St. John Fisher
Cardinal, Bishop of Rochester, and Martyr; born at Beverley, Yorkshire, England, 1459 (?1469); died 22 June, 1535.
John was the eldest son of Robert Fisher, merchant of Beverley, and Agnes his wife. His early education was probably received in the school attached to the collegiate church in his native town, whence in 1484 he removed to Michaelhouse, Cambridge. He took the degree of B.A. in 1487, proceeded M.A. in 1491, in which year he was elected a fellow of his college, and was made Vicar of Northallerton, Yorkshire. In 1494 he resigned his benefice to become proctor of his university, and three years later was appointed Master of Michaelhouse, about which date he became chaplain and confessor to Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby, mother of King Henry VII. In 1501 he received the degree of D.D., and was elected Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University. Under Fisher’s guidance, the Lady Margaret founded St. John’s and Christ’s Colleges at Cambridge, and also the two “Lady Margaret” professorships of divinity at Oxford and Cambridge respectively, Fisher himself being the first occupant of the Cambridge chair.
By Bull dated 14 October, 1504, Fisher was advanced to the Bishopric of Rochester, and in the same year was elected Chancellor of Cambridge University, to which post he was re-elected annually for ten years and then appointed for life. At this date also he is said to have acted as tutor to Prince Henry, afterwards Henry VIII. As a preacher his reputation was so great that in 1509, when King Henry VII and the Lady Margaret died, Fisher was appointed to preach the funeral oration on both occasions; these sermons are still extant. In 1512 Fisher was nominated as one of the English representatives at the Fifth Council of Lateran, then sitting, but his journey to Rome was postponed, and finally abandoned. Besides his share in the Lady Margaret’s foundations, Fisher gave further proof of his genuine zeal for learning by inducing Erasmus to visit Cambridge. The latter indeed (Epist., 6:2) attributes it to Fisher’s protection that the study of Greek was allowed to proceed at Cambridge without the active molestation that it encountered at Oxford. He has also been named, though without any real proof, as the true author of the royal treatise against Luther entitled “Assertio septem sacramentorum”, published in 1521, which won the title Fidei Defensor for Henry VIII. Before this date Fisher had denounced various abuses in the Church, urging the need of disciplinary reforms, and in this year he preached at St. Paul’s Cross on the occasion when Luther’s books were publicly burned.
When the question of Henry’s divorce from Queen Catherine arose, Fisher became the Queen’s chief supporter and most trusted counsellor. In this capacity he appeared on the Queen’s behalf in the legates’ court, where he startled his hearers by the directness of his language and most of all by declaring that, like St. John the Baptist, he was ready to die on behalf of the indissolubility of marriage. This statement was reported to Henry VIII, who was so enraged by it that he himself composed a long Latin address to the legates in answer to the bishop’s speech. Fisher’s copy of this still exists, with his manuscript annotations in the margin which show how little he feared the royal anger. The removal of the cause to Rome brought Fisher’s personal share therein to an end, but the king never forgave him for what he had done. In November, 1529, the “Long Parliament” of Henry’s reign began its series of encroachments on the Church. Fisher, as a member of the upper house, at once warned Parliament that such acts could only end in the utter destruction of the Church in England. On this the Commons, through their speaker, complained to the king that the bishop had disparaged Parliament. Dr. Gairdner (Lollardy and the Reformation, I, 442) says of this incident “it can hardly be a matter of doubt that this strange remonstrance was prompted by the king himself, and partly for personal uses of his own”.
The opportunity was not lost. Henry summoned Fisher before him, demanding an explanation. This being given, Henry declared himself satisfied, leaving it to the Commons to declare that the explanation was inadequate, so that he appeared as a magnanimous sovereign, instead of Fisher’s enemy.
A year later (1530) the continued encroachments on the Church moved the Bishops of Rochester, Bath, and Ely to appeal to the Apostolic see. This gave the king his opportunity. An edict forbidding such appeals was immediately issued, and the three bishops were arrested. Their imprisonment, however, can have lasted a few months only, for in February, 1531, Convocation met, and Fisher was present. This was the occasion when the clergy were forced, at a cost of 1000,000 pounds, to purchase the king’s pardon for having recognized Cardinal Wolsey’s authority as legate of the pope; and at the same time to acknowledge Henry as Supreme Head of the Church in England, to which phrase, however, the addition “so far as God’s law permits” was made, through Fisher’s efforts.
A few days later, several of the bishop’s servants were taken ill after eating some porridge served to the household, and two actually died. Popular opinion at the time regarded this as an attempt on the bishop’s life, although he himself chanced not to have taken any of the poisoned food. To disarm suspicion, the king not only expressed strong indignation at the crime, but caused a special Act of Parliament to be passed, whereby poisoning was to be accounted high treason, and the person guilty of it boiled to death. This sentence was actually carried out on the culprit, but it did not prevent what seems to have been a second attempt on Fisher’s life soon afterwards.
Matters now moved rapidly. In May, 1532, Sir Thomas More resigned the chancellorship, and in June, Fisher preached publicly against the divorce. In August, Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, died, and Cranmer was at once nominated to the pope as his successor. In January, 1533, Henry secretly went through the form of marriage with Anne Boleyn; Cranmer’s consecration took place in March of the same year, and, a week later, Fisher was arrested. It seems fairly clear that the purpose of this arrest was to prevent his opposing the sentence of divorce which Cranmer pronounced in May, or the coronation of Anne Boleyn which followed on 1 June; for Fisher was set at liberty again within a fortnight of the latter event, no charge being made against him. In the autumn of this year (1533), various arrests were made in connexion with the so-called revelations of the Holy Maid of Kent, but as Fisher was taken seriously ill in December, proceedings against him were postponed for a time. In March, 1534, however, a special bill of attainder against the Bishop of Rochester and others for complicity in the matter of the Nun of Kent was introduced and passed. By this Fisher was condemned to forfeiture of all his personal estate and to be imprisoned during the king’s pleasure. Subsequently a pardon was granted him on payment of a fine of 300 pounds.
In the same session of Parliament was passed the Act of Succession, by which all who should be called upon to do so were compelled to take an oath of succession, acknowledging the issue of Henry and Anne as legitimate heirs to the throne, under pain of being guilty of misprision of treason. Fisher refused the oath and was sent to the Tower of London, 26 April, 1534. Several efforts were made to induce him to submit, but without effect, and in November he was a second time attained of misprision of treason, his goods being forfeited as from 1 March preceding, and the See of Rochester being declared vacant as from 2 June following. A long letter exists, written from the Tower by the bishop to Thomas Cromwell, which records the severity of his confinement and the sufferings he endured.
In May, 1535, the new pope, Paul III, created Fisher Cardinal Priest of St. Vitalis, his motive being apparently to induce Henry by this mark of esteem to treat the bishop less severely. The effect was precisely the reverse. Henry forbade the cardinal’s hat to be brought into England, declaring that he would send the head to Rome instead. In June a special commission for Fisher’s trial was issued, and on 17 June he was arraigned in Westminster Hall on a charge of treason, in that he denied the king to be supreme head of the Church. Since he had been deprived of his bishopric by the Act of Attainder, he was treated as a commoner, and tried by jury. He was declared guilty, and condemned to be hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn, but the mode of execution was changed, and instead he was beheaded on Tower Hill.
The martyr’s last moments were thoroughly in keeping with his previous life. He met death with a calm dignified courage which profoundly impressed all present. His headless body was stripped and left on the scaffold till evening, when it was thrown naked into a grave in the churchyard of Allhallows, Barking. Thence it was removed a fortnight later and laid beside that of Sir Thomas More in the church of St. Peter ad Vincula by the Tower. His head was stuck upon a pole on London Bridge, but its ruddy and lifelike appearance excited so much attention that, after a fortnight, it was thrown into the Thames, its place being taken by that of Sir Thomas More, whose martyrdom occurred on 6 July next following.
Several portraits of Fisher exist, the best being by Holbein in the royal collection; and a few secondary relics are extant. In the Decree of 29 December, 1886, when fifty-four of the English martyrs were beatified by Leo XIII, the best place of all is given to John Fisher. He was canonized in 1935 by Pope Pius XI — Ed.
A list of Fisher’s writings will be found in Gillow, “Bibliographical Dictionary of the English Catholics” (London, s.d.), II, 262-270. There are twenty-six works in all, printed and manuscript, mostly ascetical or controversial treatises, several of which have been reprinted many times. The original editions are very rare and valuable. The principal are:
“Treatise concernynge . . . the seven penytencyall Psalms” (London, 1508);
“Sermon . . . agayn ye pernicyous doctrin of Martin Luther” (London, 1521);
“Defensio Henrici VIII” (Cologne, 1525);
“De Veritate Corporis et Sanguinis Christi in Eucharistia, adversus Johannem Oecolampadium” (Cologne, 1527);
“De Causa Matrimonii . . . Henrici VIII cum Catharina Aragonensi” (Alcalá de Henares, 1530);
“The Wayes to Perfect Religion” (London, 1535);
“A Spirituall Consolation written . . . to hys sister Elizabeth” (London, 1735).