‘I make it my humble request unto you, that you would beare with my silence, […] I know how my own conscience dictates to me but do not how another’s may inform him’.
John Fisher, priest, academic, pastor, bishop and martyr, was born in Yorkshire in 1469. Arriving at Michaelhouse College at just 14 years of age, he began a brilliant academic career at Cambridge which culminated with his election in 1504 as chancellor of the university. He subsequently helped effect a deep educational reform and the foundation of two colleges. Alongside this, he was the humble bishop of the poor and small diocese of Rochester, where he preached zealously and performed personally many duties which his fellow bishops preferred to delegate.
It was inevitable that so eminent a figure would be drawn into the religious controversies of the 16th century. This began with the diffusion of Lutheran ideas throughout England, which Fisher responded to through writings, but also through confidential dialogue with those troubled in conscience by Protestant ideas. By 1527, as Fisher approached his 60th birthday, domestic events of even greater drama were mounting. King Henry VIII was determined to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled so as to marry Anne Boleyn, while the Pope insisted the first marriage was lawful. Fisher need to take a side, and aligned himself in support of the cause of Catherine of Aragon. In a famous speech, avowing himself as willing to die for the sanctity of the marriage bond, Fisher implicitly cast Henry VIII as Herod and Anne Boleyn as Salome. In 1534, an “Oath of Succession” was required of all adult males, recognizing Henry’s divorce and second marriage, and implicitly repudiating papal authority. Alone amongst all the bishops of England, John Fisher refused to swear the oath.
This refusal led to imprisonment in the Tower of London for over a year. He was joined by Sir Thomas More, who had also refused to swear the oath, and the two supported each other through letters exchanged in secret. Their mutual trust was later exploited by Thomas Cromwell, who attempted to persuade both men to swear the Oath by telling each separately that the other had relented. It was to no avail: neither fully believed Cromwell and each persisted in refusal.
By this time Fisher was also put under increasing pressure to affirm or deny Henry’s status as “Supreme head of the Church in England”. In the words of Fisher himself, they were ‘before a two-edged sword’: denying the King’s supremacy would mean death; yet acknowledging the same, contrary to their conscience, ‘would be assuredly unto me worse than death’. Neither Fisher nor More sought out martyrdom; instead, so as to avoid the trap of saying anything against the King or his laws, they opted for silence.
The king was eventually able to extort an assertion against the oath from both of them with deception, which completed their charge of High Treason. Fisher was executed on 22 June 1535 – just days after being made a cardinal by Pope Paul V in an effort to protect him. He was joined by his friend Thomas More on 6 July. Yet, More’s words on the scaffold, ‘I die the king’s faithful servant, but God’s first’, and Fisher’s persuasion that ‘disacknowledgment of God’ would be ‘worse than death’ ultimately resonate as a reaffirmation of God’s supremacy over temporal power.
After his death Fisher was immediately deemed a Catholic martyr, and since he died as a martyr of conscience, is also recognised as a saint by the Anglican Church. The government tried to expunge both Fisher and More from the people’s memory. Nevertheless, the report that Fisher’s head (displayed for public scorn on London Bridge) was daily growing rosier and more lifelike soon spread from England to the continent. Cardinal Borromeo kept a portrait of Fisher in his study, while at the Council of Trent the Pope and the cardinals made extensive use of his writings, bearing witness to St John Fisher’s sharp mind and deep love for God and the Church.