Feast 30th August
St Margaret Ward, the “pearl of Tyburn”, is one of just three women to be included in the 40 martyrs of England and Wales canonised by Pope Paul VI in 1970, and one of just two of the 40 to be connected with the Diocese of Shrewsbury, the other being St John Plessington.
She was born in Congleton, Cheshire, and was living in London in the service of a lady of the “first rank” when she learned of the severe maltreatment of Richard Watson, a priest imprisoned in the Bridewell, near Fleet Street on the River Thames. For more than a month the priest had been starved and shackled in a cell so small he was unable to either stand up or lie down straight.
St Margaret helped him to escape, after he was transferred to a larger cell, by smuggling a rope into the prison in her basket (as depicted in the image above by Shrewsbury-born Margaret Rope) and persuading an Irish boatman, Blessed John Roche, to ferry the priest across the river to safety.
She was arrested as she was changing her lodgings and taken to the Bridewell where she was questioned under torture, loaded up with irons, suspended from the ground by her wrists and scourged.
After eight days she was sent for trial. Her acts give a glimpse of her brave and determined character, recording that she told the court that she never in her life had done anything of which she less repented than “delivering that innocent lamb from the hands of those bloody wolves”.
St Margaret was sentenced to hang and afterwards refused the temptation to save her life by agreeing to go to Anglican services and to ask the pardon of Queen Elizabeth I. She had done nothing to offend the Queen, she argued, adding that she was convinced by her conscience that it was not lawful for her to conform to the new religion. Rather, she invited the authorities to proceed with the sentence against her, saying that she was willing to lay down not one life, but many, if she had them, rather than betray her conscience or act against her duty to God and His holy religion.
She was executed on 30th August 1588, along with Blessed John Roche and four others, in the face of incessant, cruel and harsh abuse from the mob assembled to watch them die.
St Margaret is today honoured in the Diocese of Shrewsbury. The saint is depicted in panels in St Joseph’s, Sale, and St Alban’s, Wallasey. There was a wooden statue of her in St Laurence’s Church, Birkenhead, and in Sale a school and a church bear her name, as does another in Holmes Chapel.
Large statues of St Margaret and Blessed John Roche still stand today in St Etheldreda’s Church in Holborn, London.
Sources: Nine Martyrs of the Shrewsbury Diocese by Kevin Byrne, and Memoirs of Missionary Priests by Bishop Richard Challoner.