Bishop John Fisher

In 1935, two men executed by Henry VIII were created saints by the Catholic church. One was Sir Thomas More. The other was Bishop John Fisher.

John Fisher was from relatively humble beginnings. He was born around 1469, the son of a merchant who died when Fisher was a young boy. His mother remarried to a man named William White, and between the two marriages, had a total of nine children.

His family saw to it that Fisher was well-educated. He entered Cambridge and got his first degree in 1487. He must have been impressive in both his educational pursuits and his piety, because in 1491, received a papal dispensation to enter the priesthood despite being underage. He was elected a fellow of Cambridge, and then proctor, and was known as a master debater. Fisher continued his education until he received a doctorate in sacred theology, and only ten days later, was elected vice-chancellor of the university. All before he was thirty years old.

Around 1497, John Fisher became the chaplain and confessor of Lady Margaret Beaufort, the brilliant and pious mother of Henry VII. He once wrote of her:

[T]hough she chose me as her director, to hear her confessions and to guide her life, yet I gladly confess that I learnt more from her great virtue that I could ever teach her.

Most biographies say that around this time, he became a tutor of the young Prince Henry - the "spare," being groomed for a career in the church himself once his older brother, Arthur, took the throne. I haven't been able to find a definitive date as to when Fisher supposedly entered royal service. There's no doubt that whomever tutored Henry in Scripture and church law was very effective and learned. Henry's extensive education in theology was first used to defend papal authority against the claims of Martin Luther, and later to attack that very same authority when Henry wanted to be head of the English church.

It's said in some of his biographies that Fisher talked Lady Margaret out of making donations to Westminster Abbey - which was rich enough in Fisher's view - and instead use her money to fund education, "where provisions for scholars are few and discouraging."

In 1504, another papal bull created him Bishop of Rochester. It was a title he was to hold for the rest of his life. His diocese was poor, providing an income of only £350, but Fisher was content with it. He appointed his brother, Robert, as his steward, and directed that all of the income not needed to meet the needs of his modest household was to be donated to charity. Unlike most bishops of his day, he personally visited the churches under his direction and policed the clergy for signs of immoral behavior. He was known for visiting the homes of his parishioners to bring them food, medicine, warm bedding, or just the simple comfort of his presence and prayers when they were ill.

A man of his intellectual talents likely could have risen far higher in the church hierarchy, but he seems content to have stayed in Rochester. The biography cited above claims he once said of his position that he would rather stay with his "poor wife" than have the "rich widow" of a higher office.

His skills as a preacher were famed, and he was selected to give the oration at the funeral of Henry VII. Only a few months later, he performed the same duty for Lady Margaret, who had served as regent until Henry VIII was old enough to take the throne.

Fisher became good friends with the other gifted intellectuals of the day, such as Erasmus and Thomas More. Erasmus enlisted More in searching for a Greek tutor of Fisher. Both of them may have assisted or advised the king in writing his treatise, Assertio Septem Sacramentorum, "Defense of the Seven Sacraments," defending the pope's authority in response to Luther's Ninety-five Theses. The two individually authored responses when Luther wrote an attack piece responding to Assertio. Perhaps it's worth noting that Fisher's work ignored the hostility and insults in Luther's work and concentrated on the religious aspects. Always a classy gent, Fisher was.

Only a few years later, Fisher lost the favor of the king. He was consulted in 1527 as to whether the king's marriage to Katharine of Aragon was valid. At this point, the king was maintaining that he really wanted to be married to Katharine, but he just had to reassure himself that the marriage was valid. Katharine had been
married to Henry's elder brother, Arthur, and Henry pointed out a verse in Leviticus which forbid a man from marrying his brother's widow.

Henry called him to court to ask Fisher face to face, stating:

My conscience, my Lord, is sore tormented. I have consulted my ghostly father (confessor) and several other wise and learned men, but am by no means satisfied. And so, relying on the special confidence I have in your great learning, I have made choice of you, desirous to give your advice the preference over others. Declare your opinion freely, my Lord, so that my conscience may be fully instructed, and I no longer left in suspense.

Fisher replied with the "good news" that he had consulted with theologians and weighed the matter carefully before coming to the conclusion that Katharine and Henry were truly married in the eyes of God, and he could live with her as his wife with a clean conscience.

It was not the answer Henry wanted.

Henry was collecting opinions which supported his assertion the marriage was invalid to send them to the pope. A good number of English prelates cooperated.

In the meantime, Henry requested a dispensation to allow him marry a woman whose sister had once been his mistress. The pope granted it -  provided Henry could find a way to free himself from his first marriage, a separate issue on which the pope was refusing to rule.

Cardinal Reginald Pole, safe from Henry's reach on the Continent, was free to write him a scathing letter laying out the gross hypocrisy of Henry's actions:

Now what sort of person is it whom you have put in the place of your divorced wife? Is she not the sister of her whom first you violated? And for a long time after kept as your
concubine? She certainly is. How is it, then, that you now tell us of the horror you have of illicit marriage? Are you ignorant of the law which certainly no less prohibits marriage with a sister of one with whom you have become one flesh, than with one with whom your brother was one flesh? If the one kind of marriage is detestable, so is the other. Were you ignorant of this law? Nay, you knew it better than others. How do I prove that? Because, at the very time you were rejecting your brother’s widow, you were doing your utmost to get leave from the pope to marry the sister of your former concubine.

The matter was brought before the Legatine Court, and Fisher stood as Katharine's advocate. He made an impassioned speech:

Therefore, both in order not to procure the damnation of his soul, and in order not to be unfaithful to the king, or to fail in doing the duty that he owed to the truth, in a matter of such great importance, [Fisher] presented himself before their reverend lordships to declare, to affirm, and with forcible reasons to demonstrate to them that this marriage of the king and queen can be dissolved by no power, human or Divine, and for this opinion he declared he would even lay down his life.

He probably didn't suspect at the time he would have to.

In 1531, a terrible incident took place. Later, some would blame Anne Boleyn for it, without any evidence whatsoever.

One evening, Fisher decided to delay having dinner, a decision that may have saved his life. That night, several members of his household fell ill, and after an investigation, it was found that the food had been poisoned by a cook, Richard Roose. Roose allegedly claimed he only intended to make the dinner guests sick with a purgative as a joke, but two people died.

Roose was sentenced to be boiled to death, a hideously painful method of execution which entailed him being dipped over and over into a pot of boiling water until he died. If he had been able to bargain a lighter sentence with the name of someone who paid him to poison Fisher he would have.

People were apparently quick to blame Anne for the poisoning, even though Roose never pointed to her. Jane Dormer, Duchess of Feria, believed that Anne was guilty. (She was best friends with Princess Mary, but never met Anne in person.) She wrote in her autobiography:

From the time that Queen Catharine was defended so stoutly and learnedly by the Bishop of Rochester [Anne] did seek by all means his destruction. One Richard Rice, a cook, was suborned to poison him, and he knew no other way to do it than to poison the common pot, which was for the whole household of the bishop. It chanced that that day according to his custom the bishop came not to dine in the parlour, but most of his family that dined there were poisoned and died thereof. Rice the cook being discovered did confess it and was publicly put to death for it.

Roose did indeed confess, but not to Anne's involvement. The Duchess was also incorrect about most of Fisher's family dying. One of the two victims was a poor widow who died after eating scraps given out by the kitchen, and the other was a gentleman of his household.

Interestingly, the Bishop's biography reports right after the poisoning incident a shot being fired into his study from the direction of Anne's father's house across the river, but for some reason, this hasn't been widely attributed to Anne. Probably because poisoning is seen more as a "women's crime," and suited to the sly, malicious character some writers have attributed to Anne, and a gunshot is more forthright and "manly." There was also a robbery in which Fisher's plate was stolen, but quickly recovered.

Alison Weir hints that Anne Boleyn was slyly referring to the poisoning incident when she tried to dissuade Fisher from returning to speak before parliament.

The lady fears no one here more than the bishop of Rochester, for it is he who has always defended the Queen's cause, and she has therefore sent to persuade the Bishop to forbear coming to this Parliament, that he may not catch any sickness, as he did last year; but it is no use, for he is resolved to come and to speak more boldly than he has ever done, should he die 100,000 times.
(Note: Weir translates "sickness" as "fever" in her book.)

Anne's comment likely does not refer to the poisoning incident since Fisher himself was never ill from it. If Anne Boleyn had actually done it, would she have been so stupid as to make a threat in writing?

In late 1532, Henry married Anne Boleyn. The clergy submitted to him, Parliament enshrined it, and England was severed from papal authority. Henry was head of the new Church of England. Soon, the Oath of Succession required all Englishmen to swear Anne was the queen and Henry was the head of the church. Bishop Fisher and Thomas More were two of those who refused.

Pressure was brought to bear on Fisher to submit. It would be a feather in Henry's cap if he could force Fisher to admit he was right. Henry fired a shot across Fisher's bow in the form of arresting him and charging him in the Maid of Kent incident. Instead of executing him or seizing all of his property, Henry slapped Fisher with a fine equal to one year's income of the bishopric of Rochester. It was a warning Fisher did not heed.

In 1534, he and Thomas More were called before the council to take the oath. No equivocating, delaying, or remaining silent. They would both have to swear or be decreed traitors. They agreed to swear that Elizabeth was the king's heir, but not that Henry was head of the church.

Both were condemned as traitors, and Henry stripped Fisher of his bishopric. The "goods and chattel" of both men now belonged to the king.

It's said after his arrest, the king's commissioners went to inventory Fisher's property. They searched his private apartments for the treasure usually accumulated by those in the church hierarchy. Except for a few pieces of plate left to him by Lady Margaret Beaufort, there wasn't much to find. They finally discovered a chest in his oratory, and opened it, expecting to find a large store of gold or silver, but instead found inside only a hair shirt and a "discipline," a whip used in private penance.

Ultimately, the only things of value they found were the books in Fisher's library, but they were not his personal property. Fisher had given them to St. John's University with the understanding they were on loan to him for the duration of his life. The king claimed them anyway.

Fisher and More were imprisoned in the Tower "at the king's pleasure." Fisher was lodged in the top rooms of the Bell Tower in a miserably cold and drafty cell.

Because he was no longer a bishop in the eyes of the English church, he was nothing but a commoner, entitled to nothing but what his family could provide. Prisons of the day did not provide free food, clothing, bedding, heat, or even water for washing, to their prisoners. Robert - evicted from the bishop's house and without employment - did what he could, but the family could afford to send him much.

On the 22 of December, Fisher wrote a pitiful letter to Cromwell, begging him for warm clothes and decent food.

I beseech you to be a good master to me in my necessity. I have neither shirt nor suit, nor yet other clothes, that are necessary for me to wear, but that be ragged and rent shamefully. Notwithstanding I might easily suffer that, if they would keep my body warm. But my diet also, God knoweth how slender it is at many times, and now in mine age my stomach may not away but with a few kinds of meats, which if I want I decay forthwith, and fall into coughs and diseases of my body, and cannot keep myself in health. But as our Lord knoweth, I have nothing left unto me to provide any better, but as my brother of his own purse layeth out to me to his great hindrance.
Wherefore good Master Secretary eftsoons I beseech you to have some pity upon me, and let me have such things as are necessary for me in mine age and especially for my health. And also that it may please you by your high wisdom to move the king's highness to take me unto his gracious favour again, and to restore me unto my liberty out of this cold and painful imprisonment; whereby ye shall find me to be your poor beadman for ever unto Almighty God, who ever have you in his protection and custody.
Other twain things I must also desire upon you: that one is that it may please you to that I may take some priest within the Tower to hear my confession against this holy time; the other is, that I may borrow some books to stir my devotion more effectually these holy days for the comfort of my soul. This I beseech you to grant me of your charity. And thus our Lord send you a merry Christmas and a comfortable to your hearts desire. 
At the Tower, the 22nd day of December.
Your poor Beadman,
JO. ROFFS. [John Rochester]

Fisher was never given a priest or the sacraments. His only comfort was that he was given paper and pen, and he used the time to compose religious works.

In the spring, Robert died and Fisher's conditions worsened. Records indicate that after Robert's death an Edward White, likely one of Fisher's step-brothers or half-brothers, had food prepared for Fisher and sent into the Tower. Sympathetic friends also occasionally sent him things, some of which Fisher sent on to Thomas More instead of keeping them for himself.

The pope, taking pity on him, hoped to improve Fisher's condition by elevating him in the church hierarchy. He made Fisher a cardinal. But the elevation had the opposite effect. The enraged Henry warned that if the pope tried to send a red cardinal's hat to Fisher, Henry would send it back to Rome with Fisher's head in it.

Fisher and More sent encouraging messages to one another in the Tower. When it was discovered, their precious paper and ink were taken from them, so they wrote on scraps of paper with charcoal.

Several times, bishops were sent to Fisher to try to convince him to take the oath, and they even lied to him and said that More had been convinced to swear. Henry probably felt he was being merciful in trying to give Fisher chances to change his mind and save his life, but all it did was keep the old man suffering longer. But the worst was when Richard Rich visited him. 

With great sympathy, Rich coaxed Fisher into trusting him. Rich said the king had sent him to talk and needed to know Fisher's opinion on the king's supremacy over the church, and he would never tell another living soul. Fisher, likely starved for kindness after his long imprisonment, believed him.

Rich, of course, immediately revealed the "treasonous" statements he had tricked out of Fisher.

Fisher was put on trial at Westminster, so weak and ill he couldn't even ride the horse that had been provided to transport him to court. When Rich stood to testify against him, the shocked and betrayed Fisher said:

Mr. Rich, I cannot but marvel to hear you come in and bear witness against me of these words, knowing in what secret manner you came to me. [...] To that he told me that the king willed him to assure me on his honour, and on the word of a king, that whatsoever I should say unto him by this his secret messenger, I should abide no danger nor peril for it; neither that any advantage should be taken against me for the same, no, although my words were never so directly against the statute, seeing it was but a declaration of my mind secretly to him, as to his own person. And for the messenger himself, he gave me his faithful promise that he would never utter my words in this matter to any man living, but to the king alone.

Fisher was found guilty of "maliciously" depriving the king of his title of Head of the Church of England and sentenced to the full horrors of a traitor's death by drawing and quartering.

However, Fisher's popularity with the people gave the king pause. The people were grumbling, and Henry heard they were comparing him to Herod and Anne to Herodias. The feast day of John the Baptist was rapidly approaching and Henry wanted the execution done before then, to try to stop the parallels in their tracks. He commuted it to simple beheading on Tower Hill instead of the more public venue of Tyburn.

Fisher spent the morning of his execution napping. When the time drew near, he rose and removed his hair shirt to don his best white linen, remarking that a man should wear his best on his "wedding day." He wore a long gown with a furred trippet - the clothing of a bishop - for the last time.

He had to be carried in a chair to the scaffold, but climbed the ladder himself. Always courteous, he thanked his jailors and forgave his executioner with a "cheerful countenance." It's recorded that the crowd gasped at his gaunt frame when he removed his robe and stood before them in his stockings and shirt. He made a short speech to the crowd that he was dying for the Catholic faith, and laid his neck on the block. One stroke severed his head.

The execution occurred before the feat of John the Baptist, as Henry wanted, but it happened to be on the day of the feast of St. Alban, the first English martyr.

Fisher's body was stripped naked; he had no money to pay the executioner and so every bit of his clothing was taken as the executioner's prerogative. Like Anne Boleyn, there had been no directives given as to what should happen with his remains, and so he lay naked on the scaffold for most of the day, except for the bit of straw cast over his nudity when someone took pity on him.

About eight o'clock that evening, orders were finally given about how to dispose of the body. The guardsmen carried the corpse to All-Hallows Barking church, hacked a shallow grave in the soil with their halberds, and cast his body directly into the earth without even the courtesy of a shroud.

Fisher's head was mounted on a pole on Tower bridge as a warning as to what happened to traitors. A scurrilous legend by a single chronicler has it that Anne Boleyn had the head brought to her in a basket and slapped it around. She cut her finger on one of Fisher's teeth and the scar remained with her for the rest of her life. Like many of the nasty tales of Anne Boleyn, this one has no factual basis and arises in a fictional account long after her death. 

The head, it seems, began to draw crowds because it appeared so lifelike and undecayed. The traffic on the bridge was actually blocked because of the number of people who came to gawk at  it, and those who came to pray. Henry had the head taken down and thrown into the river. He worried Fisher's remains might be dug up for souvenirs, and so he had the body exhumed and transferred to the Tower, reburied in the floor of the chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula. Thomas More would soon join him there.

Fisher had prepared a tomb for himself in the chapel of St. John's college. Cromwell had it disassembled and the arches where it was supposed to be placed were walled up. In 1773, workmen cleared the disused chapel of "rubble" and discovered the marble pieces of the tomb. The pieces were taken outside where they quickly crumbled away after being exposed to the elements. The archways themselves were preserved and set into another wall of the chapel.

In 1935, Bishop Fisher and Thomas More were declared Catholic saints. Their feast day is the 9th of July.

1 comment:

  1. Anne Boleyn wasn't so smart. She bet everything that she could produce a healthy male child, which was far from guaranteed in the sixteenth century. I find it very easy to believe that Anne Boleyn would say any number of rash things in letters. She was the master at being a bully and making threats.