To acknowledge its past Britain must commemorate Catholic martyrs alongside its war heroes
In our local post office yesterday I noticed a new set of stamps on display, to be issued tomorrow. They commemorate 10 “Britons of Distinction” and include Delius, Kathleen Ferrier Pugin, the architect Sir Basil Spence and Odette Hallowes.
Not everyone today will have heard of the last-named, but as a postwar child I had read her biography along with the exploits of other war heroes such as Leonard Cheshire VC, Guy Gibson and Douglas Bader. Married with three daughters, Odette volunteered to work for Special Operations during the war, liaising with the French underground. Captured and tortured by the Gestapo – I recall being sickened by reading that they put a red-hot iron on her back and pulled out all her toe-nails – she refused to give them any information. Scheduled for execution, she was sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp but managed to survive the war. Rightly honoured for her courage by being awarded the rare distinction of the George Cross, she died in 1995.
Checking the names of all the people commemorated on British stamps, including a list of “Eminent Britons” issued in 2009 (which mentions worthy citizens like Donald Campbell, Fred Perry and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), I see that among the usual suspects, such as scientists, soldiers and statesmen, there are no native Catholic saints or holy people. The only saint included is St George, traditionally thought to have been a Roman soldier and Christian, born in Palestine and martyred on April 23 in AD 303. I have no doubt he existed and died bravely but quite why he is linked to England remains a mystery.
Odette certainly deserves to be commemorated on stamps – but surely, so does St Margaret Clitherow. Like Odette, she had three young children and like Odette she fought in a war: not a war against a foreign enemy but a kind of underground civil war fought in Elizabethan England between those who wanted to wipe out the ancient Catholic faith and put the new Protestant religion in its place, and those who died to keep it alive.
If many of this generation have never heard of Odette, all Catholics in this country should know about St Margaret Clitherow. Accused of harbouring priests by the punitive Elizabethan laws of the time, she deliberately refused to plead in court, to protect her children from being called for cross-examination. The penalty for refusing to plead was to be crushed to death by heavy stones. The details of Margaret’s slow martyrdom are harrowing. She died for her faith on Good Friday 1586, aged just 30 and probably pregnant with her fourth child.
There are other great English Catholics, such as St Thomas More, Bishop Challoner and Blessed John Henry Newman; they too deserve commemoration on our stamps if the whole story of this country is to be acknowledged and remembered. But in the age of feminism, sexual equality and equal opportunities and when the faces of the feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, and the Bronte sisters are included in commemorative collections alongside Odette, it is a pity that a woman of shining virtue and surpassing courage, St Margaret Clitherow, is not among them.