The remarkable John Fisher entered Cambridge at the age of 14; he was ordained a priest in 1491 at the age of 22; and ten years later he became vice-chancellor, rising to chancellor of his beloved university in 1504. The same year, he was named the Bishop of Rochester.
He would be confessor to the mother of King Henry VII, and possibly also a tutor to the prince who would become Henry VIII – and order Fisher’s execution.
When Henry sought to end his marriage with his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, a hearing was held at the Legatine Court. Bishop Fisher served as counsel to the queen.
When Catherine stood on her own to make her case, it was simple, powerful – and affecting. She had borne Henry’s children, including three sons who had died; she asserted that at the time of their marriage, “I was a true maid without touch of man.” And finally, she reminded Henry that the pope had issued a bull confirming her marriage to be valid.
Even a gathering of tamed bishops could be chastened. Nevertheless, the fix was in. Henry declared that the bishops unanimously accepted his case, and the Archbishop of Canterbury chimed in that “all my brethren here present will affirm the same.”
But the moment was quickly broken when Bishop Fisher said, with firmness, “No sir, not I. You have not my consent thereto.” And that set him on the course leading to his execution.
Along the way, the King tried to have Fisher poisoned, but he had forgotten that Fisher was ascetic. Fisher ate nothing, but his servant, cleaning up, died.
Fisher and his soulmate, the Sainted Thomas More sought to preserve a civil deference to the king even as they refused to take an oath that Henry was now the Supreme head of the Church in England. The Succession Act would dissolve in a stroke the claim of Rome to authority over priests and churches, and the dutiful attachment of the faithful.
With a long, distinguished career in law, diplomacy, and the repressing of heretics, More had risen to become Lord Chancellor. He had become along the way an intimate of Henry’s; still he could remark, with an unshakeable sobriety, that “if my head would win [Henry] a castle in France, it should not fail to go.”
Of the legends of Thomas More so much has been heard, but far less attention has been given to Fisher. And yet Fisher’s story reveals a record of courage and conviction not any shade less than that of More’s. For they shared the same depth of faith that alone could explain why both men were able to move so cheerily to their deaths – and sainthood.
But that story is recalled now and linked, in the most telling way, to the story of More, with Robert Conrad’s new book (forthcoming from St. Benedict Press), John Fisher and Thomas More: Keeping Their Souls While Losing Their Heads. More remarked to the jury that convicted him hoping “we may yet hereafter in heaven merrily all meet together, to our everlasting salvation.”
He kissed the executioner, about to dispatch him and said, “Thou will give me this day greater benefit than ever any mortal man can be able to give me.” As Fisher prepared calmly for his execution, he dressed in his finest clothes and told his servant that this was his marriage day, and it behooved him “to dress for the solemnity of the marriage.”
The story offers a dramatic mix of law and theology, and Conrad brings to it the eye of a former federal prosecutor, now a senior federal judge in North Carolina. But he brings also the angle of a serious Catholic, who takes fully seriously the faith that removed from these men the fear of death.
The trials through which More and Fisher passed would not exactly pass a demanding test of “due process of law” in our own time. But Conrad leads us through the thicket. More and Fisher refused to take the oaths confirming Henry’s divorce, or the Act of Supremacy, establishing Henry as the Supreme Head of what was now the Church of “England.”
More and Fisher fell back on the understanding in the law that silence implies consent. They made a claim to “conscience” as a way of showing the want of “malice” that was necessary to the crime. But silence, of course, would not do, and so the next statute took the refusal to take the oath as the “misprision of a felony.”
That notion of “conscience” has been the parent of serious confusion in this story. The most famous account of More has come through Robert Bolt’s play, turned into a movie, A Man for All Seasons. But as Gunnar Gundersen pointed out in these columns , Bolt gave us a More furnished with the “clichés” of our own day.
Bolt has More say that what matters to him is not that “I believe” these arguments to be true, but that “I believe” them. In the vernacular of our day, Bolt sought to show that the lodestar for More was to be comfortable with himself.
That stands in striking contrast to John Paul II’s teaching that “conscience” is directed to an objective set of moral norms outside ourselves. And as Robert Conrad shows, that is the only account of More that makes sense.
For Bolt, the key to More was the “possession of self” – that More was a “hero of selfhood.” To take that path, as John Paul II said, was to move to a “subjectivist” understanding, and in that way “the inescapable truths disappear.” Conrad caught the core of the matter:
[More and Fisher] were not adamantine followers of self-will but servants of the one true God who spoke through his Word and his Church. Their shared conviction was that. . .God was truth, and that his Church was a truth-telling institution.”
And that, as Conrad says, was truly a “message for all seasons,” and a script “for generations unborn.”
*Image: Statues of Sts. John Fisher and Thomas More (both canonized in 1935) flank the names of forty martyrs of the English Reformation canonized in 1970 [Church of Our Lady of Victories in Kensington, London]