December 22 – An imprisoned Bishop Fisher writes to Cromwell

On this day in Tudor history, 22nd December 1534, in the reign of King Henry VIII, John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, wrote a letter to Thomas Cromwell.

Fisher was imprisoned in the Tower of London at the time, and in his letter, Fisher begged for a shirt, sheet, food and books, as well as asking Cromwell to intercede with the king on his behalf.

It seems so sad that the bishop’s long loyal service to the royal family had come to this, and, of course, it would get worse.

Let me share Bishop Fisher’s letter with you…

Here’s a link to the video regarding Bishop Fisher being tricked –


Bishop John Fisher’s letter to Thomas Cromwell in 1534

On this day in Tudor history, 22nd December 1534, an imprisoned John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, wrote to Thomas Cromwell, beseeching him to provide him with a shirt and sheet (neither of which he had), some food, some books “to stir his devotion more effectually” and a priest to hear his confession. He also asked Cromwell to intercede with the King and to “move” him to release Fisher.

Here is the record of his letter from Letters and Papers:

“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.”

The Fall of Bishop Fisher

Fisher had been arrested on 26th April 1534 for refusing to take the Oath of Succession and accept King Henry VIII as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. I’ll give you a link to my talk from 7th May about how the bishop was tricked into speaking against the king. 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 Martin 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 at the legatine court at Blackfriars in 1529, 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”.

John Fisher was kept in the Tower of London from April 1534 until his death and during that time he was denied a priest and had to rely on friends and servants to bring him food. He was executed on 22nd June 1535, over a year after his arrest. Although he had been condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, the king, in his ‘mercy’, commuted his sentence to beheading.

He was beatified in 1886 by Pope Leo XIII and then canonised in 1935 by Pope Pius X.

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One thought on “December 22 – An imprisoned Bishop Fisher writes to Cromwell”
  1. It was said that Henry V111 never forgave Bishop Fisher for the speech he made on behalf of Queen Katherine at the legatine court, he believed solely in the sanctity of marriage and the supreme authority of the papal church, no wonder the king was so outraged, and his callous remark about his headless shoulders wearing the late cardinals hat shows how niggled he was by his stance, his support of Katherine is testament to this simple man’s courage in opposing the king, Katherine did indeed have a champion, his treatment however by the king reflected his treatment he inflicted on so many other of his victims, it is pitiful to know that this man had to beg for clothes and sheets whilst imprisoned, it reveals the shocking conditions many prisoners faced whilst in the Tower of London, he was no young man either, in fact considered elderly and he was imprisoned for a long time, it reminds me of another prisoner the Countess of Salisbury who was comforted by warm blankets and food brought to her especially by the young Queen Catherine Howard, during her stay in the Tower, it seems the gaolers were not responsible for the condition or needs of the prisoners, his use of the word ‘conscience’ is interesting for did not the king himself use this so conveniently during his reign, we know in Fishers case it was sincere for he was a man of god and a true Catholic, but Henry V111 dismissed his reasoning and would have complete acceptance of his situation, he now was supreme head of his new church, it was essential his subjects acknowledged him as such, failure to do so was treason but Fisher like More after him, stood his ground and in fact it was not till summer of the next year he was executed, Christmas in jail was a gloomy horrid affair and yet Fisher told Cromwell he hoped the king would have a merry Christmas, it is sad that this brave and honest man who had been a loyal servant to his king had to write such a humble letter, Henry V111’s temper was growing over the years but it had its roots I believe, in the frustration he experienced during his quest for the divorce, many a king had had his marriage annulled by the pope at the time, yet Henry V111 faced insurmountable blockages caused firstly by his first wife, and also the clergy who supported her, and the nagging tantrums of his mistress did nothing to calm the situation, any other monarch would have found it thus and yet this king is noted for his cruelty and ruthlessness towards those servants who hitherto had been so loyal, and had proved their loyalty on many an occasion, surely just imprisonment would suffice but the punishment for treason was death, and Henry V111 could not execute Fisher and let More live, so Queen Katherine lost two champions and the Christian world was shocked on hearing of their deaths, hundreds of years later Fisher was beautified by the pope, he has his saints day on the same day as Sir Thomas More, there is a bust done by an Italian sculptor of John Fisher as a young man, his face is solemn and earnest, born in Yorkshire he was typical of his native countryman – honest forthright and direct.

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