Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Priests and Martyrs Part 7 - St. John Fisher (England)

John Fisher was born in 1469, enrolled at Cambridge University in 1483, ordained in 1491, and in 1502 became chaplain to Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII. With her money and his ideas, they greatly altered Cambridge, restoring the teaching of Greek and Hebrew, bringing Erasmus over as a lecturer, and endowing many chairs and scholarships. In 1504 Fisher was made Chancellor of Cambridge and Bishop of Rochester. In 1527 he became chaplain to the new king, Henry VIII, and confessor to the queen, Catherine of Aragon. He stood high in the favor of Henry, who proclaimed that no other realm had any bishop as learned and devout.  However, when Henry VIII sought to repudiate his wife, Catherine of Aragon, Fisher argued vigorously against it and against the king’s subsequent attempts to make himself head of the Church of England.

On 16 April, 1534 he was imprisoned in the Tower of London together with Thomas More. Both had refused to take the Oath of Succession acknowledging the children of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn as legitimate heirs to the throne. While in prison awaiting trial, he was made a Cardinal.

In May 1535, the new pope, Paul III, created Fisher a Cardinal, apparently in the hope of inducing Henry to ease Fisher's treatment. The effect was precisely the reverse, Henry forbade the cardinal's hat to be brought into England, declaring that he would send the head to Rome instead. In June a special commission for Fisher's trial was issued, and on Thursday, 17 June, he was arraigned in Westminster Hall before a court of seventeen, including Thomas Cromwell, Anne Boleyn's father, and ten justices. The charge was treason, in that he denied that the king was the Supreme Head of the Church of England. Since he had been deprived of his position of Bishop of Rochester by the Act of Attainder, he was treated as a commoner, and tried by jury. The only testimony was that of Richard Rich. John Fisher was found guilty and condemned to be hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn.

However, a public outcry was brewing among the London populace who saw a sinister irony in the parallels between the conviction of Fisher and that of his patronal namesake, Saint John the Baptist, who was executed by King Herod Antipas for challenging the validity of Herod's marriage to his brother's divorcée Herodias.  For fear of John Fisher's living through his patronal feast day, that of the Nativity of St John the Baptist on 24 June, and of attracting too much public sympathy, King Henry commuted the sentence to that of beheading, to be accomplished before 23 June, the Vigil of the feast of the Nativity of St John the Baptist. His execution on Tower Hill on 22 June 1535, had the opposite effect from that which King Henry VIII intended. John Fisher's beheading created yet another ironic parallel with that of the martyrdom of St John the Baptist who was also beheaded; his death also happened on the feast day of St Alban, the first martyr of Britain.

His head was impaled on London Bridge until, fourteen days later it was removed to make way for that of Thomas More. In 1935 he was canonised in St Peter's Basilica in Rome. His Feast Day is on June 22nd together with that of his companion martyr, St Thomas More. 

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