Stephanie A. Mann is the author of Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation, available from Scepter Publishers. She resides in Wichita, Kansas and blogs at www.supremacyandsurvival.blogspot.com.
John Cardinal Fisher, the former Bishop of Rochester—Henry VIII had stripped him of that title—was sentenced to death on June 17, 1535. The sentence pronounced against him brought a flush of color to his sunken cheeks, eyewitnesses remarked. As a traitor, he would be drawn to the place of execution on a hurdle, hanged, cut down still alive and then endure vivisection. Finally his head would be cut off and his body would be divided into four parts: Henry VIII would decide where his head and his quarters would be displayed. In other words, he would be hanged, drawn, and quartered.
Like Sir Thomas More, with whom he shares a feast day today in both the Catholic Church and the Church of England, Fisher had been held in the Tower of London for more than a year, since April 26, 1534. He had been interviewed several times to induce him to take the Oath of Succession; authorities had told him that Thomas More had taken the Oath (when he hadn’t) just as they told More that Fisher had, trying to break their resolve. Thomas More had seen the Carthusian Priors and companions taken from the Tower to Tyburn on May 4, 1535 to be executed; Fisher had been told a few days after. Also in May that year, Pope Paul III had honored Fisher with a Cardinalate, hoping to influence Henry VIII to show leniency and release him, especially since he was so ill. That gesture did not work, however, as Henry stated that Fisher would soon have no head on which to wear his Cardinal’s hat. It had been feared that he might die in the Tower before ever coming to trial, so Henry VIII sent his physicians to strengthen the prisoner.
The day after his sentencing, three more leaders of the Carthusian order were drawn on hurdles from Marshalsea prison to Tyburn Tree: Fathers Humphrey Middlemore, William Exmew and Sebastian Newdigate. In the meantime, Fisher was waiting to find out the date of his execution and was making his final spiritual preparations.
The Feast of St. John the Baptist
At some point after Fisher’s condemnation, Henry VIII decided to commute that brutal sentence to the relatively easier one of being beheaded. When Fisher learned about that merciful change, we don’t know—it may have been the morning of his execution. Since Bishop Fisher had been stripped of his episcopal title, he had been treated as a commoner in the Tower of London. In December, 1534, he had begged Thomas Cromwell for some warm clothing; he didn’t mind wearing rags, he wrote, as long as they kept him warm. Fisher had written two spiritual works for his sister Elizabeth, who was a Dominican nun at Dartford Priory, but had not been able to say Mass or have access to other Sacraments.
Henry VIII faced a dilemma with the selection of Fisher’s execution date as the great feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist was approaching on June 24; the Vigil of his Feast was celebrated solemnly too. Since Bishop Fisher had once cited St. John the Baptist as his model in the defense of marriage, beheading him on that that day wouldn’t do.
June 22 was selected even though that was the feast of the first English martyr, St. Alban. A pagan living in Roman Britain, Alban sheltered a Christian priest named Amphibalus. The priest’s courage in the face of persecution and his devout prayers moved Alban to conversion. When the Romans came for the priest, Alban took his place. The judge had Alban tortured to force him to offer incense to the Roman gods, but he refused and was beheaded on June 22 in either AD 287 or 301, after a slight delay because, as the Venerable Bede reported, the first headsman converted to Christianity.
St. Alban’s Day, 1535
Early in the morning on June 22, Sir Edmund Walsingham, the Lieutenant of the Tower, woke Cardinal Fisher up to tell him that his execution would take place on Tower Hill at ten o’clock in the morning. Fisher asked to be allowed a few more hours of sleep. When he woke again, he removed his hair shirt and dressed. Carried in a chair outside the Tower, he paused to open the New Testament and read a verse wherever the book opened and found:
Hæc est autem vita æterna: ut cognoscant te, solum Deum verum, et quem misisti Jesum Christum.Ego te clarificavi super terram: opus consummavi, quod dedisti mihi ut faciam . . .
(“Now this is eternal life: that they may know Thee, the one true God, and Jesus Christ Whom Thou has sent I have glorified Thee on earth: I have finished the work which Thou gavest me to do (John, 17:3-4).”)
Commenting that this was enough learning for him at the end of his life, Fisher proceeded to the scaffold. The gathered crowd was shocked to see how emaciated Fisher was when stripped of his gown and also responded sympathetically to his request for prayers:
Christian people, I am come hither to die for the faith of Christ's Catholic Church, and I thank God hitherto my courage hath served me well thereto, so that yet hitherto I have not feared death; wherefore I desire you help me and assist me with your prayers, that at the very point and instant of my death's stroke, and in the very moment of my death, I then faint not in any point of the Catholic Faith for fear; and I pray God save the king and the realm, and hold His holy hand over it, and send the king a good counsel.
He proclaimed the Te Deum Laudamus and prayed Psalm 70 before the headsman cut off his head. Fisher’s body was left naked on the scaffold until finally buried in a nearby church before being moved to the Tower chapel, St. Peter ad Vincula; too many people had been visiting his grave. His head was displayed on London Bridge next to the heads of the Carthusian martyrs until it was cast into the Thames.
Reaction and Reputation
Thomas More followed Fisher’s path; a trial in Westminster Hall, the same brutal sentence proclaimed; the return to the Tower and final preparations for death. He noted that the planned date for his execution, July 6, was the vigil of one of St. Thomas à Becket’s two feasts (for his martyrdom on December 29 and the translation of his relics on July 7). Henry VIII could not avoid execution dates with great sanctoral significance.
He also could not avoid the reaction to the martyrdoms of Fisher and More. The Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, deplored the loss of such a great statesman as Thomas More, while Reginald Cardinal Pole praised both of them and excoriated Henry’s actions in his Pro Ecclesiasticae Unitatis Defensione (Defense of the Unity of the Church). While the causes of the English Reformation martyrs were delayed until the middle of the nineteenth century, John Fisher was awarded pride of place among those beatified in 1886. He and More were canonized together on May 19, 1935.
Since 2012, the annual Fortnight for Freedom has highlighted their feast among others who suffered martyrdom opposing state usurpation of religious rights. St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More, pray for us!