York in Poetry: Visitation

Posted on 25 November 2012 | Poem

The Shambles, York, 1586

A familiarity of crooked dwellings lean,
reaching out, as if to grasp some comfort
from their neighbours in these hard times.
Sensing my presence the call of livestock
echoes from behind the shops
splitting the evening’s calm.
I, Margaret Clitherow, lived here…
Flesshamel, Shamel, Shambles,
street of many butchers.

Moonlight appears to dance, nervously glance
as my footsteps soundlessly drift
along these ancient cobblestones;
skulking shadows darkening door
and passageway, embracing the open gutter.
The scented cloth held to a nose
barely dispels the dreadful smell,
the hell of putrefying matter thrown
from upper windows, cast from butcher shops.

Did those who tried to diminish my faith
tell you I sheltered travelling priests,
held Mass for local Catholics at No.36.
Inspectors watching, counting, searching:
three windows on the outside
two only on the inside; they’d sometimes
find the churchmen’s hiding place.
Many were their warnings and
detention in cold, dank dungeons
where I longed for many a loving sunlit dawn.

Returning home to my dear husband John
I never swerved to avoid the dark times;
no cobwebs of doubt around my doorway
enticing me to succumb to religious blindness.
I had my own truth and the Lord’s love.
When the mean sharp corners of my life
scratched at my reserve I turned the other cheek.
Please do not fault that frightened child
who spoke against me, caused my final downfall;
intolerance another word the bigots taught her.

Defending my right to choice of faith
I denied my detractors the falseness of trial.
Ouse Bridge prison then my deathly abode
where I’d sewn the white shroud in which I lay
face down on cold dank flags, restrained;
upon my waistline a large stone was placed.
A door they laid upon my defenceless form,
I would not weep but quietly prayed
then stone piled on stone un-gently added
until breath departed from my tortured frame.

- Barbara Robinson