd Manor, including St Saviour’s, was bought by a group of local gentlemen (all Roman Catholics) including James Stanford, Richard and John Shireburne of Bailey Hall and their cousins Richard and John Walmsley of Showley Hall at Clayton-le-Dale.  It is possible that they purchased the chapel and burial ground to use quietly for religious purposes.

The shrine to Margaret Clitherow in her former home on the Shambles in York
The shrine to Margaret Clitherow in her former home on the Shambles in York

Margaret Clitherow was born in York in around 1553. She was the fourth child of Thomas and Jane Middleton. In 1571 she married wealthy local butcher John Clitherow, who was a widower with two young sons, and they lived in the Shambles area of the city.

Although she had been raised as a Protestant and her husband also conformed to the new religion, she found ‘no substance, truth or comfort’ in that faith and having undertaken instruction she became a Roman Catholic in 1574.  It is said that she prayed for an hour and a half every day, fasted four times a week and went regularly to confession and mass.

But the increasing religious suppression in the reign of Elizabeth I resulted in a requirement by the law that everyone attend their local parish church every Sunday and every feast day. And although her husband willingly paid her fines for non-attendance, Margaret was imprisoned on a number of occasions after recusancy was made a treasonable offence in 1576.  However she continued to hear the mass in her home and housed a schoolmaster to instruct her own and other local children in the Roman Catholic faith.

Then a law was introduced in 1585 that made it high treason, punishable by death, to aid or harbour a Roman Catholic priest. Yet Margaret had a secret room constructed that could be accessed from the upper floor of her home where priests and their vestments could be hidden. She also sent her son to Douai in France to study for the priesthood.

When her step-father Henry May became Lord Mayor of York on 15th January 1586, he pursued the policies of the Council of the North in rounding up and punishing recusants.  The sheriff’s men raided and searched the Clitherow’s home and although the schoolmaster escaped through the secret passage, everyone else in the house was arrested – including a twelve year old Flemish boy who was stripped naked and threatened with a flogging if he didn’t reveal the hiding place.  The terrified boy showed them the secret room where they found enough evidence to charge Margaret with treason.

She was arrested on 10th March 1586 and accused of harbouring priests and hearing the mass. Shw was put on trial at the Guild Hall on 14th March. When she was asked for her plea, she replied: “Having made no offence, I need no trial.  I will be tried by none other than God and your consciences.”

Her refusal to plead condemned her to peine forte et dure, being ‘pressed to death’. This consisted of the victim lying on the ground with a sharp stone under their back, their arms outstretched and their hands tied and bound to two posts. Then a wooden board or door was placed on top of them and weights were added to the board until the person was crushed to death. Margaret took fifteen agonising minutes to die, during which time she cried out for Jesus to have mercy on her. 

After her death, at just 30 years of age, on the 25th March 1586, which was Good Friday, her body was taken by her executioners to be buried at midnight in an obscure corner of the city where no one would find it.  However, it was found six weeks later and was secretly taken away, embalmed and properly laid to rest, although one hand was removed as a holy relic.  It is now kept in the Bar Convent in York.

Although there is no absolute proof of St Margaret’s final burial place it is recorded that the body was brought ‘a long journey on horseback’ that took a week, and as Lancashire was a place where many families stayed true to the old religion, and there was a connection between priests that Margaret had known and William Hawksworth of Mitton it is possible that the body was brought to this area.

In 1915, historians from Stonyhurst excavated the ruins of a chantry chapel which had been attached to Bailey Hall, the home of the Shireburn family, who remained Roman Catholic.  Beneath the site of the altar they discovered thirteen stone steps that led down to a crypt, laid out as a lavish shrine to a martyr; it was empty. The hall and the chantry chapel had been founded in the 14th century by Robert de Cliderow, so it does not seem unreasonable that this burial place was where Margaret’s body was brought.  However, in later years Richard Shireburn joined Bonnie Prince Charlie in the Jacobite Rebellion and when it was unsuccessful his estates were forfeit.  So was the body of Margaret moved before the house was handed over?

The grave reputed to be the burial place of St Margaret.
The grave reputed to be the burial place of St Margaret.

As already mentioned, St Saviour’s at Stydd had been bought by a group of gentleman, including John Shireburn. As the Anglicans had their own church of St Wilfrid in Ribchester, they didn’t need the chapel at Stydd and it’s possible that it was quietly used by Roman Catholics for their worship.  It is also recorded that the Anglicans in Lancashire were sympathetic to the defeated Jacobites and that the Vicar of Ribchester had accepted two men ‘executed for treason’ for burial in his churchyard. Father Sir Walter Vavasour, who is also buried at Stydd, must have been on good terms with the vicar and it seems there would have been little to prevent the body of Margaret Clitherow being re-interred in the chapel. There is a story that says: “She was taken a horse’s journey at night and was buried; there she will remain until the church is restored to its own”.

 She was canonised as a saint and martyr on 25th October 1970 by Pope Paul VI.  She is also the patron saint of the Catholic Women’s League.

Her two sons, Henry and William both became priests.  Her daughter Anne, to whom she sent her shoes and stockings on the morning of her death so that she could follow in her footsteps, became a nun at St Ursula’s, Louvain, although she was imprisoned in Lancaster Castle in 1593 for ‘causes ecclesiastical’. What she was doing in the region is not recorded, but it may have been to visit her mother’s grave.


This article is an extract from my book Lancashire: Who Lies Beneath?

P1030687Originally priced at £8.99 the publisher Countryside Books have decided to sell off some stock and I have some signed copies at the special price of £3.99 including postage. UK only. If you would like one, please send your postal address to: ‘’

and I’ll send you payment details for either a cheque or paypal.