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Catholic Culture Solidarity

The Cardinal Martyr of England

by Matthew Bunson


In this article Matthew E. Bunson tells the story of the only cardinal to ever experience martyrdom: St. John Fisher, who was beheaded on June 22, 1535, by King Henry VIII for refusing to sign the oath of succession.

Larger Work

This Rock


38 – 39

Publisher & Date

Catholic Answers, Inc., El Cajon, CA, December 2008

One of the most distinctive customs of the sacred College of Cardinals is that its members wear scarlet. The tradition began formally in 1245, when Pope Innocent IV first bestowed the famed red hat upon the cardinals. The scarlet is intended to remind the cardinals that they must be willing to give of themselves for the Church, even to the point of shedding their blood.

Over the centuries, many cardinals have been asked to suffer for the faith, but only one has been martyred while a prince of the Church: St. John Fisher, who was beheaded by King Henry VIII of England on June 22, 1535.

Fisher was a victim of Henry's break from the Church, martyred early in the English Reformation for being one of the most talented defenders of the sacrament of marriage and the primacy of the Holy See.

A Rapid Rise

John Fisher was born in Beverley, East Yorkshire, England, in 1469. At 13, he was sent to Cambridge University. He earned several degrees and was ordained a priest on December 17, 1491. Soon after, he was named Vicar of Northallerton in Yorkshire.

Three years later, only 25, Fisher was named senior proctor at Cambridge University. Advancements followed swiftly: chaplain and confessor to Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of King Henry VII; doctor of theology; vice-chancellor of Cambridge in 1501 and chancellor in 1504. In 1514, Fisher resigned and suggested that his successor should be the fast-rising Thomas Wolsey. The future cardinal declined the post, and Fisher was elected chancellor for life, an unprecedented appointment.

Even as his labors for Cambridge progressed, Fisher received another assignment. On November 24, 1504, at the age of 35, he was consecrated as the 65th bishop of Rochester, the kingdom's smallest and poorest diocese. Fisher soon earned the love of the people for his intense pastoral devotion. In 1512, he took part in the Fifth Lateran Council, which had as its chief objective the reform of the Church. He thereafter was one of the leading English advocates of authentic reform.

In 1509, Fisher was given the great honor of preaching the funeral sermon for King Henry VII. In the era of the new king, Henry VIII, Fisher was an admired figure, both for his holiness and his genius, and even the king referred to him as "my Rochester."

Defender of Matrimony

Fisher was valuable to the king in the early days of the Protestant Reformation. On May 21, 1521, at St. Paul's Cross, he preached a two-hour sermon against Luther. He likely also assisted King Henry in writing the Assertio Septem Sacramentorum, the defense of the seven sacraments against Luther that earned the young ruler the title "Defender of the Faith" from Pope Leo X.

Although celebrated, the Assertio was relatively simplistic compared to Fisher's own defenses of Catholic doctrine, which included a refutation of Luther's De Captivitate Babylonica and a brilliant apologetic regarding the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist.

His service to the king, however, was not enough to save him. When the prospect of a royal divorce became the talk of England, the people looked to Fisher for guidance. Early on, therefore, Cardinal Wolsey — the king's primary agent for securing a legal separation from Catherine — sought the bishop's blessing or at least his silence. The cardinal stayed with Fisher at Rochester in July 1527, but Fisher remained opposed to the divorce. He publicly declared that, like John the Baptist, he was willing to die in defense of the indissolubility of marriage.

The next year, he agreed to serve as an advisor to the queen in the impending trial. In those proceedings at Blackfriars, Archbishop Warham of Canterbury read the names of bishops who endorsed the king's position, and Fisher's name was among them. At this, Fisher rose and denied vehemently that the list contained either his name or his seal.

Subsequently, Fisher urged Catherine to appeal to Rome. Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio, the papal legate sent to England in 1529 by Pope Clement VII, had no choice but to accept her demand. Fisher had by now distinguished himself as one of the most prominent political and religious targets for the malice of the king, and in the succeeding months, he penned at least seven books against the divorce.

A Lonely Stand

When the prospect of securing a papal annulment seemed hopeless, Henry dismissed Wolsey and appointed Thomas More as chancellor of England. Despite More's efforts, in the Parliament of 1529, Henry proceeded to dissolve, one by one, the ties to the papacy. Fisher took part in these deliberations as a member of the House of Lords. He stood valiantly and warned his fellow members in the House that the path they were taking must lead to the total ruin of the Church in England.

At Henry's secret urging, the House of Commons lodged a formal complaint with the royal court that Fisher had defamed Parliament. The king summoned Fisher before him and requested that he explain himself. Fisher's replies were accepted and Henry declared himself satisfied. It was left to Parliament to declare that Fisher's assertions were inappropriate.

The next year, Henry pressed ahead with such vigor against the Church that Fisher, joined by the bishops of Bath and Ely, made direct appeal to the Holy See. At the swift prodding of the ruthless Thomas Cromwell, Henry's favorite after the departure of Wolsey, Parliament decreed all such appeals to be illegal. The three bishops were arrested and imprisoned for several months. Fisher was released by February 1531, in time to attend the grim Convocation of Clergy. There Henry forced the clergy, at a cost of 100,000 pounds, to buy pardon for having recognized Cardinal Wolsey's authority as papal legate to England. At the same time, the king demanded that they acknowledge his self-proclaimed title as Supreme Head of the Church in England. Through Fisher's efforts, the clause was added, "So far as God's law permits."

That same year, there were at least two attempts on the life of the bishop. One attempt left two people dead and Fisher seriously ill from poisoned food.

Persecution and Consolation

In May 1532, Thomas More resigned the chancellorship, and in June, Fisher preached against the divorce and in defense of the Church's independence. In August, Archbishop Warham of Canterbury died, and Thomas Cranmer, one of Henry's minions, was nominated at once for the post. In January 1533, Henry secretly wed Anne Boleyn to ensure the legitimacy of the child she was by then carrying. Cranmer was consecrated in March as archbishop.

A week later, Fisher was arrested again, chiefly to keep the bishop out of the public eye while the king divorced Catherine. With this accomplished in May, the coronation of Anne as queen took place on June 1, 1533. Fisher was released two weeks later, without being charged.

In the autumn of that year, Fisher was arrested again as a friend of the Holy Maid of Kent, Elizabeth Barton, a young servant who claimed to have visions and who spoke against the king during one of her trances. Barton was executed at Tyburn in April 1534, but Fisher's trial was delayed when he fell seriously ill. In March 1534, however, a special Bill of Attainder was passed by Parliament against Fisher and others for complicity in the Maid of Kent affair. Fisher forfeited his personal estate, but he was granted a pardon on payment of 300 pounds in fines.

The same session of Parliament that condemned Fisher also passed the Act of Succession, which acknowledged Henry as supreme head of the English church and the offspring of Henry and Anne as successors to the throne. Subjects were called upon to swear an oath of succession, and failure to do so was to risk being arrested for treason. Fisher refused the oath and was arrested and sent to the Tower on April 26, 1534. He was joined a short time by later by his friend Thomas, who had also refused.

Several more attempts were made in prison to get Fisher to take the oath. Fellow bishops were sent to persuade him, including Bishop John Stokesley of London. On his deathbed in 1539, Stokesley lamented, "Oh that I had holden still with my brother Fisher, and not left him when time was!" (R. Bayne, The Life of John Fisher, 108).

Fisher bore the hunger, cold, and constant threats of Cromwell with patience; he authored a treatise on prayer as a "spiritual consolation to his sister Elizabeth," who was a nun. The book, Spirituall Consolation, was published around 1578 and became beloved among Catholics who secretly held to the faith.

An Example to Others

Deeply concerned for Fisher's safety, Pope Paul III named him a cardinal in May 1535, hoping that even Henry would not dare execute a prince of the Church. The king refused entry to the delegation bringing the red hat to England and promised instead to send Fisher's head to Rome for a proper fitting.

Hastily arraigned as a commoner at Westminster Hall on June 17, Fisher was condemned and sentenced to death by being hanged, drawn, and quartered. The sentence was reduced to beheading as it was thought he would not survive being dragged behind a horse the four miles to Tyburn. A contemporary wrote that Fisher had by then "a long, lean, slender body, nothing in a manner but skin and bare bones, so that the most part that there saw him marvelled to see any man so far consumed" (Garrett Mattingly, Catherine of Aragon). The execution came on the bright morning of June 22, 1535.

On Tower Hill, the bishop calmly spoke to the large crowd and proclaimed that he was dying for "the faith of the Catholic Church and of Christ." After the beheading, his naked body was left exposed for the rest of the day, and his head was stuck on a spike on London Bridge. The skull remained for two weeks but was thrown into the river after talk began that it was miraculously lifelike. Fisher's skull was replaced by the head of Thomas More, who was beheaded on July 6. Fisher's body was buried in the churchyard of Allhallows, Barking; it was later moved to St. Peter ad Vincula inside the Tower, where the body of Thomas More is believed to be.

John Fisher was never forgotten, nor was the horror that surrounded his death. Beatified on December 29, 1886, by Pope Leo XIII, with 54 English martyrs, Fisher was given the first place of honor. He and More were canonized on May 1.9, 1935 by Pope Pius XI.

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