For the next twelve years, from 1535 until 1547, the year of his death, Henry had at least fifty men and women executed for high treason. In addition to John Fisher and Thomas More, there were members of the Society of Jesus and other religious orders, the secular clergy, and every class, trade, or profession who gave their lives rather than deny their faith. Because of their high Offices, Fisher and More were beheaded whereas the ‘lesser’ fifty were hanged, drawn, and quartered. Brutal deaths, all.
St. John Fisher (1469-1535)
Bishop John Fisher had held important ecclesiastical Offices in the Church. He left his mark at Cambridge for establishing two colleges there and for attracting eminent scholars to both Cambridge and Oxford.
The stern and austere Fisher was a no-nonsense type who upheld both spirit and letter of the law. When it came to “the King’s great matter,” Fisher sided firmly with Queen Catherine who maintained the validity of her marriage.
Cardinal Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor steering the divorce activities, specifically warned Fisher not to meddle in the controversy. The Bishop ignored him. On discovering that one of the bishops forged his handwriting to give assent to the divorce, this tall, emaciated figure stood and orated: “This is not my hand [writing] nor my seal.” He excoriated them for caving to Henry’s demands, thereby incurring the King’s wrath. Yet, through Fisher’s efforts, a clause was added to Henry’s new title as Supreme Head of the Church in England so that one could assent to it uttering the words, “so far as God’s law permits.” This qualifier did little good as it was ignored or not known by most. Fisher’s days were numbered.
When he and two fellow bishops appealed to Rome concerning Henry’s seizing of canonical powers, the three were arrested. In 1535, John Fisher was executed in the churchyard of All Hallows near the Tower, and his head was displayed on London Bridge. Later his body was reburied in the Tower church of St. Peter-ad-Vincula.
Despite the later efforts of the English government to suppress Fisher’s popularity, the Bishop has remained a universally-admired clergyman and humanist throughout Europe.
In high praise for John Fisher, Erasmus declared: “He is the one man at this time who is incomparable for uprightness of life, for learning, and for greatness of soul.”
St. Thomas More (1478-1535): Patron Saint of Lawyers and University Students
Thomas More enjoyed a thorough legal education even though he had seriously considered entering the monastic life. For four years, he lived with the Carthusian monks at the London Charterhouse. The Carthusian Order, it should be noted, is the most austere in the Church, never needing reform because it was never found to be deformed. Thomas came to see that his vocation lay in the world and not in a monastery. His intellectual rigor and good humor, his diplomacy and keen sense of fairness, his deep Carthusian spirit attracted attention. These attributes contributed to his steady rise through the ranks of his legal profession. Thomas More was a great man. Henry knew it; the people knew it, and Europe knew it.
When he was not yet forty, Thomas’s first wife died leaving him with four children. Soon after, he married Alice Middleton, a woman of means. It was during these years that Thomas firmly established himself as a leader among the humanists in London. Erasmus referred to More as “England’s only genius,” a barb meant to show up England’s dearth of scholars.
Thomas remained at the court for twelve years beginning in 1518. As Parliament began to ponder “the King’s great matter,” Councilor Thomas maintained his silence on the matter—unlike John Fisher. Here is the conversation between Wolsey and More after one Council meeting in which Thomas opposed a devious letter sent to Rome favoring the divorce:
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Wolsey: You’re a constant regret to me, Thomas. If you could just see facts flat on, without that horrible moral squint; with just a little common sense, you could have been a statesman.
More: Oh, Your Grace flatters me.
Wolsey: Thomas, are you going to help me?
More: If Your Grace will be more specific.
Wolsey: The King needs a son; what are you going to do about it?
More: I pray for it daily.