Saint John of Rochester, by His Grace, by His Grace, Richard Down, Archbishop of Liverpool, June 1935

It is fitting that we should reflect on what manner of men they were who have been raised recently to the Church’s altars, so that we may derive inspiration and courage from their shining example. The story of Saint Thomas More is better known to the general public than that of Saint John Fisher, and so I propose to give prominence to the main outlines of the saintly Bishop’s career.

The life of Saint John Fisher falls into three easily distinguishable periods. The first consists of the years up to A.D. 1504 or 1505. It is the academic period during which he laid the foundation of his solid scholarship, and advanced step by step to the highest honours in his university. In the second period, from A.D. 1505 to 1525, he is a Bishop, primarily devoted to his pastoral charge, practising, in the greater privacy which the old episcopal palace at Rochester gave him, that prayer, self-denial and mortification which were to make him a saint before he was a martyr. The third period, from A.D. 1525 to 1535, was one of storm and stress, beginning with the question of Henry VIII’s divorce, developing into the submission of the clergy and the schism of the Royal Supremacy, and ending with the death of the Bishop on the scaffold.

Saint John was born at Beverley, in Yorkshire, in 1469, the son of a rich mercer of that city. He attended the Grammar School attached to the Collegiate Church, and at the age of fourteen proceeded to the University of Cambridge, entering Michaelhouse, which later was united with King’s Hall to form the beginning of Trinity College. He took his degree of Bachelor of Arts in 1487, became Master of Arts in 1491 and was elected Fellow of Michaelhouse. In 1494 he became Senior Proctor, and in 1497 Master of Michaelhouse. His election as Fellow and Master is evidence of his eminence amongst the men of his own College; whilst his appointment as Senior Proctor is a proof of the esteem in which he was held by the governing body of the University, since as Senior Proctor, he was responsible for the discipline of the undergraduates. In 1501 he became Doctor of Divinity and Vice-Chancellor of the University and, a year later, chaplain and confessor to Lady Margaret Beaufort of pious memory.

Fisher’s devotion to the University and to the cause of education, his unselfishness and the greatness of his aims became apparent when Lady Margaret’s ample means made it possible for him to carry out his ideals. As Senior Proctor and Master of the College he had seen the need for sound religious instruction as the basis of true education. Between A.D. 1501 and 1503 the Lady Margaret Readership in Divinity was established, and later developed into a Professorship, so that lectures on theology should be given freely, publicly and regularly in the University. That Fisher himself was chosen as the first to fill this chair is a proof of the respect in which he was held, though his election as Chancellor of the University in A.D. 1504 made it impossible for him to continue to teach. Fisher’s work for the University was not limited to the fundamental matter of ensuring adequate religious teaching. In fact his efforts on behalf of secular learning have received greater notice at the hands of some historians, though undoubtedly they are not so important or far-reaching as his work for religion. It was through Fisher that the renowned Erasmus, the foremost man of letters of the day, became a professor at Cambridge. As Chancellor, Fisher provided lecturers in Greek and Hebrew, giving a sympathetic welcome to the Humanist movement and the new spirit of Biblical criticism. He himself was interested in the study of Greek, and of course read and wrote Latin with ease. His most enduring achievement at Cambridge was the founding of the great colleges, Christ’s and Saint John’s, which hold such distinguished positions in the University of to-day. Fisher’s duties as Chaplain to the Lady Margaret had taken him out of Cambridge and made it necessary for him to resign his post as Master of Michaelhouse. The Chancellorship did not involve constant residence, and a further honour came to him in his election as President of Queen’s College. In A.D. 1503 or 1504 he was made Bishop of Rochester. For thirty years he gave an edifying example of humility and detachment, refusing to see in the offer of a wealthier diocese a reason for its acceptance merely because it provided more comfort. According to his biographers his library, which Henry VIII afterwards destroyed, was the finest in Europe. “I know,” Erasmus wrote to him in 1524, “how much time you spend in the library, which is to you a very paradise” (Constant, The English Reformation, p. 202). But he was more than a scholar, he was a man of God. Long hours of the night were spent in prayer. His spare figure bore witness to his self-denial and mortification. “The palace of Rochester” was “the scene of his austerities and his quiet ruling. The bare untapestried walls of the sleeping chamber . . .had that familiarity which can only come from a cell loved and well kept. Beside one wall stood the Bishop’s bed with its counterpane of red linen . . . which covered the hard straw matting of his night’s discomfort” (David Mathew in The English Way, p. 197).

While at Rochester he dealt with attacks upon the religion of which he was so intelligent a champion. In A.D. 1523 he wrote the Lutheranae Assertionis Confutatio, of which there are two copies in Christ’s College library in Cambridge (one A.D. 1523 and the other A.D. 1525). Chapter XXV of this work is particularly interesting, for it is here that Fisher answers Luther’s assertion that the Roman Pontiff is not the Head of the Church. He proceeds to prove his point from Scripture and the Fathers. In Scripture he appeals to the usual passages referring to the change of Simon’s name to Peter. With mediaeval cleverness and freshness of mind he attaches significance to the fact that Peter was the first to enter into the place of Christ risen from the tomb. He stresses Peter’s prominence in the lists of the Apostles, though Andrew was called before him. In Peter’s “ninth prerogative,” as shown in the words, “Feed my lambs, feed my sheep,” he sees a satisfying and compelling argument for the Petrine claims. In support of his thesis he cites amongst the Fathers, Chrysostom, Eusebius, Cyril, Origen, Athanasius, Theophilus, Basil, and Dionysius. Whatever may be thought of his arguments, there can be no doubt of his belief and of his witness to the orthodox doctrine of his day. This treatise of Bishop Fisher is no doubt the one referred to by Saint Thomas More as that which settled for him the vital question of the Pope’s supremacy. Henry VIII is said to have considered Fisher to be the most learned theologian in Europe (Constant, The English Reformation, p. 201, n. 6). One can well understand, then, the rage of the King at the Bishop’s clear and uncompromising judgment on the question of his divorce.

Henry had married Catherine of Aragon in A.D. 1509. Catherine, from all accounts, was a charming, goodtempered, devout Spanish lady. Henry’s conduct from the first does not seem to have been that of a gentleman (v. Gairdner, A History of the English Church in the Sixteenth Century, p. 86). About A.D. 1527 Henry became the slave of Anne Boleyn. He was so blinded by passion that he thought first to get a licence to live bigamously with her (Gairdner, History of the English Church, p. 86). Wolsey apparently persuaded Henry of the futility of such a proceeding and advised him to try instead to find some flaw in the marriage with Catherine. Fisher, as a prominent scholar and theologian, was asked his opinion. His reply to Wolsey can be seen in full in Collier’s Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 9, p. 74 (Cambridge University Library). This reply provides the second of the two fundamental principles which determined Bishop Fisher’s actions between A.D. 1525 and 1535. He had written in opposition to Luther that the Pope was the Supreme Head of the whole Christian Church. He now laid down just as clearly his belief that the marriage with Queen Catherine was valid. Rome gave the same decision in A.D. 1534, and Gairdner, a non-Catholic authority, says: “The tribunal at Rome was a perfectly just one – at least in this matter there could be no doubt of its justice” (History of the English Church, p. 147).

The divorce suit went badly for Henry. Wolsey’s attempt to have the decision left to a commission consisting of himself and Cardinal Campeggio broke down in face of Catherine’s appeal to the Pope. The result of the failure of the tribunal in England to reach a decision favourable to the King was the ruin and death of Wolsey. It is one of the tragedies of history that he who had displayed such marvellous ability and devotion to his Sovereign should come to grief for failure in this sordid business of the divorce. His fall brought in Thomas Cromwell as the King’s Chief Minister and Thomas More as Chancellor. Cromwell was not the type of person whose service was constrained by religious principles. More was entirely different. A scholar, like Fisher, he had been in the forefront of the revival of letters. A man of great learning, of keen wit and of distinctive personal charm, he was one whose company delighted the King. Yet he had told Henry on taking office that he could not help him in the matter of the divorce (Gairdner, p. 26). It was an ominous beginning.

More became Chancellor in A.D. 1529. He resigned in A.D. 1532 as a result of Henry’s enforcing the submission of the clergy, which required them to admit Henry’s claim to be Protector and Supreme Head of the English Church and Clergy. Fisher opposed the title strenuously.

Other kings might just as reasonably make the same claim, he declared before Convocation, and there would be as many Churches as nations, and the unity of the Church would be destroyed. It is not surprising that he who had argued at such length and so powerfully for the supremacy of Saint Peter’s successor, should speak with equal force before Convocation. Convocation bowed to Henry’s demands, but More, who admitted the influence of the Bishop of Rochester on his views, found that he could not in conscience administer the law under such a master. “Everyone is concerned,” wrote Chapuys, “for there never was a better man in the office” (quoted by Constant, p. 239). It was clear to all in London, for much of the country would not know what was happening, that Fisher and More were the two most prominent opponents of the new order.

In A.D. 1532 Archbishop Warham died. Fisher had been spoken of as the most learned and pious member of the Hierarchy, but it was Cranmer, a cleric with a wife and Lutheran views, who was made Archbishop of Canterbury. In January, A.D. 1533, Henry married Anne Boleyn and in May Cranmer ratified this marriage, declaring Henry’s previous marriage with Catherine to have been null and void (Hope, The First Divorce of Henry VIII, p. 310). In A.D. 1534 Parliament passed the Act of Succession, for in September of the previous year the Princess Elizabeth had been born. This Act was the instrument by which Fisher and More were brought to their deaths. Both were willing enough to take the oath so far as the mere succession was concerned; both acknowledged that Parliament was acting within its competence in dealing with the succession; but the Commissioners added to the oath a declaration which referred to the validity of the marriage with Catherine. More refused to explain why he would not take the oath. As a lawyer he knew precisely where he would be chargeable, and he was unwilling to expose himself rashly to impeachment.

Both Fisher and More were sent to the Tower. The precise legal ground for their condemnation is difficult to determine. Fisher is said to have declared that “the King was not supreme head on earth of the Church of England,” but there is disagreement whether this was said before the Solicitor-General, Rich, or before Cromwell and some members of the Privy Council (Constant, 217). More was accused by Rich of having denied the Royal Supremacy in conversation with him. More, in the most withering reply, questioned Rich’s veracity. One immensely valuable contribution to the solution of the difficulties of that, and indeed of all times, was made by More in his conversation with Rich as recorded by Roper: “Suppose the Parliament would make a law that God should not be God, would you then, Mr. Rich, saye God weare not God?” “Noe, Sir,” quoth Rich, “that I would not, sithe noe Parliament may make any such law” (quoted by Constant, p. 247). Even in Rich’s opinion there were limits to Parliament’s interference in matters ecclesiastical.

Bishop Fisher was condemned to death on June 17. After his condemnation he spoke plainly enough. “I think indeed, and always have thought, and do now lastly affirm that his grace cannot justly claim any supremacy over the Church of God as he now taketh upon him, neither hath been seen nor heard of that any temporal prince before his days bath presumed to that dignity.” One more incident gives the measure of Fisher’s self-command. When told on June 22, at five a.m. that he was to be led to execution at nine a.m. he asked to be allowed to sleep an hour or two, since he had had but little sleep during the night. His last words, as given by Hall and repeated by so many of his biographers, “Christian people . . . I am come hither to die for the faith of Christ’s holy Catholic Church,” are certainly true in substance, as Hall claims them to be. Saint Thomas More’s last words resemble them. His biographer says: “More therefore merely desired the people to bear witness with him that he was suffering death in and for the faith of the Catholic Church” (Constant, p. 252). Saint John Fisher was put to death on June 22, Saint Thomas More on July 6. Whatever Act of Parliament may have been made the pretext for their arrest and execution, there can be no doubt that they died for their loyalty to the Pope as the Vicar of Christ and the only Supreme Head on earth of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church of Christendom. Saint, John Fisher and Saint Thomas More, pray for us.

– article published in The Tablet, 13 July 1935