St John Fisher who, together with his contemporary St Thomas More, is the greatest of the English martyrs who died for their Catholic faith during the Reformation.
Born in 1469, John Fisher was a priest, a great theologian and a brilliant scholar. Henry VIII once declared him the most distinguished prelate of any kingdom. As Chancellor of Cambridge University he introduced Greek and Hebrew to the university, expanded the library and created two new colleges through the bequests of Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII. Both Lady Margaret and her son died in the year 1509 and John Fisher preached classic orations at their funerals. He had become Bishop of Rochester in 1504, a position he held for thirty years. He refused promotion to larger and wealthier dioceses. He was acutely sensitive to the pastoral needs of the people he served and had a reputation for holiness. He also had a strong devotion to St John the Baptist.
Never fearful of speaking out, Bishop John Fisher produced the first English refutation of Luther, in four volumes, and he strongly opposed Henry VIIIs divorce from Catherine of Aragon and the Act of Supremacy which proclaimed the King to be the Head of the Church. In 1534, both he and Thomas More were arrested within a fortnight of the Act of Succession becoming law. This act required the subjects of Henry VIII to take an oath recognising the legitimacy of any children from his new marriage to Anne Boleyn. Both men refused to do so and were imprisoned in the Tower of London.
John Fisher was executed on 22nd June 1535 for refusing to recognise Henry VIII as head of the Church of England. The Pope had made him a cardinal one month before his execution, a politically explosive move designed to convey to the English people the message that Rome supported the bishop’s stance against Henry. When the King was told that a red hat was on its way to London, he responded by saying that the bishop would not have a head on which to put it! Statues of St John Fisher typically portray him as a thin gaunt man, often with the cardinal’s hat and an axe.
It is said that St John Fisher was so exhausted, ill and emaciated on the morning of his execution that he had to be carried to Tower Hill in a chair. He nevertheless managed to summon the strength to walk the final steps to the scaffold and told the crowd that he died for the faith of Christ’s Holy Catholic Church alone. His head was struck from his shoulders and impaled on a spike on London Bridge where it remained until it was replaced two weeks later by that of St Thomas More.
The headless body of St John Fisher is buried among the corpses of hundreds of executed prisoners in the crypt of the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London, whilst his head is believed to be buried under the porch of All Hallows-by-the-Tower, the oldest church in the City of London.
In January 2004, there was at last recognition of this great man and his imprisonment in the Tower of London at a joint ceremony attended by Catholic and Anglican leaders in the Chapel Royal. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor joined Bishop Richard Chartres, the Anglican Bishop of London, and the Dean of the Chapels Royal in unveiling a plaque inside the crypt, acknowledging that the man who died a traitor’s death in 1535 was in fact a “bishop, cardinal, martyr and saint”. Nowhere previously had the saint’s name been commemorated in the Tower. The plaque was the initiative of Peter Bearcroft, Knight Commander of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, who for the previous thirteen years had arranged Masses in the Bell Tower cell where St John Fisher spent his last fourteen months.
St John Fisher and St Thomas More were canonised by Pope Pius XI in 1935.