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Bishop John Fisher: Defender of the Faith and Pastor of Souls

by Thomas McGovern


This article is a very thorough telling of the story of the heroic virtue and martyrdom of St. John Fisher, famous cardinal and bishop of Rochester. Fisher was arrested for treason against the King of England, Henry VIII, when he opposed the king's unlawful divorce from Queen Catherine of Aragon and scandalous marriage to Anne Boleyn in 1533. Fisher was sentenced to be drawn and quartered, but instead he was beheaded on Tower Hill on June 22, 1535.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


10 – 24

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, June 1987

Two years ago we celebrated the 450th anniversary of the martyrdom of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More; it was also the fiftieth of their canonization. Both died for the same cause — the spiritual supremacy of the pope and the sanctity of the marriage bond. Yet while the fame of St. Thomas More has grown apace, particularly in the present century,1 the saintly bishop of Rochester has, by comparison, received little public recognition. More and Fisher took a committed public stand in defending Catholic teaching against the Lutheran doctrines, and both had exceptional literary talents, coupled with a profound knowledge of the scriptures and the Church Fathers which they used in their many writings in defense of orthodoxy. They were the two most outstanding Englishmen of their day.

It has been suggested that the main reason for the contrast between More's fame and the relative obscurity of Fisher is due to the fact that one was a bishop and the other a layman.2 Christian tradition does not see anything special in the fact that "the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep." But that the father of a family who was noted for his wit and learning, who was one of the greatest humanists of his day, a statesman who reached the highest level of civil responsibility in his country — that such a man would give his life for the faith has always attracted attention, if it didn't evoke sentiments of respect and affection from people of the most diverse backgrounds.

If little is heard about St. John Fisher today, such was not the case during his own lifetime. He was known, not only throughout England, but to all Europe, as an outstanding theologian and as a model of a perfect bishop. Writing to Cardinal Wolsey in 1518, Erasmus called Fisher "a divine prelate," and to Reuchlin, the great Hebrew scholar of the day, in 1520, he says "there is not in that nation a more learned man or a holier prelate."3 Cardinal Reginald Pole, who as a young man was part of the court of Henry VIII, in his Apology addressed to the emperor Charles V, expresses not just his own opinion but the general esteem in which Fisher is regarded. He writes from Rome: "Nothing could be so reasonable a prejudice against the new supremacy as the integrity of the leaders who oppose it. If anyone had asked the king, before the violence of his passions had hurried him out of the reach of reason and reflection, whom of all the episcopal order he chiefly considered? on whose affection and fidelity he most relied? he would without any hesitation have answered, The Bishop of Rochester."4

John Fisher (1469-1535) went to Cambridge about 1482, and the university soon discovered that he was not only a brilliant scholar but also a man of exceptional administrative ability. Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII, a woman of deep piety and love for the Church, quickly sensed his worth and in 1497 made him her confessor, a responsibility he was to discharge until her death twelve years later.5 She was a munificent benefactress of the Church and followed the advice of her confessor in the dispensation of patronage. In one of his books Fisher comments about the Lady Margaret that "though she chose me as her director, to hear her confessions and to guide her life, yet I gladly confess that I learnt more from her great virtue that I could ever teach her"6 — a tribute both to his own humility and the sanctity of his penitent.

He saw that two of the great needs of his time were to improve the theological training of priests and to raise the standard of preaching. To this end he persuaded Lady Margaret to institute readerships in theology at both Oxford and Cambridge in 1503. Fisher's concern for good preaching is demonstrated by the fact that in 1502, while vice-chancellor of Cambridge, he obtained a papal bull which granted the privilege to the university of appointing twelve adequately qualified priests to preach throughout the whole of England, Scotland and Ireland.

In 1504 he was appointed bishop of Rochester, and the same year he became chancellor of Cambridge university, being reelected to this post each year until 1514, when he was conferred with the unique distinction of appointment as chancellor for life in recognition of his immense contribution to that famous center of learning.

Fisher knew decadent theology

One of his great achievements as chancellor was the foundation of St. John's College with an endowment left to him by Lady Margaret. The aims of the college, as laid down in the statutes drafted by Fisher himself, were stated to be: the worship of God, training in uprightness of life, and strengthening of the Christian faith. The emphasis of the studies program was on theology, but there was also to be training in Greek and Hebrew. His concern was to encourage the learning of these latter subjects as an aid to the better understanding of Sacred Scripture and thus provide a more solid foundation for the development of theology as a science. Fisher was well aware of the debilitating effects which a decadent scholasticism was having on the study of theology. His own extensive study of the Fathers and of Sacred Scripture suggested that a new approach was necessary and this he put into effect in the new college. It would be true to say that Fisher regarded St. John's more as a seminary for priests than as a center for secular studies. His zeal had only one end in view — to provide a body of learned and virtuous Catholic priests. This foundation was a real pioneering effort, anticipating at several points the mind of the Council of Trent on the establishment of seminaries for the proper education of priests.

Pastoral priorities vs. secular

The registers of the diocese of Rochester for the years of Fisher's episcopate have been preserved and they confirm the reputation that he left of being a very conscientious pastor of the flock entrusted to his care. He carried out regular visitation of parishes, dealt effectively with cases of simony and heresy, and paid particular attention to the needy and the poor. At the same time he took seriously his other multiple responsibilities in Cambridge, in the House of Lords, in Convocation, and as a member of the king's council. He could have allowed affairs of state and the prestige of court life to draw him increasingly away from the care of his diocese, nor would anyone have thought this surprising: of the sixteen bishops constituting the English hierarchy in 1504 when John Fisher was appointed, two were nonresident Italians who had never visited their sees, and the majority were chiefly occupied with state duties as administrators or diplomats. He was exceptional in that he never allowed secular matters to distract him from what was his first responsibility — the pastoral care of the priests and the people of the diocese of Rochester. A knowledgeable contemporary of Fisher recorded the following opinion of him: "He was in holiness, learning and diligence in his cure (care of souls) and in fulfilling his office of bishop such that of many hundred years England had not any bishop worthy to be compared with him."7

Fisher was a diligent preacher all during his life, even to extreme old age when feebleness forced him to preach from a sitting position. In his sermons on the penitential psalms he had written that he was well persuaded that "all fear of God, also the contempt of God cometh and is grounded on the clergy." His first care was therefore the piety and the orthodoxy of his priests. He had complained in the same sermons that pastors, who ought to be the nearest neighbors of all, stand aloof either by bodily absence or by silence: "Bishops be absent from their dioceses and parsons from their churches . . . We use by-paths and circumlocutions in rebuking. We go nothing nigh to the matter, and so in the mean season the people perish with their sins."8

Fisher's fortitude in the service of the Church and truth was nourished by a life of deep piety. He had a great love for the Holy Mass such that frequently tears fell from his cheeks during its celebration. While he gave generously to the poor and was a bountiful host, he treated himself harshly with regular fasts and severe penances. His generous spirit of reparation caused him to wear a hair shirt next to his skin, and to punish his body with a whip of cords. After Fisher was imprisoned in 1534, the king sent commissioners to make an inventory of his possessions. This document is still extant and gives a striking picture of episcopal poverty. In his private oratory in Rochester, the commissioners came across a coffer, expecting to find there the gold and silver which had so far eluded them in their search. Instead, to their surprise they found only a hair shirt and two or three disciplines. When the bishop heard in prison of the opening of the coffer, he commented that if haste had not made him forget this and many other things, they would not have found them. Fisher was not a man to broadcast his private penances, and his sensitivities were offended at this invasion of an intimate part of his spiritual life."9

Eliminate the Mass

The bishop of Rochester wrote much during his lifetime but he was at his best when he was writing about his eucharistic Lord. His defense of the Mass and the ministerial priesthood against Luther is a classic of scriptural and patristic scholarship.10 Nothing caused him greater sorrow and grief than the reformers' effort to eliminate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. In his prologue to the "Defence of the Priesthood" Fisher says he had perused many of the books which had come from Luther's printing press, but of all of them there was none, in his opinion, "more pestilential, senseless and shameless than the one he entitled 'The Abrogation of the Mass,' for in it he tries utterly to destroy the sacrifice of the body and blood of Christ which the Church had ever held to be the most salutary, and the chief object of devotion for all the faithful of Christ."11 "My God," he exclaims, after giving a sample of Luther's offensive and vitriolic diatribe against the Mass, "how can one be calm when one hears such blasphemous lies uttered against the mysteries of Christ? How can one without resentment listen to such outrageous insults hurled against Christ's priests? Who can even read such blasphemies without weeping from sheer grief if he still retains in his heart even the smallest spark of Christian piety?"12

It is while dealing with Luther's assertion that women have an equal right with men to preach in the name of the Church that John Fisher reveals to us something of his own tender devotion to the Mother of God: "But as to the most Blessed Virgin, who bore for us the Lord Jesus, we need have no surprise if she, by a special privilege, still teaches the whole Church by her canticle. Can we wonder if she, the mother of the Word, proclaims the word to all? Sublime beyond all others is the prerogative of the Blessed Virgin, so singular in her perfections, who alone is the mother of God. What, then, was especially granted to her cannot be extended to others. Woe to those wretches who even in the smallest degree try to lessen the preeminence of this glorious Virgin, as I hear is a common practice of the Lutherans. Wherefore, unless they hasten to repent the divine vengeance will not fail to overtake them."13

At the end of 1520 Luther publicly burned the papal Bull "Exurge Domine" which had condemned his writings, including "The Babylonish Captivity of the Church," a slanderous attack on the Church's sacramental system. These works were being introduced surreptitiously into England and causing such concern that, on 12 May 1521, Wolsey decreed the public burning of heretical books at Paul's Cross. Fisher was asked to preach and the main thrust of his sermon on this occasion was that the promise of the Spirit of Truth safeguards the universal Church of Christ from false teaching. The bishop of Rochester's attitude to the faith and to Luther was clearly expressed in a letter he wrote to an episcopal colleague, Bishop Tunstall of London: "Since Christ's truth is one and undivided, it must be either as a whole with the ancient pastors of the Church or as a whole with Luther." He who disbelieves in even a single article of the faith is justly held guilty of disbelief in the whole faith. Either the Fathers of the past fifteen hundred years are wrong, or Luther of the past four years is wrong."14

Henry VIII's reply to Luther's "De Captivitate Babylonica" was his "Assertio Septem Sacramentorum," published in July 1521, which won for him the papal title "Defensor Fidei," a title still somewhat incongruously sported on English coins bearing the image of the Protestant monarch! At the same time Fisher was working on his own refutation of Luther which was published in January 1523.15 His approach is first to give an exposition of ten basic theological propositions which form the core of his argumentation against Luther.16 He responds to each of Luther's arguments, making use of his vast knowledge of the Fathers to demolish his opponent's assertions. One biographer comments as follows on the holy bishop's writings in defense of the Church: "Though they are monuments of prodigious learning and acumen considering they were the first that appeared against the new errors, and the erudition they display was all of Fisher's own gathering, the arguments are all the result of his own thought."17

Luther attacked Henry VIII

Luther's reply to Henry's "Assertio" is perhaps one of the most scurrilous pieces of theological polemic on record. It was felt that it would be beneath the dignity of the monarch to engage in further debate with the ribald Luther, and so both Fisher and Sir Thomas More were persuaded to come to his rescue. This resulted in Fisher's "Defence of the Assertions of the King of England against Luther's Babylonian Captivity." The printing of this work was delayed by reports of a possible reconversion of Luther, but when this proved to be unfounded, the book was finally published in Cologne in 1525.18 The "Defensio" was a short book and concentrated on Luther's denial of the Church's doctrine on the Eucharist. Simultaneously with the "Defensio," Fisher published his work on the Catholic priesthood.19 This was in reply to Luther's "De abroganda Missa privata" (1522) in which he rejected the doctrine of the sacrifice of the Mass, and denied the institution by Christ of a ministerial priesthood essentially different from that of the common priesthood of the laity.

Fisher tells his readers that he will make three rejoinders to Luther's attacks with which he will "try to sponge away all the filthy and blasphemous things that have proceeded from his mouth against priests," and then outlines the plan of his argument. Firstly he demonstrates the prescriptive right of existing truth drawn from Tradition. In his second argument he enuntiates a series of axioms, drawn from Sacred Scripture and arranged in due order, which establishes the existence of a visible priesthood. His third argument is a clear and direct rebuttal of Luther's objections, one by one. In developing his argument for the existence of a visible priesthood from Tradition, the bishop of Rochester shows an extraordinary familiarity with, and knowledge of, the writings of the Fathers of the Church, all the more remarkable in that he must have been working mostly from manuscript copies. After marshalling an astonishing array of patristic testimony he says that "from the unanimity of so many Fathers we may conclude with fullest certainty that the priesthood was instituted not in recent times, but in the very cradle of the Church. Wherefore, since Luther can adduce no orthodox writer who in any book that has ever appeared gives the contrary witness, nor can quote a syllable of Holy Scripture in opposition to the assertions of the Fathers, we lay down with the utmost justice against Luther as a matter of prescriptive right the truth of the priesthood."20 "How can it be imagined," Fisher asks not without a certain irony, "that at length for the first time has shone upon Luther the light of a truth that no one of the early Fathers should have so much as suspected, the contrary indeed, of which they have unitedly asserted from the very beginning?"21

At the same time Sir Thomas More was writing his reply to Luther's diatribe under the pseudonym Gulielmus Rosseus. He had obviously read Fisher's work before he published his own. In his "Responsio ad Lutherum" he writes: "The Reverend Father John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, a man illustrious not only by the vastness of his erudition, but much more so by the purity of his life, has so opened and so overthrown the assertions of Luther, that if he had any shame he would give a great deal to have burnt his assertions."22

Fisher published in 1523 his "Lutheranae Assertionis Confutatio," in answer to Luther's challenge to the Pope after he had burned the bull "Exurge Domine" and the books of canon law in Wittenberg as an act of public defiance to papal authority. He writes in defense of the Pope yet with undisguised sadness at the state of things in the Holy See: "If the Roman Pontiffs, laying aside pomp and haughtiness, would but practice humility, you would not have a word left to utter against them. Yes, would that they would reform the manners of their court, and drive from it ambition, avarice and luxury. Never otherwise will they impose silence on revilers such as you."23

Fisher wrote well in defense of the Pope as is evident from the effect his "Confutatio" against Luther had on St. Thomas More. In a letter to Cromwell (1534) More admitted that he had at one time thought the Pope's supremacy was of merely ecclesiastical and not of divine institution. Yet after reading Fisher's work he was able to write in his "Responsio": "As regards the Primacy of the Roman Pontiff, the bishop of Rochester has made the matter so clear from the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and from the whole of the Old Testament, and from the consent of all the holy Fathers, not of the Latins only, but of the Greeks also (of whose opposition Luther is wont to boast), and from the definition of a general council . . . that it would be utterly superfluous for me to write again on the subject."24

St. John defended Catherine

Bishop Fisher's last book against the Lutherans was entitled: "De Veritate Corporis." Joannes Oecolampadius, professor of theology at Basle, published a short book in 1525 on the Eucharist, in which he argued that the words "This is my Body" are to be taken figuratively. Fisher responded to each of the arguments. It is his longest, and in the opinion of one of his biographers, the most important of all his works.25 His great love for the Eucharist comes through on every page.

In May 1527 the first official act in what was to become known as the "King's great Matter" took place in Wolsey's palace in Westminster. He and Archbishop Warham of Canterbury, as guardians of public morality, cited Henry to appear before them for having lived in sin for the previous eighteen years with his brother's widow. Being afraid to take the decision on themselves, the archbishops consulted other members of the hierarchy regarding the lawfulness of the marriage with a brother's widow. The replies didn't please Henry, most of them answering that such a marriage with a papal dispensation (granted by Julius II in this case) would be valid. Fisher, after careful study of the Fathers and Sacred Scripture replied that he was thoroughly convinced there was no prohibition against such a marriage. From that time until Henry's attempted marriage to Anne Boleyn (January 1533) Fisher used every opportunity to defend Queen Catherine's cause in his preaching and in writing.

By 1525 Catherine was forty years of age; she had presented Henry with one daughter, the future Queen Mary, but with no male heir. There had been several stillbirths and it now seemed unlikely that Henry could expect a son to succeed him. At some stage Henry became aware of the text of Leviticus: "He that marries his brother's wife does an unlawful thing . . . they shall be without children."26 and thus felt he had grounds to question the validity of his marriage to Catherine, who had previously been married to Arthur, his elder brother. The king claimed that it was his concern for a legitimate male heir that first caused him to take the text seriously, but subsequent events were strongly to suggest that it was his passion for Anne Boleyn, one of Catherine's ladies-in-waiting, which was the determining factor in Henry's newly acquired concern for biblical exegesis.

About September 1527 the king consulted Fisher personally about his "great matter." The bishop of Rochester told him that there wasn't the slightest doubt about the validity of his marriage, and that he was prepared to defend this view against all comers. Seven years later, when he was imprisoned in the Tower of London, in reply to a question about the number of books he had written concerning the king's marriage and divorce, he replied: "I am not certain how many, but I can recall seven or eight that I have written. The matter was so serious both on account of the importance of the persons it concerned, and the express command of the king, that I gave more labour and diligence to seeking out the truth lest I should fail him and others, than I ever gave to any other matter."27 He fulfilled his responsibilities to his king, yet he never reneged on his support for Catherine; he consistently spoke out in her defense even though he knew well that such a stance was fraught with dangerous consequences.

Indignatio principis mors est

Archbishop Warham of Canterbury was terrified of Henry. "Indignatio principis mors est" was all he would say when Catherine asked for advice.28 John Fisher, ignoring threats, sent Catherine word to be of good courage, that the bull granted by Julius II for her marriage to Henry was perfectly valid. After much negotiating Henry obtained from Pope Clement VII a commitment to set up a commission of inquiry into his marital status. Cardinal Campeggio, the papal legate, arrived in London in October 1528 to study the matter with Wolsey. The legatine court eventually opened on the last day of May 1529. The king said to the judges that he could no longer remain in mortal sin, as he had done during the previous twenty years, and that he would never be at ease until the rights of his marriage were decided. Campeggio's secretary wrote to Italy on 29 June 1529 describing how Fisher appeared on behalf of the queen: "In order not to procure the damnation of his soul, and in order not to be unfaithful to the king, or to fain in doing the duty he owed to the truth, in a matter of such great importance, he presented himself . . . to declare, to affirm, and with forceable reasons to demonstrate to them that this marriage of the king and queen can be dissolved by no power human or divine, and for this opinion he declared he would lay down his life."29

Adultery is worth dying for

Henry replied to the legates, in answer to the bishop, in a manner which clearly showed how resentful he was at the bishop's protest, particularly that he was ready to suffer like St. John the Baptist, as it naturally suggested a comparison between Henry and Herod Antipas. However, the martyrdom of St. John had long been a familiar subject of contemplation to Fisher, as is clear from his treatise (1525) in defense of Henry's book against Luther — the "Defensio." "One consideration," Fisher writes, "that greatly affects me to believe in the sacrament of marriage is the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist, who suffered death for his reproof of the violation of marriage. There were many crimes in appearance more grevious for rebuking which he might have suffered, but there was none more fitting than the crime of adultery to be the cause of the blood-shedding of the Friend of the Bridegroom, since the violation of marriage is no little insult to Him who is called the Bridegroom."30 Bridgett draws the striking parallel between the fate of the Baptist and John Fisher: "At that time (1525) no thought of divorce had as yet, in all probability, entered the mind of Henry; Anne Boleyn, Fisher's Herodias, was then unknown. But the circumstances of Fisher's death bear so close a resemblance to those of the Baptist's, that it is strange even Henry did not observe and seek to avoid it. Both were cast into prison and left there to linger at the will of a tyrant; both were beheaded, and both by the revenge of impure women. But what Herod did reluctantly, Henry did with cruel deliberation."31

As we have seen, the bishop of Rochester wrote several books in defense of Catherine's cause. Some other members of the English hierarchy were alarmed at Fisher's outspoken attitude. Warham, supported by others of his episcopal colleagues, urged Fisher to retract his writings. This he refused to do as he was not prepared to deny what he believed to be the truth. Wolsey and the king had created an atmosphere of terror. Those who were near Henry knew full well that he was ruthless in pursuit of his own objectives. Sir Thomas More had no illusions about his friendship with the king, as he remarked on one occasion to his daughter Margaret's husband: "Son Roper, if my head would win him a castle in France, it should not fail to go." It was little wonder then that people shrank from incurring the king's wrath. Most were terrified of him, including the bishops.

On June 25, 1529, Warham read out before the legatine court a list of bishops who had put their names to a document endorsing the king's position. At the mention of the bishop of Rochester's name, the tall emaciated figure rose suddenly from the group of listening bishops. "That is not my hand or seal," John Fisher snapped out, adding that Warham had tried to persuade him to put his seal to the document but that he had refused saying: "I would never consent to no such act." "True," Warham admitted, but he insisted that Fisher had been eventually persuaded that he, Warham, should append Fisher's seal on the Bishop of Rochester's behalf. Fisher retorted that this was totally untrue. Warham was highly embarrassed to have to admit his forgery, and Fisher went on to make a bold defense of the queen with a blunt assertion of the law: "Whom God hath joined together, let no man put asunder."32 Fisher refused to allow himself to be pressurized by his episcopal colleagues to take the easy way out — the way of silence.

In November 1529 Parliament met and a bill of complaints was passed against the Clergy. The importance of the issue lay not so much in the complaints themselves, but in the fact that the Commons were encroaching on what had hitherto been ecclesiastical territory. Fisher strongly defended the rights of the Church against this encroachment on its legislative powers; he saw that if in the prevailing political atmosphere this first step were permitted, a greater advance would inevitably follow. However, he was outmanouvered by Henry and the bill became law.

The clergy foolishly melted

Cardinal Wolsey's failure to carry through the divorce issue brought down upon him the ire of the king and his dismissal from office. He was prosecuted under the statute of Praemunire33 on the trumped up charge that in exercising the office of cardinal-legate he had ignored the statute's provisions. Wolsey thought it safest to plead guilty and, after surrendering to the king the bulk of the wealth he had acquired while in office, he received a qualified pardon. The success of this process against Wolsey must have suggested to Henry the indictment of the whole of the English clergy under the same statute, on the grounds that they accepted Wolsey's legatine authority. It was a pure technicality, and, even more, everything had been done not only with the consent of the king, but with his authority and connivance. This was another example of the crass hypocrisy of Henry. The writ was issued and at the Canterbury Convocation (January 1531) the opposition of the clergy weakly and foolishly melted before this tyrannous charge, and they offered to purchase a pardon for the sum of £40,000. Henry let it be known that the amount proposed was totally inadequate, so that Convocation agreed to raise the then enormous sum of £100,000. But this still didn't satisfy the king. Feeling perhaps that he now had the clergy on the run, he followed up his request for more money with the preposterous demand that they would now recognize him as "Protector and Supreme Head of the English Church and Clergy." Many of the bishops, out of fear of Henry, were ready to grant his request. However, John Fisher spoke out so strongly against the proposal that it was finally rejected unanimously. When Henry heard what had happened and how influential the bishop of Rochester had been in bringing it about, he sent messengers to Convocation to remind the bishops of the perilous consequences of conviction on a charge of praemunire — forfeiture of all possessions and life imprisonment. Fisher again refused to accede to Henry's request, and earnestly encouraged the other bishops to do the same. He clearly foresaw the highly dangerous implications of granting Henry this recognition. He spoke out strongly against the measure and rebuked the bishops for their pusillanimity when he saw that they were likely to give way under pressure. Perceiving that they lacked the fortitude to follow him all the way, Fisher then insisted that the conditional phrase 'quantum per legem Dei licet' (as far as the law of God allows) should be inserted after the title. There was a further demand from the king to have the grant passed absolutely, but led by the courage of Fisher, Convocation insisted on the retention of the qualifying clause. Chapuys, the imperial ambassador in London, writing to Charles V about the incident says: "The Bishop of Rochester is very ill with disappointment at it. He opposes it as much as he can; but being threatened that he and his adherents should be thrown into the river, he was forced to consent to the king's will."34

The bishops gave way to Henry

In May of 1532 Henry made further demands on Convocation requiring that all future legislation passed by the bishops should have royal approval. It now became abundantly clear what the king meant by "Supreme Head" of the Church. Fisher lay ill in bed at his house in Lambeth and took no part in the proceedings of Convocation; but the bishops, at a loss to know what to do, sent a deputation to him asking for advice about the best course of action to follow. In spite of what Fisher may have said to them, the bishops gave way to Henry's demand and promised not to legislate for the future without royal consent. On May 15, 1532 they surrendered the Church's divine right to legislate for the spiritual welfare of their people, an event which has become notorious in history as the "Submission of the Clergy." The very next day Sir Thomas More resigned as Lord Chancellor of England. He realized that he could no longer exercise any effective influence for good on affairs of state, and rather than acquiesce, he withdrew from public life. As soon as Fisher had recovered from the illness which had kept him from attending Convocation, he publicly denounced in a sermon the evil which was now imminent, and continued to preach in favor of the Queen.

1533 was an eventful year. In January Henry was secretly married to Anne Boleyn. At Henry's request, despite the opposition of John Fisher, Convocation passed two propositions:

a) that the Pope had no power to grant a dispensation for a man to marry his childless brother's widow, and

b) that the marriage between Catherine and Arthur had been consummated (Catherine had always claimed the contrary). It must have greatly saddened the Bishop of Rochester to see how the monarch had reduced episcopal authority to a level of servility without precedent in the history of the English church. He was imprisoned in April 1533 and not released until 13 June. In the interim, Cranmer, Henry's creature as archbishop of Canterbury, gave sentence against the validity of Catherine's marriage, and declared valid the marriage between Henry and Anne. On June 1st he crowned her queen of England in Westminister Abbey. Fisher, who was the most outspoken man in England in defense of Catherine and the rights of the Church, was, by his imprisonment, conveniently kept out of the way while Cranmer danced a canonical jig to Henry's tune. On July 11, the Pope declared the king's marriage with Anne to be null and void.35 In September, Anne gave birth to the future Elizabeth I.

The logic of the events of 1533 made it necessary to set aside the Princess Mary as illegitimate and to fix the succession on the king's offspring by Anne Boleyn. This was achieved by the passing of the Succession Act in Parliament in March 1534. The preamble to the act recites the illegality and invalidity of the marriage between Henry and Catherine, the validity of the divorce pronounced by Cranmer, and confirms the lawfulness of the marriage between Henry and Anne. The act goes on to make it high treason to oppose the succession, and misprision of treason to speak against it.36 The act required that all subjects of the realm would be obliged to take an oath to observe and maintain all the effects and contents of the act.

All the bishops took the oath

The tyrant in Henry had now reached its full flowering, no doubt well tutored by Master Secretary Cromwell, an ardent devotee of the Machiavellian school of politics. Not content with the usurpation of all religious authority, the purpose of this new act was to eliminate totally the expression of any opinion contrary to the king's wishes. Taking the oath had very clear religious and moral consequences; it implied the repudiation of the spiritual authority of the Pope who in July 1533 had annulled the proceedings of Cranmer, and in March 1534 had finally confirmed the validity of Henry's marriage to Catherine. During this parliamentary session Fisher was confined to bed through illness and unable to play his accustomed role in defense of the rights of the Church and the papacy. All the bishops took the oath at the end of March; on April 13 Fisher was summoned to appear at Lambeth Palace to do likewise.

When the bishop of Rochester was presented with the text of the oath he asked for time to consider it. Four days later he again refused it and was sent to the Tower of London, out of which he was not to come again until the time of his trial and execution, fourteen months later. Fisher suffered considerably during his period of imprisonment. He was in very poor health. His cell in the Tower was cold and damp. In a very moving letter to Cromwell, dated 22 December 1534, he describes his condition: "I beseech you to be good master unto me in my necessity; for I have neither shirt nor suit, nor yet other clothes, that are necessary for me to wear, but that be ragged and rent so shamefully. Notwithstanding, I might easily suffer that, if they would keep my body warm."37 He made two further requests — for a priest to hear his confession to prepare for the feast of Christmas, and for some books of spiritual reading "to stir my devotion more effectively these holy days for the comfort of my soul."38

What deprivation he must have suffered during those dark months of imprisonment! Clothed in rags, suffering considerably from cold and ill-health he may have been, yet his trust in God never wavered, nor his loyalty to the Pope and Queen Catherine. It says much for his spiritual vitality that in spite of the appalling material conditions of the tower, he managed to write three treatises during his sojourn in prison — two in English: "A Spiritual Consolation" and "The Ways of Perfect Religion," both written for his sister, a Dominican nun, and a third in Latin on the "Necessity of Prayer."39

It was while Fisher and More were incarcerated in the Tower (April 1534 — June 1535) that Henry pushed ahead in earnest with the task of setting up a national Church independent of Rome. The king made several attempts to win over Fisher through the other bishops. When he was visited on one occasion by several bishops together, he let them know that he was greatly grieved to meet them under such circumstances. He told them, according to an early biographer, that they should be united in "repressing the violent and unlawful intrusions and injuries daily offered to our common mother the Church of Christ," rather than trying to promote them. It was the occasion of that historic judgment made by Fisher on his fellow bishops: "The fort is betrayed even by them that should have defended it."40

The red hat would have no head

On May 7 Henry sent one of his councillors, Richard Rich, to try to force Fisher into making a treasonable statement. Unaware of the trap being set for him, Fisher told the messenger "that the king was not, nor could he be, by the law of God, Supreme Head of the Church in England."41 Henry now had the evidence he needed to bring about a conviction. Shortly afterwards news reached England that Fisher had been created a cardinal by Pope Paul III. The king's reaction was that the Pope could send him the red hat whenever he liked, but that he would make sure that by the time it arrived he would have to wear it on his shoulder, "for head he shall not have to set it on."42 Fisher's execution had been decided on long before the trial which was scheduled for June 17. Because both he and More had such an unrivalled reputation in England, Henry, in an effort to undermine their prestige and moral authority, arranged that sermons would be preached against the two in practically all the churches in the country. In reply to the charge of denying to Henry the title of Supreme Head of the Church in England, Fisher in his defense said that on his side he had the testimony of all the bishops of Christendom against the rest of the bishops of England. As such he was certain of his position and refused to give way. The intimidated jury found Fisher guilty of treason and he was condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered, the most brutal of all possible deaths.

Before he was led away Fisher spoke his mind to the court. William Rastell, a lawyer nephew of Sir Thomas More who was present at the Fisher trial, leaves us the following account of the bishop's valedictory statement: "He showed himself excellently and profoundly learned, of great constancy and of a marvellous godly courage, and declared the whole matter so learnedly and therewith so godly, that it made many of those present, and some of their judges also, so inwardly to lament, that their eyes burst out with tears to see such a great famous cleric and virtuous bishop to be condemned to so cruel a death by such impious laws and by such an unlawful and detestable witness (Richard Rich), contrary to all human honesty and fidelity."43

He napped awaiting execution

The execution was set for Thursday, 22 June, five days later. Chapuys, the imperial ambassador, wrote to Charles V on 30 June 1535: "They gave him (Fisher) as a confessor, a sworn enemy of his, and the staunchest Lutheran in the world as well as the originator of all the devilish acts practiced here; who, however, was so much edified by the bishop's countenance and behavior on the scaffold that he ceases not to say, that one of the best and holiest men in the world has been executed."44

As Fisher prepared himself in prayer for death there was an unusual cheerfulness and freedom of spirit in his attitude. He was wakened by the Tower lieutenant early on the morning of June 22, and enquired what time the execution was planned for. He was informed that it would take place at 9 a.m. Since it was still only 5 a.m. Fisher made a last request, that he would be allowed to sleep for another hour or two. He told the lieutenant that he had slept little that night, not for any fear of death, but because of his illness. A contemporary biographer tells us that "the prisoner slept soundly for two hours and more."45 He gave his servant his hair shirt asking him to convey it privately out of the Tower. A fortnight later Sir Thomas More was to ask his daughter Margaret to do a similar service — they had both the same modesty in trying to keep from prying eyes the secret of their very personal and severe penances, which were eloquent testimony of their love for their crucified Redeemer.

From the scaffold Fisher addressed the crowd which had gathered at Tower Hill to witness his execution.46 "Christian people, I am come hither to die for the faith of Christ's Holy Catholic Church." He asked them to pray for him so that his courage would not fail him at the instant of death, and that he would remain steadfast in every part of the Catholic faith: he was not in any way presumptuous about his ability to stand firm. He was very conscious that all his strength was on loan, and thus he begged the onlookers to pray for him to remain faithful in his final encounter.47

As Fisher meditated in the Tower on the condition of the Church in England, on the incredible change which had taken place over a period of ten short years, it brought great sorrow to his heart. "Woe to us who have been born in this wretched age," he wrote in his book about the need for prayer (De Necessitate Orandi), "an age — I say it weeping — in which anyone who has any zeal whatever for the glory of God, and casts his eyes on the men and women who now live, will be moved to tears to see everything turned upside down, the beautiful order of virtue overthrown, the bright light of life quenched, and scarce anything left in the church but open iniquity and feigned sanctity. The light of good example is extinguished in those who ought to shine as luminaries to the whole world like watchtowers and beacons on the mountains. No light, alas! comes from them, but horrid darkness and pestilent mischief, by which innumerable souls are falling into destruction."48 These words are primarily an indictment of his fellow bishops who had failed in their duty to be true pastors of the flocks entrusted to their care, and who should have led the faithful by the light of their faith and their preaching against the tyranny of Henry, but who instead were leading them to destruction by their silence and perfidy.

St. Thomas More, in the same Tower prison, at roughly the same time, was writing his "De Tristitia Christi," his ode to the infinite love and mercy of God. He was also reflecting on the apostasy of the English bishops: "If a bishop is so overcome by heavy-hearted sleep that he neglects to do what the duty of his office requires for the salvation of his flock — like a cowardly ship's captain who is so disheartened by the furious din of a storm that he deserts the helm, hides away cowering in some cranny, and abandons the ship to the waves — if a bishop does this, I would not hesitate to juxtapose and compare his sadness with the sadness that leads . . . to hell; indeed I would consider it far worse, since such sadness in religious matters seems to spring from a mind which despairs of God's help."49

Yet, while the bishop of Rochester perceived more clearly than perhaps any other man in England the tragedy of the situation, he was not without hope. He knew that the Holy Spirit was always active in the Church and he believed in the power of prayer. The example of his own life and death would stand out like a shining star for hundreds of fellow English men and women who would have the courage to face imprisonment and death rather than betray the old faith.

St. Thomas More has, with a certain justification, become popularly known as "a man for all seasons." His lively wit, his love for family and friends, his capacity to be simultaneously outstanding as a statesman and writer, humanist and lawyer — all conjoin to give him such a magnetic personality that few have failed to be attracted by it. St. John Fisher, on the other hand, does not have the same human attractiveness, yet the example of his life and work is no less valid for the Church today. A theologian of towering intellect which he used magnificently and unselfishly in the exposition and defense of Catholic doctrine,50 a bishop with an intense loyalty to the See of Peter, a pastor who nourished his flock with the bread of good doctrine and the example of a saintly life — these are surely qualities which make St. John Fisher, if not a "man for all seasons," certainly very much an inspiration and a challenge for the Catholic Church of the present day.

End Notes

  1. Cf. for example, the Yale edition of "The Complete Works of St Thomas More"; "Moreana," the journal of the "Amici Thomae Mori," published by the Catholic University of Angers, France.
  2. Cf. "El caso de San Juan Fisher," by Alvaro de Silva in Nuestro Tiempo, no 373/374 (1985), p. 17.
  3. "Blessed John Fisher," by Rev. T.E. Bridgett, London (1888), p. 53.
  4. "Apologia ad Carolum V," no. 20, quoted by Bridgett, op. cit., p. 54.
  5. The biographical details in this article are drawn primarily from Bridgett, op. cit., and "Saint John Fisher," by E.E. Reynolds, London (1955).
  6. "On the Truth of Christ's Body and Blood in the Eucharist" as quoted by Bridgett, op. cit., p. 26.
  7. Harpsfield's "The Life and Death of Sir Thomas More" ed. by E.W. Hitchcock (R W. Chambers, Early English Texts Society, London (1932), p. 249 (Rastell fragments).
  8. Bridgett, op. cit., p. 65.
  9. Reynolds, op. cit., p. 126; Bridgett, op. cit., p. 286.
  10. "Sacri Sacerdotii Defensio Contra Lutherum" (1525). Quotations are taken from the English translation, "The Defence of the Priesthood," by Mgr. P.E. Hallett, London (1935).
  11. Hallett, op. cit., p. 2
  12. Idem.
  13. Hallett, op. cit., p. 130.
  14. "The Works and Days of John Fisher," by E. Surtz, Cambridge, Mass., (1967), pp. 328-329.
  15. "Lutheranae Assertionis Confutatio," published at Antwerp in 1523; cf. Reynolds, op. cit., p. 94.
  16. Reynolds, op. cit., p. 94.
  17. Bridgett, op. cit. p. 110.
  18. "Defensio Regie Assertionis" (1525), a defense of the king's book on the seven sacraments. Cf. Reynolds, op. cit., p. 101.
  19. Cf. note 10 above.
  20. Hallett, op. cit., p. 17.
  21. Idem., p. 19.
  22. Bridgett, op. cit., p. 138.
  23. Idem., p. 120.
  24. Idem., pp. 138-139.
  25. Idem., p. 124.
  26. Lev. 20, 21.
  27. Reynolds op. cit., p. 230.
  28. Cf. "Catherine of Aragon," by Garrett Mattingly, London (1950), p. 191.
  29. Bridgett, op. cit., p. 170.
  30. Idem., p. 175.
  31. Idem.
  32. Cf. Mattingly, op. cit., p. 210.
  33. The term "Praemunire" was a convenient label for statutes passed in the fourteenth century to check the direct exercise of papal authority in England by prohibiting appeals to Rome. The penalty in case of conviction was forfeiture of all possessions and life imprisonment.
  34. Bridgett, op. cit., p. 209.
  35. Cf. Reynolds, op. cit., p. 191.
  36. "Misprision of treason" from the French "mepris," contempt means the bare knowledge and concealment of treason without any degree of consent to it. Cf. Bridgett, op. cit., p. 237.
  37. Bridgett, op. cit., p. 291.
  38. Idem., p. 292.
  39. Idem., p. 303.
  40. Idem., p. 336.
  41. Cf. Harpsfield, op. cit., pp. 232-235.
  42. Bridgett, op. cit., p. 359.
  43. Harpsfield, op. cit., p. 240.
  44. Cf. Surtz, op. cit., p. 114, note 1, quoting Spanish Calenders, V, pt.1, no. 178, pp. 504-505.
  45. Bridgett, op. cit., p. 393.
  46. Because of his very poor health, the sentence had been commuted to a mere beheading, as it was thought that Fisher would not survive being drawn on a hurdle to Tyburn two miles away, thus depriving Henry of the satisfaction of his execution.
  47. Bridgett, op. cit., p. 396.
  48. Idem., p. 435.
  49. "The Complete Works of St Thomas More," Vol. 15, p. 265.
  50. His reputation throughout Europe and his influence on theologians before, during, and after the Council of Trent was considerable. Cf. Surtz, op. cit., p. 396, note 43.

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