Bishop John Fisher Executed

Posted By on June 22, 2010

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.

Notes and Sources

  1. L&P vii.1563
  2. Wikipedia page on John Fisher
  3. Henry VIII, Richard Rex

23 thoughts on “Bishop John Fisher Executed”

  1. miladyblue says:

    Definitely a pity, what happened to Bishop Fisher. Wasn’t he one of the people who had helped Margaret Beaufort in her efforts to make her son Henry (VII, that is) King? Henry (VIII this time) then, is the ultimate ingrate, because he might have owed his very crown to Bishop Fisher.

    With regards to Fisher’s treatment prior to his execution, the lack of proper food, clothing and even visits from a priest – was it possible Henry was trying to do away with him in a “kind” fashion, by letting him die before he was executed and bearing the taint of a traitor?

  2. Gentillylace says:

    I think that a worthy memorial to Fisher is St. John Fisher College in Rochester, New York, a Catholic college run by the Congregation of St, Basil: a young man I once knew went to St. John Fisher College. Here is the link to the website of the college: http://www.sjfc.edu/

    As a Catholic, I will not say “rest in peace” to Fisher. Instead, I say, St. John Fisher, pray for us!

    1. susan says:

      Thank you I am Catholic as well. I don’t know that I would want to be Henry on Judgment Day.

  3. lisaannejane says:

    milady blue, Henry was certainly not being kind to Fisher by letting him go hungry and cold. Starvation is a slow and painful way to die. I think his treatment of Fisher shows how he could not tolerate any opinions that differed from his own,

  4. julie b says:

    I am in no way agreeing with what Henry did by killing his friends, but don’t forget how many people were burned alive by the Catholic people and their beliefs.

    1. James H says:

      Agreed, but there’s an injustice done to call attention to the people killed for opposing Catholicism, when Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and her brother Edward oversaw the killing of many more people. The misdeeds of Anglican monarchs (who were the Heads of the Church) dwarf those of ‘Bloody’ Mary.

    2. BanditQueen says:

      First I find the use of the words “the Catholic people and their beliefs” highly offensive! The majority of England was still Catholic: did they all go around killing Protestants: NO!

      These people were executed by the political authorities who saw that to deny them their titles or to say that they had another religion was against the entire order of society and the universe. These Kings and Queens who passed or revised laws against heresy saw those who practised and spread what they saw as corrupt and false doctrine as highly dangerous and they also saw them as already having put themselves outside the grace of God and the Church. Every effort was made to convert them back into the Church but if they refused and went on wanting to preach heresy they had no choice but to insist on the death penalty for a third offense and this was for the worst offenders. It was an accepted belief that had been established for over 300 years by this time in Europe and since Henry IV in England. Most heretics did penance or went to prison: but a small percentage were handed over to the courts for trial and execution. That has nothing to do with Catholic official doctrine: it was a political and legal matter. It was the authorities of the country: the leading authorities that had the job of doing this and it was their job to make sure that the laws of the country were carried out. Some people were more interested in the prosecution of heresy than others and it varied from country to country: but it has nothing to do with the teachings of the Catholic Church as a matter of faith. It was more a social issue: and the threat of fire was meant to stop the person from burning in hell. If they did not repent then they were handed over to the magistrates for sentancing and execution. Under Henry VIII heresy became a state affair and it was prosecuted not by the Church as a body but by the appointed officials some of whom were theologians and some of whom were political people. The theologians normally would question a person as they were in the best position to know what is heresy and what is not.

      I also agree with the previous person who stated that many more people were executed on invented charges of treason who were dying for the Catholic Faith under Elizabeth I and Henry VIII. Just as many people here in the North would have supported Mary’s campaign against heretics which was extreme: but they would also not have been very happy with Elizabeth. The Elizabethan propaganda machine has convinced English people that her reign was a golden age: it was not. It had a lot going for it: exploring the New World, the defeat of the Amarda, thanks to the Brittish weather, the bursting forth of drama and literature and so on, but it has its dark points as well. Those involved in the Northern Rebellion of 1569 were not marching because they wanted to thank Elizabeth; they were marching as they wanted to get rid of her! They wanted their Catholic Faith back and they also wanted to free Mary Queen of Scots. Over 700 were executed and several thousand more killed. Many of those executed had no politcal ambition at all: they were only defending their faith and were under orders to march by the Northern Earls. The Catholic priests who were killed for merely bringing spiritual aid to their flock and the families who hid them would not have been fond of Elizabeth. They did not want any harm to come to her and many were not traitors: they wanted to live in peace.

      But none of this was because these monarchs were Protestant or Catholic: it was because they believed they were appointed by God and saw all things that did not conform as dangerous and challenged their authority. They saw themselves as Old Testament Kings and in England the Supremacy made things worse. The monarch usurped the authority of the Holy Father and people could not accept both. Conflicts of conscience are hard to fatham by mondern minds but this was an intensely religious age and all of these things were important. I do not write ‘the Protestant killers and their beliefs’ as I do not think any of this had anything to do with religion: Protestant or Catholic: or at least not their faith: it had to do with political supremacy and survival.

      It also had to do with authority. Whose authority do you accept? If you choose to accept a belief system that is different to that laid down by law and tradition or from your ruler: are you saying you deny their authority? That was how they viewed all of this and that made people get themselves into conflicts over the most basic of sacramental beliefs.

  5. Dawn says:

    The treatment of the people that dare say no to the king was diabolical. After they had been arrested it seems that Henry’s, attitude was ‘out of sight,out of mind’. Job done, not bothered about what happens between imprisonment and execution, that is someone elses problem, don’t bother me with the ‘small stuff’ just tell me when the execution has been carried out. After all there was no provision made for a coffin for Anne, his wife and Queen’ So what chance had poor Fisher of adequate provision!

    1. WilesWales says:

      Thank you, Dawn for adding the final touch to your comment and that with miladyblue’s and lisaannejane’s comments put it all into place. In your comment about the no coffin for Queen Anne, the crown, and then showing how Henry could not tolerate any opinions that differed from his own about sum this up, and I am also including the unnecessary starving for ove eight months, shows Henry to be what he truly was. Queen Anne said at her already determined and of which she was innocent of all charges said, “We…we shall all be judged in time.” Thank you, WilesWales

  6. BanditQueen says:

    The feast day and holy Martyrdom of Saint John Fisher. Rest in peace and pray for us.

    1. Jeff says:

      Henry was a fat ugly [edited] who was a child and had a temper tantrums when he didn’t get his way typical red head hot headed do as I say or I’ll make you not exist! Coffin those are for people who exist in his mind a person who was excuted didn’t exist so you could throw they’re hacked remains in the Temes River outside the Tower of London with the rest of the city’s waste.

      1. Banditqueen says:

        I actually find your response quite inappropriate and childish and it adds nothing to the conversation.

        Again rest in peace Saint John Fisher. Amen

  7. kevin says:

    Agreed Henry was a monster -at least by modern thinking . Many people were put to death for their beliefs before Henry broke with Rome (anabaptists etc) and it was carried out with the approval of the pre reformation Henrican Bishops of the time, yet the tudors were no worse or better than their counterparts -St Valentines day masasacre in France as one example -not to mention the wars in what is now Germany where people of a different faith were looked upon as non humans. Henry was a Fool -he should have kept the monasteries (and taxed their wealth yearly) and got rid of the Bishops! I sometimes wonder whether it was faith or just mere Pig headedness that caused so much trouble, something we should all learn from

  8. Pbates says:

    Let’s not forget that Bishop Fisher profited as much as prior Catholic Priests in England, excepting Cardinal Woosley, and did little to help stabilize the religious problems of the time. He chose to defy the King knowing what would happen. Henry still heard Mass several times a day. He closed many of the corrupt Catholic Churches. Bishop Fisher continued to prosper probably until the end.

    1. Deb R says:

      Cardinal Wolsey lived an extravagant life and even had a mistress he lived with which was common knowledge ! He was very much profiting from his ‘faith ‘ .

    2. Banditqueen says:

      Your statement is unfounded and biased. It has no historical basis and is therefore not relevant. Cardinal Saint John Fisher was actually a very learned and humble person. He was imprisoned in the Tower for over eighteen months and his prison was not a palace. His diet was simple as he couldn’t afford to pay his jaolor or the warden for extra food. The food in the Tower he ate made him ill. There is no evidence that he profited from anything before or after he went into the Tower.

      Everyone may have had a so called choice when Henry Viii broke from Rome, which had absolutely nothing to do with what you call the corruption in the Catholic Church, a highly debatable statement, but with his own personal need for a son and heir and to marry Anne Boleyn, with whom he was in love for several years. As Katherine of Aragon had referred her defence of her marriage to Rome, a decision was taking too long and Henry couldn’t and wouldn’t wait any longer. Outrage at his setting aside the popular Queen led to heavy criticism of his conduct which wasn’t Treason before the new Treason Act in 1534. Henry and Thomas Cromwell passed through Parliament a set of new laws to break from Rome, set himself up as Head of the Church in England and to settle the succession to the throne in his new marriage only. Bishop Fisher was an expert on canon law and divorce and had argued that as Katherine and Henry had lived together for so long before any doubt about their marriage arose, the answer was to give a better dispensation and declare that both parties had acted in good faith. For him the marriage was valid and Henry had no authority to make himself Head of the Church. Bishop Fisher opposed the laws, but when he was arrested it was not yet Treason. You argue that he knew what he was doing so you believe he deserved to die a horrible death do you? Had he not have had his sentence reduced to beheading, this elderly man in his seventies would have been hung and cut down while alive, had his organs and private parts to out, his bowels cut out, all burnt before his eyes and his heart torn out and then his head cut off and his head and body, which would be cut into pieces, hung around the city.

      Henry Viii didn’t close down all the ‘corrupt Catholic Churches ” which were not corrupt anyway, as England remained Catholic. There were some corrupt practices, he removed some statues, although others remained and reformed some of the liturgical services. Henry swung back and forth on reform. He raided the monasteries for their land and alleged wealth and destroyed shrines because he wanted money. Other tombs and shrines were left alone. What has Cardinal Wolsey got to do with anything? This is just another red herring argument. Yes he lived an extravagant lifestyle, but so did others. Many ordinary priests did not and few actually profitted anyway as they paid high taxation. Bishop John Fisher was most certainly not corrupt or rich and to say he deserves to die because he disagreed over the divorce is ridiculous. He is regarded by many as one of the holiest people in history.

  9. Ana Gomez says:

    To be a friend of Henry the VIII was no guarantee to keep your head in your shoulders ! Awful age I

  10. Banditqueen says:

    Thank you for your faith, Saint Cardinal John Fisher and your stance. Pray for us who struggle to find faith and to agree with each other or to have peace in a godless age, that our way will be to love our neighbours and to be able to be firm if we are ever challenged for what is right.

    Saint John Fisher was a scholar, a friend to Katherine of Aragon and Henry Viii, well respected, humble and not overly grand. He was not afraid of his principles, even if he needed prayer to be calm and brave as he faced a terrible death. He had served Margaret Beaufort and both at the Court of Henry Viii and Henry Vii. He was book learned in a big way, he knew canon law very well, he was an eloquent speaker, a humanist and a friend of Saint Thomas More. He could act without thinking when it came to gaining support for Katherine and Princess Mary, but he stood up to the King’s illegitimate creation of himself as Head of the Church. He was a champion and martyr for God.

  11. Banditqueen says:

    Rest in peace, Saint Cardinal John Fisher and may Perpetual Light Shine upon you. Saint John Fisher pray for us.

    He was a scholar and humanist, a friend and wise counsellor to Queen Katherine of Aragon, a statesman, an expert in canon law, he had served at the Court of Henry Vii and Henry Vii and he was very learned and holy. His only crime was to stand by his ancient faith and to stand by Katherine of Aragon. He was a great friend of Thomas More and held in great regard. His death was a scandal.

  12. Michael says:

    Henry VIII is a fascinating character and could be charm itself when on his best behaviour but, for all that, as a man I don’t like him one bit. I have always thought of him as a very intelligent and gifted psychopath. That being said, in those days no monarch ruled with clean hands. Also, it is worth remembering that the last burnings for heresy in England took place under the Protestant James I and VI – Church and State were inextricably linked and heresy was regarded as a species of treason both against God and the monarch.

  13. Frederick Collins says:

    I came across this website searching for an answer to the question as to why Anne Boleyn requested to see Fisher’s head. Haven’t seen an answer yet. However, I am wondering why Fisher worded his protestations to say “that the King was not, nor could be, by the Law of God, Supreme Head in earth of the Church of England” while accepting that the Pope, a mere man could be head of Christ’s church? I see everyone else whose comments appear here is Catholic. I am Protestant.

    1. Claire says:

      Eamon Duffy talks about this myth in his “Saints, Sacrilege and Sedition: Religion and Conflict in the Tudor Reformations” saying that an early biography of Fisher had Anne being a Salome-type figure and asking for Fisher’s head, and then cutting her hand on one of his teeth, creating a wound that never healed. Duffy says that “the story is patently false”, which it is as it does not appear in any contemporary sources.
      As for Fisher denying the king’s supremacy but accepting the pope as head of the church, this is down to the Catholic belief that St Peter was the first pope as the rock on which Christ built his church. The pope is seen as a successor of Peter. I’m oversimplifying

  14. Dorothy says:

    I am not a Catholic, so I can’t comment from that angle, but I am a Christian and I find the thought of anyone being killed because of their religious beliefs shocking. Having said that, what horrifies me in particular about Henry VIII’s behavior is that he so often turned on good friends. I am also outraged by the lack of common decency shown to them during their imprisonment. Yes, these were tough times to be in jail, but most people were allowed to buy things. Imagine someone you have socialized with and seen lose a game without getting angry, seen them take a small joke gracefully, seen them be generous and forgiving in various situations, and then they suddenly turn into something that not only kills but torments before it kills. That’s Henry.

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