On this day in history, 22nd June 1535, John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, was beheaded. He was beatified in 1886 by Pope Leo XIII and then canonised in 1935 by Pope Pius XI, and his feast day is celebrated today, the 22nd June, a feast day which he shares with his friend Thomas More. He is seen as a Catholic Martyr because he died for his beliefs.
He was one of the many victims of Henry VIII and was executed for treason, for refusing to take the Oath of Succession and accept Henry as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. He was arrested on the 26th April 1534 and his words to Richard Rich, Cromwell’s right hand man, were used as evidence against him, he said “that the King was not, nor could be, by the Law of God, Supreme Head in earth of the Church of England”. The Pope tried to save Fisher by making him Cardinal-Priest of San Vitale (a member of the College of Cardinals), but this simply provoked the King and Richard Rex, in his book “Henry VIII”, writes of how Henry joked that Fisher would have to wear the Cardinal’s red hat on his shoulders, i.e. he would have no head on which to place it.
What is so chilling about the imprisonment and execution of John Fisher is that he was once a good friend of the King and it was he who, at the King’s command, preached a sermon against Luther at St Paul’s Cross on the 11th February 1526. His undoing was his support of Catherine of Aragon during the Great Matter. He appeared on Catherine’s behalf in the legatine court and spoke out against the King and the divorce, comparing himself to St John the Baptist, saying that he “regarded it as impossible for him to die more gloriously than in the cause of marriage”. Henry could not tolerate opposition, particularly when it came from someone he had once counted as a friend and adviser. He could not and would not forgive Fisher.
John Fisher was kept in the Tower of London from April 1534 until his death in June 1535 and during that time he was denied a priest and had to rely on friends and servants to bring him food. On the 22nd December 1534, Fisher wrote a letter to Thomas Cromwell and this is how it is recorded in the Letters and Papers of Henry VIII’s reign:-
“John [Fisher] Bishop of Rochester to [Cromwell].
Does not wish to displease the King. When last before him and the other commissioners he swore to the part concerning the succession for the reason he then gave, but refused to swear to some other parts, because his conscience would not allow him to do so. “I beseech you to be good master unto me in my necessity, for I have neither shirt nor sheet nor yet other clothes that are necessary for me to wear, but that be ragged and rent too shamefully. Notwithstanding, I might easily suffer that if they would keep my body warm. But my diet also God knows how slender it is at many times. And now in mine age my stomach may not away but with a few kind of meats, which if I want I decay forthwith, and fall into coughs and diseases of my body, and cannot keep myself in health.” His brother provides for him out of his own purse, to his great hindrance. Beseeches him to pity him, and move the King to take him into favor and release him from this cold and painful imprisonment. Desires to have a priest within the Tower to hear his confession “against this holy time;” and some books to stir his devotion more effectually. Wishes him a merry Christmas. At the Tower, 22 Dec.”
This once great man had no bedding or clothes, did not have enough food and was in ill health, and was being denied spiritual guidance from a priest. How awful.
His suffering came to an end on the 22nd June 1535, over a year after he had been arrested and taken to the Tower. Although he had been condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, the King, in his mercy, commuted his sentence to beheading. Henry VIII was worried that the people were comparing the bishop to St John the Baptist, a man who had challenged King Herod’s marriage, and he was keen for Fisher to die before the 24th June, the feast day of St John the Baptist. Fisher was beheaded on Tower Hill and his body left on the scaffold for hours before it was thrown into a grave in the nearby church of All Hallows. Fisher’s body was eventually buried at the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, with his friend Thomas More who died on the 6th July, but his head was stuck on a pole on London Bridge as an example to the people of London of what happened to traitors.
Rest in peace Bishop John Fisher, St John Fisher, a man of faith and courage.