ST JOHN FISHER
1469 — 1535
Born in Beverley, Yorkshire, John Fisher was one of the outstanding scholars of his time. He went to Cambridge University in 1484, gaining his B.A. at the age of 19, going on to become Master of his college Michael House — in 1499.
In 1501 he became a Doctor of Divinity and was ordained at about the same time. His reputation for learning and piety attracted the attention of Margaret Beaufort, the mother of King Henry VIII, and she made him her Confessor and chaplain.
Under her patronage he became Vice-chancellor of Cambridge University and eventually Chancellor. In 1504 he was appointed Bishop of Rochester, a diocese that was known as one of the poorest. Later he was to be offered the richer sees of Ely and Lincoln, but he turned them down.
He preferred a strict and simple life and spoke out against the clergy for their greed and love of display at a church synod in 1517 attended by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey.
Certainly he lived an austere life and when his friend the great European scholar Erasmus stayed with him at the Bishop’s Palace in Rochester he was so concerned about Fisher’s health he said: ‘“as to my own part, I would not live in such a place three hours without being sick.”
As Bishop of Rochester, he campaigned against abuses within the Church, blaming the clergy for most of them, but he did not sympathise with those who attacked the Church’s doctrine. He spoke out against the writings of Luther and with his friend and fellow martyr Sir Thomas More, wrote a reply to Luther’s heresies.
It was in 1527 that Bishop Fisher became involved in the affairs of King Henry VIII when he was asked about the validity of the King’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Catherine was the widow of Henry’s brother and the King hoped his marriage to her could be declared invalid so that he could marry Anne Boleyn.
John Fisher said no, the marriage was legitimate as Pope Julius had granted a dispensation to allow the marriage. The King ignored the advice and went ahead with his divorce which John Fisher vehemently opposed. He was Queen Catherine’s confessor and her only champion, preaching and writing against the divorce. It was the start of his quarrel with Henry VIII which finally led to his death.
After constant opposition to the King it was in 1534 that matters came to a head. John Fisher was summoned from Rochester to London to take the oath prescribed in the Act of Succession. Bishop Fisher refused as it would have meant recognising the King’s marriage to Anne Boleyn.
He was taken to the Tower of London and imprisoned with Sir Thomas More. His health was already bad and during his fifteen months in the Tower he suffered terribly.
In November 1534 an Act of Supremacy was passed, this gave Henry the title of Supreme Head of the Church and Clergy in England. John Fisher refused to accept Henry as head of the Church and as a result was removed as Bishop of Rochester and eventually charged with treason. His trial took place at Westminster in June 1535, and he was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered.
In May of that year Pope Paul III had tried to save John Fisher by making him a cardinal, but if anything it had the opposite effect. Henry was enraged and said that if the Pope sent Fisher a hat there would be no head to wear it.
Although Cardinal Fisher was sentenced to a traitor’s death, the sentence was changed, perhaps because he was too frail, and on 22nd June 1535, he was taken to Tower Hill where, after saying the Te Deum and reciting a psalm, he was beheaded. His head was placed on London Bridge and later thrown into the river.
His body was buried first at All Hallows, Barking, and later moved to lie next to Sir Thomas More at St. Peter’s ad Vincula, in the Tower of London.
He was beatified in 1886 and in 1935 (the year our church in Bexley was built) he and Sir Thomas More were canonized.