The Example and Spiritual Legacy of England’s Largely Forgotten Saint, Bishop John Fisher

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The Example and Spiritual Legacy of England’s Largely Forgotten Saint, Bishop John Fisher
The Example and Spiritual Legacy of England’s Largely Forgotten Saint, Bishop John Fisher
Photo Credit: © RijksmuseumCC0 1.0 UNIVERSAL

Ironically, one of the reasons for Saint John Cardinal Fisher’s relative obscurity is confusion with his contemporary, Saint Thomas More. They were convicted of the same crime and executed in the same manner. Holy Mother Church canonized them in the same ceremony 400 years after their deaths.

First, we need to place John Fisher into his historical context. Without that context, his life leaves more questions than answers.

Before Henry VIII’s apostasy, the Church was far wealthier than the Crown. Indeed, it was said that no one at any point in England could walk more than an hour without encountering a parish church, monastery, convent, hospital, or school. However, that wealth and power masked a deep and widespread impiety.

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England was emerging from the War of the Roses. For 32 years, two branches of the Royal House of Plantagenet—Lancastrians and Yorkists—battled each other. The civil government was rent by discord while the Church prospered.

An Independent Spirit

The eleven hundred miles between Rome and London spawned a sense of independence in the English Church. That made it easy for Englishmen to embrace the anti-religious humanism of the so-called Renaissance. This attitude not only explains Henry VIII’s apostasy but also that of the English bishops.

Another common problem was that the road to higher office and income was based more on personal connections than care for souls. Most of the politically powerful Church leadership was inept at piety, preaching, and scholarship.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, there were only three learned professions—teaching, the law, and the clergy. Teaching didn’t pay much. Lawyers were held in low repute. Those with the right connections often chose the Church. Therefore, the upper clergy was usually occupied by the ambitious rather than the genuinely pious.

The seminaries of the time also bear some of the blame. Many sources charge that the typical run of parish priests knew only enough Latin to celebrate Holy Mass.

A Brilliant Young Man

Historians know little about John Fisher’s childhood. Scholars even have to guess about the date of his birth. Most place the date at 1469.

He was raised in a market town in Yorkshire. His father, Robert Fisher, dealt in woolen goods, and the family prospered. His father died young, and his mother re-married. Fisher’s mother and stepfather must have seen something extraordinary in young John because he entered Cambridge University at the age of fourteen.

John Fisher completed a Bachelor’s Degree in 1488 and a Master’s in 1491. He was ordained into the priesthood at age 22. He quickly moved up through the ranks of the Cambridge faculty to be a “senior proctor” by age 25.

“The Lady Mother of the King”

In 1495, the young academic attended a dinner that would change his life. An entry in his official logbook stated, “I dined with the Lady Mother of the King.”

The King’s mother was Lady Margaret Beaufort. She was a descendant of King Edward III. She had a tumultuous life. Her family was on the Lancastrian side in the War of the Roses. She would marry—and bury—four husbands. The second was Edmond Tudor—a Yorkist. He died a year later, but the marriage would produce an heir, Henry VII, whose coronation ended the dynastic dispute.

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Unusually, the Lady Margaret’s world of dynastic marriages, politics and the uncertainty of dynastic war made her immune to the attractions of power. One of John Fisher’s modern biographers said of her, “The Lady Margaret’s deep devotion to the Church and her love of learning gave meaning to her life and excluded those worldly ambitions that might have poisoned the feelings of any other woman standing so close to the throne.”

Her fourth husband died in 1504. The 61-year-old noblewoman dedicated the rest of her life to religion. For the rest of her life, she served God by creating colleges to train priests. In that process, her young confessor, Father John Fisher, played a significant role.

Long after her death, John Fisher wrote of Lady Margaret, “That though she chose me as her director to hear her confessions and to guide her life, yet I will gladly confess that I learnt more from her great virtue then ever I could teach her.”

The Best Connections

As mentioned before, Henry VII’s coronation marked the end of the War of the Roses. However, his claim to the throne was not secure. The King’s insecurity would be reflected in his son and successor—Henry VIII.

Henry VII and Lady Margaret had a close personal relationship. They saw eye-to-eye on matters of state. Therefore, It is only natural that the son should respect the man his mother trusted so much. The King appointed John Fisher to be the Bishop of Rochester in 1504. This appointment began the most productive phase of John Fisher’s life.

John Fisher’s position was enviable. He was in favor with the King, and the confidant of the King’s mother. He was a well-regarded academic figure creating two new colleges with the Lady Margaret’s considerable resources behind him. He was also a Bishop, which made him a member of the House of Lords.

A Holy Bishop in a Lowly Diocese

Rochester, though, had the reputation of being the poorest diocese in England, an unattractive rural backwater.

For a bishop, especially one with John Fisher’s intelligence, contacts, and influence, Rochester could have been a “stepping stone” to higher preferment. However, Fisher remained the Bishop of Richmond for 31 years until his death.

Even more unusually, he fulfilled his duties in person. Most of Fisher’s fellow bishops delegated their responsibilities to underlings. That was not Fisher’s way. He threw his energies into the task while continuing his political and academic duties. It must have been exhausting. The travel alone, in unheated carriages, must have consumed vast amounts of his time. Yet he made those trips frequently.

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The jurist, William Rastell—Saint Thomas More’s nephew and associate—left this recollection:

“He was in holiness, learning and diligence in his cure and in fulfilling his office of Bishop such that of many hundred years, England had not any bishop worthy to be compared unto him. And if all the countries of Christendom were searched, there could not lightly among all other nations be found one that hath been in all things like unto him, so well used and fulfilled the office of Bishop as he did. He was of such high perfection in holy life and strait and austere living as few were, I suppose, in all Christendom in his time.”

John Fisher had been a Bishop for five years when Henry VIII became King. Father Fisher may have even been one of young Henry’s tutors. However, they were never close. Fisher was twenty-two years older than the young King, who probably looked at his grandmother’s confessor as a kind of holdover.

Gathering Clouds Over England

Fisher’s downfall can be traced to a remarkable event in May of 1527. Over three days, King Henry VIII answered charges that he lived in sin with his brother’s widow. The hearing was a farce. No one would have had the courage to list Henry’s sins to his face unless the King had some ulterior motive. This pseudo-court was the first move in Henry’s attempt to obtain a divorce from Catherine of Aragon.

Leviticus 20:21 says, “He that marrieth his brother’s wife doth an unlawful thing, he hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness: they shall be without children.”

Princess Catherine—daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain—had been betrothed to Henry’s older brother, Arthur, when Arthur was eleven. The two kings desired an alliance between England and Spain. The couple met each other four years later. The marriage ceremony took place nine days after they met.

However, the fifteen-year-old prince was unwell, dying six months after the wedding. There is much evidence that the couple never consummated their marriage. The two kings agreed that the seventeen-year-old Catherine should eventually marry Henry, who was eleven when his brother died. Both kings requested and obtained a papal dispensation for the marriage. In 1509, the seventeen-year-old King married the twenty-three-year-old princess.

By 1527, Henry wanted a new wife. Historians still argue about whether Henry’s primary motivation was the lack of a male heir or the coquettish charms of Anne Boleyn. Eager to dispose of Catherine, Henry assigned to his Lord Chancellor and Archbishop of York, Thomas Wolsey, the task of obtaining a papal annulment.

Defending the Queen and the Faith

John Fisher entered this torrid tale when Wolsey asked the bishops for their opinions about the legality of the Pope’s dispensation that had allowed the couple to marry.

Fisher based his opinion on Our Lord’s statement to Saint Peter, “Whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shalt be bound in heaven.” The Pope had granted a dispensation, therefore the marriage was legal and indissoluble. Any other conclusion would brand the dispensation as a papal mistake, and such an error was impossible.

Fisher would not be executed for another eight years. However, the personalities of the lecherous, power-mad King and the righteous scholar-bishop allowed no other outcome. Those eight years are signs of Fisher’s influence as a peerless scholar, a dutiful bishop, and a self-sacrificing Christian.

Henry sought to win Fisher over to his side, to no avail. The situation drove European politics into turmoil. Catherine’s nephew, Charles V, was King of Spain and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Pope Clement VII knew that any decision must infuriate either Henry or Charles.

Henry and Wolsey tried a new strategy. The Church would decide the question through a rarely used Legatine court under the auspices of England’s papal legate, Cardinal Caravaggio. At the court, Bishop Fisher argued the Queen’s case.

“Forsooth, my lord,” Fisher began. “I am a professor of the truth; I know that God is truth itself, nor he ever spake but the truth; which said, What God hath joined together let not man put asunder. And forasmuch as this marriage was made and joined by God to a good intent, I say that I know the truth the which cannot be broken or loosed by the power of man upon no feigned occasion.”

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Some say that Henry flew into a rage at hearing these words. However, he was sufficiently intelligent to know that executing the famous Bishop would encourage opposition.

Failed Political Strategies

Henry’s advisors recommended caution. Fisher was already in his late fifties at a time when fifty was old. He was thin and emaciated from his many penances and his exhausting schedule. Surely, he would die soon. After his demise, his words could be safely ignored. Henry acquiesced. He even grudgingly made Bishop Fisher Queen Catherine’s counselor.

Amazingly, the King had some residual affection for his Queen. No one records that Henry ever spoke ill of Catherine herself. Was he trying to assuage his conscience? Was it a cynical political move? It is a mystery that fascinates many.

Bishop Fisher did his utmost to argue for Queen Catherine’s cause and, simultaneously, the cause of Catholic England.

By 1530, Henry had decided that his Chancellor had failed him. Cardinal Wolsey died while on his way to London, where trial and execution awaited him.

Separation from the Body of Christ

In December 1532, Henry married Anne Boleyn secretly. She became pregnant. There was a public wedding in January. On May 23, 1533, the loathsome Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, declared that Henry’s earlier marriage to Catherine was invalid. Soon, Parliament passed an “Act of Succession,” declaring Henry and Catherine’s daughter, Mary, illegitimate and giving her rightful place to Anne Boleyn’s children. In 1534, Parliament passed the “Act of Supremacy,” officially separating England from the Catholic Church. It established Henry as the supreme head of the new Church of England.

Furthermore, it was declared an act of treason not to swear to the Acts of Succession and Supremacy.

John Fisher refused the oath. He was taken to the Tower of London, where he would spend the last year-and-a-half of his life. There was an official trial, but its outcome was never in doubt.

One last significant event happened before Bishop Fisher’s execution. On May 31, 1535, Pope Paul III elevated the Bishop to become the Cardinal of San Vitale.

Henry was enraged. When he heard of it, he shouted, “Let the Pope send him a hat when he will. But I will so provide that whensoever it cometh he shall wear it on his shoulders—for head he shall have none to set it on.”

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Less than one month later, Henry carried through on his threat.

John Fisher’s Remarkable Death

The following excerpts from the narrative of Saint John Fisher’s death were composed by Professor Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira.

“In the early hours of June 22, the Tower officer met the prisoner in his cell and reminded him that he was old, unable to bear the prison regime for long. Then he announced the King’s decision that the execution takes place that very morning.

“All right,” replied the saint. “If that’s the message you bring, it’s nothing new to me. I waited for it every day. What time is it?”

“About five.”

“What time is my departure from this world scheduled?”

“At Ten.”

“Then I would thank you if you allow me to sleep another hour or two, as I didn’t sleep much last night, not out of fear but because of my illnesses and great weakness.”

“When the officer returned at nine o’clock, he found Fisher ready and dressed. The holy Bishop took the New Testament and read with great consolation these words of Saint John: “Now this is eternal life: That they may know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent. I have glorified thee on earth; I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do. And now glorify thou me, O Father, with thyself, with the glory which I had, before the world was, with thee.” Then he asked to be given his fur-lined robe. To which the officer questioned him:

“But, my lord, why should you take such care of your health if your time is up and you have little more than an hour to live?”

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“I ask for my cloak to keep me warm until the moment of execution. For even though I do not lack the courage to die a holy death, I still don’t want to jeopardize my health even for a moment.”

A Saint Requests Prayers

“He walked towards the scaffold, straightening his body, which was so thin and gaunt that it looked like death had taken a human form. On the platform, in an intelligible and clear voice, he asked those watching the execution to pray for him:

“Until now, I have never been afraid of death. However, I am flesh, and Saint Peter, fearing for his flesh, denied the Lord three times. Help me, therefore, that at the precise moment that I receive the mortal blow, I do not give in through weakness on any point of the Catholic Religion.”

“At the scaffold, he felt that his human weakness could get the upper hand. He was afraid of becoming afraid. Thus, he asked those present to pray for him.

“How appropriate it was for him to distrust himself! There, on the scaffold, his tormentors insisted on perverting him and making him deny the Catholic faith. Their last-minute harassment had a purpose. They know that it would be a triumph for the Anglican cause if he accepted their heretical proposals. If the saint accepted the offers, he would leave that scaffold surrounded by honor and applause. He would sleep that night comfortably in some palace and have a few years of pampered life ahead of him.

“However, Saint John Fisher feared his fear. He feared a temptation from the devil at that time. He recognized that he might fall. Thus, he asked for others to pray on his behalf. Above all, he must have begged for the intercession of Mary Most Holy at the throne of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

“He remained unshakable in his faith, was beheaded, and received the crown of martyrdom.”

The conclusion of Professor Plinio’s reflection leaves us to briefly discuss the importance of Saint John Fisher to modern Catholics.

Redemptive Suffering

Saint John Fisher, alone of all English bishops, stood up for the Church. Their commitment was weak because they had worldly ambitions. Saint John Fisher’s was strong because it was based upon knowledge, conviction, and self-sacrifice.

Saint John Fisher is important as an example of redemptive suffering. Suffering was a constant in Fisher’s life. One might look at the thirty-year-old Fisher and wonder what he had to suffer about.

However, even at the height of his importance, John Fisher knew that only suffering builds and tests virtue. So, he imposed that suffering upon himself. He wore a scratchy hair shirt underneath his dignified clothing. He fasted even though he could have eaten foods as fine as England could provide. He slept four hours a night. In the dark night, he examined his conscience and meted out punishments with a flagellant’s whip.

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Such a foundation would serve him well. His fellow bishops feared losing their comforts and positions. Fisher knew that life’s comforts were tawdry compared to Heaven’s joys. He conquered luxury—and, as such, could treat it with contempt. When he dressed in his best clothes on June 22, 1535, he knew he was losing nothing. John Fisher walked into the arena with his eyes open—and still he went.

Who will be the Church’s heroes in 2024, as Saint John Fisher was in 1535?

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