Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1774
Article abstract: Fisher strongly contested the views of Martin Luther through his writings, supporting the Catholic faith, the Catholic Church, and the idea of the real presence in the Eucharist. He was canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church in May, 1935.
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John Fisher, the eldest son of Robert and Agnes Fisher, was born at Beverley, Yorkshire, in 1469. His father was a well-to-do mercer who died when Fisher was seven or eight. Fisher was educated at the cathedral school attached to Rochester Cathedral, then went to Michaelhouse, Cambridge. He took his B.A. in 1487 and his M.A. in 1491. He became Fellow, then proctor, and finally Master of the college in 1497. As a proctor, he went to the royal court on college business and met Margaret Beaufort, Henry VII’s mother. In 1497, she made him her confessor. Later, she founded a chair of divinity at Cambridge and appointed him its first incumbent in 1503. Fisher also helped her found Christ’s College there in 1505. Before, in 1504, he had been elected chancellor of all Cambridge University, a post to which he was reelected at ten-year intervals and then for life. In the same year he became Bishop of Rochester, a post that he held until deprived shortly before death, declining to accept other, richer bishoprics. He preached the funeral sermons of both Henry VII, who died on April 21, 1509, and of Margaret Beaufort, who died three months later, and he brought Lady Margaret’s works of charity and ascetic practices to the attention of the world.
Fisher was six feet tall, unusually tall for the times and only two or three inches shorter than his sovereign, Henry VIII. Hans Holbein, Henry’s court painter, painted Fisher, probably in 1527; the portrait depicts an ascetic face, high cheekbones, and sharp eyes. He was fifty-eight at the time and not well. In fact, ill health plagued him the last years of his life.
With the death of his patroness, Lady Margaret, Fisher was comfortably ensconced in his posts as chancellor of Cambridge University and Bishop of Rochester. Like his contemporaries Thomas More, John Colet, and Erasmus, he favored the new learning and also a reforming within the Church of lax Christian practice. He demonstrated his commitment to the new education by carrying out Lady Margaret’s bequest to found St. John’s College at Cambridge (1511). He also facilitated Erasmus’ teaching Greek at Cambridge (1511) and set up lectureships at St. John’s in Greek and Hebrew. He himself started learning Greek in his forties. He came afoul of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Henry’s chancellor, in 1517, when he preached at Westminster against clerical high living and greed. Moreover, in 1523 in the religious convocation, he resisted Wolsey’s demand for money to wage a war with Flanders.
Fisher hated Martin Luther and his doctrine. On May 12, 1521, at Paul’s Cross, London, he preached against Luther’s writings. After the sermon, Luther’s books were burned. Fisher wrote several tracts against Luther: Assertionis Lutheranae confutatio (1523), Sacri sacerdotii defensio (1525), Defensio Regie assertionis contra Babylonicam captiuitatem (1525), a defense of the work that had earned for Henry the papal title Defender of the Faith. Fisher became more conservative as he aged. At the opening of the Reformation Parliament in the fall of 1529, he spoke out against Henry’s plan of church reform. To Henry’s demand in the same Parliament in 1531 for a submission of the clergy, Fisher convinced the assembly to add the clause “as far as the law of God allows” to give the clergy room to save their individual consciences and to attest their primary allegiance to God.
The Reformation Parliament had been called as a consequence of the king’s “Great Matter,” Henry’s desire to nullify his marriage to Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn. Before Parliament had been called, a special legatine court had been convened in May, 1529, under the direction of Cardinals Wolsey and Campeggio, specially sent from Rome to hear the case. In June, Fisher stoutly defended the legality of Henry’s marriage to Catherine, thus incurring Henry’s deep hatred. The marriage case was revoked to Rome in July, 1529, and it was not until May, 1533, that a court convened by the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, found for Henry, formally declaring null his first marriage and attesting the legality of his second secret marriage of January, 1533, to Anne Boleyn. Events now moved quickly as Henry pushed Parliament to legalize his heirs by Anne and disinherit his daughter Mary by Catherine via the Act of Succession of March, 1534. Henry continued his attack on the Church by the Act of Supremacy of November, 1534, by which he became Supreme Head of the Church, denying papal power over the English church. Fisher had been in trouble before the passage of these acts as a consequence of his defiance of Wolsey and Henry and also for his support of Elizabeth Barton, the Nun of Kent, who prophesied against Henry’s marriage to Anne. The nun was executed. Fisher was implicated in the proceedings against her, but eventually was let off with a fine of three hundred pounds. After refusing to take the oath required by the Act of Succession, Fisher was sent to the Tower of London on April 16, 1534. On the passage of the Act of Supremacy, he was deprived of his bishopric. His refusal in May, 1535, to swear to Henry being Supreme Head of the Church and Pope Paul III’s decision to make Fisher a cardinal sealed his fate. He was tried on June 17, found guilty, and sentenced to death by hanging, drawing, and quartering, which later was commuted to beheading on Tower Green. Fisher was executed on June 22, 1535; he met his death with calmness and dignity. His head was impaled on a pike on London Bridge and did not decay, demonstrating to the superstitious Fisher’s sanctity. His body, at first sent to the Church of Allhallows Barking, was later taken to the Church of St. Peter ad Vincula in the Tower, where it lies near that of More, who had been executed two weeks after Fisher.
Saint John Fisher was a man of his age and in some ways a man for all ages. While he looked forward to the new humanistic biblical scholarship and fostered the study of Greek and Hebrew, even learning Greek in his forties, he looked backward to the glories of the Roman Catholic Church and defended them with his life. As a scholar and university statesman, Fisher helped Lady Margaret found Christ’s and St. John’s colleges at Cambridge. At St. John’s, he founded lectureships in Greek and Hebrew. He also sponsored the celebrated humanist Erasmus and his teaching at Cambridge. Moreover, Fisher held the office of chancellor of Cambridge University for life.
In his writings, Fisher defended church doctrine and tradition against Luther and other reformers. When the time came to defend the sanctity of Catherine’s marriage to Henry, he alone of the bishops spoke for her with vigor and conviction. He wrote books as well defending her right, nor did he ever desert the woman for whom he served as confessor. Fisher also showed courage in suggesting the saving clause to the clergy’s submission in 1531, when he suggested that they protect their consciences by swearing “as far as the law of God allows.” When he could not accept the Act of Succession, which denied Catherine’s marital right and her daughter Mary’s right to inherit, Fisher was sent to the Tower. He could neither swear to the oath required by the Act of Succession nor the further oath required by the Act of Supremacy saying that Henry was Supreme Head of the Church. By supporting Catherine even to the point of writing to the Emperor Charles V asking him to invade England and save English Catholicism, Fisher was unquestionably guilty of treason. The evidence that convicted him was his confidential conversation with Richard Rich, Solicitor General, when Fisher had denied Henry’s supremacy. As Fisher faced the crowd that had come to see him die, he proclaimed to them: “Christian people, I come hither to die for the faith of Christ’s holy Catholic Church.” Fisher’s death shocked Europe; Henry’s decision to have his way with the Church had become clear to all. Soon, More joined Fisher, being executed July 6, 1535. Both men were canonized as saints by the Roman Catholic Church in May, 1935, as Adolf Hitler was building his war machine in Germany. In a way, both men, Fisher and More, demonstrated that there is a higher law, an authority superior to that of the prince and the state. They died for that principle and became examples to others who have meditated on what is worth living for and what is worth dying for.
Dickens, A. G. The English Reformation. London: B. T. Batsford, 1964. A bit of an intellectual challenge, but still the best one-volume survey of the English Reformation. Puts Fisher in his context.
Elton, G. R. Reform and Reformation: England, 1509-1558. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977. Massively detailed account of the coming of the Reformation to England. Stresses the constitutional and legal ramifications. Utilizes much unpublished doctoral work. Good explanation of the process of oath taking that put Fisher on the spot.
Erickson, Carolly. Great Harry: The Extravagant Life of Henry VIII. New York: Summit Books, 1980. Interesting insights into Fisher, especially at death, and a wonderful reading experience. Erickson has the knack of recreating people from the past by making one see life through their eyes.
Macklem, Michael. God Have Mercy: The Life of John Fisher of Rochester. Ottawa, Canada: Oberon Press, 1967. A good place to start reading about Fisher. Readable, sympathetic. Based on the sources.
Parker, T. M. The English Reformation to 1558. New York: Oxford University Press, 1960. Short, crisp account of the Henrician religious reformation that carries it through changes under his son Edward and reaction under his daughter Mary. Easy reading.
Reynolds, E. E. Saint John Fisher. Rev. ed. Wheathampstead: Anthony Clarke Books, 1972. Detailed, absorbing, reverent treatment of Fisher’s life.
Smith, Lacey Baldwin. Henry VIII: The Mask of Royalty. London: Jonathan Cape, 1971. Wonderful insights into the aging Henry as he pushed through his second marriage at the cost of Fisher and More’s lives.
Surtz, Edward. The Works and Days of John Fisher: An Introduction to the Position of Saint John Fisher, 1469-1535, Bishop of Rochester, in the English Renaissance and Reformation. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967. For the more ambitious student. Defines Fisher’s intellectual and theological positions on sixteenth century issues of education, faith, and politics.