St Margaret Ward:The Pearl of Tyburn

We are taken today back to the reign of Elizabeth I, and the notorious Tyburn Tree. And the martyr Margaret Ward.

It is quite an exciting tale, full of derring do, crossing and double crossing, daring escapes and plots, and smuggling people out of prison.

Picture the scene: Fr William Richard Watson, a priest of the English Mission, is imprisoned for the faith in the Bridewell Prison & Orphanage. A cruel irony as these buildings, formerly a summer palace of Henry VIII, and where the initial proceedings over the annulment of Catherine of Aragon had taken place. He suffers great deprivations there, and eventually succumbs to the torments and agrees to attend a service of the established church.

So overcome with remorse is he that he goes to another prison (possibly Newgate) where he receives absolution from another priest. This done he, once again goes to a protestant service at St. Bride’s, Fleet Street, and stands up during and denounces the state church. He is back in the Bridewell so quickly his feet do not touch the ground. Put in a cell so small that he cannot lie down and sleep, is half starved, and kept in chains, in the hope that he would again renounce his Catholicism.

Enter Margaret Ward. She is the servant of a Catholic lady in London, but initially from Congleton, Cheshire. Full of northern grit, determination and practicality, she hears of the plight of Fr Watson, and goes to the Bridewell to assist him with food and to encourage him in the faith.

She is viewed with great suspicion by the warders, and her basket and person are both searched, to the point where loaves of bread are torn up to ensure there are no instruments of escape. A warder is also present with them in Fr Watson’s cell (which must have been very crowded by then) so there is no chance of free discussion.

Over months however, Margaret builds up a trust with the warders, to the point where they see her as a harmless servant woman, no danger to anyone. It is at this point she reveals her cunning escape method for Fr Watson: she will smuggle a rope to his cell, and escape out of the window down to a boat waiting for him below at 3 o’clock in the morning on the following day.

Well. It was all going well until it didn’t.

The men pilotting the boat got cold feet and ran for it. The rope was too short. The resounding crash that was made by Fr Watson on a roof below woke half the street, including the warders. Margaret had managed to find another man to row: John Roche.

The fall also broke Watson’s arm, stunned him, and broke his leg. Roche managed to get him to the safety of the boat and they rowed away as fast as they could. However, they had not removed the rope, which only Margaret could have supplied (not that the jailor, I suppose, would have much difficulty working out that there could be much connection between the escape and the priest’s only visitor…). She was apprehended whilst trying to make good her own escape, put in prison, suspended from chains, so her tiptoes just touched the ground, causing severe internal damage. She was also scourged. Happily admitting she had helped the priest Watson escape, she was sentenced to hanging, drawing and quartering, which she received with perseverance and resignation and great dignity. With her was also executed John Roche, who had swapped clothes with Fr Watson, and was apprehended, and the details of his story were brought out.

Margaret Ward is known as the Pearl Of Tyburn, and was executed on the 30th August 1588. This day she now shares as her feast day with the other two women who went to the scaffold for the faith: Margaret Clitherow and Anne Line. About whom, more later.

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