Feast Day: June 22
John Fisher, born the son of a mercer (dealer in textile fabrics), became bishop of Rochester from 1504, and a member of the College of Cardinals from 1535. He ranks as the most noteworthy of those Catholic martyrs executed under Henry VIII after refusing to acknowledge the king’s supremacy as head of the newly created Church of England. Fisher was a leading scholar as well as a churchman. He was such a famous preacher that he was chosen as the eulogist of both King Henry VII and Lady Margaret Beaufort. He also played a central role in the founding of St. John’s and Christ’s colleges in Cambridge, where from 1504 to his death he was Chancellor.
We associate John Fisher with Thomas More, his good friend. Both were Christian humanists, concerned for serious study of Scripture and the Church Fathers and the reform of the Church. A personal note most often reported about Fisher is that he kept a skull at his dinner table to remind him of imminent death.
Fisher is chiefly remembered as the primary advocate of Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s first queen who, from 1527 and in direct defiance of the pope, Henry was determined to divorce in favor of the much younger Anne Boleyn. Unlike Thomas More, Fisher openly and repeatedly criticized the king. He was arrested multiple times and eventually tried on the charge that he did “openly declare in English that the king, our sovereign lord, is not supreme head on earth of the Church of England.” Henry commuted the sentence, declaring that Fisher need not be hanged, drawn, and quartered – the usual fate of commoners sentenced to death – but could, more mercifully, be beheaded.
The recently elected pope, Paul III, nominated him a cardinal, to which Henry VIII replied that, “…even if he sent him a red hat, Fisher would not have a head to put it on.” John Fisher was beheaded on June 22, 1535, just a few days before Thomas More. On his way to execution, Fisher opened his little New Testament, looking for a word of comfort. Appropriately, his eyes fell upon John 17, verses 3-4:
“And eternal life is this:
to know you,
the only true God,
and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
I have glorified you on earth
by finishing the work
that you gave me to do.”
Farmer, David. “Oxford Dictionary of Saints.” New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Ghezzi, Bert. “Voices of the Saints.” Chicago: Loyola Press, 2000.
Heritage, Andrew, ed. “The Book of Saints: A Day-By-Day Illustrated Encyclopedia.” San Francisco: Weldonowen, 2012.
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