Hans Holbein. Bishop John Fisher.|
The Stapleton Collection
"I reckon in this realm no one man, in wisdom, learning,
and long approved virtue together, meet to be matched
and compared with him." —Thomas More on Fisher
JOHN FISHER, English cardinal and Bishop of Rochester, born at Beverly, received his first education at the collegiate church there. In 1484 he went to Michael House, Cambridge, where he took his degrees in arts in 1487 and 1491, and, after filling several offices in the university, became master of his college in 1499. He took orders; and his reputation for learning and piety attracted the notice of Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, who made him her confessor and chaplain. In 1501 he became vice-chancellor; and later on, when chancellor, he was able to forward, if not to initiate entirely, the beneficent schemes of his patroness in the foundations of St. John's and Christ's colleges, in addition to two lectureships, in Greek and Hebrew. His love for Cambridge never waned, and his own benefactions took the form of scholarships, fellowships and lectures. In 1503 he was the first Margaret professor at Cambridge; and the following year was raised to the see of Rochester, to which he remained faithful, although the richer sees of Ely and Lincoln were offered to him.
He was nominated as one of the English prelates for the Lateran council (1512), but did not attend. A man of strict and simple life, he did not hesitate at the legatine synod of 1517 to censure the clergy, in the presence of the brilliant Wolsey himself, for their greed of gain and love of display; and in the convocation of 1523 he freely opposed the cardinal's demand for a subsidy for the war in Flanders. A great friend of Erasmus, whom he invited to Cambridge, whilst earnestly working for a reformation of abuses, he had no sympathy with those who attacked doctrine; and he preached at Paul's Cross (12th of May 1521) at the burning of Luther's books. Although he was not the author of King Henry VIII's book against Luther, he joined with his friend, Sir Thomas More, in writing a reply to the scurrilous rejoinder made by the reformer. He retained the esteem of the king until the divorce proceedings began in 1527; and then he set himself sternly in favour of the validity of the marriage. He was Queen Catherine's confessor and her only champion and advocate. He appeared on her behalf before the legates at Blackfriars; and wrote a treatise against the divorce that was widely read.
Recognizing that the true aim of the scheme of church reform brought forward in parliament in 1529 was to put down the only moral force that could withstand the royal will, he energetically opposed the reformation of abuses, which doubtless under other circumstances he would have been the first to accept. In convocation, when the supremacy was discussed (11th of February 1531), he declared that acceptance would cause the clergy "to be hissed out of the society of God's holy Catholic Church"; and it was his influence that brought in the saving clause, quantum per legem Dei licet.
By listening to the revelations of the "Holy Maid of Kent," the nun Elizabeth Barton, he was charged with misprision of treason, and was condemned to the loss of his goods and to imprisonment at the king's will, penalties he was allowed to compound by a fine of £300 (25th of March 1534). Fisher was summoned (13th of April) to take the oath prescribed by the Act of Succession, which he was ready to do, were it not that the preamble stated that the offspring of Catherine were illegitimate and prohibited all faith, trust and obedience to any foreign authority or potentate [see <praemunire]. Refusing to take the oath, he was committed (15th of April) to the Tower, where he suffered greatly from the rigours of a long confinement.
On the passing of the Act of Supremacy (November 1534), in which the saving clause of convocation was omitted, he was attainted and deprived of his see. The council, with Thomas Cromwell at their head, visited him on the 7th of May 1535, and his refusal to acknowledge King Henry VIII as supreme head of the church was the ground of his trial. The constancy of Fisher, while driving Henry to a fury that knew no bounds, won the admiration of the whole Christian world, where he had been long known as one of the most learned and pious bishops of the time. Paul III, who had begun his pontificate with the intention of purifying the curia, was unaware of the grave danger in which Fisher lay; and in the hope of reconciling the king with the bishop, created him (l0th of May 1535) cardinal priest of St Vitalis. When the news arrived in England it sealed his fate. Henry, in a rage, declared that if the pope sent Fisher a hat there should be no head for it.
The Beheading of John Fisher and Countess of Salisbury
The cardinal was brought to trial at Westminster (17th of June 1535) on the charge that he did "openly declare in English that the king, our sovereign lord, is not supreme head on earth of the Church of England," and was condemned to a traitor's death at Tyburn, a sentence afterwards changed. He was beheaded on Tower Hill on the 22nd of June 1535, after saying the Te Deum and the psalm In te Domine speravi. His body was buried first at All Hallows, Barking, and then removed to St. Peter's ad vincula in the Tower, where it lies beside that of Sir Thomas More. His head was exposed on London Bridge and then thrown into the river. As a champion of the rights of conscience, and as the only one of the English bishops that dared to resist the king's will, Fisher commends himself to all. On the 9th of December 1886 he was beatified by Pope Leo XIII.
Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Ed., vol. X.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910. 428.
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Persons of Interest
Cardinal Thomas Wolsey
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John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester
Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio
Cardinal Reginald Pole
Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester
Pico della Mirandola
Elizabeth Barton, the Nun of Kent
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Field of the Cloth of Gold, 1520
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Oath of Supremacy
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Westminster in the Seventeenth Century, by Hollar
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