Saint John Fisher was born in Beverley, Yorkshire, England, in 1469, the son of a modestly prosperous merchant, Robert Fisher, and his wife, Agnes. John attended a church school in Beverly and then enrolled at the University of Cambridge, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1487 and an Master of Arts degree in 1491. That same year, he became an ordained priest.
Scholar and Priest
In 1494, John Fisher became a proctor at Cambridge, where he held a number of positions before becoming chancellor in 1504—a post that he would hold for the rest of his life. In 1497, he became chaplain and confessor to Margaret Beaufort, the mother of King Henry VII. Under his guidance, Lady Margaret founded St. John’s and Christ’s colleges at Cambridge. As chancellor, Fisher assembled leading scholars from Europe to teach at Cambridge including the renowned scholar Erasmus.
By 1504, John Fisher was gaining a reputation as a scholar and a pious, humble man. He was appointed bishop of Rochester—a post that he would hold for 31 years—and served as tutor to Prince Henry (later Henry VIII). When Henry VII and Margaret died in 1509, he gave the orations at both funerals. Despite his reputation, he soon encountered conflict with the new king, his former pupil, Henry VIII.
Trouble with the King
In November 1529, the “Long Parliament” of King Henry VIII began a series of encroachments on the church in the name of reform. John Fisher, warned Parliament that such acts would harm the Church in England. His defiance was reported to the king, who summoned him for an explanation. After hearing Fisher, Henry declared he was satisfied but left it to the Commons to declare the explanation unsatisfactory, thus absolving him of being seen as Fisher’s enemy.
The encroachments on the Church continued in 1530, forcing John Fisher and two other bishops to appeal to Rome for help. King Henry VIII issued an edict forbidding such appeals, however, and had Fisher and the other two bishops arrested temporarily. The king and the bishop were set on a collision course.
Trial, Execution and Death
By May 1532, matters had deteriorated rapidly. Henry VIII, increasingly dissatisfied with his marriage to Catherine of Aragon for not producing a surviving male heir, sought an annulment. John Fisher became the queen’s supporter and most trusted counsellor and spoke on her behalf, strongly arguing against the divorce. When Pope Clement VII refused to annul the marriage, Henry defied him by assuming supremacy of the Church and declared his marriage to Catherine null and void. In quick order, Parliament passed the Succession Act, separating England from the Catholic Church and acknowledging Henry and his new wife, Anne Boleyn, as legitimate heirs to the throne.
Fisher refused to acknowledge the succession and was sent to the Tower of London on April 26, 1534, where he remained for more than a year, under severe conditions.
In May 1535, newly elected Pope Paul III named John Fisher cardinal priest of San Vitale in hopes of inducing Henry to ease on Fisher’s treatment. The act had just the opposite effect: Henry refused the appointment, and Fisher was sent to trial for treason for denying that the king was the supreme head of the Church of England. He was found guilty and condemned to death by beheading, which occurred on June 22, 1535.
John Fisher’s calm demeanour in the hours before his death profoundly impressed those present. The execution and subsequent desecration of his body elevated his stature even further, despite the efforts of the Crown to further denigrate his character. Fisher has been universally esteemed for centuries, and on May 19, 1935, he was canonized by Pope Pius XI.