Sunday, April 24, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week 17 ~ St. John Fisher

Protestants, I think, at least Protestants in the English-speaking world, are sometimes a bit surprised to hear the word martyr applied to Catholics executed for their faith during the Protestant Reformation in England. Perhaps that’s not as true as it once was, when English Protestants grew up on Foxe’s Book of [Protestant] Martyrs (actually not the title, which begins Actes and Monuments of these Latter and Perillous Days, Touching Matters of the Church and goes on at some length).

John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, was one of the first of these. Rochester, for Americans whose knowledge of geography is as poor as mine, is roughly 30 miles southeast of London, and roughly halfway between London and Canterbury. I presume that made it a pretty important see in Fisher’s time. He was certainly a prominent man, being among many other things the chaplain and confessor of the mother of King Henry VII. There is an excellent and concise account of his life in the old Catholic Encyclopedia online at, so rather than repeat it I’ll direct you there.

Fisher was beheaded on June 22, 1535, only a few weeks before his more widely known fellow martyr St. Thomas More. Here’s one incident from the sad story that strikes me as illuminating the forces at work toward the end of Fisher’s life:
In May, 1535, the new pope, Paul III, created Fisher Cardinal Priest of St. Vitalis, his motive being apparently to induce Henry by this mark of esteem to treat the bishop less severely. The effect was precisely the reverse. Henry forbade the cardinal's hat to be brought into England, declaring that he would send the head to Rome instead.

This shouldn’t be taken as a suggestion that Fisher might have been spared if not for the pope’s intervention, which is surely not the case. Only capitulation on Fisher’s part would have done that, and he clearly was made of the same stern stuff as More.

Most of us have probably seen A Man For All Seasons and will recognize from it the name of the treacherous Richard Rich. Rich was also instrumental in getting Fisher condemned. Fisher was attempting to avoid execution by simply not speaking of Henry’s supremacy over the Church, but Rich tricked Fisher into confiding in him, then betrayed him. (

It is an obviously timely lesson for us that Fisher was the only English bishop to resist Henry. The others not only acquiesced, but attempted to persuade Fisher to go along with them. His reply is for me one of the most stirring things in English Christianity:
Methinks it had been rather our parts to stick together in repressing these violent and unlawful intrusions and injuries dayly offered to our common mother, the holy Church of Christ, than by any manner of persuasions to help or set forward the same.
And we ought rather to seek by all means the temporal destruction of the so ravenous wolves, that daily go about worrying and devouring everlastingly, the flock that Christ committed to our charge, and the flock that Himself died for, than to suffer them thus to range abroad.
But (alas) seeing we do it not, you see in what peril the Christian state now standeth: We are besieged on all sides, and can hardly escape the danger of our enemy. And seeing that judgment is begone at the house of God, what hope is there left (if we fall) that the rest shall stand!
The fort is betrayed even of them that should have defended it. And therefore seeing the matter is thus begun, and so faintly resisted on our parts, I fear that we be not the men that shall see the end of the misery.
Wherefore, seeing I am an old man and look not long to live, I mind not by the help of God to trouble my conscience in pleasing the king this way whatsoever become of me, but rather here to spend out the remnant of my old days in praying to God for him.

The fort is betrayed even of them that should have defended it. There’s a good deal of resonance for us in that line.

Here is a longer piece, at, that goes into a good bit of detail about Fisher’s life as a churchman, his efforts toward internal reform, and his involvement in the theological controversies of the time.

Fisher was originally sentenced to be drawn and quartered, but was beheaded instead. I had intended to give Henry some credit for that gesture of decency, but according to a footnote in the article just cited it was done out of concern that the aged and sick bishop “would not survive being drawn on a hurdle to Tyburn two miles away, thus depriving Henry of the satisfaction of his execution.”

For my part I do not feel great indignation at this story, although it would be very much justified. I feel, rather, a great sorrow that these tragedies in the history of the Church are so frequent, and I wonder what would have happened if things had gone otherwise. And with a sigh I note the resemblance of our situation to that of Fisher and More. It is not, obviously, as dangerous and violent as that, but the lines are being drawn on the same fundamental question: is the state the final authority on matters of conscience? No one is in danger of losing his head, but we have seen people lose their livelihood because, to use the words Robert Bolt gives Thomas More, “[they] would not bend to the marriage.”

Maclin Horton is the proprietor of his own blog Light on Dark Water from which sprang this series. You might want to check out the current series there, 52 Movies or last year's 52 Authors.

If you want to see all of the posts in this series, click HERE.


  1. Would you believe that the first time I saw A Man for All Seasons (the movie), not even knowing what the main storyline was (yes, I know that's hard to believe, but somehow I had heard the title all those years without knowing, or at least remembering, what it was about--humbling for an English major to admit), it was the weekend of June 27? It made for a very powerful experience--one that I am likely to ever forget. I share your great sorrow.

  2. Catholics in 16th century England would shudder if they even had an inkling of what our modern day cake bakers are having to endure!