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The Way of BeautyThe Bishop and the Chancellor: Martyr-Saints

St John Fischer and Thomas More

They stood with the few who resisted his insatiable power. During the reign of Henry VIII (1509-47), John Fisher served as the Bishop of Rochester, and Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of the Realm. Their personal styles could not have been more different; as men of faith, they were one. Today the Catholic Church honors John Fisher and Thomas More, the sainted martyrs of Henry VIII’s brutal and turbulent reign.  

Setting the Stage

In 1533, Henry sought through papal fiat but failed to procure a divorce from Catherine, his Queen and lawful wife of nineteen years.  Smitten with new love, he was determined to marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn. Catherine had failed to “produce” a male heir and successor to the throne. Hence, his first marriage was invalid, so he reasoned. Henry’s emotions overruled his reason.  And it was his emotions that drove him by a short route to certain chaos.

The next year, by an Act of Parliament, Henry rejected the Pope’s supreme authority in England.  A second act, the Act of Supremacy established him as the Supreme Head of the Church in England.  

The “Defender of the Faith” now challenged the faith. “The King’s great matter” would dislodge England’s Catholic moorings and ravage every phase of English life. Henry’s England exemplifies the maxim of Aquinas: “A small error in the beginning is a big error in the end” (Quia parvus error in principio magnus est in fine.)  

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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. 

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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: 

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.

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Wolsey:  That thing out there is at least fertile.

More: But she’s not his wife. 

Wolsey: No, Catherine is his wife, and she’s as barren as a brick. . . . All right, pray, pray by all means.  But in addition to prayer, there is effort. My effort is to secure a divorce.  Have I your support or have it not?

More: A dispensation was granted so that the King might marry Queen Catherine, for state reasons.  Now we are to ask the Pope to dispense with his dispensation, also for state reasons?

Wolsey:  I don’t like plodding, Thomas; don’t make me plod longer than I have to—Well?

More:  Then clearly all we have to do is approach His Holiness and ask him.

Wolsey: I think we might influence His Holiness’ answer (suggesting that the Pope be pressured.)

More:  Well . . . I believe, when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties, they lead their country by a short route to chaos.

Wolsey: You’d like that, wouldn’t you?  To govern the country by prayers?

More:  Yes, I would. (Robert Bolt: A Man for All Seasons)

Thomas replaced Wolsey as Lord Chancellor of the Realm in 1529. Wolsey had failed to negotiate the divorce. Now the project belonged to him. Though Thomas served as Lord Chancellor until 1532, he resigned his post when he could no longer serve with a clear conscience. He retired to his home in Chelsea, but not for long. As the most prominent layman in the Realm and the only one except for Fisher who refused to endorse the marriage, pressure mounted to break his silence.  He tried for as long as possible, relying on a maxim of the law which states that “silence is construed as giving one’s consent” (Qui tacet consentire). Even the law failed to convince. Not silence, not the law but a full-throated assent to the marriage was what Henry wanted. 

Thomas was arrested, imprisoned, and condemned to death for refusing to bend to the marriage. This was high treason and condemned him to death by beheading.

Execution

After months in the Tower, Thomas was beheaded in 1535. He died “the King’s good servant but God’s first.” Throughout Europe, his execution was mourned.  “So powerful was the memory of his personality that a whole school of biographers wrote his life in the late sixteenth century” (New Catholic Encyclopedia 9: 1139).  In 1935, Pius XI canonized John Fisher, Thomas More, and the other martyrs who had been put to death during Henry VIII’s bloody reign.

Utopia (1516)

Of all Thomas More’s writings, his most famous work is Utopia. In it he develops several models of good and upright living. As a work of humanism, it considers solutions to political problems and to right governing. Though pride and greed will always be part of the human condition, still, the use of right reason born out of sound philosophy serves as a lodestar guiding the human condition. 

Paul Scofield as St. Thomas More

Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons (1960) has eclipsed all earlier attempts to portray Thomas More on the stage.  In 1966, Fred Zinnemann, produced and directed the moving screenplay, almost entirely based on Robert Bolt’s play.  The film won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor awarded to the British actor, Paul Scofield, the very personification of Thomas More. He played the role both in London and on Broadway, the latter appearance leading to a Tony Award.

The Title:  “A Man for All Seasons

The title of the play and film derives from a contemporary of Thomas More, Robert Whittington who in 1520 wrote of the future saint:  “More is a man of an angel’s wit and singular learning.  I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness, and affability?  And, as time requires, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of sad gravity?  A man for all seasons.”  

John Fisher and Thomas More were made saints because they stood with the very few; and with them, willingly gave their lives for the soul of Catholic England.

Image: Sts. John Fisher and Thomas More. Credit: Lawrence OP via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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