During the annual “Fortnight for Freedom” sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, we remember Sts. John Fisher and Thomas More on their shared memorial, June 22, highlighting their martyrdoms in the cause of religious liberty.
Neither thought of religious liberty as we do today, accepting a plurality of religious faiths in the public square. They fought against religious dissent, defending Catholic doctrine, worship, morality and prayer. Thomas More is infamous for his official prosecution of heretics, his apologetics and polemics against Martin Luther, William Tyndale and others. John Fisher, the bishop of Rochester, also wrote and preached against Lutheran dissent — once in 1521 at a public burning of books considered heretical.
While More is highlighted because he was the layman defending doctrine and Church unity against the attacks of the state, we should not forget Bishop Fisher’s consistent stand to defend not only the sacrament of marriage, but also the unity of the Church under the pope as the vicar of Christ.
Because he was a bishop, Fisher was responsible for upholding Church teaching in a way that More was not. Throughout the debates in the “Convocation of Bishops” about the legitimacy of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Fisher was resolute in defending that marriage and the Church’s authority to define that marriage as sacramental.
Fisher opposed Henry VIII’s proclamation of himself as supreme head and governor of the Church in England in the convocation — where he at least prevailed enough to add the words “as far as the law of God allows” — and in British Parliament. His resolution led to assassination attempts: once by poisoning (but Fisher was too abstemious for the poison to be effective) and once by cannon shot aimed at his London house. He was too ill to attend the last parliamentary gathering in 1529, which legislated the English Reformation, or the convocation in 1532, when the clergy submitted to Henry VIII, paid a fine and accepted the monarch’s supremacy.
In April of 1534, Fisher was presented with an oath to accept Henry VIII’s supremacy, refused to take it, was stripped of his offices and imprisoned in the Tower of London. He would not emerge from its confines until he stood trial on June 17, 1535; he was taken to Tower Hill for his execution, mercifully commuted to being beheaded rather than hung, drawn and quartered, the usual punishment for traitors.
Holy Bishop of Rochester
John Fisher was born in Beverley, East Yorkshire, in 1469. He attended the University of Cambridge, beginning an association that would last almost until his death. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, became proctor (treasurer) of the university, and then came to the attention of Lady Margaret Beaufort, Henry VII’s mother (Henry VIII’s grandmother). With her patronage, Fisher founded Christ’s Church and St. John’s Colleges, dedicated to improving the quality of clerical education and formation.
Lady Margaret’s patronage encouraged Henry VII to nominate Fisher bishop of Rochester; he became chancellor of Cambridge and occupied her endowed chair of theology. He brought Desiderius Erasmus and other classical scholars to Cambridge, fostering the study of Greek and Hebrew, along with Latin, to improve the understanding of Scripture.
Bishop Fisher faithfully fulfilled his episcopal duties, declining promotion to larger, richer dioceses. Through both example and denunciation of clerical abuses, he offered a model of honesty, integrity, detachment and holiness. With this combination of virtue and wisdom, John Fisher was the only bishop who stood against Henry VIII’s takeover of the Catholic Church in England.
After the bishops’ submission — and Thomas More’s resignation as chancellor — Parliament declared Henry the supreme head and governor of the Church of England. Henry demanded that individual bishops, religious, nobles and other leaders in England take an oath accepting his supremacy and denying papal authority.
Trial and Execution
Neither More nor Fisher would take the oath — and so they were imprisoned in the Tower of London.
More was held for some time in relative comfort, but Fisher, stripped of title and office, was destitute and abandoned. He had never completely recovered from the attempted poisoning, and he was elderly and frail.
Bishop Fisher was not permitted access to the sacraments and suffered greatly. Nevertheless, he was still a pastor and preacher, writing A Spiritual Consolation and The Ways of Perfect Religion, for his half-sister Elizabeth, a nun at the Dartford Dominican Priory, and a Latin treatise De Necessitate Orandi (The Necessity of Prayer).
Pope Paul III proclaimed Bishop Fisher a cardinal while he was in the tower, hoping for some leniency, but the honor only infuriated Henry VIII more. He declared that when the cardinal’s hat arrived in England, Cardinal Fisher wouldn’t have a head on which to wear it. Henry VIII’s right-hand man, Richard Rich, who also betrayed Thomas More, tricked him into saying directly that Henry VIII couldn’t be — and wasn’t — the supreme head of the Church in England.
At Bishop Fisher’s trial, the guilty verdict and sentence were pre-ordained. He was prepared to die, having compared himself to St. John the Baptist in his willingness to suffer for the sake of defending holy matrimony.
On June 22, 1535, he was taken to Tower Hill for beheading. The witnesses were shocked when they saw how emaciated he was. He asked them for prayers and proclaimed the Te Deum in praise and thanksgiving, before death. His body was left on the scaffold through the night and then buried in St. Peter ad Vincula, one of the chapels in the Tower of London. His head was displayed on London Bridge and then thrown into the Thames River.
Pope Leo XIII beatified Fisher, More and 52 other English martyrs in 1886, and Pope Pius XI canonized Fisher and More in 1935, as the powers of fascism and nationalism were rising in Europe.
St. John Fisher is a great model for our priests and bishops. He exemplifies awareness, preparation and steadfastness in the midst of confusion and danger for the Church.
St. John Fisher, pray for us!
Stephanie A. Mann is the author of Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation,
Public domain/Wikimedia image
(Sir Thomas More, l, and Bishop John Fisher
The U.S. bishops are sponsoring an American tour of the relics of Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher. USCCB.org/issues-and-action/religious-liberty/fortnight-for-freedom/