Shortly before the May 1935 canonization of John Fisher and Thomas More, the Archbishop of Westminster, Arthur Cardinal Hinsley, presented Pope Pius XI with the Holbein portraits of the martyrs. After carefully studying the images, the Holy Father said, Tales ambio defensores.(“I surround myself with such defenders.”) He also stated that he would place the likeness of these two men on his papal medallion to remind the faithful that “such champions of faith, of truth, of liberty we need indeed.”
That’s why the American bishops’ “Fortnight for Freedom,” a fourteen-day national period of prayer and action in support of religious freedom, began on the vigil of the feasts of Fisher and More. The bishops want the faithful to stand on the strong shoulders of these mighty defenders of religious liberty.
Thomas More’s martyrdom is well known to most American Catholics thanks to Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons. Far less known, however, is the story of Bishop Fisher, who lost his head at the block on June 22, 1535 for denying the king’s supremacy over the Church.
Born in 1469, John Fisher was a bright and spiritual youth who yearned for the life of a Catholic scholar. He was educated at Cambridge. Two weeks after he received his divinity doctorate, Fisher was named Vice Chancellor, the highest honor the university could bestow on a teacher. Later he was appointed Chancellor of Cambridge for life.
Fisher drew the attention of King Henry VII when he served as chaplain to the monarch’s mother, Margaret Beaumont. Because the king appreciated his integrity and forthright advice, and considered him an Alter Christus, he recommended that Pope Julius name Fisher Bishop of Rochester in 1504.
Bishop Fisher took his duties as Ordinary seriously and Henry VIII, who succeeded to the throne in 1509, boasted to foreign dignitaries that none could point to a “wiser or more holy bishop though they ransacked the whole of Christendom.”
Early in his reign, Henry VIII was not only a devoted son of the Church, but fancied himself a theologian. In The Seven Sacraments, he refuted the apostate Luther. And for his efforts, Pope Leo X named him Fidei defensor – Defender of the Faith. But when Rome refused to comply with his demand for a divorce, Henry repudiated his own book. And thus began the greatest religious drama in England’s history with the noblest roles played by Fisher and More.
In the matter of the divorce, Fisher served as a trusted counselor to Queen Catherine. At a Legatine Court to judge the King’s case, held in June 1529 at the Blackfriars Great Hall, Fisher told Henry to his face that the marriage to Catherine could not be dissolved by human or divine power.
St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More by Hans Holbein the Younger
Several months later, the enraged king introduced measures into Parliament that encroached on rights of the Church. Fisher, as a member of the House of Lords, denounced them:
What the same may sound in some of your ears I cannot tell, but in mine they sound all to this effect, that our Holy Mother the Church being left unto us by the great liberality and diligence of our forefathers in most perfect and peaceable freedom shall not by us be brought into servile thraldom like a bondmaid…
Retaliating, the king ordered Fisher’s arrest, but that angered the public and the bishop was released.
Fisher vigorously opposed the 1531 motion to name the king Supreme Head of the Church of England. When his fellow bishops succumbed to pressure and agreed to the title, the wily Fisher inserted into the supremacy decree the words Quantum per Christi legem licet (“so far as Christ’s law permits”).
Defying the pope, Henry secretly married Anne Boleyn in January 1533. Thomas Cranmer, a royal stooge, became the new Archbishop of Canterbury in March and Fisher was arrested for the second time to ensure his silence. On May 23, Cranmer pronounced the king’s marriage to Catherine null and void; Anne was crowned Queen on June 1; and Fisher was set free two weeks later.
In March 1534, Parliament approved the Act of Succession, which required “all the nobles of the realm, spiritual and temporal” to take an oath acknowledging Anne’s child as rightful heir to the throne, to affirm the validity of the marriage, and to renounce oaths “taken to any foreign authority, prince or potentate.” For churchmen, this meant repudiating their oaths of fidelity to the pope and denying the independence of the Church in matters spiritual.
Fisher, like More, refused to swear, and on April 26, 1534 he was charged with treason and imprisoned in the Tower of London.
Reacting to these events, the new pope, Paul III, created “the Bishop of Rochester, held in prison by the King of England” a cardinal. Hearing that Fisher was to receive the red hat, the angry king predicted, “but I will so provide that when so ever [the hat] cometh, [Fisher] shall wear it on his shoulders, for head he shall have none to set it on.”
Fisher was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death by a kangaroo court in May 1535 for “maliciously” declaring the king was not supreme head on earth of the Church of England. Responding to the verdict, Fisher denied he had acted maliciously, “but with truth and holy intention as they were opposed to scripture and faith.”
On the day of execution, he told the crowd gathered around the scaffold, “I come hither to die for the faith of Christ’s Catholic Church” and then dropped to his knees, said the Te Deum and the prayer for humble confidence, In te Domine speravi.
Two weeks later, he was buried beside More.
Let’s hope and pray that the U. S. bishops imitate Fisher’s example, exhibit episcopal zeal, and stand up to the political forces attempting to bring Catholics into “servile thraldom.”