Martyrs and manuscripts: Thomas More and Margaret Clitherow

As these two manuscript biographies show, print was not the only way to circulate a celebrated life. Sir Thomas More [1478–1535] and Margaret Clitherow [1553–86] were perhaps England’s two most celebrated lay Roman Catholics in the sixteenth century. Both were seen by generations of Catholics as martyrs who had laid down their lives for the ‘true faith’. These accounts of their lives and deaths were both written from positions of close personal knowledge: the life of More was written by his son-in-law, William Roper [c. 1495–1578], and Clitherow’s was written by her confessor, the seminary priest John Mush [1552–1612]. The manuscript shown here is the earliest known copy of Mush’s account. These narratives depicted as heroes people that the English state condemned as traitors. In the eyes of Elizabethan Protestants, More and Clitherow had died not for their faith but for sedition. Neither of the biographies in these manuscripts were printed until the seventeenth century, and they then appeared from continental Catholic presses. Yet these manuscripts demonstrate the ways in which such documents could circulate among a community without the aid of print, and thus the ways in which memories which some considered subversive and even dangerous could be kept alive. CL

William Roper, ‘The Life and Death of Sir Thomas More’, title page.

CUL: MS Add.7958, fo. 25r

John Mush, ‘A True Report of the Life and Martyrdom of Mrs Margaret Clitherow’, fo. 1r.

YML: MS T.D.1,. By the kind permission of the Diocese of Middlesbrough


Roper’s Life of More

The text is one of many in a volume which seems to have been complied in Cambridge in the seventeenth century. A note on this declares ‘Josephus Diggins me possidet’: ‘Joseph Diggins owns me’. Diggins became a student in the University of Cambridge in 1607. The volume is a collection of various texts including letters, drama and poetry. Interestingly, it contains one other biography, also of a prominent sixteenth-century Catholic figure: George Cavendish’s ‘The Life of Cardinal Wolsey’. See the catalogue entry for this manuscript here:

Mush’s ‘Life of Clitherow’

This late sixteenth-century manuscript was formerly in the possession of the Middleton family (presumably relatives of Clitherow, whose maiden name was Middleton), and whilst it is now held at York Minster Library it remains the property of the Diocese of Middlesbrough. It was used as the base-text for the most widely used and most complete printed edition of Mush’s ‘Life’, that published by Fr John Morris, S.J., in The troubles of our Catholic forefathers, related by themselves (3rd series, 1877). It has since sustained damage to the front and back pages, as shown in this image. Information taken from Claridge, Margaret Clitherow.

Further Reading

Mary Claridge, Margaret Clitherow (London, 1966).

Claire Cross, ‘An Elizabethan martyrologist and his martyr: John Mush and Margaret Clitherow’, in Diana Wood (ed.), Martyrs and Martyrologies (Oxford, 1993), pp. 271–81.

Anne Dillon, The construction of martyrdom in the English Catholic community, 1535–1603 (Aldershot, 2002).

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