Night at the Tower of London Pays Homage to St. John Fisher
LONDON — After nearly 470 years, St. John Fisher has been honored in a ceremony at the Tower of London, where he was imprisoned and met a martyr's death by a headsman's ax in 1535.
In a packed chapel with a choir singing music by Byrd and prayers led by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the archbishop of Westminster, and the Anglican bishop of London, Dr. Richard Chartres, tribute was paid Jan. 19 to the saint and martyr who died for his unwavering loyalty to the Catholic faith in the face of a tyrant king.
Also taking part were the Anglican bishop of Rochester — once St. John Fisher's own diocese — and Father Malachi Sheehan, parish priest of the local Catholic parish of the English Martyrs, which serves the community living in this corner of London around Tower Hill.
It was an evening of formality, soaring music, ecumenical good will, an occasional flash of ironic humor and some moments of moving solemnity. A commemorative plaque, blessed at the ceremony, will now have a permanent place in the tower near the very cell where Fisher was imprisoned and the execution site where he was beheaded.
After the blessing ceremony and immediately before the national anthem, Bishop Chartres and Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor exchanged a formal sign of peace.
In an address that showed evidence of serious study of the saint's life and message, the Anglican bishop praised St. John Fisher's integrity, courage and faith.
He noted that Fisher was himself a reformer who sought to bring needed changes to the Church of his day and was known as a powerful preacher at a time when many bishops neglected this task and confined themselves to administrative or liturgical duties. But when King Henry VIII started to impose his own arbitrary power on the Church, Fisher's insistent “No!” took him to the tower and eventually to his death.
Describing Fisher as “venerable and godly,” Bishop Chartres said, “He asks us in this, our own day, what are we as Christians prepared to die for? Any church that fails to say ‘No’ to some things when required is a church very far from the Gospel.”
Introduced warmly by Bishop Chartres as “our cardinal,” Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, a striking figure in full scarlet robes, quoted Pope Paul VI on martyrdom: “What makes a man? His capacity for loving.”
The cardinal stressed Paul VI's message that man's noblest response to God's infinite love is to honor it faithfully even to the point of death and advised the gathering to ask for the prayers of St. John Fisher for the road that lies ahead today, four centuries after his death.
The event was the brainchild of a leading Catholic layman, Peter Bearcroft, who had dedicated himself to ensuring that one of England's greatest bishops should be honored in the place where he gave his life.
The service took place in the church of St. Peter ad Vincula (St. Peter in Chains), originally a parish church just outside the tower's walls but incorporated several centuries ago into the structure itself as the fortress expanded.
The church, which ceased to be Catholic at the Reformation, is chiefly famous for housing the mortal remains of many of the tower's victims, including Anne Boleyn, whose marriage to Henry VIII — in defiance of the Church, which refused to annul Henry's earlier marriage to Catherine of Aragon — precipitated the events that led to St. John Fisher's martyrdom.
The service began with the hymn “Praise to the Holiest in the Height” — authored by the most famous of all Anglican converts to Catholicism, John Henry Newman — and followed the pattern of a traditional Anglican evensong, with modern variants. At the end, all stood for a rousing rendition of “God Save the Queen.”
Among those present were leading Catholic members of the House of Lords and Commons, and of various Catholic organizations.
Catholics, for so long marginalized by the country's history and derided as “not quite British” had, for one evening at least, reclaimed their past and seen something of its valor honored.
The message of John Fisher's life — that some things are worth upholding, even to the point of death — is felt more poignantly when pondered in the awesome surroundings of a massive fortress, floodlit on the banks of a river in one of the world's great cities. For this reporter at least, the splendor and beauty of the ceremony could not mask the grim reality of the tower's message.
The tower is open to the public and is currently partly surrounded by building works designed to create better facilities for the millions who visit annually. These are masked by billboards depicting various characters from the tower's history including Henry VIII and his various wives and victims.
The cells occupied by St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More are not generally open to public view as they are part of a building that now forms the governor's house and various administrative offices, but Catholic groups do, by arrangement, visit them and pray there.
Dungeons occupied by other persecuted Catholics, including the martyr St. Edmund Campion, and the torture equipment used there are permanently open to public view.
Altogether, it stands in striking contrast to the sushi bar and cafes that stand near the tower entrance and the friendly banter of the “Beefeater” guards who spend their days posing for photographs and giving directions to tourists.
On a busy sunny day, the crowds can mask something of the tower's harsh past; on a wet January night, the cobbled paths and vast thick walls gave witness to a centuries-old message about the courage needed when martyrdom looms.
Joanna Bogle writes from London.
- February 8-14, 2004