The Martyrdom of Blessed John Fisher, by Father T E Bridgett, C.SS.R.

detail of a line engraving of Saint John Fisher; 1697 by Gerard Valck, based on a work by Adriaen van der Werff; original work in possession of the National Portrait Gallery, London, England; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsIt was very late in the night when the sentence was pronounced, and the prisoner was asleep. The lieutenant was unwilling to disturb his rest for that time, and so did not awaken him, but in the morning before five of the clock he came to him in his chamber in the Bell Tower, and found him yet asleep in his bed.

He awakened the good father, and explained that he was come to him on a message from the king. Then, with some persuasion, he said that he should remember himself to be an old man, and that he could not expect by course of nature to live much longer. Finally he informed him that he was come to signify unto him that the king’s pleasure was he should suffer death that forenoon.

“Well,” answered this blessed father, “if this be your errand, you bring me no great news. I have long expected this message. And I most humbly thank the king’s majesty that it has pleased him to rid me from all this worldly business, and I thank you also for your tidings. But I pray you, Mr. Lieutenant, when is mine hour that I must go hence?”

“Your hour,” said the lieutenant, “must be nine of the clock.”

“And what hour is it now?” said he.

“It is now about five,” said the lieutenant.

“Well, then,” said he, “let me by your patience sleep an hour or two, for I have slept very little this night. My rest has been very much broken, not for any fear of death, I thank God, but by reason of my great infirmity and weakness.”

“The king’s further pleasure is,” said the lieutenant, “that you should not talk much. Especially you must not say anything touching his majesty, whereby the people should have any cause to think ill of him or of his proceedings.”

“For that,” said the father, “you shall see me order myself well. For, by God’s grace, neither the king, nor any man else, shall have occasion to mislike my words.”

The lieutenant then departed from him, and so the prisoner, falling again to rest, slept soundly two hours and more.

After he was waked again he called to his man to help him up. Then he commanded him to take away the shirt of hair (which he was accustomed to wear on his back) and to convey it secretly out of the house. Then he bade him bring a clean white shirt, and all the best apparel he had, as cleanly bright as possible.

While he was dressing himself, he appeared to have more curiosity and care for the fine and cleanly wearing of his apparel that day than had ever been his wont before. His man asked him what this sudden change meant, since he must know well enough that he must put off all again within two hours and lose it.

“What of that?” said the father. “Dost thou not mark that this is our wedding day, and that it is necessary for us to use more cleanliness for solemnity of the marriage?”

About nine of the clock the lieutenant came again to his prison. Finding him almost ready, he said that he was now come for him.

“I will wait upon you straight,” said the father, “as fast as this thin body of mine will give me leave.” Then he turned to his man and said, “Reach me my fur cape to put about my neck.”

“Oh, my lord,” said the lieutenant, “why need you be so careful for your health for this little while? Your lordship knoweth that it is not much above an hour.”

“I think no otherwise,” said this blessed father. “But in the meantime I will keep myself as well as I can, till the very time of my execution. I have, I thank our Lord, a very good desire and willing mind to die at this present time, and so trust of His infinite mercy and goodness He will continue this desire. Nevertheless, I will not willingly hinder my health for one minute of an hour. Indeed, I will prolong the same as long as I can by such reasonable ways and means as Almighty God hath provided for me.”

Then, taking a little book in his hand, which was a New Testament lying by him, he made a cross on his forehead and went out of his prison door with the lieutenant. He was so weak that he was scarce able to go down the stairs, and at the stairs-foot he was taken up in a chair between two of the lieutenant’s men. These carried him to the Tower gate to be delivered to the sheriffs of London for execution.

When they were come to the farthest wall of the Tower, they rested there with him a space; and an officer was sent on before to know in what readiness the sheriffs were to receive him. As they were resting here, the father rose out of his chair, and stood on his feet, leaning his shoulder to the wall. Then, lifting his eyes towards heaven, he opened his little book in his hand, and said, “O Lord, this is the last time that ever I shall open this book; let some comfortable place now chance unto me whereby I thy poor servant may glorify Thee in this my last hour.”

Then he opened the book, and the first thing that came to his sight were these words: “This is life everlasting, that they may know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent. I have glorified Thee upon earth, I have finished the work Thou gavest me to do.” Having read these words, he shut the book together and said, “Here is even learning enough for me to my life’s end.”

The sheriff was now ready for him. So he was taken up again by certain of the sheriff’s men, and, guarded by many armed men, he was carried to the scaffold on Tower Hill, otherwise called East Smithfield. He was seen to be praying all the way, and pondering upon the words that he had read.

When he was come to the foot of the scaffold, they that carried him offered to help him up the stairs; but he said, “Nay, masters, since I have come so far let me alone, and you shall see me shift for myself well enough.” So he went up the stairs without any help, so lively that it was a marvel to them that knew before of his weakness. As he was mounting up the stairs, the southeast sun shined very bright in his face. Observing this, he said to himself these words, lifting up his hands, “Come ye to Him and be enlightened; and your faces shall not be confounded.”

By the time he was on the scaffold, it was about ten of the clock. The executioner, being ready to do his office, kneeled down to him (as the fashion is) and asked his forgiveness.

“I forgive thee,” said the father, “with all my heart, and I trust thou shalt see me overcome this storm lustily.”

Then was his gown and fur cape taken from him, and he stood in his doublet and hose, in sight of all the people. There was to be seen a long, lean, and slender body, having on it little other substance besides the skin and bones. Indeed, so thin and emaciated was he that those who beheld him marveled much to see a living man so far consumed. Therefore, it appeared monstrous that the king could be so cruel as to put such a man to death as he was, even though he had been a real offender against the law.

If he had been in the Turk’s dominion, and there found guilty of some great offense, yet methinks the Turk would never have put him to death being already so near death. For it is an horrible and exceeding cruelty to kill that thing which is presently dying, except it be for pity’s sake to rid it from longer pain. Therefore, it may be thought that the cruelty and hard heart of King Henry in this point passed all the Turks and tyrants that ever have been heard or read of.

After speaking a few words the father kneeled down on his knees and said certain prayers. Then came the executioner and bound a handkerchief about his eyes. This holy father, lifting up his hands and heart to heaven, said a few other prayers, which were not long but fervent and devout, which being ended, he laid his holy head down over the midst of a little block.… And so his immortal soul mounted to the blissful joys of Heaven.