John Cardinal Fisher (c.1469 – 22 June, 1535), from 1935 Saint John Fisher, was an English Catholic bishop, cardinal and martyr. He shares his feast day with Saint Thomas More on June 22 in the Roman Catholic calendar of saints and 6 July on the Anglican calendar of saints. Fisher and More were executed by King Henry VIII during the English Reformation for refusing to accept him as Head of the Church of England. He is the only member of the College of Cardinals to have suffered martyrdom.
John Fisher was born in Beverley
in the year 1469, the eldest son of Robert Fisher, a modestly prosperous merchant of Beverley, and Agnes his wife. He was one of four children. His father died when John was eight. His mother remarried and had five more children by her second husband, William White. Fisher seems to have had close contacts with his extended family all his life. Fisher's early education was probably received in the school attached to the collegiate church in his native town. One of the Houses in Beverley Grammar School
is named in his honour.
John Fisher studied at the University of Cambridge from 1484, where at Michaelhouse, Cambridge, he came under the influence of William Melton, a pastorally-minded theologian open to the new current of reform in studies arising from the Renaissance. Fisher earned a B.A. degree in 1487, and later a M.A. degree in 1491 the same year that he was elected a fellow of his college. He was also made Vicar of Northallerton, Yorkshire. In 1494 he resigned his benefice to become proctor of the university, and three years later was appointed Master of Michaelhouse, about which date he became chaplain and confessor to Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby, mother of King Henry VII. On 5 July 1501, he received his doctorate in theology and ten days later was elected Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University. Under Fisher's guidance, Lady Margaret founded St. John's and Christ's Colleges at Cambridge, and a "Lady Margaret" professorship of divinity at each of the two universities at Oxford and Cambridge, Fisher himself becoming the first occupant of the Cambridge chair. He was also in the years (1505-8) the President of Queens' College. At the end of July, 1516 he was at Cambridge for the opening of St John's College and consecrated the Chapel.
The Measure of the Man
Fisher's strategy was to assemble funds and attract to Cambridge leading scholars from Europe, promoting the study not only of ancient non-Christian Latin
authors, but of Hebrew
. He was in his heart and soul a priest, and placed great weight upon pastoral commitment, above all popular preaching by the endowed staff. Fisher's foundations were also dedicated to prayer for the dead, especially through chantry foundations. Fisher had a wide and deep vision to which he dedicated all his personal resources and energies. A scholar and a man of prayer, harsh with himself, humble and conscientious, he managed despite occasional opposition to carry with him and administer a whole university, one of only two in England. He conceived and saw through long-term projects, following them at first hand. His production of learned and spiritual publications in the midst of a busy life and his determination to persevere with learning Greek and Hebrew even in advancing middle age show the man's grit and energy.
By Papal Bull
dated 14 October 1504
, John Fisher was appointed Bishop of Rochester
at the personal insistence of Henry VII
. Rochester was then the poorest diocese in England and usually seen as a first step on an ecclesiastical career, but Fisher stayed there, presumably by his own choice, for the remaining 31 years of his life. He aimed at becoming a model bishop. At the same time, like any English bishop of his day he had certain state duties. In particular, Fisher maintained a passionate interest in the university of Cambridge. In 1504 he was elected Chancellor of Cambridge University, and was re-elected annually for ten years and then appointed for life. At this date also he is said to have acted as tutor to Prince Henry, afterwards King Henry VIII
. As a preacher his reputation was so great that in 1509, during which both King Henry VII
and the Lady Margaret died, Fisher was appointed to preach the funeral oration on both occasions, the texts being still extant. It was not long before Fisher was in conflict with the crown, over the funds for the financing of the foundations at Cambridge left by the Lady Margaret, the King's grandmother. In 1512 Fisher was nominated as one of the English representatives at the Fifth Council of the Lateran
, then sitting, but his journey to Rome was postponed, and finally abandoned. Besides his share in the Lady Margaret's foundations, Fisher gave further proof of his genuine zeal for learning by inducing Erasmus
to visit Cambridge. The latter ("Epistulae"
6:2) attributes it to Fisher's protection that the study of Greek
was allowed to proceed at Cambridge without the active molestation that it encountered at Oxford.
Fisher has also been named, though without any real proof, as the true author of the royal treatise against Martin Luther entitled "Assertio septem sacramentorum" (The Defense of the Seven Sacraments), published in 1521, which won for King Henry VIII the title "Fidei Defensor" (Defender of the Faith). Prior to this date Fisher had denounced various abuses in the Church, urging the need of disciplinary reforms. On about 11 February 1526, at the King's command, he preached a famous sermon against Luther at St Paul's Cross, the open-air pulpit outside St Paul's Cathedral in London. This was in the wake of numerous other controversial writings and the battle against heterodox teachings was to occupy increasingly his later years. In 1529 Fisher ordered the arrest of Thomas Hitton, a follower of William Tyndale, and subsequently interrogated him. Hitton was tortured and burned at the stake for heresy.
Defence of Catherine of Aragon
When the question of Henry's divorce from Queen Catherine of Aragon
arose, Fisher became the Queen's chief supporter and most trusted counselor. In this capacity he appeared on the Queen's behalf in the legates' court, where he startled his hearers by the directness of his language and most of all by declaring that, like St. John the Baptist, he was ready to die on behalf of the indissolubility of marriage. This statement was reported to Henry VIII, who was so enraged by it that he himself composed a long Latin address to the legates in answer to the bishop's speech. Fisher's copy of this still exists, with his manuscript annotations in the margin which show how little he feared the royal anger. The removal of the cause to Rome brought Fisher's personal share therein to an end, but the king never forgave him for what he had done.
Henry's Attack on the Church
In November 1529, the "Long Parliament"
of Henry's reign began its series of encroachments on the Church. Fisher, as a member of the upper house, at once warned Parliament that such acts could only end in the utter destruction of the Church in England. On this the Commons, through their speaker, complained to the king that the bishop had disparaged Parliament, presumably with Henry prompting them behind the scenes. The opportunity was not lost. Henry summoned Fisher before him, demanding an explanation. This being given, Henry declared himself satisfied, leaving it to the Commons to declare that the explanation was inadequate, so that he appeared as a magnanimous sovereign, instead of Fisher's enemy.
A year later, in 1530, the continued encroachments on the Church moved Fisher, as Bishop of Rochester, along with the Bishops of Bath and Ely, to appeal to the Holy See. This gave the King his opportunity and an edict forbidding such appeals was immediately issued, and the three bishops were arrested. Their imprisonment, however, must have lasted a few months only, for in February, 1531, Convocation met, and Fisher was present. This was the occasion when the clergy were forced, at a cost of 100,000 pounds, to purchase the king's pardon for having recognized Cardinal Wolsey's authority as legate of the pope; and at the same time to acknowledge Henry as Supreme Head of the Church in England, to which phrase, however, their addition of the clause "so far as God's law permits" was made, through Fisher's efforts.
A few days later, several of the bishop's servants were taken ill after eating some porridge served to the household, and two actually died. Popular opinion at the time regarded this as an attempt on the bishop's life, although he himself chanced not to have taken any of the poisoned food. To disarm suspicion, the king not only expressed strong indignation at the crime, but caused a special Act of Parliament to be passed, whereby poisoning was to be accounted high treason, and the person guilty of it boiled to death. This sentence was actually carried out on the culprit, but it did not prevent what seems to have been a second attempt on Fisher's life soon afterwards.
The King's Great Matter
Matters now moved rapidly. In May 1532, Sir Thomas More
resigned the chancellorship, and in June, Fisher preached publicly against the divorce. In August, William Warham
, Archbishop of Canterbury, died, and Thomas Cranmer
was at once proposed by Henry to the pope as his successor. In January 1533, Henry secretly went through a form of marriage with Anne Boleyn
. Cranmer's consecration as a Bishop took place in March of the same year, and, a week later, Fisher was arrested. It seems fairly clear that the purpose of this arrest was to prevent his opposing the sentence of divorce which Cranmer pronounced in May, or the coronation of Anne Boleyn which followed on 1 June
, since Fisher was set at liberty again within a fortnight of the latter event, no charge being made against him. In the autumn of this year 1533, various arrests were made in connection with the so-called revelations of the Holy Maid of Kent, Elizabeth Barton
, but as Fisher was taken seriously ill in December, proceedings against him were postponed for a time. However, in March 1534, a special Bill of Attainder
against the Bishop of Rochester and others for complicity in the matter of the Maid of Kent was introduced and passed. By this Fisher was condemned to forfeit all his personal estate and to be imprisoned during the king's pleasure. Subsequently a pardon was granted him on payment of a fine of 300 pounds.
In the same session of Parliament was passed the Act of Succession, by which all who should be called upon to do so were compelled to take an oath of succession, acknowledging the issue of Henry and Anne as legitimate heirs to the throne, under pain of being guilty of misprision of treason. Fisher refused the oath and was sent to the Tower of London, 26 April 1534. Several efforts were made to induce him to submit, but without effect, and in November he was attained of misprision of treason a second time, his goods being forfeited as from March 1 preceding, and the See of Rochester being declared vacant as from June 2 following. He was to remain in the Tower for over a year, and while he was allowed food and drink sent by friends, and a servant, he was not allowed a priest, even to the very end. A long letter exists, written from the Tower by Fisher to Thomas Cromwell, speaking of the severity of his conditions of imprisonment. Like Thomas More, the Bishop took the line that since the statute condemned only those speaking maliciously against the King's new title, there was safety in silence. However, on 7 May he fell into a trap laid for him by Richard Rich, who was to perjure himself to obtain Thomas More's conviction. Rich told Fisher that for his own conscience's sake the King wished to know, in strict secrecy, Fisher's real opinion. A priest, used to secrecy in matters of conscience, Fisher was taken in and said that he was convinced "that the King was not, nor could be, by the Law of God, Supreme Head in earth of the Church of England". By saying this, he had fallen foul of the law.
Cardinalate and Execution
In May 1535, the new pope, Paul III
, created Fisher Cardinal-Priest
of S. Vitalis
, being apparently in the hope of inducing Henry to ease Fisher's treatment. The effect was precisely the reverse, Henry forbade the cardinal's hat to be brought into England, declaring that he would send the head to Rome instead. In June a special commission for Fisher's trial was issued, and on Thursday, 17 June
, he was arraigned in Westminster Hall
before a court of seventeen, including Thomas Cromwell
, Anne Boleyn
's father, and ten justices. The charge was treason
, in that he denied that the king was the Supreme Head of the Church of England. Since he had been deprived of his position of Bishop of Rochester
by the Act of Attainder
, he was treated as a commoner, and tried by jury. The only testimony was that of Richard Rich. John Fisher was found guilty and condemned to be hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn.
However, a public outcry was brewing among the London populace who saw a sinister irony in the parallels between the conviction of John Fisher and that of his patronal namesake, Saint John the Baptist, who was executed by King Herod for challenging the liceity of Herod's marriage to his brother's widow, Herodias. For fear of John Fisher's living through his patronal feast day, that of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist on 24 June, and of attracting too much public sympathy, King Henry commuted the sentence to that of beheading, to be accomplished before 23 June, the Vigil of the feast of the Nativity of St John the Baptist. His execution on Tower Hill on 22 June 1535, had the opposite effect from that which King Henry VIII intended. John Fisher's beheading created yet another ironic parallel with that of the martyrdom of St John the Baptist who was also beheaded.
Bishop John Fisher's last moments were thoroughly in keeping with his previous life. He met death with a calm, dignified, courage which profoundly impressed all who were present. His body was treated with particular rancour, apparently on Henry's orders, being stripped and left on the scaffold till evening, when it was taken on pikes and thrown naked into a rough grave in the churchyard of All Hallows, Barking, also known as All-Hallows-by-the-Tower. There was no funeral prayer. A fortnight later, his body was laid beside that of Sir Thomas More in the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula within the Tower of London. The bishop's head was stuck upon a pole on London Bridge, but its ruddy and lifelike appearance excited so much attention that, after a fortnight, it was thrown into the Thames, its place being taken by that of Sir Thomas More, whose martyrdom, also at Tower Hill, occurred on 6 July.
John Fisher was a figure universally esteemed throughout Europe and notwithstanding the subsequent efforts of the English government, was to remain so. In the Decree of Beatification issued on 29 December 1886, by Pope Leo XIII, when fifty-four English martyrs were beatified, the best place of all was given to John Fisher. He was later canonised on 19 May 1935 by Pope Pius XI along with Thomas More, after the presentation of a petition by English Catholics.
Several portraits of Fisher exist, the most prominent being by Hans Holbein the Younger
in the Royal Collection; and a few secondary relics are extant.
The walking-staff of St John Fisher is in the possession of the Eyston family of East Hendred
, in Oxfordshire
A list of Fisher's writings will be found in Joseph Gillow
, "Bibliographical Dictionary of the English Catholics"
(London, s.d.), II, 262-270. There are twenty-six works in all, printed and manuscript, mostly ascetical or controversial treatises, several of which have been reprinted many times. The original editions are very rare and valuable. The principal are:
- "Treatise concernynge...the seven penytencyall Psalms" (London, 1508);
- "Sermon...agayn ye pernicyous doctrin of Martin Luther"" (London, 1521);
- Defensio Henrici VIII" (Cologne, 1525);
- "De Veritate Corporis et Sanguinis Christi in Eucharistia, adversus Johannem Oecolampadium" (Cologne, 1527);
- "De Causa Matrimonii...Henrici VIII cum Catharina Aragonensi" (Alcalá de Henares, 1530);
- "The Wayes to Perfect Religion" (London, 1535);
- "A Spirituall Consolation written...to hys sister Elizabeth" (London, 1735).
- St John Fisher College at the University of Tasmania in Hobart
- St John Fisher Catholic High schools in Harrogate, Wigan, Dewsbury, Stoke-on-Trent and Bracken Ridge (Qld, Australia) are named after him, as is Purley John Fisher RFC and Fisher Athletic F.C. of Rotherhithe.
- St John Fisher is the patron saint of the Cambridge University Catholic Chaplaincy.
- There is only one school in the UK that is called 'The John Fisher School', as it was named before Fisher was canonized. It is located in Purley, Surrey.
- St John Fisher Roman Catholic School in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire.
- Formerly, there was the Saint John Fisher Roman Catholic Junior High School in Hull, East Yorkshire, that operated between c. 1966 - c. 1988, when the school system in the city was restructured.
- St John Fisher Roman Catholic Primary School in Sheffield, which was founded in 1957.
- St John's House, Ampleforth College is also named after him.
- St John Fisher Catholic Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma and one near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
- Saint John Fisher College in Rochester, Monroe County, New York
- Saint John Fisher parish, Kidbrooke, London
- Saint John Fisher Parish, Rancho Palos Verdes, CalifornIA hihihi
- List of Erasmus's correspondents
- The John Fisher School, Purley
- St John Fisher Catholic High School (Dewsbury), Dewsbury
- St John Fisher Catholic High School (Harrogate), Harrogate
- St. John Fisher Catholic High School (Wigan), Wigan
- St. John Fisher Catholic Primary School, Wigston
- Fisher Athletic F.C.
- St. John Fisher Parish and grammar school, Chicago, Illinois
- St. John Fisher Parish and school, Rancho Palos Verdes, California
- St. John Fisher Parish, Pointe-Claire, Quebec, Canada
- St. John Fisher College Rochester, New York
- E. Surtz, "The Works and Days of John Fisher," Boston: Harvard University Press, 1967.
- E.E. Reynolds, "Saint John Fisher," Wheathampstead: Anthony Clarke, 1972.
- "Humanism, Reform and the Reformation: The Career of Bishop John Fisher," edited by B. Bradshaw & Eamon Duffy, Cambridge University Press, 1989.
- Richard Rex, "The Theology of John Fisher," Cambridge University Press
- "The English Works of John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester (1469-1535): Sermons and other Writings, 1520-1535," edited by Cecilia A. Hatt, Oxford University Press, 2002.