We are going to start with a man whose name you will have already heard in the background, Bishop John Fisher. He is usually and very understandably paired with Thomas More, just as apples are paired with oranges, and you can understand why, because both Fisher and More were executed for their refusal to accept Henry VIII as the Supreme head of the English church, and together provided the first Catholic martyrs to join the growing band of the evangelicals burned under the auspicies of de heretico comburendo.
But walk into a pub in England and ask people and you will have an evens chance of finding someone who can tell you the story of St Thomas More. Walk into an English pub and ask about Bishop John Fisher…well, tell you what, I’ll buy you 10 pints for every person there who can give you the low down, and I promise you’ll end the night considerably more sober than your average judge after their Sunday evening G&T.
But at the time, this was by no means the case. The deaths of both men were received with horror and shock throughout Europe. But it was probably Fisher who received most attention. As we’ll see, John Fisher was a man of European reputation for his theological writings, particularly in the argument against the views of Martin Luther, and in a way his reputation was much less complicated than More’s – he lacked some of the political sensitivity and lawyer’s subtlety of More. At the other end of the chronological scale, in 1886 he was beatified along with 52 other English martyrs, and in May 1935 he was made a saint along with Thomas More; and their feast day made 22nd June, which was the date Fisher rather than More was executed. Interestingly, in 1980 Fisher was added to the Church of England’s calendar of Saints and Heroes of the Christian Church, which is a very Anglican thing to do – a sort of ‘ooh, I’m terribly sorry’ sort of thing. We await news that Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer have been similarly recognised in Rome, can’t be long coming.
Eustace Chapuys, shocked of course along with the rest of Christendom, described him as a ‘Paragon of Christian prelates, both for learning and holiness’. But since then he’s been treated in quite a different way. The thing is, unlike More, he really didn’t spend his time and effort trying to manipulate his reputation; for protestants there’s something in More for them – his humanist ideas made some of them hope he was a proto-protestant, which must make More spin in his grave I imagine; later, his resistance to royal authority made him a quite attractive figure to the Prots faced by folks like Charles I and James II. But Fisher looked much less attractive – he was a churchman. And so, in England at least, he could be dismissed as just another deluded Catholic priest. The contemporary historian Edward Hall started the process with the judgement that Fisher was
A man of very good life, but wonderfully deceived therein
All the way through to the height of Protestant dominance and the Victorian historian Froude, and his judgement, which has the faint whiff of criticism about it.
weak, superstitious, pedantical; [to] Protestants … even cruel
Essentially, English history sniffed, shrugged its shoulders, and said ‘cha. Just another wrong headed priest then.’ Which is harsh. For wherever you stand on his religious views, Fisher should at very least be recognised as a man of enormous learning, integrity, piety and quite stunning courage. Which I guess is part of what the Anglican Church was saying in 1980.
Despite his extraordinary end, Fisher’s start was very traditional. We could be talking about Cardinal John Morton, or indeed many others. He was born in God’s own County – by which I mean Yorkshire. If you are not from these parts you may not be aware of Yorkshire. I can hear the thump of fainting Yorkshiremen hitting floors as I speak. It’s in the north of England. It’s nice. If a little wet. And the cricket, you know, not quite up to Leicestershire’s standards, but it’s OK. Moving on.
So born in 1469, in Beverly Yorkshire, the son of a trading family, and his career followed a pretty standard path in the early years; his father made enough money as a mercer to send him to school, he was a bright lad and made it to Cambridge University, where he progressed to MA and was ordained in 1491. Fisher had siblings – sister and brothers – and would remain close to them, and they would brave the wrath of the king when his end came, to be with him. Like many people of his time, as he rose in his career Fisher saw it as his duty to support and offer preferment in the careers of his wider family, such as his nephews; we really can’t chuck the accusation of nepotism at Fisher for this – that’s what good families did in those days. And these days too – afterall one of my nephews learned at my feet how to stand on the right place on the platform and commute into London every day for an unpaid internship. The light of his gratitude shines brightly still. The point is, Fisher is a man of long kept loyalties and relationships. It’s a compliment.
Fisher rose in the service of the university as a Proctor, then an absolutely key high level job rather than stopping students throwing up on the grass; and in 1495 this took him to court; when he came back he submitted his expenses and recorded
I had lunch with my lady the king’s mother
He was of course speaking of Margaret Beaufort; this was a meeting that would change his life. At this very first meeting, Margaret resolved that she would add him to her household; before long her son Henry VII was made aware of her admiration; by 1498 Fisher was her household Chaplain, and by 1500 was her principle confessor.
These two really saw eye to eye, they really got on; Fisher recognised in Margaret a soulmate and vice versa. He would later write
Once she had adopted me as her confessor and her moral and spiritual guide, learned more of what leads to an upright life from her rare virtues that I ever taught her in return.
Given his admiration of her, it is interesting that he noted things about Margaret that we would not necessarily see as positive. It is he that tells us of her knack for quote ‘marvellous weeping’; it was he that described her rather obsessive pessimism
Either she was in sorrow by reason of present adversities or else when she was in prosperity she was in dread of the adversity to come
Given Fisher’s love of the kind of affective and even slightly hysterical late medieval religious practices, along the lines of Margery Kempe, and his excessively pessimistic ideas of what would happen to your hapless soul in purgatory, it could be that he spoke with approval.
Margaret was a generous patron as well as a pious one, and one of Fisher’s achievements was to divert some of that piety to ends more practical than the endless investments on moving her soul through purgatory as quickly and as painlessly as possible, which she was doing by endowing chantries to sing masses for her soul. It’s an odd thing isn’t it? all a bit me me? Anyway, He persuaded her that the money could be better used by the foundation of colleges in Cambridge; and so Christ’s College Cambridge was transformed from a rather run down grammar school, and St John’s College would be founded after her death. This was not a simple matter of a few well chosen words and job done; after Margaret’s death, Fisher would have to fight tooth and Nail with her grandson Henry VIII to get those projects implemented, and would have to give up some of the money to the king to achieve it. Fisher would continue to be an able and active member of the university – annually elected as Chancellor until 1514 and then made Chancellor for life. Fisher would prove to be deeply traditional and conservative, and hate evangelicals and reformers with a deep, burning passion. But he was not blind to the need to reform, and to the need for better priests, and his commitment to the education of the clergy would be a thread through his life. But equally, he would take a contemptuous view of attempts by the laity to have a view – this was a matter for the clergy, not your average jo.
Now Henry VII had taken a practical approach to appointments to Bishoprics, as did most kings. They were an ideal way to reward and pay civil servants; or indeed a post to keep open for a while, so that you could milk them for a bit of cash while going through the recruitment process. The fact that they were critical to the spiritual leadership and health of the church was a little secondary. Before his death, Henry was hit by a dose of guilt about this, and agreed to appoint someone a little more impressive in a religious sense. Thus in 1504 Fisher found himself to be Bishop of Rochester. There were two reasons why you found yourself Bishop of Rochester; either because it was assumed that you’d soon be moving on up if you looked as if you had a prospect of a successful career; or because you were genuinely picked for your theological and spiritual leadership, and could therefore be safely relegated to one of the kingdom’s smallest and poorest bishoprics, at £4000 a year only Bangor at £200 a year was worse. Actually at this time I think the Bishop of Bangor spent most of his time near Southampton at Beaulieu where the weather was much warmer than the north Wales coast. Seems reasonable, that wind off the Irish sea can be so damaging to the skin.
John Fisher was in the second category, genuine theological quality. This worked from both angles actually. Fisher disliked the secular political world of pomp and ceremony and display, hated and despised it; and he was a dedicated and model bishop in ways that the majority of his contemporaries were not. As I believ we have covered at some depth very few historians now believe that the late medieval church was so rotten that it just collapsed as soon as the evangelical’s gave it a gentle shove; that old story of the reformation is dead and buried. But it remains true that everybody who mattered knew the church needed to be reformed; and it had its vulnerabilities. One of these were Bishops who were largely absent from their dioceses; that did not therefore manage visitations on their parishes, who did not go out to preach – such as the reverend Bishop of Bangor. Obviously this will vary a lot depending on your religious experience, but as someone brought up in the Anglican tradition I am thoroughly used to the idea of preaching as a standard part of religious life. Not so then; your average priest was very unlikely indeed to preach. There were some specialist preachers around, there were friars too; but often you were dependent on visits by your Bishop, and it was accepted that preaching was part of a Bishop’s job. Hence one of the objections of the evangelical reformers – preaching was rare, Bishops were absent.
Not so Fisher. He was no absentee; Fisher ensured an active programme of visitations in his diocese; and even more unusually, carried out those visitations in person. He was from the start an enthusiastic and active preacher. The statutes he drafted for St John’s College made the training of preachers one of its express aims. Even the reformists later would accept that he was a model Bishop.
Part of this was because Fisher was not cut out of the political mould. While Thomas More whined and moaned about not liking the life at court and political world – he became Lord Chancellor of England. Though to be fair, there’s an argument that he genuinely saw this as part of his humanist duty. Not so Fisher. Maybe in fact he should have been called “not so Fisher”. I like it. Fisher very rarely got involved in any political activities until it came to the big one; but as he would soon show, he was prepared to do what so few other people were prepared to do – speak out against what he saw as royal wrong doing. Sometimes that was principled – sometimes, honestly, simply a bit naïve and gauche. Rochester is of course in Kent, south East of England; which meant that while Fisher went more rarely to court than his fellows, he would get caught up in diplomatic visits – such as hosting Henry VIII and Charles V in 1522 on their way to the coast, for example. He hated it:
Sundry times when I have settled and fully bent myself to the care of my flock…straightway hath come a messenger for one cause or other sent from higher authority by which I have been called to other business
This was written in 1519; and probably aimed at Cardinal Wolsey, of whom he was the antithesis. But he was equally disapproving of the king’s court. The Field of the Cloth of Gold clenched his episcopal buttocks and curled his ecclesiastical toes
Never before was seen in England such an excess of apparelment
he lectured. He described the meeting as ‘midsummer games’, and recalled with hand rubbing satisfaction that strong winds had blown dust into the faces of the mighty. He moaned about his involvement
…by tossing and going his way and that way, time hath passed and the in meanwhile nothing done but attending after triumphs, receiving of ambassadors, haunting of Princes’ courts and such like: whereby great expenses rise that might better be spent other ways
It’s rather a relief to come to Fisher, a prelate who clearly saw the world as something as far less important than the life to be, and was impatient with the goings on of the rich and famous; who wanted to spend his time tending his flock, and on those that really needed his attention. For by the demands of the court he said
Great money was spent, many great mens’ coffers were emptied & many were brought to the great ebb of poverty
Take away the glistering garment, take away the cloth of gold & what difference is there betwixt and Emperor and another poor man?
These are the things men of the church should be asking are they not? This was not what the great and the good in Tudor society expected from their Bishop. Well, let me qualify that; the great and the good of Tudor society did expect to hear this sort of thing from the church; but from Fisher, they heard uncomfortably direct messages, uncomfortably personalised and hammered home, without flannel. It would get him into trouble.
Until the death of Henry VII and, a few month’s later, his mother Margaret, Fisher had little to fear at the hands of his monarchs. He was asked to preach at the death of Henry VII, and at the funeral of Margaret, and gave due deference, though it has to be said his enthusiasm for Margaret burned a little brighter. As I believe I have mentioned, his sermon is where the word faction relating to politics is first recorded, as he praised her for refusing to allow factions to arise – another example of his disdain for world politics.
But his love of lecturing the great the good, his dislike of the politics of court, for the finery and magnificence of which Henry prided himself meant that his relationship with Henry VIII was never going to be easy. Fisher was one of those of Henry VII’s councillors that Henry Junior was keen to rid himself, just like Bishop like Richard Fox and in 1513 that is exactly what he did, and Wolsey duly came into his pomp and power and primary.
The trouble was that Fisher was one of the brightest stars in Henry’s theological firmament; a man of genuinely European reputation and standing. Henry liked shiny things, he liked surrounding himself with brilliant people. Maybe partly for good reasons I believe; because he genuinely admired talent; partly because such people reflected to the greater glory of his court and kingly reputation. More remarked that Henry VIII had a talent for making you feel as though you were the most important person in the room, if he so desired, the hallmark of the charismatic leader. Henry paid the lean, ascetic, critical, spiritual, intellectually arrogant and inflexible Fisher what he considered his greatest compliment – throwing his arm around his shoulder companionably and walking with him. For the moment he needed him, and he leant lustre to his court. But it is very doubtful Henry liked Bishop John Fisher, and did little to encourage him to his council and diplomatic work outside of the bare essentials and matters of theology.
There’s something of a debate about Fisher’s learning, which has been described as medieval as opposed to renaissance, and implication that he was rather backwards looking, rather reliant on the scholastics who had tied church teaching into such knots and from whose complexities the new learning was trying to liberate the church. And even the likes of historian and Catholic polemicist Eamon Duffy, not given to downplaying the talents of any Catholic, concedes that his preaching style, themes and use of scripture show little overt sign of humanistic innovation. And as he gets into the shooting war with Luther, Fisher excels particularly in his command of the teaching of the church fathers. None the less, Fisher was no hide bound stick in the mud. He worked hard to bring Erasmus to Cambridge, he had Erasmus as a tutor a while, and Erasmus stayed with Fisher on his last visit to England; Fisher worked hard to learn Greek, such an important element in the new learning, and encouraged Erasmus’s new bible translation. Fisher tended to straddle the divide between Medieval and Early Modern, Medieval and Renaissance. Because of course, such divides are never that simple and stark. Fisher was a learned man. But there’s equally little doubt that when it came to said shooting war, he was not the kind of man to view Luther’s innovations with an open mind.
It must be said that he was also full of one of the more negative traditions of the church, in the rather hideous evocations of purgatory. This doesn’t always seem to be a distinction between medieval and new learning I have to say, if you take Thomas More as an example of the new learning, since he’s absolutely as bad. Fisher laid on the horrors of purgatory with a trowel, with detailed and vivid descriptions of purgatory as a torture house designed to exact retribution from a sinful humanity. Seriously, it’s not surprising that people spent whatever they could on indulgences, carried out penances, no wonder that the rich devoted vast resources to chantry masses. No-one in the church could tell them how long they’d spend in purgatory, how much they had to spend, how much grace they had to cobble together to escape. All they could tell them was that it really wasn’t going to be good. I am told that Dante’s vision in the 14th century saw purgatory as a place of hope and renewal – that tradition was not much in evidence in the 16th century.
In 1517, as we covered last week, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door, expecting to start a healthy debate and full and frank exchange of views. Instead, he pushed a boulder off the cliff of history that would crash through and reduce to rubble the medieval world. Whatever Fisher dedicated to the spirit of enquiry and the new learning, he was a through and through, front to back believer in doctrinal orthodoxy, the primacy of the teaching of the church fathers through the ages, and an anguished hater of the merest suggestion, the whiff, the tiniest mouse dropping of heresy. Unlike More, he was also an unequivocal believer in the supremacy of the Pope; More appears to have had his doubts, and to have put his faith more in the community of the church and the church fathers, but Fisher on this was less complicated. He would pursue heretics and fight Luther’s arguments with every talent, sinew and nerve in his body. In 1521 it was Henry who led the dogs of theology into war, constructing, together with a group of clerics his book the Assertio Septem Sacramentorum refuting and roundly insulting Luther. In May 1521, there was a glorious book burning of all Luther’s works in St Paul’s churchyard, and Fisher preached the sermon.
From then on through the 1520s, Fisher devoted himself to the destruction of Luther and all his works. The king’s unfriendly Assertio received an equally unfriendly response from Luther; Fisher responded with a series of exhaustive and detailed writings both against Luther and his supporters. More meanwhile, wrote a tract so foul mouthed he was too embarrassed to publish them under his own name. Through this process Fisher demonstrated the completeness and thoroughness of his understanding of the Scholastics and their teaching, the traditional underpinning of the theology of the late medieval church. He was mildly innovative, clearing up some confusions about the mass. He identified some inconsistencies in the arguments ranged against him; and created an extensively read body of orthodox writings which became a sort of bank of content and arguments for anyone wanting to have a hack at Luther and his lads. I exaggerate for effect, of course, but if you were a theologian wanting to send Luther packing, you’d hop along to your library, select your passages from Fisher, and away you go. By 1525, then, Fisher was just about the most famous Catholic theologian in Europe.
Never doubting his talents, yet in Fisher there was also a broad strand of the very ecclesiastical arrogance that was escalating this crisis way beyond that which Luther had ever wanted or planned. You might be imagining a sort of scholarly debate by gentle churchly men; this is not the case. Personal insults and sarcasm were part of the furniture as these men fought over the soul of Christendom. At one stage Fisher produces what he believed to be a trump card when he sarcastically retorted – who on earth would believe that Luther had suddenly discovered the truth when all the procession of church fathers through the ages had not? It reveals the depth of his conservatism and arrogance in the construct of the Catholic church, unchallengeable. Such an argument for Luther would be largely irrelevant – in the end the bible alone provided the only authoritative source of truth.
So, Fisher was leading her charge with some talent, and to this point he is standing shoulder to shoulder with his king. But the King’s divorce, the Great Matter, changed all of that. Henry decided that he wanted a new wife. Henry convinced himself that not only did he want a new wife, but God was telling him that he had been living in sin with Catherine of Aragon for years anyway. Generally speaking, historians think Henry was sincere in this belief, and that he was lucky enough to possess a delightfully flexible conscience which would adapt itself to believing the right sort of thing; rather than that Henry was deliberately cynical. He maintained that the bible said sleeping with your brother’s wife was a sin, and therefore the papal dispensation he’d had from Julius was insufficient, because no Pope could overrule the bible. Initially, Fisher’s involvement was purely theological; rather touchingly he rushed to Henry and sought to re-assure him.
“Good news Henry lad, great news, you’ve been worrying yourself sick over nothing! It’s fine, the pope is all supreme, he can do anything, and anyway there’s another reading in Deuteronomy which says it’s fine anyway. Relax, go home to your wife the noble Queen Catherine, put on the slippers of love and let the good times roll”
Over time, the truth began to dawn on Fisher; that this wasn’t the answer the king wanted. Sure he wanted an answer to salve his conscience, but he was keen that it was the right conscience that was salved, the conscience that led to an heir to the throne and to Anne Boleyn. One of Fisher’s proteges, Robert Wakefield, provided the justification Henry needed that his theological position was indeed correct, and from that moment onwards, Fishers was the king’s increasingly severe opponent. Don’t let me give you the wrong opinion; Fisher would in all likelihood have loved to have been reconciled with his prince. But he seems to have found it harder than More to be two brained, and park his objections in brain number 2 while brain number 1 went on with the job of supporting his king. But only in one matter could he agree with the king, which was to support the suggestion that Catherine of Aragon retire to a nunnery, an idea which was anyway to be sunk by another paddy by Henry.
Now, this is not the place for a super detailed run through of the king’s great matter – we’ll do that in the History of England, so I’ll skip over the details. But Fisher was to oppose the king in both strands of Henry’s policy – to convince the world and the Pope that his marriage to Catherine was invalid; and to pressurise the English church to submit to his authority and throw off the Bishop of Rome.
Fisher became once of Catherine’s firmest supporters; he wrote to the queen, he supported her, and more than that he whipped up support by writing pamphlets and so on. As far as Fisher was concerned, Henry was a jumped up king, and kings were subject to the greater authority of the church in these matters, and specifically the Pope:
“Kings usually think that they are permitted to do whatever pleases them, because of the magnitude of their power. Therefore it is good for these kings in my opinion, to submit themselves to the decrees of the church…lest perhaps they kick over the traces and do what they like, so long as they can weave together some appearance and pretence of right.”
It’s an interesting quote. Fisher was deeply suspicious of the potential tyranny of kings. Or, he was embued with that ecclesiastical arrogance which would bring the papal supremacy around his ears. How you view it probably depends on your attitude to the whole thing, but the key point is that Fisher nailed his colours to the mast. He nailed his colours in support of the Queen because he was a man with a conscience defending what he believed was right, but also because he clearly saw that this struggle was in the end about Papal supremacy and authority, and he had none of Thomas More’s equivocation about the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome. As hopefully you’ll remember, More’s position was faith in the whole community of the church and the tradition of the church fathers, of which the Pope was part; as an individual, the Pope in More’s view was still subject to error. It’s a fine distinction but important – and Fisher had no such scruples. This was a fight to defend the Papal supremacy, and to defend the supremacy of Pope over kings in matters of religion.
Fisher began a series of books to prove the validity of the marriage. There is a particularly delicious occasion where Fisher demonstrated his courage in the most public way possible. Picture the scene. Henry and Wolsey have brought a papal legate, Compeggio, to England to try the case that the marriage to Catherine be annulled. It was, it has to be said, a fiasco; at the end of it, the Papal Legate declared that the case be referred back to Rome; and the ABC William Warham stood to declare that all the English Bishops agreed that the case should be so referred. At which point our Yorkshireman stood and publicly declared he’d consented to no such thing. Because in his view there was no case to answer. Well, talk about cats and pigeons. What followed was an unseemly slanging match with Fisher’s boss William Warham trying to explain why he’d tried to cover up Fisher’s objection, the king furious at Fishers bare faced resistance to his will. If Henry was angry and humiliated in front of his subjects in court, the following day a large explosion was heard above Whitehall. The explosion was Henry suffering the flaming codpiece of fury on being told that Fisher had made a speech in parliament. He’d declared that, like John the Baptist, he was prepared to lay down his life in defence of the marriage, and then get this:
“The Acts of the Apostles telleth of King Herod, that he in rich apparel showed himself upon a time unto the people & they for his glistening apparel and goodly oration, magnified and praised him as though he had been a God; but almighty God…stroke him with a sore sickness, whereupon he died. Kings and Emperors all be but men all be but mortal.”
Whoa, OK. Just to make sure the point is crystal clear, this is Fisher telling the world that Henry was the big baddie of the Christian tradition, King Herod, and that if he persisted the result would be the same. It was just a small step to equate Fisher himself with John the Baptist, and Fisher was not to miss the opportunity to equate Anne Boleyn with Salome.
It cannot have been easy standing up to the king. It’s not just the ultimate sanction of execution with which Fisher was playing. There’s also the physical presence; Henry was a massive, in fact increasingly bulky presence. He was quick to explode with fury. He was relentless and had proved time and again that he would wreak vengeance. He expected and demanded obedience, he was given that obedience, and the tradition of a thousand years lay behind obedience to the king. But Fisher stood in front of Henry and refused him.
More than that, Fisher stood up to his peers. Henry turned his attention to subduing the English church to his will rather than the Pope, and brow beat parliament and the church convocation to add legitimacy to his demands for submission. The Commons of Parliament duly fell in behind him with a series of bills attacking the clergy, the revenues and liberties of the church. Fisher was appalled. In his view this was not just politically wrong, legally wrong, morally wrong – it could only be that the whole of the commons were heretics
Now with the Commons is nothing but down with the Church and all this meseemeth for lack of faith only
No-one was allowed to challenge the church in her actions but the church, essentially, and if you do, you are apostate. Courage and arrogance. Fisher had gone too far; the Duke of Norfolk angrily told him ‘the greatest clerks be not always the wisest men’, the Commons lodged a formal complaint, and the king forced Fisher to take back his words. But it was not the end of his resistance. Famously, the Convocation of the Church, the parliament of the church if you like, bowed to Henry’s demands to recognise his supremacy, but Fisher had the words ‘as far as the law of Christ allows’, limiting Henry’s supremacy; Henry would have to try again to achieve the supremacy he sought. Fisher and 2 other bishops appealed Henry’s legislation to the Church of Rome. Given that the legislation was to remove the authority of the Bishop of Rome in England, that was about as barefaced a challenge as you get. For a while, Henry had Fisher thrown into prison.
By the end of September 1533 Fisher was clearly guilty of treason; Henry never got to find out about this, else this story would have ended right there. Fisher got together with Eustace Chapuys, the HRE’s ambassador. He told him that what was needed now was a crusade; that a crusade was the only way this holy marriage between Catherine and Henry would be maintained in the face of Henry’s malevolence. He urged Charles V to get papal condemnation of Henry’s divorce and remarriage, and then that he must bring an army to England to support it. This is straightforward treason, and if Henry had known, there’s no doubt Fisher would have gone to the block.
As it was, Henry was in a bind. He desperate to get the agreement of the greatest English theologian of the day; Fisher was subjected to a campaign of royal pressure and wheedling from his clerical colleagues to sign up to the royal supremacy. Fisher would not bend and other of his opponents seem to have taken more direct action; in 1531 Fisher was the victim of an attempting poisoning, but since he didn’t eat much anyway he escaped unharmed. And then a musket shot was fired at his estate – suspicion fell on the Boleyns whose estate was in shooting range.
The affair of Elizabeth Barton, the Holy Maid of Kent, confirmed Henry’s worst fears. Barton loudly proclaimed that she’d had visions and warned Henry that he must stop his marriage or die. Medieval Christianity was open to and tolerant of visionaries; while Thomas More would have nothing to do with her, Fisher listened to what she had to say; and although he agreed she had gone beyond her vocation in her messages, none the less the air time he gave her was too much for Henry. Fisher was convicted of misprision of Treason – essentially guilty of not telling Henry about the treasons Barton had spoken. In vain did Fisher argue that everyone knew what she was saying it was public knowledge. In modern parlance, it would have been like telling Queen Liz that Led Zep were the greatest band that had ever, or will ever live. What’s the point – everyone is well aware of such a well-known fact. It didn’t work though – and Fisher found himself behind bars.
In the end he could have got out; but he refused to accept the Act of Succession, which confirmed the royal divorce and marriage and implicitly denied the authority of the Pope, so he stayed right where he was. At the end of 1534 came the act of Supremacy, recognising Henry as the head of the English Church rather than the Bishop of Rome, and enormous pressure brought to bear on Fisher to sign up. Henry had reached the end of his tether; as far as he was concerned he’d still love to have Fisher on the bus of supremacy, but if not, he was going under the wheels. Henry was an all or nothing kind of bloke.
In the Tower, Fisher was not treated well. He was getting on a bit now, 66 or so, and quite probably in someone’s mind was the thought that if he was kept cold, damp and under fed maybe nature would come and solve the king’s problem for him. Fisher was even forced to write to Cromwell:
“I beseech you to be a good master unto me in my necessity, for I have neither shirt nor sheet nor yet other clothes that are necessary for me to wear…my diet also God knows how slender it is at many times… I decay forthwith, and fall into coughs and diseases of my body, and cannot keep myself in health”
Fisher by now was just plain old John Fisher, no longer Bishop of Rochester. Parliament had kindly passed an act of attainder at the end of 1534, depriving Fisher of all his positions and goods. He tried to take the same approach as More by keeping silent on the matter of the act of succession, and may have been caught in pretty much the same way. So enter stage left at this point one of our favourite pantomime villains Sir Richard Rich, twiddling waxed moustache and looking suitability shifty and evil. Tradition has it that Rich sidled up to Fisher and said “look, Fishy me old china, the king he needs to know, just between and me, what you really think. You know he promises he won’t tell anyone, you being No 1 Theologian and all. Won’t make any difference to your case. Go on”. If it’s true, Fisher swallowed the bait and had a quick rant that the only supreme Henry would ever have was chicken, and Rich had his man.
At this point the Pope, Paul III, though he’d better put a stop to this, and he created Fisher a Cardinal. That’ll do the trick he thought – nobody, but nobody is ever going to execute a Cardinal. That’d be far too disrespectful to the Pope and the mother church, never happen. Seriously, had he not been listening? It served only to accelerate things; Henry refused the hat a visa, poor old thing, and nastily declared that anyway before it arrived he’d make sure Fisher had no head left to put it on.
On 17th June 1535, Fisher was tried as a commoner by jury in front of Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Boleyn and 10 justices. Richard Rich was the only witness, and it was more than enough; Fisher was convicted of Treason and to be hanged, drawn and quartered, though commuted to beheading. He made a short speech laying out his refusal to accept the king’s supremacy again, which you can read on the website, and that was that.
As you would expect from a man of such courage, conviction and with eyes fixed firmly on heaven, Fisher died with dignity. When he arrived, things weren’t ready and so he had to wait sitting on his mule which can’t have been fun. He spoke boldly to the crowd, telling them to be loving and obedient to the king; he’s a good king he said it’s just that in this one matter he’s been deceived. This is standard enough; it could be that Fisher meant it, but given he’d been encouraging Charles V to come and invade England in the name of Holy War the motivation was probably more to protect his friends and family from further prosecution. In this Game of Thrones and the Execution of Ned Stark, which is some time ago, obviously, is thoroughly accurate. You might hate and despise the tyrant who was having you killed, but you were denied even the pleasure of telling him to stuff it. Fisher stripped and everyone noticed his dry, spare, emaciated figure, the physical embodiment of the disciplined and determined man he was; and of course, unsurprising given the conditions he’d been held in at the Tower. He knelt slowly, laid his head on the block and died for the unity of Christendom its inherited faith and the rights of the Pope to determine the consciences of men and women in England.
His body was not treated with much respect – by order of a vindictive king who had probably never liked him, the headless body was left lying around for a while, as you do. His head was stuck up on a pike on London Bridge as normal, but irritatingly seemed to get fresher with each passing day. Seeing a miracle on its way, some thoroughly earthy bloke booted it into the Thames before he could cause any more trouble.
You can draw your own conclusions of course, but for my part here is an impressive man. We might accuse him I suppose of that ecclesiastical arrogance that fed anti clericalism which made the church vulnerable to the Reformation. But don’t you have to respect that oh so rare talent to hold his head up and defy absolute power, and defy it with absolute integrity. Comparisons are odious, so I apologise, but his inevitable pairing with Thomas More has not helped John Fisher’s reputation. Here was a fine cleric and scholar, dedicated to his job of saving souls and doing it in an exemplary fashion; a man able to work at all levels of society, and leaving substantial achievements behind him, as a patron of Cambridge University, a preacher, scholar, priest and administrator. If history had been different, I’d have been writing a biopic of the lad just like that of John Morton, though actually, given he was only a two bit Bishop of Rochester I may well not have bothered. But he was unfortunate enough, in the words of the Chinese curse that John F Kennedy popularised, to live in interesting times. And it meant he was presented with a different challenge, a challenge from which he did not flinch.