by Philip Caraman, S. J.
Grateful acknowledgments to Christian Order.
THE STORY IS TOLD in The Life of Mother Margaret Clement, the Prioress of St. Monica's Convent in Louvain for 38 years. She was the youngest of Margaret Giggs's eleven children.
Margaret Giggs was the daughter of a Norfolk gentleman, who appears at the side of Margaret Roper, St. Thomas More's favorite daughter, in Holbein's famous painting of the More family. Margaret Giggs was brought up as one of More's own daughters and along with his own daughter Margaret was taught Latin and Greek, an amazing accomplishment in a woman of that day. In time, Margaret Giggs married a gentleman of More's household in Chelsea, John Clement. The Clement family remained staunch Catholics and twice went into exile in Belgium, the first time in the reign of Henry VIII, the second time after the accession of Queen Elizabeth I. Here they were free to practice the religion in which they had been brought up. As a small girl Margaret Clement, the youngest child, was educated by the Augustinian Nuns of Louvain, and it is not surprising that she later entered the Convent, which she was to rule for so many years. It is in her Life that the story is told of the heroism of her mother at the time Henry VIII first struck at the Church.
The Carthusian monks, along with Richard Reynolds, a monk of Syon Abbey, and More and Fisher, were the King's first victims: they all refused to comply with his demand that they should acknowledge him as Supreme Head of the Church in England.
On May 4th, 1535, the first Martyrs of the English Reformation, Reynolds and the Carthusian Priors of London, Beauvale and Axholme, were executed at Tyburn. During the next five years fifteen of the London Carthusians died, either violently on the scaffold or by slow starvation in Newgate gaol. The story of Mary Giggs's brave effort to bring relief to the monks in Newgate is told simply in the Life of her daughter:
Bearing a singular devotion to that holy Order and moved with great compassion for those holy Fathers, Margaret dealt with the gaoler so that she might secretly have access to them, and withal did win him with money that he was content to let her come into the prison to them, which she did very often, attiring and disguising herself as a milkmaid, with a great pail on her head full of meat, wherewith she fed that blessed company, putting meat into their mouths, they being tied and not able to stir, nor to help themselves, which having done, she took from them their natural filth.
This pious work she continued for divers days until at last the King, inquiring if they were not dead, and understanding to his great admiration that they were not, commanded a straiter watch to be kept over them, so that the keeper durst not let in this good woman any more, fearing it might cost him his head if it should be discovered. Nevertheless, what with her importunity and by force of money, she obtained from him that he might let her go up on to the tiles, right over the close prison where the blessed Fathers were. And so she, uncovering the ceiling or tiles over their heads, by a string let down meat in a basket, bringing it as near as she could to their mouths as they did stand chained against the posts. But they, not being able to feed themselves out of the basket, or very little, and the gaoler fearing very much that it should be perceived, in the end refused to let her come any more, and so, soon after, they languished and pined away, one after the other, with the stink and want of food and other miseries which they there endured.
In Mechlin in Belgium where Margaret Giggs, now Margaret Clement, lived during her second exile, her house became a home for all English priests passing through the country on their way to find a ship to take them to England. We do not know the exact date of her death, but the circumstances surrounding it are told in her youngest daughter's Life:
But the time had now come that God had appointed to reward her for her good works done to the Fathers of the Charterhouse. He visited her with an ague which held her nine or ten days, and having brought her very low and in danger, she received all the sacraments with great devotion, and being desirous to give her blessing to all her children who were all present except her Religious daughters and one more that remained at Bruges with her husband, she caused her to be sent for in all haste. Wednesday being now come, which was the last day before she died, and asking if her daughter were come, and being told no, but that they looked for her every hour, she made answer that she would stay no longer for her, and calling her husband she told him that the time of her departing was now come, and she might stay no longer, for there were standing about her bed the Reverend Fathers, Monks of Charterhouse, whom she had relieved in prison in England and did call upon her to come away with them, and that therefore she could stay no longer, because they did expect her, which seemed strange talk unto him. Doubting that she might speak idly by reason of her sickness, he called unto her ghostly Father, a Reverend Father of the Franciscans living in Mechlin, to examine and talk with her, to whom she constantly made answer that she was in no way beside herself, but declared that she still had the sight of the Charterhouse monks before her, standing about her bedside and inviting her to come away with them, as she had told her husband. At the which they were all astonished.
Margaret Clement died the next day and was buried in the cathedral church of St. Rumold behind the altar of the Sepulchre. Her husband John died two years later and was buried beside her.